The story of the DeLorean is one of high finance, motor racing, drugs, crooked federal agents and engineering secrets

A genius, a tycoon and an undercover cop

by Andy Bryenton

In a scenario, which gave the world two of its most iconic cars, and is surely worthy of its own feature film, the implosion of the DeLorean Motor Company embroiled engineering giants on both sides of the Atlantic, and ended up benefitting the Japanese more than either of them.

The famous DeLorean gullwing coupe, star of the Back to the Future film series, was envisioned as the brainchild of John DeLorean, creator of such legendary US muscle cars as the Pontiac GTO and Firebird. Originally planned to be built in Northern Ireland out of stainless steel, and to house a rotary engine similar to the now-iconic Mazda RX7s, the project was a defining example of 80s excess and trends. 

DeLorean was no fool, and so he called in the expertise of one of the 20th century’s great automotive minds, Colin Chapman of Lotus. Chapman would be associated with the DeLorean project from 1978 onward. His peerless expertise from the world of motor racing would be called on to create a chassis and suspension system, among other engineering features, which would make the stainless steel sports car outperform its rivals. 

Funding a whole new supercar is a difficult game. The wheels came off in 1982 when, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s drug war, undercover FBI informant James Hoffman approached John DeLorean with a shady proposition. Finance a plan to smuggle and sell 100 kilograms of cocaine, and get the project out of debt. DeLorean agreed and was promptly arrested, but he fought the entrapment in court and won. Sadly, it soon became apparent why the businessman was willing to take such a risk. DeLorean Motor Company’s finances fell apart, £10 million of government money was missing from British operations, and Colin Chapman’s Lotus company (itself a very successful builder of sports cars) had to explain why it was being paid by DeLorean via a Swiss-based Panamanian front company. 

Sadly, Chapman died of a heart attack soon after. The DeLorean’s engineering secrets were snapped up by Toyota, who crafted the best-selling MR2 sports car, starting a wave of power coupes from the East, which redefined how we saw Japanese cars. Were it not for its appearance in Back to the Future, the Delorean car itself may never have been remembered. Rumour has it that the quirky car was only chosen for the film as examples could be bought in bulk to be blown up in stunts. As it stands, modern versions are still produced today, with many purchasers grabbing a piece of auto history that reflects the strange, hedonistic and wild times in which it first flourished.