Great Scott: We Hung Out With a Delorean at a National Laboratory!

“…If you’re going to build a time machine out of a car, why not do it with style?” quips Doc Brown about the time-traveling Delorean DMC-12 in Back to the Future. Argument about the DMC-12’s true “style” might persist for a long time, but no one can dispute Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 film has forever tied John Delorean’s gull-winged car to futuristic technology. With the Chicago Cubs having finally won the World Series as predicted by the second Back to the Future movie (almost anyway) and with “Delorean” taking pre-orders on “new” DMC-12s, we thought it might be time to take a gander at a Delorean. On a sunny September day, we met up with owner Ed Raffenetti and his DMC-12 at a place that is working on next-generation vehicle technology, Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

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If you think the Back to the Future movies were the catalysts for Raffenetti’s Delorean ownership, you’d be right. As a kid, the trilogy were Ed’s favorite movies and he watched them hundreds of times. Call it diffusion or real appreciation for the stainless-steel car, but young Ed developed a fascination with the DMC-12. In the Internet’s infancy, he joined a DMC group and started to learn from owners about the cars that John Delorean had set out to build in the mid-1970s.

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To learn about the Delorean’s stainless-steel, gullwinged vehicle is to learn about John Delorean. The two cannot easily be separated. Delorean was a successful executive at General Motors, where he led iconic 1960s projects like the original Pontiac GTO and laid the groundwork for the Pontiac Firebird. He was known as something of a rebel in the buttoned-up Detroit automotive culture and by the mid-1970s, he was ready to set off on his own project without General Motors guided by his own brash persona and the ambition to carve out his own legacy.

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Delorean’s goal was to create an “ethical sports car,” something that was capable of performance, efficiency, durability, and safety while also  being affordable (The “12” in DMC-12 stood for the intended starting price of $12,000). However, one by one, those ethical goalposts were moved farther back until Delorean was left with an overpriced, underperforming vehicle and, ultimately, financial ruin.

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The original intention had been to cast the entire car out of advanced composites that would make it light and strong, but Delorean’s design team soon found the process was more expensive and produced weaker composites than originally estimated. A radical redesign was needed, which meant more money that Delorean didn’t have. That scrapped the idea of the Delorean as a “safety vehicle.” Judging by the abject failure of the Malcolm Bricklin’s Safety Vehicle-1 (SV-1) around the same time, this might not have been the worst outcome.

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Through negotiations the British government, Delorean procured grants and loans that allowed him to established a factory in Northern Ireland to build his cars. The factory’s United Kingdom location coupled with the need to redesign the car led Delorean to hire Colin Chapman and Lotus to rework the underpinnings. Lotus engineers essentially replicated the Lotus Esprit’s design, using a steel backbone with a fiberglass body underneath the stainless-steel body panels, which were necessary as part of Delorean’s durability goal. Lotus’ design was stout and fit the purpose, but the steel backbone rendered the Delorean overweight at 2,700 pounds. Again, this hampered the design goals of performance and efficiency.

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Needing a powerplant, Delorean sourced a contemporary powertrain from the European mainland, the PRV V6, that had been a collaborative effort between Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo. While history looks poorly upon the PRV’s 130 horsepower output, this came in an era when any car struggled to make 200 horsepower. As such, the Delorean was underpowered for the time because of its extra weight rather than lack of contemporary ponies.

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Nevertheless, the substantial hurdles in redesigning the car took their toll on the DMC-12. By the time it was ready for production in 1981, the sticker price had ballooned from the intended $12,000 to more than $20,000, substantially more than a 1981 Corvette. By the time of the first sales, Delorean’s debt had racked up to the point of no recovery. Production ended by mid-1982. Delorean’s planned twin-turbo DMC-12 never saw the light of day. This was complicated by a drug sting at the time that has stuck with Delorean through history despite the fact he was acquitted on account of entrapment.

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While the DMC-12’s legacy in the United States remains tied to the Back to the Future franchise, which put the car in the spotlight just three years after production ended, the United Kingdom tends to remember the vast sums of unreturned money that Delorean required to start the process. After years of international legal wrangling, John Delorean filed for bankruptcy in 1999; he died in 2005 and was buried in blue jeans and a motorcycle jacket, a rebel to the end. As for the money, no accounting ever found all of it. The entire saga is fascinating and if you want to know more about it, Ate Up With Motor’s account describes the Delorean’s story in great detail from start to finish.

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Regardless of how you consider of John Delorean and the car that bears his name, an avid community of Delorean owners remains in the world and Ed Raffinetti is happy to be among them. After college, Ed started looking seriously for one of the 9,000 or so—actual production figures vary greatly—completed Deloreans. In 2007, he found a DMC-12, one of the last built in 1982, that had sat in a Georgia field for a decade before undergoing a partial restoration in Ohio, which included a top-end rebuild on its PRV V6. He paid $17,500 for it and he estimates—very accurately because he logs every penny’s worth of parts on his restoration blog—that he’s put between $7,500 and $10,000 in it over the last decade.

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Ed works in Information Technology and the bulk of his experience in working on cars has come through restoring and upgrading this very Delorean and assisting other DMC-12 owners with their own mainteance. That’s included everything from changing the oil—which requires seven quarts of thick 20W-50 oil—to reupholstering the seats. He’s strayed from keeping it all-original, adding an aftermarket steering wheel, some futuristic-looking underglow, LED lights in the cabin, and a few other minor things. Those things don’t typically affect DMC-12 value and he figures that very little he could do would change its value from a bit more than $20,000.

