DeLorean: The Strange Story Behind The Iconic 80s Sports Car And Its Creator

The only thing most of us know about the DMC DeLorean is that Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown turned one into a time machine in film classic Back to the Future. However, by the time that blockbuster hit screens in 1985, the car itself had long since ceased production, and the name of company founder John DeLorean lived in infamy.

The story of the car and its maker is a testament to the scope (and moral flexibility) of the American Dream, and how easily it can come crashing down.

John DeLorean came from the humblest of working class origins

Future car company founder John Zachary DeLorean was born in Detroit, Michigan on 6 January 1925.

He was the son of Zachary and Kathryn DeLorean, both of whom were immigrants from Austria-Hungary.

Whilst DeLorean’s mother was employed by General Electric, his father worked for the Ford Motor Company.

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Detroit is the heart of the American motor industry, providing a great deal of employment to working class people.

The DeLoreans were very much a lower working class family, who lived a humble life of limited means.

DeLorean’s father was also a heavy drinker prone to abusive behaviour, which took its toll on the boy, his mother and his three younger brothers.

DeLorean got into the car business in his late 20s

Despite the prominence of the car industry in Detroit, the young John DeLorean did not pursue that field right away.

After excelling at high school, DeLorean attended Michigan’s Lawrence Institute of Technology, where he studied industrial engineering.

He then served in the US Army during World War II, receiving an honourable discharge after three years of service.

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Although he worked part-time for car manufacturer Chrysler whilst studying, DeLorean’s first full-time job after getting his degree was in life insurance.

After briefly attending law school, DeLorean then returned to Chrysler, earning a Master’s in Automotive Engineering as part of his employment.

At the same time, DeLorean attended business school by night, working to earn an MBA.

He went from Chrysler to Packard to General Motors within four years

John DeLorean had been at Chrysler less than a year when he was poached by rival car manufacturer Packard Motor Company in 1953.

DeLorean gained respect for his technical innovations, and within four years was promoted to Packard’s head of research and development.

Naturally, other competitors were taking notice, and by 1956 DeLorean was once again headhunted, this time by General Motors.

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GM were the largest car company in the world at that time, and DeLorean made a big splash there.

Starting out as an assistant to the chief engineer in GM’s Pontiac division, DeLorean wound up being promoted to head of Pontiac in 1965.

At 40, he was the youngest man to have ever headed up a division of GM.

DeLorean pushed Pontiac to appeal to 60s youth culture

In an industry dominated by ageing, conservative men, John DeLorean brought a youthful energy to his work.

Excited by the pop culture and burgeoning social movements of the 1960s, DeLorean saw an untapped market for the car industry.

Under his leadership, Pontiac produced such high-performance ‘muscle’ cars as the GTO and the Firebird Trans-Am.

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Pontiac’s success in this time meant further promotions were in the offing for DeLorean, and in 1969 he was put in charge of another of GM’s divisions, Chevrolet.

This huge success brought DeLorean a similarly huge payday: by this time he was earning an annual salary of $200,000 (over $1.4 million in today’s money).

In contrast with most high-ranking automobile executives, DeLorean embraced fame, making many celebrity friends.

He embraced a Hollywood playboy lifestyle, dating Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch

John DeLorean’s pleasure-seeking ways put a strain on his relationships with both his employers and his wife.

DeLorean had married Elizabeth Higgins in 1954, but in 1969, after 15 years of marriage, the couple divorced.

By this time, the private life of the automobile executive was of increasing interest to gossip columnists.

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As a playboy spending increasing amounts of time in Hollywood, DeLorean is said to have romanced a number of actresses.

One among these was Ursula Andress, the Swiss movie star immortalised as original ‘Bond Girl’ Honey Ryder in Dr. No. Later, it was rumoured he courted another widely admired starlet, Raquel Welch.

DeLorean’s second wife was also an actress: Kelly Harmon (sister of actor Mark Harmon), who was 23 years DeLorean’s junior.

He grew disillusioned with his position at GM

By 1972, John DeLorean had been promoted yet again to Vice President of all car and truck production at General Motors.

However, the ambitious and driven individual was growing restless and dissatisfied with the role he found himself in.

As an easygoing, casually dressed man with a love for parties and women, DeLorean was often at odds with the stuffier corporate culture of the day.

