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Found on Autotrader: 1981 DeLorean DMC-12

Looking at the photo of this DeLorean DMC-12, it’s understandable to think, “That’s rare.” Yes, the photo was shot on a rainy day in southern California.

One of the great joys of Autotrader is looking through the cars for sale just to see what’s out there. And there’s always something interesting if you dig around.

This is one of 10 DeLoreans for sale on Autotrader at the time of this writing, and it has the lowest asking price: $24,000. It also only has 17,750 miles on the odometer.

Back to the Past

Most of us know the DeLorean from the “Back to the Future” movies, where it was repurposed as a time machine and powered by a flux capacitor. But the car’s real story would make an interesting film in its own right.

The DMC-12 was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, one of the giants of Italian design and responsible for many gorgeous Alfa Romeo cars and the first-ever VW Golf/Rabbit. But it’s named after John Z. DeLorean, who was blessed with leading-man looks and charisma, along with an inner drive that took him from being an engineer at General Motors to a vice president at the company (we can thank him for the Pontiac GTO) and to high-level talks with the British government and Wall Street moguls.

DeLorean left GM in 1973, eventually setting up his own operation (DeLorean Motor Company, or DMC) with partial funding from the Brits, who wanted him to establish a factory in Northern Ireland, one of the nation’s most troubled areas. The 2-seater car came in any color you liked as long as it was brushed stainless steel (in truth, a few were gold-plated) and had a rear-mounted 2.8-liter V6 engine of French manufacture, giving a less-than-ideal 35/65 front-to-rear weight distribution.

The most striking feature, though, is the gull-wing doors. These are undoubtedly dramatic, but they bring their own challenges. It means having big, heavy hinges in the roof, the last place an engineer would want them if they’re trying to achieve the low center of gravity necessary for real sports-car feel. And note the little windows within the passenger windows; those are the bits that open.

The Lotus Connection

Luckily, despite its surplus weight, the DMC-12 has sports-car handling because Lotus was involved in its development. Famed for making enthusiast cars and racing in Formula One, this British company exploited the DMC-12’s sophisticated double-wishbone/multilink suspension setup for a fun yet bearable ride, similar to the Lotus Esprit of the same period (the Esprit was a James Bond car during the Roger Moore era). Ultimate speed, however, left socks immune to being blown off; 130 horsepower and 0-60 miles per hour in 10 seconds might have been big news in 1881, but not in 1981. And don’t expect power steering.

Things at the factory never went well, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1982, having produced 8,583 units. DeLorean was then arrested for drug trafficking, allegedly to try to keep the cash flowing, but he was subsequently cleared. In March 2005, he died after a stroke, aged 80.

Not Fast, but Possibly Furious

The irony is that, although the DMC-12 is universally famous for traveling through time, it was born at the wrong time. The American economy was depressed in the early ’80s, and potential buyers no doubt wanted proven names. There were reliability problems, too. One investor was Johnny Carson, who took delivery of his DMC-12, went for a drive and promptly broke down. Do an Internet search for Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” when he drives a DeLorean. Spoiler alert: It breaks down.

The upside is that there’s new ownership of the DeLorean name, and the company has all sorts of spare parts available. If you buy the car above or something similar, rust shouldn’t be a problem for the stainless-steel panels or the fiberglass tub underneath. But there is a steel frame that could corrode. The electrical system can also be patchy, and this seller needed to replace the radiator and water pump.

Buy, Pray, Love

The DeLorean DMC-12 is instantly recognizable and still looks like nothing else. It’s more likely to be a conversation starter than a regular mode of transport. Writing about his experiences in a British newspaper, one owner spoke of how a pedestrian stopped in the middle of the road to kneel down in worship. Try inspiring that kind of reaction in a Toyota Camry.


Colin Ryan
Colin Ryan specializes in writing about new cars. But he has also covered trucks, vans, 3-wheelers, even the occasional motorbike. That’s the kind of thing that happens while contributing to the Los Angeles Times, Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Popular Mechanics, Variety, Mazda and Lexus customer magazines, as well as many enthusiast sites and publications. He was also a staff writer at BBC Top... Read More about Colin Ryan

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