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The wheels are original and even the tall-sidewall tires are correct for the car. While it’s not, as Ed says, an “A” condition Delorean, it’s pretty clean with some minor flaws here and there that are typical of any 35-year-old car: The exhaust overheated the rear plastic bumper so that’s slightly misshapen and the plastic used on the front valence shrinks over time on all Deloreans, leaving big panel gaps. Unworn replacements are hard to find and prohibitively expensive. He’s also in the process of restoring some of the interior parts, like the A-pillar coverings.

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This Delorean is one of the relatively rare examples that uses Renault’s three-speed automatic transaxle. Because the engine is mounted longitudinally behind the rear axle—don’t let anyone tell you the Delorean is mid-engined—the bellhousing faces the rear of the car with the gear stack inside the transmission extending ahead of the rear wheels. The Renault automatic transmission isn’t renowned for its reliability, but they’ve historically handled the Delorean’s horsepower well enough.

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The biggest trouble, Ed says, tends to come from the original PRV’s complex mechanical fuel-injection setup. There are ways to contend with the mechanical fuel-injection setup and Ed has taken the first step toward fixing that problem: He bought a junkyard Eagle Premier engine. When Renault tried to crack into the American market via a partnership with faltering American Motors, they planned an Americanized Renault 25 intended to debut in 1988 with a larger-displacement 3.0-liter PRV V6 that made 150 horsepower. That updated 3.0-liter features electronic fuel injection that gave substantial bumps in both performance and reliability. With Chrysler’s purchase of American Motors’ remnants in 1988, the Premier was sold for five years under the Eagle nameplate.

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Unfortunately, many PRVs suffer from “block rot,” where the coolant passages corrode to the point where coolant can’t get through at all. Ed hasn’t disassembled his Premier PRV yet to check for block rot, but that’s only the first part of the swap process. The harder part is figuring out the injection on the Premier engine. To retain electronic fuel injection, you can either pull the wiring harness from a junked Premier (not an easy proposition with their dwindling numbers) or you can look to an expensive aftermarket injection setup, neither of which are fun options. Alternately, you can put a carburetor on the engine like some Peugeots had on their PRVs, but that combination tends not to improve reliability.

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Whether he upgrades to the 3.0-liter engine, Ed has learned tremendously from the very communal group of Delorean owners. Most keep a substantial mental database of hundreds of Deloreans and their owners and can tell you about them off the top of their heads. Several own multiple Deloreans and most undertake maintenance themselves; the type of person who buys a Delorean tends to be someone who does it because they love it and not because of any externally assessed value—the average Delorean value tends to sit close to the 1981 sticker price for them in the low $20,000 range. With more than a 35 years of inflation, that’s a pretty substantial depreciation.

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As a result, the typical Delorean owner is a do-it-yourselfer. Ed had never wrenched much until he bought his DMC-12, but he’s learned how to do everything from replacing upholstered dash padding to taking an entire body shell off the Lotus-designed backbone. The latter was done for a fellow Delorean owner who is converting his to electric power, one of several such Delorean conversions. Ed speaks knowingly of the LS4-swapped Delorean featured on Regular Car Reviews, having seen that car and the owner’s attention to detail in person. “That swap was a lot of work,” he concludes.

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But even Ed’s mostly stock DMC-12 is a show-stopper. Any appearance at a car show draws lots of attention, usually more than an outrageous Italian exotic car. People—and not just car people—gravitate toward the unmistakable Delorean. Ed is happy to talk with them and share his enthusiasm for the Delorean. And that’s not the only oddball Ed has in mind; he told us that he’s considered resurrecting an original Chrysler K-Car, as well.

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Whatever the lasting legacy of the car, one has to applaud Delorean’s hope to make an affordable supercar, even if it didn’t pan out. The many lingering “What ifs” make the Delorean a fun car for thought experiment: What if the original fiberglass production methods were possible? What if the engine options had been different because Delorean had struck a deal with Puerto Rico instead of Northern Ireland?  Ultimately, the idea was too far ahead of the production capabilities of the era. The only thing that might change that is the right person with a time machine.

 

 

About Argonne National Laboratory

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Despite our repeated inquiries, nobody at Argonne is building a flux capacitor—at least that we saw—but the Advanced Powertrain Research Facility (APRF) undertakes a bevy of tests to understand how cars’ internal combustion engines and electric motors perform under various conditions. The APRF’s dynamometer is one of the most advanced in the entire world; it can simulate real-world weather conditions not only with extreme temperatures but also with more subtle factors like simulated sunshine and other conditions. When we visited, the team had a rental Ram truck on the dyno for some relatively non-intrusive examinations, though the Laboratory does occasionally perform more comprehensive tests on vehicles they’ve acquired.

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For example, the technicians fitted sensors to every single electrical component on this Hyundai EV to measure the current draw under a variety of real-world driving conditions. Those are just a couple of small examples of things they’ve done for assorted projects. The APRF also has variety of other engine dynos and among the hyper-modern equipment, you can also find one of the original engines used for knock tests and other measurements taken on fuel. Why does this matter, you might ask? Our tour guide, Forrest Jehlik, published a formal paper about E85 as racing fuel as part of Argonne’s research program. Government racing-fuel research? These are good people.

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