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Moreover, he grew increasingly critical of the overall mindset at GM, which he felt stifled any real innovation.

Eventually, DeLorean announced his departure from GM in 1973, telling reporters, “There’s no forward response at General Motors to what the public wants today.”

While DeLorean intimated that he had quit the company, some reports have suggested that he was actually fired.

He married third wife Cristina Ferrare in 1973

1973 was a year of new beginnings for John DeLorean in more ways than one.

On top of turning 48 and quitting GM, the year also saw the beginning of his third marriage.

DeLorean and Kelly Harmon had divorced in 1972, after only three years as a married couple.

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1973 saw John DeLorean walk down the aisle once again, this time with Christina Ferrare.

Aged 23 at the time, Ferrare was a successful model and sometime actress. (Her few credits included a bit part on TV’s Batman.)

Together, DeLorean and Ferrare adopted first child Zachary DeLorean, and later had biological daughter Kathryn.

Environmental concerns contributed to his departure from GM

When John DeLorean parted ways with General Motors, the world was in the grip of a major energy crisis.

An oil embargo in the Middle East resulted in a serious shortage of fuel for vehicles in the West.

At the same time, debates about reducing oil consumption and moving toward more sustainable fuel sources were growing louder.

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DeLorean saw an opportunity, and began to brainwave a new car that would be more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly.

Part of DeLorean’s vision was that he would build a luxurious vehicle that would essentially last forever.

This was when he hit upon the idea of building the car from stainless steel, to ensure that it would never rust.

DeLorean Motor Company was officially founded in 1975

In October 1975, John DeLorean took the first big step to making his dream a reality.

The former GM executive branched out on his own by founding the DeLorean Motor Company.

DeLorean got the funding he needed for this ambitious venture through a number of means.

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For one, he went the traditional route of taking business loans from the Bank of America.

DeLorean also convinced some of his most rich and famous friends to partner in DMC.

These included talk show host Johnny Carson, and actor and singer Sammy Davis Jr.

The first prototype of the DMC DeLorean was revealed in 1976

The general public got their first look at DMC’s flagship vehicle in 1976, with the reveal of the first prototype.

The DMC DeLorean may have had John DeLorean’s name on it, but it was actually designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Italian car designer Giugiaro had previously designed prestigious vehicles for the likes of Ferrari, Aston Martin, Lotus and Maserati.

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Aside from its sleek, stainless steel frame, the DMC DeLorean’s most prominent feature was its gull-wing doors.

Doors that opened upwards rather than outwards were nothing new: Mercedes-Benz introduced them on their W194 racing car back in 1952.

However, as part of the unorthodox, ultra-sleek design of the DeLorean, the gull-wing doors only made the car seem more futuristic.

John DeLorean agreed to write his life story, then wound up clashing with his biographer

At this point in the late 70s, the life story of John DeLorean seemed to make him the living embodiment of the American dream.

Here was a man who had come from nothing, and worked his way up to the top of the ladder, all the while playing by his own rules.

It was clearly a story worth reading, so author J. Patrick Wright approached DeLorean after he quit GM to propose collaborating on a memoir.

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DeLorean was open to this idea, and he discussed at length his experiences in the car industry with Wright.

However, the two men wound up parting ways over the project due to differences of opinion regarding the content.

The book, entitled On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, was published with Wright as the sole author, and sold well over a million copies.

It took DMC some time to decide where to set up shop

As both DeLorean’s home town and the hub of the US car industry, Detroit initially seemed the logical place to open DMC’s first factory.

However, when exploring business options, John DeLorean was lured by the financial incentives offered by overseas governments.

If DMC opened their first manufacturing plant in an area with high unemployment, lucrative grants were available.

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With this in mind, DMC considered a number of far-off locations to put their first car into production.

Puerto Rico, Italy and Spain were among the places that DMC looked at to build their factory.

However, the company soon found themselves drawn to a perhaps unlikely location: Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland had doubts about DeLorean’s extravagant claims

John DeLorean met with the government of the Republic of Ireland to propose opening a factory there.

For a time, talks went well, and the prospects of the DMC going into production there looked good.

However, some members of the Irish government had doubts about some of DMC’s claims about their flagship car.

