Then came Back to the Future, the 1985 smash hit that turned the Irish-made automobile into the most famous car in the world.
But for Ronald Ferguson, driving force of the Southern California DeLorean Club, and the handful of DeLorean owners who join him on a recent Saturday evening at the Denny's just off the 101 in Hollywood, the movie was only a small part of their decades-long obsession with the silver gull-wing sports car.
"It's extremely good-looking, with unique features in its design and engineering, and an appealing life story that Hollywood could never have thought of," Ferguson says. "It was like nothing I had ever seen."
The five DeLorean owners are in town as honored guests — and centerpiece exhibits — for Cinespia's sold-out screening of the Michael J. Fox blockbuster at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In the film it's a key character — a car-turned–time machine that accidentally takes Fox's Marty McFly back to the '50s — and these guys have all seen it so many times they know big chunks of dialogue.
Ferguson is dressed in a bright orange short-sleeved shirt, the official uniform of the charity collector's Fireball Run, on which he's taking his DeLorean in late September. A 58-year-old engineer from Santa Barbara, he's an encyclopedia of DeLorean history, design and mechanics. [Editor's note: This paragraph was corrected Sept. 4. See note below.]
Another owner, Jonathan Antonio, says he's on his fourth DeLorean. He hadn't even been born in 1981/82, when the cars were in production in a city better known for bombs and balaclavas than for automobiles.
Lured by a huge, U.K. government subsidy, the eponymous DeLorean, a former GM executive and the man behind the Pontiac GTO, Firebird and others, decided to build a factory in a suburb of Belfast, a place then beset by sectarian violence. The cars ended up stamped "Made in Northern Ireland."
The vehicles are more than 30 years old now, and restorations, recalibrations and additions (better engines, alarm systems and radios — goodbye cassette players!) are popular with enthusiasts.
DeLorean lovers are rarities among classic car owners in that they have a warehouse of spare parts to choose from if they want to keep it real.
"When the company went under, there were countless spare parts left," Ferguson explains. "DeLorean had planned to make 25,000 [cars] per year, but they only made 9,000 or so, of which around 6,500 are left."
A businessman bought everything — spare parts, blueprints and all — and opened, with DeLorean's personal blessing, a new DeLorean Motor Company in Humble, Texas. It now repairs and restores DeLoreans and serves as headquarters for a number of specialist garages across the United States and Europe.
There is, however, one near-mythical part drivers have trouble obtaining — and it's not a flux capacitor. Questioned about it, several owners answer simultaneously: "left front fenders."
Apparently, the company had reached the end of its supply, and when it looked as if DeLorean was about to go under, the manufacturers stopped delivery. "They thought they wouldn't get paid," Ferguson says. "And they never thought they'd be needed decades later."
Outside the Hollywood Denny's, a continual stream of people is taking pictures of the four DeLoreans. High schoolers on their way back from a Dodgers game become simply starry-eyed, pronouncing the cars both "sick" and "bad."
In their original heyday, there were long waiting lists for a DeLorean, even though they were criticized as being heavy, bit-part workhorses with mechanical problems and a lack of speed. (A worldwide oil crisis meant the original speedometer only went to 85; it was altered in the film so as to reach the critical 88 mph that sends the car hurtling back to the past.)
Even today, Antonio happily admits, "Membership of AAA is essential — lots of towing," and everyone groans knowingly when Chris Mack says all three of his DeLoreans are out of commission at the moment.
But the car's cult appeal remains: The DeLorean Owners Association has about 500 members worldwide, Ferguson notes. (He's president.) There are state and regional owners clubs all over the United States too, and a big "Eurofest" is held in Belfast every five years.
Ferguson believes that, ironically, the DeLorean's apparent failure actually made it special — it didn't all come down to posthumously becoming a movie star: "They were high-end sports cars, not exclusive show cars, so if they had been a success, we would be so used to them by now that it would be nothing unusual to see them on the streets." Plans from the time, he notes, even show ideas for a DeLorean bus and a snow plow.
The lot price back then was planned to be $12,000 (hence the DMC-12). But its owners' troubles meant the car ended up retailing for around $25,000 — or about $63,000 in today's dollars. Today the average pre-owned price is holding steady at $25,000 to $30,000, though, Antonio says, "There are always deals — just look on eBay or Craigslist."
Indeed, an online search reveals not only the recently released Lego version and images of a variety of DeLorean "conversions" (hot rods, taxis, limos, monster trucks, even a hovercraft) but also cars available for just $10,000. Nearly all of them have low mileage and qualify for lower insurance rates, though notable DeLorean owner and erstwhile Oscars host Seth MacFarlane probably could afford the gold-plated version that's in the Petersen Museum (it was one of two made for American Express; the other is in Harrah's in Reno).
Neither Ferguson nor his fellow owner/drivers use their DeLoreans as a daily runaround, yet they're happy to get in gear for corporate events, city parades and even weddings. At Back to the Future screenings, he explains, they usually line up under the screen, doors open if possible.
"And when Doc Brown says, 'The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?' we sound our horns and flash our lights," he says, and "the crowd usually goes wild!" Editor's note: A previous version of this story gave the wrong age for Ronald Ferguson. He is 58. We regret the error.
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