How the DeLorean became the iconic film car

The screenwriters of "Back to the Future" chose the stainless steel beauty as the movie's time machine after the car's namesake made the news in a cocaine bust.

Rochelle Garner Features Editor / News
Rochelle Garner is features editor for CNET News. A native of the mythical land known as Silicon Valley, she has written about the technology industry for more than 20 years. She has worked in an odd mix of publications -- from National Geographic magazine to MacWEEK and Bloomberg News.
Rochelle Garner
4 min read
Watch this: Restoring the 'Back to the Future' DeLorean

If John Z. DeLorean hadn't been arrested in 1982 with a briefcase full of cocaine, the iconic time machine in "Back to the Future" might have been a fridge.

A lead-lined refrigerator served that role in the first two drafts of the screenplay, said Bob Gale who, along with Bob Zemeckis, co-wrote all three "Back to the Future" movies, the first of which debuted in 1985.

"Bob Zemeckis came up with the idea," Gale recalled. "He said, 'Wouldn't it make more sense to build the time machine into a car?'" So why did they choose that car? "DeLorean was on trial. He was news. And that stainless steel finish looks great."

Some DeLorean owners go to great lengths to make their cars look just like the one seen in all three "Back to the Future" movies. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The decision created the most iconic car in all of cinema. Without it, the DeLorean, which had fallen out of production by 1983, would be little more than an interesting footnote in automotive history, like the Bricklin before it. The $25,000 DeLorean was out of reach for the average buyer. Its torpid acceleration (0 to 60 mph in 9 seconds) diminished its appeal for the well-heeled speed enthusiast. Thanks to "Back to the Future," though, those quibbles no longer matter.

"Everyone who owns a DeLorean either got it because of the movie or kept it because of the movie," Gale said.

That inextricable association just might push someone to purchase a DeLorean on Wednesday. That's because October 21, 2015, marks the date Marty McFly rode to the future in Doc Brown's time machine.

That was then

Buying a new DeLorean in 1982 would be like spending almost $63,000 today.

The car is a lot more affordable now, according to Ronald Ferguson, president of the DeLorean Owners Association. Jonesin' for a DeLorean to call your own? Figure on spending about $40,000 for parts, labor and purchase price to get yourself "a good driver."

"A nice car is one where all the body panels are undented, the fiberglass understructure hasn't been damaged and the interior is intact," Ferguson said. "Beyond that, there's not a lot that can go wrong with it. About two-thirds of all the cars made are still around."

'Back to the Future' gear for right now (pictures)

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It helps that parts are plentiful. That's because DeLorean Motor built enough parts to support each model year for 10 years, based on producing 25,000 cars a year. Yet in its two-year run, the company built only about 9,200 cars.

"The key is there are enough parts left over to build entire cars," Ferguson said. Some owners restore their stainless steel babies to look like they just rolled off the factory in Belfast, Ireland. Others modify their cars to look exactly like the DeLorean from "Back to the Future."

Flux capacitor, anyone?

"It is the elephant in the room," said Ferguson. "Let's just say it's an interesting platform that people like to modify."

Saving the future

In an interesting twist, the urge to modify their cars to look like the one in "Back to the Future" helped save the actual DeLorean used in all three movies.

It was a mess, rusting away on the back lot of Universal Studios. It was broken and home to "every rodent known to man," said Gale, who spotted the iconic DeLorean while visiting the studio in 2011.

"Some of the fans had been replicating the car from the movie for years," Gale said. "I knew a lot of them, talked to them, and they said they could figure out how to save the car. I even had one of the fans bring his car and show it to the folks from Universal Tours. I said, 'These guys can make your car look like this car.'"

Gale and a team of DeLorean enthusiasts spent more than two years restoring the car to its original glory. A documentary of their effort, called "Outatime: Restoring the DeLorean," is now available as bonus material on a Blu-ray and DVD edition from Universal Pictures celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first movie's release.

You can watch an exclusive trailer of that documentary above.

Which brings up the big question about Gale. Does he own a DeLorean?

"Owning a DeLorean is like working with a beautiful but temperamental actress," he said. "She looks beautiful on film, but you don't want to go home with her."

So that would be a "no."

Five DeLorean facts

Thinking about buying a DeLorean? Here are five things you might not know about the car:

1. The actual model name is the DMC-12, so-called because the company wanted to sell the car for $12,000. Production changes more than doubled the price to $25,000.

2. DeLorean Motor made about 9,200 cars between 1981 and 1982, all in its factory in Belfast, Ireland.

3. Early investors included comedian Johnny Carson and singer Sammy Davis Jr.

4. US law at the time mandated that the speedometer only go to 85 mph.

5. DeLorean produced enough spare parts to support 10 years' worth of production and expected to make 25,000 cars a year.