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Most notably, John had told the government of the Republic of Ireland that the company had 30,000 pre-orders in place for the DMC DeLorean.

The Irish government did their own independent research into this, and could find nothing to verify the claim.

As they suspected that DeLorean was being dishonest with them, they turned down his application.

DeLorean finally got the go-ahead from the British government

Although the Republic of Ireland said no, the neighbouring United Kingdom were happy to play ball with DMC.

Impressed with the company’s plans, the British government funded DeLorean to the tune of roughly £84 million.

It was decided that the factory would indeed be built in Ireland, but in the British-ruled territory of Northern Ireland.

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The DMC factory was built in Dunmurry, an impoverished suburb of the Northern Ireland capital city Belfast.

By all accounts the opening of the factory was considered a blessing by residents at the time.

The area suffered from high unemployment, and DMC’s arrival promised around 2,000 new jobs for locals.

DeLorean promised to have the car on the road in two years

DMC may have pocketed a substantial sum from the UK, but it came with a very significant caveat.

John DeLorean had sworn to the British government that the DMC DeLorean would be in showrooms in just two years.

This was a truly audacious promise, as even the established car manufacturers back in the US would spend the best part of a decade getting a new car ready.

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The fact that the compsny was attempting this with their very first car was only part of the problem.

Another key issue was the fact that Belfast, where DeLorean had chosen to set up shop, had no history in car manufacturing.

The vast majority of local workers hired by DMC were completely new to the industry and didn’t really know what they were doing.

The factory was opened in the middle of a war zone

The decision to open the DMC factory in Belfast was especially shocking due to the fact that this was at the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

This was a period of low-level war, mostly centred on the demand that Northern Ireland be released from British rule and integrated into the Republic.

Things got especially brutal during the 1970s, with bombings and armed conflict between the British military and Irish republican paramilitaries a regular occurrence.

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Belfast was a particular hotbed of unrest, so the idea of an American company building a luxury sports car there seemed absurd.

However, John DeLorean was said to have brushed off any such concerns with barely a second thought.

DeLorean argued (somewhat naively) that the violence on the streets was no worse than in Detroit, both the heart of the US car industry and one of its most crime-ridden cities.

The DMC factory helped bridge the gap between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast

Religious divisions in Northern Ireland were also a major factor in the unrest of the time.

Violence between Catholics and Protestants was commonplace, and the two groups lived in segregation.

Walls referred to as Peace Lines divided Catholic and Protestant residential areas in Belfast.

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The region where the DMC factory was built was deemed something of a ‘no man’s land’ between territories.

The factory did not discriminate: both Catholics and Protestants were hired, and worked side by side.

However, to help ease the inevitable tensions, separate factory entrances were provided for Catholics and Protestants.

DMC burned through the money from the British government within a year

The idea had been that the initial £84 million of taxpayers’ money given to DMC would be enough to see the car off the production line.

This, it turned out, was not the case. Within the first year of work in Belfast, this money was gone.

This meant that DeLorean was soon going back to the British government to ask for further funding.

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However, by this point there had been a change of power in Britain, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher now running a Conservative government.

Whereas the previous Labour government had backed DeLorean, the Conservatives were less happy to do so.

DeLorean’s initial request for more money was flatly turned down by Thatcher – until a high profile turn of events changed things.

The DMC factory sustained damage during riots

One of the tactics being employed by Irish republicans at this time was hunger strikes.

Perhaps the best-known proponent of this was Bobby Sands, a member of the Provisional IRA.

Sands spearheaded the 1981 hunger strike against the removal of Special Category status for convicted paramilitary prisoners.

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The British government would not concede, and Sands was one of ten men who starved to death during the strike.

There was fury in Northern Ireland over Sands’ death, with mass riots on the streets of Belfast.

The DeLorean factory was among the buildings to sustain damage during the period of unrest.

Damage from the riots enabled DeLorean to get the money he’d demanded from the British government

Publicly, John DeLorean often spoke of his love for the people of Belfast and his concern for the well-being of his workforce.

Even so, it has been claimed that in private, DeLorean responded to the riot damage on the factory with some degree of delight.

As the damage (mostly down to petrol bombs) was as a result of the political turmoil, the British government bore some responsibility.

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This meant that DMC were able to demand the amount of money they wanted, and the British government complied.

