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DeLorean: Dial D For Disaster

Don't meet your heroes. It'll only end in disaster.

Well I met one of my four wheeled heroes, the one with the 'look at me' doors, and it didn't go well. At all.

I run a classic car experience company and, rather inevitably, its success is based on finding and hiring out the cars that lots of people want to drive. If you were to create a shortlist of 10 cars that fit that criteria, the chances are that John Z DeLorean's silver dream machine would be mixing it right up there with James Bond's Aston and the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee. It's a car no car lover can really ignore.

The DeLorean DMC-12's story is already the stuff of folklore. But here's a quick recap just in case you've been hiding under a stone for the last 40 years. It was developed in the late 70s by Detroit's man with the Midas touch, John Z DeLorean (he created the Pontiac GTO), and launched in the early 80s. He wanted to create a low cost sports car that was very safe and very distinctive. Although the final product suffered a litany of compromises that affected its performance and handling, and it was much more expensive than originally planned, the DeLorean did hit the ground running. Its gullwing doors and stunning brushed stainless steel bodywork meant it found eager buyers in the USA. But eventually the money ran out and DeLorean folded after a year with just 9,000 cars built and John Z facing charges of drug dealing.

In the four decades since the car has rarely been far from the headlines, fuelled in part by its starring role in the Back to The Future movies. No mass produced car since has ever been quite so daring.

So choosing to hire out a DeLorean makes an awful lot of sense. And yet, at the same time, it also makes absolutely no sense at all. Because the flip side of the DeLorean story is the woeful build quality and the shoddy reliability. The car wasn't chosen to star alongside Michael J Fox because it looked amazing - it was chosen because it was an automotive joke, an indication of how unlikely the protagonists were to actually go back in time.

When you hire out old cars, reliability is where the business starts and finishes.

Unfortunately, when I decided to hire out a DeLorean I hadn't yet learnt that lesson.

First Impressions

The DeLorean's looks don't fade with familiarity: it is an arresting sight whether viewed for the first or the hundredth time. Low, squat and wide, it is at once very 80s and yet also strangely permanently out of time. Perhaps that's got something to do with the unpainted stainless steel finish - a first on a car and also the last.

John Z's design flair is evident in the lack of fussy detailing, which has kept the design fresh over 38 years. The DeLorean also feels fast when it's standing still, helped by the chunky rear quarters and big fat rear tyres.

Then there are the doors. No car then or now needs gullwing doors. They do nothing better than a regular door and many things less well. Yet without its doors the DeLorean would be so much less of a car. They are the automotive equivalent of a performing seal, a party trick that you never quite tire off. They also lend the car a puppy-ish 'look at me' vibe, a constantly nudging bid to raise your spirits.

Step Inside

You'll appreciate that when you jump into the DeLorean. Because things do start to go wrong inside. Finished in an unbroken vista of dark grey - grey plastics, grey leather, grey carpets - the DMC-12 looks and feels exactly what it really is beneath that glossy exterior: a bitza. It's fun to play 'spot the donor' with the switchgear: it does feels as if DeLorean went round Europe's car factories and swept up what was lying around.

The interior is not particularly stylish - the instrument binnacle could be out of a Ford Transit - and none of it is put together very well. Even allowing for the intervening decades, it all has the solidity of an IKEA kitchen. Owners of Rover SD1s would feel right at home here. Which is just as well since their cars donated most of the DMC's interior.

The driving position is very low and sporty, so you feel cocooned, a sensation that is ratcheted up when you close the doors with their narrow windows. But poorly placed pedals, a high gear lever - with terrible, notchy action - and a total inability to see anything beyond the window frames - and nothing out the back - mean those positive impressions are quickly squandered. But, on the plus side, the seats are quite comfy.

Fire It Up

Turn the key and the 2.8 litre PRV 'Douvrin' V6 hanging out the back makes a nice snarl. Further evidence of John Z's interest in the car's 'surprise and delight' features. But this really is the start of the car's deep-rooted problems.

