John DeLorean: The legacy of a controversial car designer

A DeLorean on the red carpet in VeniceImage source, Getty Images

Two forthcoming films about mercurial car engineer John DeLorean have revived interest in his most famous creation, writes journalist James Bartlett.

Passing private homes and an unmanned self-storage facility, it seemed even less likely that Humble, Texas (population 15,997), is the world headquarters of an automotive icon.

Then you take a left curve, and a line-up of gasp-inducing gleaming silver sports cars comes into view.

Standing alongside them is Stephen Wynne, the CEO and mastermind of all things DeLorean since he bought the remaining stock of parts and tooling in 1996.

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A line of DeLoreans sit outside the factory in Humble, Texas

A motor company with an extraordinary backstory, it's hard to believe the upcoming movie Framing John DeLorean - a mix of documentary and re-enactments and starring Alec Baldwin as John DeLorean- is the first major attempt to bring it to the big screen. George Clooney has been linked to a second film, a biopic.

In the trailer for the Baldwin film, DeLorean's son Zachary says: "It's got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents and hard-core drug dealers."

That scandalous history is far from Mr Wynne's mind at the moment.

Image source, James Espey
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Mr Wynne was born in Liverpool but now lives near Houston, Texas

He admits that he's excited about the upcoming movie as it will again put a spotlight on the iconic car, but he's also keen to move away from the past.

"For years it was jokes about the FBI and time travel, and people told me I was mad," he says.

"Now time has passed, and a new generation doesn't want flashing LEDs and a replica flux capacitor. They don't even know DeLorean the man so much [he died in 2005]. They just want a great car that looks amazing."

Also an unexpected presence in Humble, Wynne was born in Walton, Liverpool, and has not lost his accent despite several decades in America.

More on the DeLorean

"Texas is second only to California as the biggest location for owners," explains Mr Wynne, who came to Texas a number of times in 1984 and 1985 with DeLorean roadshows, conventions and discussions with owners.

"Mail order was just becoming big. Texas was central. The oil business was doing badly so property was cheap, and Humble was close to Houston airport.

"Moving here was an easy decision."

As an auto-mechanic he and his wife first came over to Boston in the 1980s, and he found himself in demand to repair and service British and French cars. One cold winter on the east coast was enough however, and they moved to Los Angeles.

Then came the DeLorean, with its distinctive stainless-steel body and gull-wing doors.

Image source, Getty Images

Built as a left-hand drive at the most unlikely place - Dunmurry, a suburb of Belfast in Northern Ireland - it was a glamorous media hit. Gold-plated ones were made for American Express, and celebrities lined up to take the wheel.

Charismatic former GM executive John Z DeLorean was the mastermind behind the car, and the British Government were famously the funder, wanting to bring jobs and investment to a city that was being torn apart by the violent period known as the Troubles.

The money kept coming, but production delays and a worldwide recession hit the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) hard.

When DeLorean was arrested in an FBI sting and charged with involvement in a cocaine smuggling racket (a possible last-gasp effort to save DMC, and for which he was later exonerated), the dream was over.

By the time the DeLorean drove into pop culture history in Back to the Future, the Dunmurry factory had been closed for several years after making around 9,000 vehicles.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
John DeLorean and his wife fashion model Christina Ferrare

Even so, when drivers in Los Angeles needed repairs they came to mechanics like Mr Wynne as American garages "wouldn't touch them, especially when the original DMC went bust".

Other dealers and garages kept selling the remaining cars and doing repairs until they went under themselves, and then Mr Wynne would buy up anything they had left.

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The shop floor where repairs are made

He often welcomes visitors into the small museum at the front of the facility, where there is a rusty, dilapidated "barn find" from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"Every seven to nine months I'll find an 'ugly duckling' like that and get to work restoring it," he says. "I like getting my hands dirty as often as I can."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
DeLorean and his wife outside the court during his trial for drug trafficking

He strolls past a showroom-ready DeLorean, and says that he's hoping that after years of delays due to US regulations, anyone will soon be able to buy a new DeLorean.

"It will have a new engine, drive train, suspension, braking system, electronics, and most anything the customer wants," says Mr Wynne. "We're planning to build around 60-100 a year, but for now we're just lucky that we always have a four- or five-month waiting list for restoration work."

Moving inside the 40,000 sq/ft factory there are more DeLoreans raised up for inspection or being worked on. There are more at the back, and more down another of the long, high-ceilinged aisles.

"A DeLorean is made up of 2,600 parts," says Mr Wynne. "And we have them all here."

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A ride in the new electric DeLorean

Uniquely, when Mr Wynne and his then-business partner purchased the company, they essentially transferred the Dunmurry factory - 1,800 remaining cars, engines, part bins, storage cages and even unopened boxes from suppliers in West Germany - to their US base.

A busy area packages and ships out parts across the world, and while many owners drive their cars here, some send them by rail - and even occasionally by air. Many visit to pick up parts, or to check on the work's progress.

Later in his car magazine-strewn office, Mr Wynne picks up a framed picture of the car's original blueprints and mentions that DeLoreans have been converted into everything from hovercrafts to monster trucks.

There's also a desk covered with DeLorean memorabilia and licensed products including vodka, watches, clothes, Nike shoes and toys, but then he points to several shelves stuffed with dusty, pastel-colored files.

"They are the engineering drawings and records for every part of the car. Handwritten and in order," he says. "We refer to them all the time."

Mr Wynne admits that despite it taking two years of negotiations, he got an unbelievable deal.

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The sale was advertised by the Ohio-based liquidators in the Wall Street Journal in 1995 and three parties showed an interest. Mr Wynne was the only one with mechanical experience, and the only one who made a site inspection - which was when he found out something interesting.

"For many items there were more parts than they thought in the inventory."

This is obvious when you walk the cavernous aisles.

There are hundreds of the distinctive doors ("we have a thousand of those") for example, as well as everything from the original moulds for the underbodies to badges, headlights and seat cushions. Strangely, the left fender is the most difficult part to get hold of.

This main facility ships parts to their other garages in Florida, California and Illinois, and to other independent service centres in England, Japan and Germany.

Media caption,
Mark Enright, from Swindon, has turned a Smart Coupe into a replica DeLorean from the Back to the Future film series.

DMC is the only automobile company in private hands, and has invested heavily in UK-based research and development recently - so the hurry-up-and-wait of the last few years has been exhausting and expensive.

Has Mr Wynne has ever been here alone at night, wandering the aisles, wondering what he's done?

"All the time!" he laughs. "I still do!"

With that he says goodbye - he has to make a test run.

"What a car sounds like can be just as important as what's under the hood, so me and my crew drive every restored car for 100 miles or more before returning it to the owner."

So locals in around Humble often see a DeLorean?

"Yes - and they always stop and look, or wave, or give a thumbs-up!"