BBC2 drive DeLorean: Back from the Future

Wednesday: DeLorean: Back from the Future; (BBC Two, 9pm)
DeLorean employees pose with the 1,000th car to be shipped to the USA before loading onto the Pearl Ace at Belfast docks, 1981DeLorean employees pose with the 1,000th car to be shipped to the USA before loading onto the Pearl Ace at Belfast docks, 1981
DeLorean employees pose with the 1,000th car to be shipped to the USA before loading onto the Pearl Ace at Belfast docks, 1981

Mention DeLorean to a child of the 1980s and chances are they will reply with “Back to the Future”.

The first film in director Robert Zemeckis’ trilogy was released in 1985 and introduced us not only to plucky teen Marty McFly and his inventor friend Doc Brown, but to a DeLorean motor car able to travel through time.

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Few of us watching the movie would have been aware of the remarkable story behind the original automobile, or know anything about the man who created it. But in many ways, his story is just as fascinating and incredible as anything ever depicted on the big screen.

John Zachary DeLorean seemed destined for a life in the car industry – he was born in Detroit (aka the Motor City) in 1925 and eventually won a scholarship to the Lawrence Institute of Technology, where he excelled in industrial engineering.

The Second World War interrupted his studies, but after gaining his degree in 1948, he entered the automotive industry, overseeing the development of various marques while working for General Motors.

Then, in 1973, he struck out on his own, founding the DeLorean Motor Company. Due to incentives from the Northern Ireland Development Agency – worth an estimated £100million – production took place at a huge factory in Dunmurry, Co Antrim. It was a social experiment as much as a manufacturing plant, where Catholics and Protestants worked alongside each other in harmony, an unusual event at the height of The Troubles.

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Problems meant the car, easily identified due to its gull-wing doors (which must have been a nightmare to get into if someone got too close in a car park), didn’t see the light of day until the early 1980s. It turned out not to be worth the wait; by February 1982, more than half of the 7,000 vehicles made remained unsold, the company ran up massive debts and the Dunmurry factory went into receivership.

This eye-opening documentary begins by charting that entire period, and it’s fascinating, jaw-dropping stuff – but the events that happened next are, if anything, even more incredible. Luckily for us, Oscar-winning directors DA Pennebakbr and Chris Hegedus made their own film about DeLorean in 1981, and some of their unseen footage helps paint a portrait of a buccaneering American entrepreneur with an enormous ego.

Archive news reports are also used to document his fall from grace, which saw DeLorean charged with trafficking cocaine after being caught in an FBI sting operation. He was, however, found not guilty, but the damage had been done – his company was bankrupt and his business reputation lay in tatters. But what drove DeLorean to take so many risks in his efforts to beat the US’ car giants at their own game? The programme aims to answer that question; it’s been described as the first in-depth psychological profile of a man who could be described as a visionary or a disaster, depending on your point of view.

And what of Back to the Future? DeLorean was apparently thrilled to see his brainchild immortalised on celluloid. At least it meant his name would live forever.

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