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Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 12:21 GMT
Back to the futuristic
John DeLorean in the car that made his name
John DeLorean was taken out of the driving seat
Gull wings, Michael J Fox, and 84m of British taxpayers' money. Twenty years on, the ill-fated DeLorean sports car remains a legend among failed automobiles.

It is exactly 20 years since the receivers wrested control of the Dunmurry car factory from its flamboyant American boss, John Zachary DeLorean.

The Northern Ireland plant had swallowed 84m of public money - 30m from Margaret Thatcher's supposedly subsidy-averse government - in a bid to tackle west Belfast's stubbornly high unemployment.


Gull-winged for the gullible

Ross Benson
The receivers sent many of the 2,700 workers home from a factory which, after less than 21 months in operation, was plainly churning out its futuristic gull-winged sports cars for a destination no more exotic than the plant's own car park.

In the previous year, less than half of the 7,000 unpainted stainless steel DMC-12s produced had made it past the gates.

The 125mph car - intended to woo American drivers bored with domestic roadsters but unable to afford prestige European marques - was retailing at twice its originally intended $12,500 price tag in a recession-hit market.

A DMC-12
Futuristic, but heavy on the polish
Many of the cars that did make it to the dealers' yards required thousands of pounds of extra work to rectify faults.

"Abysmally short of any standard of commercial acceptability," was the verdict of the motoring magazine, Car and Driver. "Gull-winged for the gullible," declared Fleet Street veteran Ross Benson.

It had all seemed like such a good idea four years before, as the British government fought off rival bids to partner the latest venture of John Z DeLorean.

Motown maverick

DeLorean had risen almost to the top at America's General Motors - the world's biggest corporation - and was credited with creating the hugely successful GTO (a saloon car with an out-sized engine).

Clearly hoping the DMC-12 would also take the States by storm, the Labour government of James Callaghan agreed to fund a production plant in Northern Ireland and pacify the unions (DeLorean would pay his staff a fraction of what car workers in Detroit made).

Michael J Fox in Back to the Future
A government-funded sports car? Hello! McFly!
"It'll be a great psychological boost for Ulster," said Northern Ireland Secretary Roy Mason, adding that it would also be a "hammer blow" to the IRA.

Unemployment across Northern Ireland was twice the national average in the 1970s; nearly half the men in the Catholic areas close to DeLorean's proposed plant were out of work.

Buying peace

It was reasoned these disadvantaged areas were prime recruiting grounds for the IRA and that a large local employer could help break this cycle.

Dr John Wilson, who has studied the region's recent economic history, says such a plan was at best misguided - costing as it did 25,000 of public money per job.

"The IRA did feed off unemployment and social deprivation, but their hold was culturally embedded rather than economic."

Mrs Thatcher in a tank
The DeLorean wasn't Mrs Thatcher's cup of tea
The election of right-wing reformer Margaret Thatcher before a single DeLorean had even rolled off the production line did not see the plant weaned off state handouts.

"It was a serious mistake," the prime minister admitted as it became clear she had thrown 30m of good money after 50m bad.

The Iron Lady finally shut the gates on the stainless steel car as suspicions grew that a slice of the public money had been spirited into the coffers of a mysterious Swiss company.

Bust and busted

DeLorean himself landed in a US court accused of conspiring to deal $24m of cocaine to raise funds for his foundering company. (He was acquitted, arguing the FBI had been guilty of entrapment.)

Only recently were the last of the company's many creditors paid back.

John DeLorean following his 1982 drugs arrest
DeLorean's drug arrest came on the day his car company shut
The UK Government pursued its lost millions through the courts by suing accounting firm Arthur Andersen - now embroiled in the Enron scandal - accusing it of botching the audit of the DeLorean books.

"DeLorean was the last great hurrah of heavy government involvement in business," says Dr Wilson - though subsequent prime ministers have not abandoned using tax money to attract fickle foreign manufacturers to areas of high unemployment.

Last car hurrah

"The affair proved the folly of using economic hammers to mend cultural and social ills. Such ventures were very blunt tools and only good at throwing away public money fast," he says.

Have DeLoreans nothing to commend them, then?

"It doesn't look bad ... for its time," says DMC-12 enthusiast David Howath - current owner of Duran Duran bassist John Taylor's factory-fresh DeLorean.

Duran Duran
Wild boys (John Taylor top left) drove DeLoreans
Mr Howath says rarity value has propped up the asking price for the cars. One of the 23 right-hand drive models will cost you 25,000 - far more than you'd pay for one of the fancy European sports cars DeLorean hoped to undercut.

Though being converted into a time machine for the Back to the Future film series brought the DMC-12 global celebrity, the car remains the preserve of slightly eccentric collectors.

"Lots of people can't be bothered with cleaning all the fingerprints off stainless steel," says Mr Howath - who swears by bog standard furniture polish.

"But I was bitten by the stainless steel bug. I broke my leg when I was 19 and have a stainless steel rod in there. I always say I'm stainless on the inside and stainless on the outside."

David Howath's DMC-12
David Howath's stainless steel obsession
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