The Douvrin V6 may have powered the Renault Alpine GTA, but it could also be found under the bonnet of various big barges from Renault and Volvo. It wasn't really the last word in sporting pedigree. In the DeLorean it pumps out a semi-skimmed 130 bhp, barely enough to stir a breeze in nearby trees, let alone be described as 'sporty.'

Then there's the gearbox. It's essentially the same as the Alpine GTA, but significantly compromised by the engine layout. This means the change is dreadful - a notchy, porridgy morras with 5 forward gears somewhere in there, in a seemingly ever-changing combination of locations.

Driving It

By this point you are probably raising a metaphorical hand to tell me I'm missing the point. You don't buy a DeLorean because of how it drives. It's how it looks. And, of course, it is. But it's a car, with car-based goals. So it should be driven.

With that lacklustre engine, awful gearbox, cavernous width, the permanent risk of bits falling off and the sense of driving blindfolded, you'd expect the DeLorean to be horrible to drive. It isn't. Master the gearbox, steer clear of any object within a 100 metre radius and you'll discover the DMC-12 is actually quite agile. That's all thanks to Lotus, which essentially borrowed the set up from the Esprit hook, line and sinker and DeLorean-ised it.

Judge it as a GT car rather than a sports one and you'll discover the DMC-12 has hidden depths. The suspension is a nice mix of firm but plaint, the unassisted steering is heavy but direct and the car is surprisingly pointable. It's just a shame that the gearbox and the frightening lack of visibility blunt its capabilities so much.

Living With It

As soon as the DMC-12 hit our website it was instantly popular. Hardly surprising - it was the only one available for self drive hire in the UK.

But I'd driven it and I had a nasty feeling. And it came back to bite me.

First off, the car's terrible visibility meant that it took drivers a long time to feel comfortable in it. This also increased the risk of accidents. Sleepless nights ensued.

Then it started breaking down. A lot. The DeLorean may have been built in a factory but it shares a lot of characteristics with kit cars: it's an assemblage of bits and pieces that were never originally designed to go together, or at least not in the way they are used in the car. So inevitably, at some point, those bits cry foul and stop working. Or break.

It doesn't help that quite a lot of those bits were borrowed from cars that weren't actually very reliable to start with.

The first set of problems focussed on the gearbox. The DeLorean's engine set up is unique and the gearbox linkage is complicated. It broke quite a lot. Also the gear lever, which is undergoing heavy strain due to the poor linkage and notchy operation, breaks.

Then there was the front suspension. The suspension set up is similar to a Lotus Esprit. The Hethel firm has made some very good sports cars, but in the late 70s when the DeLorean was designed, durability and reliability were not its touchstones. The front suspension design contained a fatal flaw and soon wheels started falling off. Generally on motorways.

This is not good news when you run a classic car hire business. It is particularly bad news when your customers have hired the DeLorean for their wedding and, rather inevitably, you don't have a fleet of replacement DeLoreans.

When the wheels and gear lever weren't falling off, the DeLorean suffered a regular array of electrical maladies, including windows that wouldn't open, doors that wouldn't shut, headlights that stopped working. And punctures. This is a car whose front wheels are a different size to the back, so punctures essentially mean that's the end of your journey.

Through all of this, customers were remarkably sanguine. When other classic cars break down, customers often tend to get angry, irrespective of the fact the car may be 50 years old. With the DeLorean, customers simply smiled. It's what they expected.

Life After The DeLorean

I persevered with the DeLorean for less than a year. Hiring out classic cars has toughened me to stress, but even I couldn't cope with the DeLorean. It wasn't so much a case of if it had broken down as when.

Customers loved it. It was, on paper, a money spinner. But then all that profit leached away with breakdowns, refunds, apologies and time - lots and lots of time spent placating people, fixing the thing and worrying about the next hire.

It had to go.

And yet, despite all of that, I do still miss it. Its looks are jaw dropping. It draws attention like a magnet. Everybody loves it, even the ones who say they don't.

I'd quite happily have one in the living room of my dream Swiss chalet overlooking some sultry big lake. Just to look at. Perhaps to sit in. But never to drive.


Graham Eason runs classic car experience company Great Driving Days. 01527 893733

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