BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND—You’ve definitely heard this story. Maverick U.S. auto executive John Z. DeLorean built a snazzy, stainless-steel-bodied “ethical” sports car bearing his name in Belfast, Northern Ireland from 1981 to 1983, before the company fell apart and its founder was arrested in the middle of a $24 million cocaine deal.
Fast forward a few years to 1985 and the gull-winged car, now a time machine powered by a Flux Capacitor, was the star of the huge Back to the Future series, along with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. It's too bad the movie came too late to save DeLorean Motor Company, because the car—despite being underpowered—was technically fascinating on many levels. Just 9,000 were made.
Are you ready for an historic DeLorean rebirth in Belfast, this time with electric power? Tech students at Queen’s University there, directed by Dr. David Laverty, are building a battery-powered DeLorean to be unveiled Wednesday—which just happens to be October 21, 2015, the exact date, 30 years in the future, that Marty McFly and company travel to in the sequel. (Don’t believe the Internet hoaxers who tried to pass the date off as 2012.)
Wednesday is actually Back to the Future Day, with celebrations happening all over the world.
Given that he has only two days left, Laverty—caught walking to his car (not a DeLorean) at Queen’s—seemed remarkably calm about it all. He told me that the derelict car was found in a farmer’s shed in County Leitrim, the Republic of Ireland. It had last been registered in South Carolina in 1992, then re-imported into Northern Ireland and eventually dismantled as an unfinished project car. It sat for a decade before being acquired by the Queen’s crew.
“It’s a working car at present,” Laverty said. “We have a few cosmetic details to finish. This will mark the end of the electric conversion, but with the electronics, electric engineering and computer schools we’re going to [shades of Doc Brown] add self-driving and computer vision elements.”
Under the hood is a 27-kilowatt-hour battery pack from China Aerospace Lithium Battery (CALV) and a 270-horsepower electric motor (a big boy) from Kostov in Bulgaria. The original five-speed transmission is being used, and the team is crossing fingers it can handle the torque (an Australian team shredded their gearbox this way). “It drives very well,” Laverty said. “I’d heard nothing but horror stories about the DeLorean build quality, but it’s actually very nice. We upgraded to a stainless-steel chassis, and added heavy-duty suspension to take the additional weight.”
Lavery has a “crazy dream” to drive the finished battery DeLorean across the U.S., so get your Back to the Future gear ready if he comes through your town.
As the Solar Power Australia experiment indicates, the Queen’s team is not the first to think of an electric DeLorean. Steve Wynne, a British ex-pat (not the casino guy), now owns the rights to the DeLorean name and supplies parts and whole cars out of Texas. He’s also toyed with an electric version—and had a prototype built by Chris Anthony of Flux Power in San Diego.
Wynne is also vividly aware of the October 21, 2015 date, and saw the Queen’s College car earlier this year. “It’s a very cool project for them to do, and great for the students,” Wynne said. “And the local business community has offered a lot of financial support. There’s a lot of interest in DeLoreans because of that Back to the Future date.”
There may be an official electric DeLorean at some point, but Wynne says that early efforts weren’t satisfactory—he hasn’t found the right technical partners yet. “We pulled the plug,” he said. “We couldn’t pull all the details together for October 21, 2015—it will have to be a later date.” Incidentally, Wynne was sued by the DeLorean estate over who owns the cars' intellectual property, and that suit is now settled. Wynne owns all the rights going forward.
Barrie Wills, a former executive who says he was the longest-serving DeLorean employee, has a new book coming out called John Z, the DeLorean and Me. He agreed to answer a few questions.
So was it DeLorean's coke adventures that brought the company down?
Wills: It wasn't the legal troubles, it was the sudden recession of 1981 to 1982, which coincided with the worst winter in modern American history. People stopped buying anything. VW closed their Rabbit plant, never to open it again. We ran out of cash. The legal problems emanated from the bankruptcy, and John's desperation to refinance the business.
Do you own a DeLorean?
Wills: No I don't own one. I rejected the receiver's offer of 5,000 British pounds for me to puchase my company right-hand-drive automatic car--I handed the keys over to the auctioneers. The current owner turned down 45,000 British pounds for what is now the only one of its specification in the world. That was two years ago!
Incidentally, Wills says he's not convinced that an electric DeLorean will fly, given the state of batteries. "I could go with a hybrid, but I doubt a system could be accommodated in the space available," he said.
Back in Belfast, there’s a lot of excitement. “We’ve gotten a lot of social visits from people who worked in the DeLorean plant, or whose parents did,” Laverty said. “My fiance’s mother worked there, as a matter of fact.” The building survived, though it now makes cylinder heads with no transatlantic mojo attached. The original test track is still there, and there should be some sense of completion when—for the first time since 1983—a newly built Belfast DeLorean (albeit electric) makes the rounds of that circuit.
If you've forgotten those Back to the Future flying skateboards, here's a clip:
And here's the Queen's University DeLorean's motor spinning the original transmission for the first time:
Electric Motor Experiment Number 1. Congrats to our students, this is a major milestone.This is the first time the Electric DeLorean's motor has been powered on. We're glad to report that the outputs of the differential are turning the correct way!Posted by QUB Electric DeLorean on Wednesday, February 11, 2015