Reportedly an additional £14 million of taxpayers’ money was handed over to the DeLorean Motor Company.

However, the actual cost of the damage done to the factory during the riots was said to be only £450,000.

All the cars were made in stainless steel (except for a few which were gold-plated)

The silvery sheen of the stainless steel body was for the most part the only colour option available on the DMC DeLorean.

However, there was a very rare and prestigious alternative offered, as part of a promotional tie-in.

DMC went into partnership with American Express, who wanted something special to help advertise their illustrious Gold Card.

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It was subsequently announced that DMC would build a limited run of DeLoreans with the body plated in 24 carat gold, the cars priced $85,000 each – and only available via Gold Card payment.

The initial announcement said that 100 such vehicles would be produced – but, in what was becoming a recurring theme, this was a massive over-estimate.

In fact, only two gold-plated DeLoreans were made by DMC at the time, although three more have since been built by others.

Only 9,000 DMC DeLoreans were built

The promise of 100 gold-plated DeLoreans came on top of the original 30,000 cars that were said to have been pre-ordered.

With the car retailing at around $12,000 (hence the car is sometimes known as DMC-12), they should have been poised to make hundreds of millions.

However, as more people were coming to notice, John DeLorean’s bold claims didn’t always line up with the truth.

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While DMC did indeed succeed against all odds in getting the DeLorean ready for sale within two years, only 9,000 cars were made.

Considering that – contrary to John DeLorean’s public claims – only 1,000 had been pre-ordered, there was cause for concern early on.

Making matters worse, 1980 had seen the US hit by an economic recession, which significantly impacted the demand for new cars.

Cars were sold with doors that wouldn’t open

The first DMC DeLoreans went on sale in early 1981, but there were significant teething problems.

One of the most troublesome issues was also one of the car’s most distinctive selling points: its doors.

The futuristic, upwards-opening gull-wing doors was one of the main features that made the DeLorean stand apart.

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However, there were multiple recorded instances of drivers finding themselves unable to get the doors open.

Needless to say, this left a lot of prospective DeLorean owners feeling less than impressed.

Nor was this the only complaint that drivers had about the new, supposedly groundbreaking vehicle.

The car itself received a mixed reception

The DMC DeLorean had been heavily promoted as an exciting car of the future.

Alas, once it arrived on the market, early appraisals of the vehicle proved to be less enthusiastic than hoped.

Many reviews praised the DeLorean for its fuel efficiency, which had been one of its key selling points.

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Yet as it was being sold as a luxury sports car, some argued the DeLorean wasn’t fast enough (reportedly it did 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds).

Nor did everyone love the uniform stainless steel exterior, which may have been rust-proof but showed up scuffs and smears very easily.

Eventually some car dealerships in the US took it upon themselves to paint the DeLoreans to add some variety (which wasn’t easy on the stainless steel).

A second car, utility vehicle and bus were on DeLorean’s drawing board

The DMC DeLorean was to be the company’s flagship vehicle, but that wasn’t intended to be the end of it.

The ever-ambitious John DeLorean had more ideas, with at least three more vehicles proposed.

First was the DMC-24, another car that was similar to the original DeLorean but with room to seat four rather than two.

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The plan was to keep the gull-wing doors, but one proposed design would have had the rear passenger seat facing backwards.

Also on the agenda was the DMC-80, a low-floor bus intended for the American market.

Finally there was the DMC-44, an off-road utility truck which was the only one of the proposed vehicles for which a prototype was produced.

While the company struggled, John DeLorean lived large

The run-up to the launch of the DeLorean was a financially trying time for fledgling carmakers DMC.

This might not have seemed apparent, however, based on the lifestyle of the company’s founder.

John DeLorean had long enjoyed an affluent lifestyle, and this only intensified in the early 80s.

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In 1981, DeLorean purchased a lavish mansion on a 434-acre estate in Bedminster Township, New Jersey.

Throughout all the difficulties he would endure in the years that followed, this remained DeLorean’s home for almost 20 years.

He was finally forced to sell in 2000; two years later, the property was purchased by Donald Trump, who turned it into a golf club.

DeLorean’s secretary first raised suspicions of fraud

As the DMC DeLorean was released to a more muted reception than anticipated, more questions started being asked.

