DeLorean Lives On

Coke jokes aside, a Houston company continues the DMC dream

In a bright warehouse, mechanics tinker with a handful of old sports cars with rock music blaring. Steve Gibson, a tall guy who wears a beard and a baseball cap, works under the hydraulic lift. Justin Lawson, with his boyish face and close-cut hair, buffs out a door.

Workers labor over cars that still look futuristic, in a distinctly 1980s kind of way, with their bare stainless-steel bodies, gullwing doors and big black louvers on the back windows.

It's the DeLorean Motor Company redux -- the remnants of one renegade's dream to kick the automobile industry in the ass, err, bumper.

Mechanics here have aisles and aisles of original DeLorean parts at their disposal -- everything from screws, nuts and bolts to transmissions, engines and frames. There are pallets and containers of parts stacked to the 24-foot ceilings, with much of the inventory still in the original packaging from the old factory in Northern Ireland.

More than 20 years after the original DeLorean Motor Company went bankrupt and the last car rolled off the production line, John Z. DeLorean's dream lives on -- transplanted over two decades from Northern Ireland to this facility in Humble.

"We have enough doors to last 120 years at our current rate of sale," says James Espey, vice president of the Houston-based company.

DeLorean, who died on March 19, was a flamboyant General Motors mogul once thought to be destined to become GM's president. Instead, he left in 1973 to found his own firm, banking on the notion that Americans wanted to drive smaller, flashier, faster cars.

In 1981, he opened the Irish factory, which produced his $25,000 supercar, a hefty purchase in the days when even new Corvettes were sporting $18,000 window stickers.

But DeLorean fell from grace in a fashion reminiscent of Houston's Enron execs. About 9,000 DeLorean DMC-12s were produced before the company went bankrupt in 1982, amid charges that DeLorean had sold millions of dollars of cocaine to help cook the books. DeLorean eventually was acquitted, but his plans to produce 30,000 cars a year were ruined.

Despite the alleged corporate malfeasance, the sports car earned a place in American lore when Marty McFly zipped into the folds of time driving a plutonium-powered DeLorean time machine in 1985's Back to the Future.

When the DeLorean factory closed, a consolidation company bought all the parts with the hopes of setting up shop in the States, but ended up storing them in a warehouse in Cleveland, where they stayed for almost 15 years.

In 1997, Stephen Wynne, then a DeLorean mechanic based in Houston, purchased the inventory. Sixty-five tractor-trailers drove the goods from Ohio. Wynne bought the rights to the DeLorean name and logo, and the original engineering drawings, and thus the DeLorean Motor Company was reinvented, with Wynne as the new president.

"Half of our business comes from selling parts, and the other half comes from repairing and restoring old DeLoreans," Espey says. He says they service 30 or 40 cars at a time in the 40,000-square-foot facility. DeLorean owners ship their cars from all over the country for work.

The Houston company has no relation to the original founder other than haggling over patent rights and forwarding media requests.

It has outgrown the reputation of its notorious predecessor, Espey says. "Ten years ago I'd pull up to a gas station and people would ask if there was coke in the trunk," he says. He's heard all the cocaine humor imaginable, he admits. ("Nothing sucks up the white lines on the highway like a DeLorean!")

Espey blames the public's coke-joke habit on the media's appetite for scandal. "When someone walks out with handcuffs on, they're on the front page, but when they're innocent, they're on page eight of the Life section."

Espey hopes people will focus on DeLorean's innocence, now that he's dead. Besides, he says, "After all this time, people are more focused on the car than what happened before."

He estimates that there are 150 DeLorean owners in the Houston area. Some are older rich guys who bought the car when it was new. Others are established thirtysomethings who wanted to own their teenage dream cars. Espey's company, which sold about two dozen of the cars last year, sells fully refurbished DeLoreans for $38,000 and up.

The DMC-12 is approaching its 25th anniversary, a milestone in the collectible-car market. "I don't see it as a high-value car, but I see it as an interesting car that will at least have a unique following," says Dennis Adler, editor of Car Collector magazine.

"There is no quality," Adler says. "When they first came out in the 1980s, I was the automotive editor of AAA. We went through three cars to try to finish one road test because they kept breaking."

But he says the cars still have an intense owner-collector following. There are all-DeLorean car shows. "You see them lined up, one polished stainless-steel car after another."

So maybe DeLorean Motor Company, the sequel, can bank on its future. At least the repair shop will stay busy.

 
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