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The 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 stashed away inside a barn in southern Wisconsin never disappeared into thin air, never set a parking lot afire with flaming tire tracks and never reappeared from nowhere coated in ice. And it had been years if not decades since the car, made famous in the 1985 classic “Back to the Future,” had hit anything approaching 88 mph.
And yet, as the futuristic-looking car’s factory tires deflated, an army of mice scurried around and nested inside it, and the odometer held firm at 977 miles, the DeLorean nevertheless became a time machine of a sort.
“It was literally sinking into the earthy of this gravel floor barn, untouched for years,” said Michael McElhattan, owner of DeLorean Midwest, an auto shop in Crystal Lake, Ill., that works exclusively on DeLoreans.
McElhattan, 46, learned of that particular DeLorean late last month when a man named Mark from New Mexico called the shop to tell him he had a DeLorean for sale. At first, McElhattan didn’t think much of it, uninterested in driving at least 17 hours and 1,100 miles to check out what could be a bust.
But then Mark revealed that he was contacting McElhattan on behalf of his uncle, Dick, the car’s original owner, who had been storing it inside his barn in southern Wisconsin about 65 miles north of McElhattan’s shop. And then came the hook that really snagged McElhattan’s interest: The car had 977 miles on it.
McElhattan, who’s serviced nearly 1,300 DeLoreans in the 17 years he’s worked on them, knew he’d have to go check it out. On Oct. 3, he drove his SUV and trailer to meet with Kevin Thomas, with whom he runs a YouTube channel called “DeLorean Nation,” before heading to Dick’s 60-acre property in Dousman, Wisc. On the way, he started filming for a 30-minute video he would post three days later to the YouTube channel.
“It’s always cool to see another one kind of come out of the woodwork that has been lost to the community,” he said of DeLoreans. “Excited to see what we find up here.”
McElhattan and Thomas met Dick, who directed them to the barn and the DeLorean inside it. The exterior was covered in dust, the interior in mouse poop. Aside from that, the car was in remarkably good condition for being more than 42 years old and was “extremely original,” sporting the same parts it did when it came off the line in Belfast in April 1981. Looking at the VIN, McElhattan figured out it was the 571st DeLorean of the 9,080 that would ultimately be made.
“This thing literally is a time capsule,” McElhattan said.
The 977-mile DeLorean hadn’t suffered some of the woes McElhattan had seen in hundreds of other cars over the years. It hadn’t been driven much, so it never had parts replaced. It was left in a barn, protected from the sun which can do irreversible damage within a year, cracking dashes and instrumentation, forcing owners to replace them with parts that are nice but not original.
“Sun fade is a huge killer for cosmetics,” he said.
McElhattan said that Dick told him he was the original registered owner after a Milwaukee car dealership kept the vehicle unregistered from 1981 to 1991, something he confirmed with a bill of sale. Dick said he bought it then because he liked the look of it, and every now and then, he’d appreciate the car not by driving it but merely going out to the barn to marvel at its sleek, streamlined stainless steel, McElhattan remembered him saying. After a few years, he wondered why he’d bought it in the first place.
And so, for decades, the DeLorean mostly sat in the barn, giving way to gravity, an ever thickening blanket of dust and a long lineage of mice. McElhattan estimated that the car hadn’t been driven in at least 15 years.
All the while, the DeLorean, mainly because of the trilogy of Back to the Future movies made between 1985 and 1990, etched a deeper and deeper groove in America’s collective imagination. That’s only accelerated in recent years as TV shows like “Stranger Things” have fueled a wave of 1980s nostalgia. Few things scream 1980s more than Back to the Future with hoverboards, Tab sodas, portable cassette players and a car that looked like it came from the future but in actuality was the product of a company that filed for bankruptcy in 1982.
“The DeLorean is the quintessential car that was famous in the ’80s,” McElhattan said.
DeLorean Motor Company only produced its namesake for three model years from 1981 through 1983 before it went bankrupt. But since the carmaker had planned on churning out 25,000 cars a year and had stocked its warehouses accordingly, parts are readily available more than 40 years later, McElhattan said, adding that he gets old stock parts for 70 percent of DeLorean fixes, resorts to reproductions for 20 percent and buys used ones for the remaining 10 percent.
McElhattan bought the car from Dick, although he declined to say how much he paid. He and Thomas need to make sure the engine works then hire a professional detailer to clean the car. After that, they’ll assess what parts they need, get them and refurbish the car. McElhattan estimated that will take at least six months and maybe longer if he has to turn his attention to customers’ DeLoreans.
Once he refurbishes the car, McElhattan said he’s not sure what he’ll do with it. At first, he intended to sell the car for more than $100,000, but with its backstory and all the attention it’s getting, the DeLorean he lovingly refers to as “the barn find” is “taking on its own personality.”
“I’m starting to develop a soft spot for it,” he said.
McElhattan reiterated that, while the low mileage helped the car stand out, it was a combination of factors that makes it special, its unaltered state chief among them. Everything or nearly everything was original, even its blue oil filter. Although the tires had deflated and succumbed to dry rot, they still boasted almost the same amount of tread as when they zipped around the test track in Ireland more than four decades ago.
Of course, not all modifications are a bad thing. Just ask Doc Brown. Stock DeLoreans, after all, don’t come with flux capacitors.
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