First and foremost, there were concerns about possible financial irregularities, particularly given how much British taxpayer money had gone into DMC.

However, no one had any concrete evidence of wrong-doing – until John DeLorean’s secretary stepped forward.

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Privy to DMC’s financial records, Marian Gibson recognised that substantial amounts of money were being misappropriated.

Gibson went public with the information, showing sensitive documents detailing DMC’s finances to the press.

John DeLorean quickly found himself accused of committing fraud on a grand scale.

DeLorean was arrested in October 1982 for plotting to smuggle drugs

As DMC’s financial situation grew ever bleaker, John DeLorean became ever more desperate for ways to stay afloat.

Around this time, he was approached by a man named James Hoffman, with a less-than-kosher business proposition.

Hoffman, who was a previously convicted drug smuggler, wanted DeLorean’s help in a narcotics deal worth $24 million.

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DeLorean had never been involved with the drug trade before, but he certainly wasn’t averse to stepping outside the law for business reasons.

DeLorean agreed to Hoffman’s proposition, in the hopes of getting the money he needed to save DMC.

There was just one crucial thing DeLorean didn’t know: Hoffman was an informant for the FBI.

He was caught on video declaring the drug deal to be “better than gold”

Damning footage of the moment of John DeLorean’s arrest was caught on videotape by the FBI.

The video sees the car company founder in a hotel room discussing the deal and appearing optimistic about it.

DeLorean even states in the video that the drugs are on the table are “better than gold” in terms of financial value.

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The arrest was big news, with John DeLorean’s name all over the headlines across the globe.

A high profile court case ensued, with the disgraced DeLorean quick to protest his innocence.

Even so, this combined with the ongoing investigation into his financial dealings back in the UK spelt bad news for DMC.

DMC was soon declared bankrupt, and the Belfast factory was shut down

Things unravelled quickly, and the DeLorean Motor Company was not long thereafter declared bankrupt.

This meant shutting down the factory in Belfast, with all its employees being left out of work.

Efforts were reportedly made by the British government to save the factory in some capacity, but these proved fruitless.

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John DeLorean, for one, would later insist that the factory was closed down entirely for political reasons, given the ongoing scandal.

It wasn’t all bad news for the man himself, however, as the UK government’s investigation of DMC’s finances did not result in any criminal charges.

This was despite the fact that, once a thorough audit had been conducted, £10 million of taxpayers’ money could not be accounted for.

DeLorean and his lawyers successfully argued he was a victim of entrapment

Once John was in court on drug trafficking charges, a clear defence strategy was settled upon.

DeLorean and his legal representation presented the argument that he was a victim of entrapment.

This was based on his lack of previous dealings with drugs, and the fact that FBI informant Hoffman had approached him.

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It was argued that Hoffman had twisted DeLorean’s arm, and the car company mogul had only agreed out of desperation to save his business.

This proved to be a persuasive argument, as DeLorean was ultimately acquitted of all charges and walked free.

Even so, the damage to his reputation was irreparable; as DeLorean himself said to a reporter after the trial, “would you buy a used car from me?”

Thousands of DeLoreans were left unsold

Despite plans for the DMC DeLorean to go on sale for $12,000, on release in 1981 the car’s standard retail price was $25,000.

This went up to just shy of $30,000 in 1982, then there was a further price increase in 1983 to $34,000.

In today’s money, this roughly equates to a price increase from $71,000 to $88,000.

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In short, the DMC DeLorean was far too expensive for most people to buy, particularly given the economic downturn of the time.

This combined with tepid reactions to the car itself, and the scandals surrounding the man whose name was on the car, meant DeLoreans were hard to shift.

It wouldn’t be until 1985 that the car unexpectedly became a hot property, for altogether different reasons.

The DMC DeLorean was saved from obscurity by Back to the Future

Today, there is one reason why pretty much everyone remembers the DeLorean car.

The flagship vehicle was prominently featured in one of the best-loved movies of the 1980s, Back to the Future.

The DeLorean is absolutely pivotal to the 1985 blockbuster and its two sequels, serving as a key plot device: Doc Brown’s time machine.

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The car’s already futuristic look was augmented with light-up cables around the body, and large steam-emitting vents on the rear.

