The 1980s were a good time for excess, which means it was an especially good time to be in the market for a supercar. If you had wads of cash burning a hole in your pleated pants and your wardrobe was already bursting with gold Rolexes and stiff shoulder pads, you might’ve pulled a Wolf of Wall Street and bought a late-model Lamborghini Countach. If you were Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you bought a Porsche 959. The streets flowed with blood-red Ferraris like the F40 and Testarossa.
Today, those exotic ‘80s supercars are each worth millions, or tens-of-millions, of dollars. There is, however, one wedge-shaped wonder from that era that, while not technically a supercar, is not only more famous, but also much more attainable: the 1981-1983 DeLorean DMC-12, better known simply as ‘that car from Back to the Future’. But it is so much more.
The DMC-12 is a wildly-ambitious stainless-steel marvel, a car unlike anything other, but the story of the DeLorean Motor Company and its enigmatic founder John DeLorean is equally wild. “It’s got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan, FBI agents and hardcore drug dealers,” to quote from the biopic Framing John DeLorean, staring Alec Baldwin. (Which is well worth watching, by the way.)
If you’re on the hunt for a DeLorean in Canada, Justin Sookraj is the man to talk to. He is the owner of Wells Auto in Milton, Ont., a sales and restoration shop which has developed a reputation as the go-to place for all things DeLorean in Canada. He estimates there are just over 200 of these cars in the entire country, which makes them exceedingly rare and increasingly sought after.
DeLorean only managed to build roughly 9,000 cars before the company imploded. Very few people have actually driven a DeLorean. So, what’s it like to get behind the wheel?
Justin Sookraj: The first thing I like about sitting in a DeLorean is the smell. It’s the old Bridge of Weir English leather – very similar to what Jaguar used. That smell was important to John DeLorean; the car had to have this luxury feel. Everything that you touch and feel inside the car is unique. The seats aren’t hard, they’re more couch-like. You close the gullwing door – which is super cool – and you’re encompassed in this cabin. It’s fairly minimalist. You put down the little toll windows, put on some period cassette, maybe some New Order, or Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out. The car is so low, and everybody drives an SUV now so your head is at bumper height. Everybody looks at you; everybody notices the car.
How could they not. That wedge-shaped body is pure Giorgetto Giugiaro. (The legendary Italian designer who also designed so many of our favourite Alfas, VWs, Ferraris, Maseratis and even Nikon cameras that we can’t possibly list them here.)
Yes, the stainless steel skin [the cars didn’t need to be painted!] is one of the most distinctive parts of the car. And, beyond that, there’s also the gullwing doors, and the fact it’s a double Y-frame chassis that was engineered by Lotus. It’s constructed fairly differently to other cars, but the closest thing really is the Lotus Esprit.
As in any proper supercar, the engine is mounted aft of the driver, but unlike a supercar the DeLorean only has a V6 engine – half the number of cylinders you get in a period Lamborghini. What’s the performance like?
Here is this very exotic-looking thing that didn’t really give Lamborghini Countach kind of performance. If you listen to people out there on the Internet, they say how heavy and slow the car is. But, if you read the Car and Driver magazine comparison test the DeLorean finished mid-pack. If you read the Road & Track comparison it finish mid pack. The truth is that there are cars much slower and perform worse in its class. It also didn’t turn out the way John DeLorean had wanted at first. There were compromises made along the way. But, the bottom line is that the car still makes a unique grand tourer today.
And, of course, it was also much more affordable than Italian exotics when it launched in the early ‘80s, right?
The DMC-12 was listed at US$25,000. People were paying up to $10,000 over that, or more, to be the first person on their block to have that car. I have the original window sticker from one of my own Canadian-spec cars; it was sold at a Cadillac dealer in Oakville for $38,000.
We saw the classic-car experts at Hagerty insurance recently called the DeLorean one of the, “hottest collector cars on the market.” What would a good example cost today in Canada?
Prices start at around $55,000 for nicely sorted, mostly-original cars which have had all required recalls and safety updates completed.
Would the DeLorean be what it is today if not for its starring role in the Back to the Future franchise?
I was born in 1980. That car came out when I was one year old. If it wasn’t for the movies, I would’ve had to happen upon the car in an encyclopedia or something. It would’ve been a little lost blip of history, short of the few examples that would remain. But I don’t think the movie is the sum of what the car represents today. If you come to me and want to build a time machine replica… Wells Auto is not the right shop to do so.
Why go to such lengths to preserve these cars? Why is it so special and what is it about the DeLorean that made you such a fan?
There is, if you pardon the pun, something timeless about the car: its shape, its angles, it’s solidified in pop culture history. John DeLorean was fighting against the planned obsolesce that pervaded so much of the ‘80s, the plastic cars and disposable stuff. The DeLorean is a collectible you can drive, not just a collectible car. It’s a stainless steel gullwing thing. What’s not to love about it?
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.