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1981 DeLorean DMC12 – Project Profile


By Chris Pollitt

There are few cars that exist today that can capture the imagination quite like a DeLorean DMC12. Even if the blockbuster Hollywood movie franchise hadn’t featured the car, it would still be an icon. John DeLorean was a visionary, he was a man with a plan and he was a man with passion. Charming, suave and with a little black book full of all the right celebrities and politicians, John had the clout to play the game. However, he played it too hard, and in the end it was a botched sting by the FBI that brought John and the DeLorean Motor Company down. We covered the full story in great detail here, and as you’ll read, there was more than enough going on to ensure the DeLorean a place in the history books, all without the help of the films. In fact, the movie life of this car is just a small part of what is a fascinating story full of twists, turns, false promises, over-ambition and more. 

What is it?

This is a 1981 DeLorean DMC12. It’s special because 1981 was the first year the car was offered (it was available from ‘81 through to ‘83), so if you’re after a DMC12, this is perhaps the purest model you can buy. That said, the car did remain largely unchanged throughout its life. There were changes to the wheels and to the bonnet, but the main structure and overall design of the car remained the same. 

During development the DMC12 ran into huge problems. DeLorean’s initial designs for the car were, frankly, terrible. The overall aesthetic was good, but the underpinnings tried to be too clever, and failed in doing so. As such, DeLorean had to call in Colin Chapman of Lotus who would go to completely redesign the DMC’s underpinnings to make it a better-driving car. As such, the DMC was given a steel double Y backbone akin to that of the Lotus Esprit.

DeLorean, DeLorean DMC12, .Back to the Future, BTTF, John DeLorean, gullwing doors

John DeLorean with one of the early prototype cars

Thanks to grants from the UK Government, the DeLorean factory was setup in Ireland, despite the car being built for the American market. This gave John DeLorean a considerable tax break, as well as furnishing him with a cheap but willing workforce. However, these people had never worked on anything so advanced as a vehicle assembly line, and as such, the build quality of the first batch of cars was shocking. It forced DeLorean to issue several recalls as well as a company-wide training programme to ensure the cars were being built well. The Irish workforce wasn’t bad, in fact, they were dedicated to a fault. It was just a case of them needing training, something DeLorean thought it could skip over. 

The car itself, when all the kinks were ironed out, was a bit of a wet blanket. It looked great – it still does – but it didn’t have the power or handling prowess to match. The 2.8 Peugeot/Renault V6 was gutless, the automatic transmission was slow and dimwitted, the handling – despite Chapman’s best efforts – left drivers wanting. It was a disaster. But still, it stood for one man’s passion and desire to break free from the pack and try something new, something unique and something brave, and for that you have to love it.

DeLorean, DeLorean DMC12, .Back to the Future, BTTF, John DeLorean, gullwing doors

Why is it a project? 

From what we can read, it looks like this car is a project for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a fresh import, and secondly, it has some signs of past lives that need to be addressed. In terms of the imports side of things, the car is on the NOVA system, so it just needs an MOT before it can be UK registered and fitted with age appropriate plates. That’s the easy part, especially as the vendor happily states that this DMC12 runs, drives, starts and stops. It may not be too far from an MOT at all. Of course, the lights will need to be changed/adapted for UK use, the tyres will probably want changing too, but other than that, it could be registered pretty quickly. 

It’s the other stuff that makes it a project. The dash has a crack, which isn’t ideal. The lower flanks have been painted black for some obscure reason, so you’d want to get rid of that. However, the vendor does state that there are some signs of damage, so factor that in. You’re going to need a specialist to sort that, given that one of this car’s unique features was the fact it wasn’t painted. You’re going to need a wizard in the stainless steel arena. 

Other than all that though, this looks like a pretty straightforward project. One that you could sort and have on the road without too much fuss, then do the rest once the car is rolling and driving. Winner.

DeLorean, DeLorean DMC12, .Back to the Future, BTTF, John DeLorean, gullwing doors

Five things you should look for:


  • Chassis


Yes, the body is made from stainless steel, and the bits the body screws to are composite, but the chassis is very much steel, and as such, it can rust catastrophically. That’s not what you want. You can buy a complete new chassis from the States, but that’s a headache. So instead, get a jack out and have a look under it and check for any corrosion. 


  • Body


As we touched on earlier, the lower flanks have been painted black, which you could leave if you so choose. However, you still need to look over the entire body. A DeLorean with dents is a poor show, so you’ll want to get it as smooth as possible. This can be done, there are specialists, but it’s a costly affair if the car is riddled with dings and scuffs. 


  • Trim


Happily, almost all the trim can be bought new. The demise of DeLorean meant private companies bought up all the old stock for the cars that were never built. But again, given the rarity of the car, the costs can mount up. We already know this car needs a new dash, but other parts like door cards, carpets and seats need a careful inspection too. 


  • Lights


The U.S lights are no good for the UK, so you’ll need compliant parts. You need to factor in the cost of these, as there is no quick fix, you have to do this.  


  • Paperwork


The vendor seems to be both well-informed and honest, which is brilliant. But still, have a good look through the paperwork and make sure everything is satisfactory. The last thing you want is to drop £25,000 on a car caught in import limbo.

What should you do with it? 

If it were our money, we’d do nothing more than restore it to its original specification. The DMC12 is a car that should be celebrated for what it is, it doesn’t need any movie guff to be bolted to it. The only nod to the movie we would make would be lowered suspension. The film lowered its cars to make them look a bit meaner, and it works. So we’d do that. Plus, it’s how the car should have always looked. The car actually had to be raised to meet U.S legislation regarding the height and position of the headlights. To get around it, engineers just lifted the car, which contributed to the terrible handling. Put it on the deck, as John always planned.

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