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Behind DeLorean's infamy

Before it was a time-travel device, it was a spectacular failure.

The DMC-12 was handed to Visioneering Inc., which was tasked with producing a full wooden model to showcase the unusual car.
The DMC-12 was handed to Visioneering Inc., which was tasked with producing a full wooden model to showcase the unusual car.Read morePAUL BERSEBACH / OC Register

Nobody knew the DeLorean would become a cultural touchstone - and a famous failure - when Visioneering Inc. in Fraser, Mich., began building the production prototype of the gull-winged, stainless-steel, two-seat sports car in November 1979.

Compared to the work Visioneering's other studios did for Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, the DMC-12 was small potatoes, but Donald Goldie and the craftsmen working with him put in long hours getting it ready.

"We loved the work. It was never the same thing twice," said Goldie's friend and co-worker Dan Stockfish, now 74.

Goldie, who died recently at 73, was associate director of the project to get the DeLorean prototype ready for its February debut at the National Auto Dealers Association convention. A pattern maker who created precise wood pieces used as the basis for production parts, Goldie had been at Visioneering since 1964.

In those days, making a prototype was as much art as engineering. Computer-aided design and manufacturing were in their infancy. The only way to know whether a design was feasible - would the doors close? was there room for the radio behind the dash? - was to carve a wooden model of every piece based on the clay designers' model.

Computer simulations and 3D-printed parts have largely replaced the craftsmanship required.

John Z. DeLorean was a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s and '70s, a Detroit-born maverick who rose to the top of GM, partied with movie stars, and attracted media coverage like Tesla's Elon Musk does now.

DeLorean dressed like a playboy and married models. He clashed frequently with GM's hierarchy, despite a series of successes that included developing the Pontiac GTO. He left GM and founded the DeLorean Motor Co. in 1973 to build his gull-wing car in Northern Ireland.

Goldie's team made DeLorean's futuristic dream a reality. They trimmed wood pieces within thousandths of an inch to produce models for the car's parts and body panels.

They layered strips of Philippine mahogany for the floor panel and carved cherry for the grille and other pieces that required fine detail.

"It blurred the lines between art and science," Goldie's son Scott, a scientist with the FDA, said.

The DeLorean project was unusual, Stockfish said. Visioneering made stainless-steel body panels based on the wood carvings and combined them with a chassis from Lotus and a European V-6 to build the first functioning DMC for auto dealers.

Goldie was a hands-on supervisor, working closely with his team 14 hours a day on the second shift.

Like DeLorean, the DMC-12 was a publicity magnet, but the car fell far short of expectations. Thanks to a dead battery, the prototype wouldn't start for the ceremonial unveiling at Visioneering.

The DMC-12 and the parties DeLorean threw to announce it were hits with dealers, but the car's performance, production and sales fell short. The company ran into trouble fast.

DeLorean searched desperately for additional financing. In October 1982, less than two years after he delivered the first DMC-12 to a customer, the FBI arrested him in a cocaine-smuggling sting. He was acquitted when his lawyers argued the FBI entrapped him with visions of drug profits to save his company, which collapsed into bankruptcy after building about 7,000 cars.

The DMC-12's greatest claim to fame was its time-traveling role in the Back to the Future movies.