I Drove a 1981 DeLorean and Could Not Stop Smiling

Its performance was rightly panned, but the nostalgia factor makes it insanely fun to drive.

Kristin Shaw

In many ways, John Z. DeLorean’s DMC-12 was a flop. It was overproduced and underpowered, and while it looked like a sports car it acted more like a GT. Out of about 9,000 DeLoreans built between 1981 and 1982, about 6,000 remain, buoyed on a wave of nostalgia originating from the Back to the Future movie franchise.

For all of its faults, driving the DeLorean offers a singular experience. If you ever get a chance, get behind the wheel of one of these stainless-steel-bodied wackos and you might find yourself laughing at the absurdity of it, mingling with glee. In Pebble Beach last week, I got to choose between five unusual cars rented out via Hagerty's car-sharing service DriveShare. There was no question in my mind: I had to try out the wild DMC-12.

Kristin Shaw

Monterey Car Week includes a dizzying array of activities like the Concours d’Elegance, a pageant of grand vehicles dating back a hundred years. Giant hats and celebrities dot the landscape, and there is a $50,000 Birkin bag on someone's arm at every turn. On your way to the Concours, Pebble Beach’s 17-Mile Drive hugs the shoreline along the Monterey Peninsula and spectators with cameras, waiting for the next interesting wheels to roll by. The DeLorean fit right in.

Following McKeel Hagerty’s rare open-air 1928 Bentley, I giddily steered the 1981 DeLorean in his wake. (Somewhere out there on the web are surely several photos of the car as we wound our way through the area.) The first thing I discovered was that the steering was very heavy; when I turned out of the driveway to get started I got a bonus arm workout.  

Let’s talk about the engine, which was a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) 2.85-liter V6 generating 130 horsepower. Not particularly powerful or fast, the DMC-12 was equipped with a Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system and the choice of a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic. The manual could reach 60 mph in 8.3 seconds and the automatic a little slower than that.

Everything inside is appropriately analog in 80s fashion, with no touchscreens and a basic audio system that would have played a tinny version of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” in its launch year. The owner of the DeLorean I drove included a few cheeky nods to the Back to the Future movies inside, like a mock flux capacitor and a hand-held video game in the console.

Honestly, I half-expected smoke effects to envelop the car when I opened the gull-wing doors again.

The manufacturer shut its doors decades ago, missing out on a planned sedan version of the DMC-12. In 2017, Time magazine included the DeLorean in its list of the 50 worst cars of all time, adding insult to injury. They could be right, but while I was driving it, I didn’t care. I may even be rooting for it to be reborn. To quote Dr. Emmett Brown, “The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

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