A time machine in its own right

The DeLorean remains an icon

In a barn not far from the Ford County community of Piper City, Rich Weissenal tinkers with a vintage piece of equipment, restoring it to like new. The 1980s-era machine is not green or red. Nor is it yellow or even orange. This antique vehicle, along with several others in his shop, is stainless steel.

These machines are not antique tractors or other farm implements, either. Weissenal, 59, is working on one of the DeLorean DMC-12 automobiles in his collection. Like hundreds of Illinoisans and thousands of others worldwide, he is a devotee of the classic gullwing-door, two-seater cars manufactured during a three-year span beginning in 1981 and made famous by the 1985 film “Back to the Future.”

“The stainless steel and the gullwing doors are what first draws your attention, but it’s really the sleek, almost timeless lines of the car that really grab you,” says Weissenal, who bought his first DeLorean in 1985. “It still turns heads.”

DeLorean Midwest is an automobile service, sales, parts and restoration business in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake that works exclusively with DMC-12s.
Photo courtesy of DeLorean Midwest

The car

In its Belfast, Ireland factory, DeLorean Motor Company built fewer than 10,000 DMC-12s (the “12” reportedly to indicate the car’s target list price of $12,000). The company was the brainchild of John Z. DeLorean, a superstar engineer with General Motors credited with the development of the Pontiac GTO and other innovations. Setting out on his own, DeLorean imagined a futuristic touring car, working with noted Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who gave the DMC-12 its unique styling.

The car was, admittedly, short on both power and sales, despite a network of dealers that included 21 in Illinois. It still appealed to many, however, even after the last unit rolled off the assembly line in 1983 following corporate financial struggles and accusations that founder and president John DeLorean was involved in cocaine trafficking. He was acquitted in 1985.

“The DeLoreans were ahead of their time in several ways. First, there are the stainless-steel exterior and the doors. Either one of those would set the car apart, but when you put them both together, it really makes the DeLorean extremely unique,” says Mike McElhattan of DeLorean Midwest, an automobile service, sales, parts and restoration business in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake. McElhattan’s company works exclusively with DMC-12s.

He saw his first DeLorean when his brother convinced his parents to purchase one at an auction. “I never expected my family to own a car like that, and I really liked it,” he says. “The car was pretty cool and I grew up in the 1980s, so I am a product of that.”

Exploring a career in automobile mechanics, he answered an ad looking for a specialist to work on DeLoreans. Given his familiarity with his brother’s car, he got the job. Since then, his expertise with DMC-12s and his role at the shop both increased. Today, he is the co-owner of DeLorean Midwest and is a recognized authority on the car. “You know, they say you’re an expert after 10,000 hours on any given project. I passed that a long time ago on these cars,” he acknowledges.

The shop serves as a resource for DeLorean owners across the central part of the country and even hosts annual open houses and conventions for DMC enthusiasts, such as Weissenal, whose stable of DeLoreans includes a number of one-of-a-kind project cars built from pieces of DeLoreans wrecked beyond repair. He has some outlandish creations. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a DMC-12 body on a monster truck chassis or a DeLorean limousine with three pairs of gullwing doors, you’ve seen his work.

Rich Weissenal owns a stable of DeLoreans, including one-of-a-kind project cars built from pieces of ones wrecked beyond repair.
Photo courtesy of Rich Weissenal

DeLorean dreams

Weissenal and other Illinois DeLorean owners say they have been fascinated by the DMC-12 since the cars were first introduced. He recalls seeing an article in an automotive magazine bought with money from his newspaper route.

“I first saw the prototype in the mid-1970s and then eagerly watched for the first shipments of the production cars,” he says. He still remembers actually seeing one at a Chicagoland dealer for the first time. “It was definitely futuristic — like an X-wing fighter from ‘Star Wars.’ It was a car unlike anything I had seen. This was completely different.”

He bought his first DeLorean after seeing the car featured on an early promotional poster for “Back to the Future,” a now-classic film starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, who teams up with the eccentric Doc Brown using a modified DMC-12 for time travel.

Not far from Weissenal’s Windy City home, Tamir Ardon also grew up fascinated with cars. When the feature film came out, he was hooked on the featured automobile.