The DeLorean’s space age appearance was the key thing that attracted Back to the Future’s writers Robert Zemeckis (also director) and Bob Gale (also producer).

When the car is sent back in time to 1955, a boy sees it while reading a sci-fi comic, and assumes that it’s an alien spaceship.

Back to the Future’s time machine was almost a fridge or a Ford Mustang

The DeLorean became such a vital component of the Back to the Future films, fans may find it hard to imagine anything else serving as the time machine.

However, in the earliest drafts of the film’s screenplay, the time machine was originally going to be built from a refrigerator.

Eventually, the filmmakers realised it would be more engaging visually to make the time machine a car.

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Once this was proposed, a high profile automobile manufacturer reached out to the studio – but it wasn’t DMC.

Ford reached out to studio Universal Pictures, prepared to pay handsomely for their latest model of Mustang to become Back to the Future’s time machine.

However, Robert Zemeckis is said to have declared, “Doc Brown doesn’t drive a f***ing Mustang!” and insisted they go for the DeLorean instead.

1985 also saw John DeLorean divorce and face fraud charges

One might have thought that the exposure from Back to the Future would have been a boon for the struggling John DeLorean.

However, while the hit movie might have brought his car back into the limelight, his own fortunes did not improve.

For one, 1985 saw John DeLorean’s marriage to third wife Cristina Ferrare end in divorce.

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On top of this, DeLorean again found himself in court, this time on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

DeLorean stood trial under the charges of deceiving investors in DMC and stealing their money.

Fortunately for DeLorean, he was once again acquitted of all charges in 1986 and walked free.

The new DeLorean Motor Company was founded in Texas in 1995

Although John DeLorean occasionally expressed hopes of getting back into the car business, this never came to pass.

However, the DeLorean Motor Company was unexpectedly brought back to life in a different form in 1995.

A mechanic named Stephen Wynne established an all-new DeLorean Motor Company in Humble, Texas.

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Wynne was able to get hold of all the remaining DMC DeLorean parts left over from the shuttered Belfast factory.

With this, Wynne was able to offer servicing, replacement parts and restoration for new and existing DMC DeLorean owners.

This DeLorean Motor Company remains in business to this day, and while John DeLorean was never involved in the company, he and Wynne were reportedly in regular communication and on good terms with one another.

John DeLorean declared personal bankruptcy in 1999

Throughout all his business woes and legal battles, John DeLorean himself more or less managed to remain solvent financially.

Inevitably, though, events took their toll on DeLorean’s bank balance, and in 1999 he could no longer keep his head above water.

That year, he declared personal bankruptcy, and was soon thereafter forced to sell his home in Bedminster, New Jersey.

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Credit: BBC

On leaving Bedminster, John then relocated to a condo in Morristown, New Jersey.

DeLorean wound up spending the remaining years of his life in this more humble home.

During this time he also wed his fourth wife, Sally Baldwin, who would mother his second daughter, Sheila.

John DeLorean passed away in 2005, and an image of the car was carved on his tombstone

Despite his hopes and best efforts, John DeLorean was never able to get back into the automobile industry.

Instead, his later years saw him go into business designing, making and selling high-end wristwatches.

He was running this business, named DeLorean Time, when he fell ill and passed away in 2005.

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Credit: BBC

John DeLorean died on 19 March 2005, after suffering a stroke. He was 80 years old.

Maintaining his playboy swagger to the end, DeLorean was reportedly dressed in a leather jacket, denim shirt and blue jeans in his casket.

He was cremated, and his ashes were interred in a cemetery in Troy, Michigan, with an image of the DeLorean car on his tombstone.

Actors Alec Baldwin and Lee Pace have portrayed John DeLorean on film

Since John DeLorean’s passing, his story has been rediscovered by a new generation as a fascinating cautionary tale of 80s excess.

As well as being the subject of a number of documentaries, DeLorean’s story has also inspired biopics.

Oscar nominee Alec Baldwin took the title role in 2018’s Framing John DeLorean, a docu-drama detailing DeLorean’s life.

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That same year, the biographical drama Driven was released, centred on Jason Sudeikis as drug smuggler-turned-FBI informant Jim Hoffman.

Lee Pace co-starred in Driven as John DeLorean, and the film explores the FBI sting operation against him. The movie has been widely criticised for historical inaccuracy.