The Failure Awards for defunct branding | #7 DeLorean DMC-12

Great Scott! The DeLorean DMC-12

In this weekly series, Andrew Eborn shines a light on the products and services, brand extensions and campaigns that failed to take off and have as a result earned entry into the Octopus TV Failure Awards and a place in The Museum of Failure. Last time we looked at the ill-fated Guinness Light. Today, we look at an icon of the 80s and star of Back To The Future, the DeLorean DMC-12.

We all remember our first car. Mine was a Lotus Elite. The only reason it had a heated rear window was to keep your hands warm whilst you pushed it and one of the unintentional features was the pop-up lights which would alternate going up and down as you drove along. And yet through rose-tinted teenage glasses, it looked great. The Lotus Elite was the first step in Colin Chapman's plan to take his Lotus company upmarket.

From 1979 until his death of a heart attack in December 1982, Chapman was involved with John DeLorean in the creation of this week’s Octopus TV Failure Awards nominee, the DeLorean DMC-12.

At 40 John Z. DeLorean was the youngest ever vice president of General Motors. DeLorean was both a brilliant engineer and a superb salesman with a flair for self-promotion. As he himself pointed out in 1996: “I don’t think there’s a car running today that doesn’t have something I created.”

Financing the future

With his Californian tan, plastic surgery enhanced jaw and reputation as a playboy genius, DeLorean successfully raised $10m from 343 dealers in exchange for shares in his new business in spite of having nothing tangible to sell. Further money came from the British taxpayer. Jim Callaghan’s Labour government provided £54m in grants and loans – no doubt beguiled by the promise of a state-of-the-art 72-acre factory in the Belfast suburb of Dunmurry and the creation of 2600 jobs.

The DeLorean car brought pride to a troubled Ulster and helped to bring “jobs, homes and hope” to the region. DeLorean also attracted a number of high profile investors including Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr.

DMC-12 was designed by Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro and

engineered by Chapman and Lotus Cars. Development was completed in 25 months. The DMC-12 had stainless steel body panels, a rear-mounted 2.85 litre V-6 PRV (Peugeot, Renault, Volvo) engine, and gullwing doors.

The first DeLorean rolled off the assembly line in January 1981. The original DeLorean pitch can be seen here:

Production began and ended in the early ’80s after making only about 9,000 cars. The company had projected that breakeven would be somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 cars.

Run DMC run

With the marketing slogan “To live the dream”, the car looked divine. In reality, the car was a nightmare.

Car assembly was haphazard.

The beginning was rocky. Deadlines were missed. DeLorean asked for more government money and the first cars had to be reworked in the US.

The reason so many photos of the DeLorean have the gull-wing doors open is probably because the doors would not close.

Often the doors did not fit properly and got stuck. The dye from the floor mats rubbed off onto passengers’ shoes. The battery lasted about as long as Donald Trump’s members of staff.

The first time US chat show king Johnny Carson took the DeLorean out it broke down.

The stainless steel panels showed fingerprints and stains easily leaving dark marks.

It was also horrendously under-powered. 0-60 mph in a miserable 10.5 seconds.

As one critic pointed out: “Objectively speaking, the DeLorean is slow, it doesn’t really handle and there’s more entertainment to be had out of monitoring the reaction to it than actually driving it. But I just can’t help loving the thing.”

Initially the car sold well, even outperforming the Porsche 911 in the last

quarter of 1981. But soon reality hit and unsold DeLoreans began piling up at Belfast’s docks and the company ran out of money.

Many different factors contributed to DeLorean’s failure to survive. Poor sales, high cost overruns, unfavourable exchange rates, an extreme winter (people do not buy cars when there is snow on the ground) and not least the extravagant lifestyle of John DeLorean.

The company went bankrupt in 1982. Over 2,000 people lost their jobs and investments of over $100m disappeared.

White lines

On 19 October 1982, DeLorean was arrested in the LA Sheraton Plaza hotel and charged on eight counts of conspiring to possess and distribute cocaine.

Following a 62-day trial, an LA jury acquitted DeLorean, it having been argued that this was FBI entrapment.

Grand Theft Auto where the car’s the star

DeLorean’s troubles were not over.

The Official Receiver found evidence suggesting that DeLorean had conned several investors as well as the British government and that money had been diverted to DeLorean’s personal accounts. About £10m had gone missing. Some of the money that was to have been used by Lotus Cars for research and development work for the DeLorean company was in fact siphoned away via a Swiss-based company. Chapman died before he could answer the accusations.

John DeLorean was never prosecuted and insisted on his innocence: "I’ve made mistakes in my life, I admit. But I’ve never done anything dishonest."

In 1999 DeLorean – previously estimated to be worth $170m – was forced to declare personal bankruptcy and faced numerous lawsuits. He lost everything including his 400 acre estate in New Jersey – later converted to a golf course by Donald Trump.

DeLorean died of a stroke in 2005, aged 80. His grave stone at Michigan’s White Chapel Memorial Cemetery depicts a DMC-12, with its gull-wing doors open.

In a 1996 TV interview, DeLorean pointed out: “I ended up living a lifestyle I couldn’t believe. The tragic thing is, you start to believe your own press... I fully confess to becoming egomaniacal. You believe you are omnipotent, and you are surrounded by people who tell you what you want to hear rather than the truth."

The Guardian’s obituary described him as an "American car-maker and conman".

Back to the Failure

The dream of the DeLorean is, however, not dead.

There are still over 6,000 original DMC-12s in the world and following a change in the legislation regarding low volume manufacturers there are plans to restart production.

Alec Baldwin is set to star in XYZ Films’ forthcoming documentary about John DeLorean.

Paul DeLorean, nephew of John DeLorean and chief executive and chief designer of DeLorean Aerospace, even has plans to develop a real-life flying car.

Where they’re going you don’t need roads.

TOFA

The DeLorean story is itself a fascinating fable of failure and fraud. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee branded the project as “one of the gravest cases of the misuse of public resources to come before us in many years”.

The DMC-12 was an iconic symbol of the 80s and gained an almost cult like following thanks to The Back To The Future movies – released a number of years after the company’s demise.

In reality, without the benefit of a plutonium-fuelled nuclear reactor and Flux Capacitor it was a nightmare of a car – a badly engineered gimmick and a commercial disaster with mythic significance akin to Belfast’s other globally-famous failure, RMS Titanic.

88 mph? Hmm.

For all these reasons, DeLorean is this week’s nomination for The Octopus TV Failure Awards.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewEborn and @OctopusTV

From failed products and services to campaigns and ads we would rather forget, we want to encourage organisations and brands to be better at learning from failures not just ignoring them and pretending they never happened.

Send your nominations with full description and images to TOFA@OctopusTV.com.

Andrew Eborn

Andrew Eborn is a lawyer, strategic business adviser and producer. He has specialised in international licensing and global rights management for several years and has been actively involved with the global development of brands and the negotiation, acquisition and international exploitation of various major licences.

He is now working with several businesses across the IP value chain including the creation and licensing of content in all media from production, post production & Visual FX facilities to recording, publishing, distribution, supply of talent, technology, event & artist management, promotion and immersive technology.

Andrew is the founder of The Octopus TV Failure Awards.

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