“I was 5 years old and saw the movie, and it made a big impression on me. That’s when the obsession started,” Ardon explains. “About a year later, I saw a DeLorean in person at a gas station, and I remember getting all excited. I was looking at it, and the driver asked if I wanted to sit in it. I said, ‘Yes,’ and I remember barely being able to look over the steering wheel, but I knew that this car would be a big part of my life.”

His premonition was correct. After getting his driver’s license, he found a used DMC-12 listed in the Chicago Tribune classified ads. He bought it at age 17 and still owns it, as well as the listing and a plethora of DeLorean memorabilia. In fact, Ardon, who now lives in southern California, is recognized as one of the premier historians of John DeLorean, his company and the DMC-12 itself. He even wrote and produced the 2019 docudrama, “Framing John DeLorean.”

“I became a DeLorean historian based upon my own passion for the car and the man, because there are so many interesting components to all of it,” he says.

Ardon’s DeLorean is housed in a custom-designed garage in the Chicago suburbs. Along with it, he displays a dealer’s sign and a wooden DMC-12 model, which sat on the founder’s own desk. It still moves him.

“The car has a very striking design, one that evokes emotion from people. It has stood the test of time,” he adds.

Tanner Brown of Casey may be the youngest DeLorean owner in the state. Like Ardon, it was the film that introduced him to the DMC-12. “My parents grew up in the late 1980s, and they introduced me to a lot of movies, nostalgia and pop culture from the time,” he says. “I saw ‘Back to the Future’ for the first time when I was 5, and when the DeLorean came out of Doc Brown’s truck, my jaw dropped. I was in love … in love with that car.”

Like many fans, Brown wanted a DMC-12 of his own. Earlier this year, he finally was able to purchase one. According to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, there are nearly 400 DeLoreans registered in Illinois.

“Having one is surreal. Every time I walk into the garage, I look at it and I can’t believe that this piece of history is just hanging out there. Words cannot express the feeling,” he says.

Marty Maier of Bethalto in Madison County says he has put more than 100,000 miles on his DMC-12 since he purchased it in 1992. He and his wife often join four other couples with DeLoreans on road trips. He has driven his to the top of Pike’s Peak twice, to Banff National Park in Alberta and throughout the southern U.S.

“When they first came out, they were known for their unreliability. I think that was a matter of rushing them to market. Over the years, we’ve figured out their weaknesses and how to fix them, and now they are very reliable cars. They are comfortable, nice cars to drive long distances. My wife has a BMW, and if we go on a trip, I’d rather take the DeLorean.”

Brown agrees. “It’s kind of like driving a go-kart because it’s not overly powerful, yet it is kind of peppy,” he says, adding that it always draws a crowd. “The first day I had it, four people stopped me in the first 15 minutes to take pictures of the car.”

Weissenal says there are a lot of fun factors in driving a DMC-12. “There are literally people stopping in their tracks to take pictures,” he says. “Stopping to get gas without getting more than a dozen questions is an accomplishment.”

The added attention is why Lincoln Nation of Mount Vernon doesn’t drive one of his DeLoreans regularly. “I am passionate about the DeLoreans, but I don’t like driving them around because of all of the commotion,” he says.

Nation currently owns four of the vehicles, with plans on giving one to each of his three children when they reach driving age. He wants them to have the same fun and love for the DMC-12 he has had since buying his first one as a teenager. He calls it “keeping the dream alive,” admitting the car brings about nostalgia, too. He shares fond memories of opening the gullwing doors for his prom date (now his wife) many years ago, and while the car still turns heads, it draws a different sort of attention.

“You know, it’s not a chick magnet … at least not now,” Brown explains. “It’s more of a middle-aged man magnet now.” But still, thanks to a resurgence of all things ’80s and buoyed by “Back to the Future,” the car is again very collectible. DMC-12 shoppers should expect to pay upward of $35,000 for a project car.

“The movies have helped propel the car up and kept it in the zeitgeist for more than four decades now, and I think that it will continue to do that,” Ardon says. “The car is starting to get a little bit more appreciated within the car collector circles. I think people are starting to realize that there is something kind of special about that car.”

Weissenal sums up the appeal of DeLoreans simply. “There are a lot of aspects of the car that are really timeless.”