In a nondescript warehouse in east Texas, mechanic and entrepreneur Stephen Wynne is bringing a rare sports car back to life. If he succeeds, he almost certainly has Michael J. Fox to thank.
A quarter century after DeLorean Motor Co. began making its glitzy, $25,000 two-seater — an operation that collapsed after two years — Wynne's small automotive outfit plans to bring the vehicle back into limited production at a 40,000-square-foot factory in this Houston suburb.
The creation of renowned automotive engineer John DeLorean, DMC eventually made fewer than 9,000 cars, distinctive for their gull-wing doors, stainless-steel exterior and rear-engine design. An estimated 6,500 remain on the road.
Despite DMC's flop, the car has persevered, gaining notoriety largely as the time machine Fox drove in the blockbuster 1985 movie, "Back to the Future," and its two sequels.
The trilogy's enduring popularity on cable TV has exposed countless viewers — and potential customers — to a souped-up version of the DeLorean.
"There isn't a day somewhere in the world that 'Back to the Future' isn't playing as a rerun," said Wynne, president of the new, privately held DeLorean Motor Co.
Wynne formed the company in 1995, when the bulk of his business was working on original DeLoreans at a Houston garage. Still, he needed a name, and because there was nothing legally preventing him from using the original, he decided to give it a shot. He even called John DeLorean, who wished him luck.
A dozen years later, Wynne hopes to parlay the car's celebrity — along with the world's biggest stash of DeLorean parts and engines — into a niche production business that begins hand-making two DeLoreans a month sometime next year. They've just started taking orders.
Already, the Humble operation will take an existing DeLorean, strip it to the frame and rebuild it for a base price of $42,500. Wynne's staff can rebuild one every couple of months.
The company also handles routine maintenance, such as oil changes and tuneups, and ships between 20 and 50 parts orders a day to mechanics and individual owners worldwide.
But because the original models are roughly 25 years old, finding suitable candidates to refurbish has become increasingly difficult.
So Wynne figured: Why not use the thousands of parts and hundreds of engines sitting in his massive warehouse and build the cars from scratch?
"Everything seems to evolve around here, and that seemed to be the next logical step," said Wynne, a Briton who began working on DeLoreans in the 1980s in Los Angeles, becoming expert in their mechanics and equipment. He eventually expanded to suburban Houston and opted to make his base here, in part because of the lower cost of living.
Like other DeLorean mechanics at the time, Wynne bought replacement parts from an Ohio company, Kapac Co., which had acquired the original inventory when DeLorean failed. In 1997, when Kapac wanted out of the parts business, Wynne bought the supply for himself, though he declined to say how much he paid.
A decade later, he's decided to take the company to the next level: Niche automaker.
The handmade cars will feature about 80 percent original parts. The other 20 percent will be new, supplier-made parts from companies such Valeo SA and the Bosch Group, said DeLorean vice president James Espey.
The one limiting factor is the doors. The company has enough for about 500 cars, though it's important to keep some in stock for repairs and such. Beyond that, Espey said, the company is studying its options.
Enhancements to the new cars will include an improved stainless-steel frame, a stronger but lighter fiberglass underbody and electronics upgraded from the disastrous systems in the early DeLoreans. A peppier engine — the original cars' 135 horsepower was a downer for performance enthusiasts — will be available as an option.
"After working on these cars practically every day for 25 years, we've identified most of the issues and replaced them," Wynne said. "If there's a better part available, we'll use it. If there's a better way to install it, we'll do it."
The base price of a new DeLorean is expected to be $57,500 — roughly the same price a 1981 DeLorean would have cost in today's dollars. The company will sell the cars from its shop in Humble and affiliate shops in Bonita Springs, Fla., Crystal Lake, Ill., Bellevue, Wash., and Orange County, Calif. DMC also has a shop in the Netherlands for European owners.
"It's taken years to get the wheels moving, and they're moving slowly, but we've got motion," Wynne said.
Ken Baker likes the company's direction — so much so that the Bentley and Rolls Royce sales executive in Fort Lauderdale drives his own original DeLorean and heads that region's DeLorean owners group.
A car guy to the core, Baker says he became enamored with John DeLorean in high school after reading DeLorean's book, "On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors," the author's critical look inside his former employer.
DeLorean was the antithesis of the buttoned-down auto executive of his day, sporting designer suits, dating models and moving in celebrity circles. While at GM in the 1960s, he created what some consider the first "muscle car," putting a V-8 engine into a Pontiac Tempest and calling it the GTO.
When DeLorean began making his own car in Northern Ireland in 1981, Baker says he fell in love with it. Of course, as a teenager, he wasn't able to shell out $25,000. Now, at 41, Baker is a proud DeLorean owner.
"You have to understand it's a car that never got to its full development because it was gone before it really hit its prime," Baker said. "And you have to realize it's 25 years old. But understanding that, it's fun to drive and very comfortable."
Unfortunately, DeLorean simply couldn't sell enough of the cars to sustain the business. The company folded in 1983, a year after DeLorean was busted in a drug trafficking sting and accused of conspiring to sell $24 million worth of cocaine to salvage the venture. He used an entrapment defense to win acquittal, but legal entanglements plagued him for years to come. He died in 2005 at age 80.
Kevin Smith, editorial director for the automotive Web site Edmunds.com, said he's interested to see if the Humble effort fares better than the Irish debacle. He said quality control is often an issue with limited production, "but I'm always optimistic for people who want to make new and interesting cars."
The newest version of the DeLorean will certainly be interesting and exclusive, Smith said, "and for some people with means, that's enough."