By Aidan Lomas – Editor-in-Chief
During last Sunday’s episode of the BBC’s Top Gear, viewers were treated to a segment celebrating the DMC DeLorean – better known as the Back to the Future time machine. What’s less known about the car’s colourful history is where it was built. The brightest star in Belfast’s rich industrial history may be the Harland & Wolff Shipyards and their most famous of creations, but the DMC story undoubtedly holds a proud second place.
Built in a time of economic calamities, political instability – to put it reservedly –, and cultural upheaval around the western world, the 1980s was the decade of magnificent change and progress, whilst also being a time of cheap plastic products and flimsy fibreglass windows. However, a contentious consequence of these decades was the DMC DeLorean. A stainless steel – excuse my French – shit-box, the DeLorean was to the motor industry what the Titanic was to the shipping industry; a majestic attempt at progress, sadly undone by the flaws of human error. Despite this, however, it still continues today as an icon of history. It bore the fine furnishings of futuristic progress and vision, but all this would be undone by the greatest foe innovation has: money. John DeLorean had sought to do the improbable in a time where everything was impossible. When the 80s financial crisis kicked itself into top gear, and with the Oil Crisis already in full swing, the Global Economy did what anyone would’ve expected and anticipated; it crashed in a magnificent fireball. It was not the time for innovation and success, it was the time for savings and recession.
In either the greatest act of self-belief, or the worst example of fiscal madness, John DeLorean was set on making sure his new creation would last forever. To make a long story short, in doing this DeLorean found himself wound up in an FBI drug bust; whilst arrested on the charges of drug trafficking, DeLorean was cleared of all charges. By the time of his acquittal in 1985, however, the damage had already been done and DMC, along with the DeLorean, was out of pocket, out of business, and out of luck. Once again, meanwhile, DeLorean’s car company would defy reason and logic. One year later, the DeLorean would find itself becoming an instant icon of the silver screen when, in the first Back to the Future film, Marty McFly and Doc Brown would hit 88 MPH and cascade themselves back into the 1950s. DMC may have been lost, but John DeLorean’s vision of an eternal car had been realised.
Sunday’s episode of Top Gear relayed this story. But, unlike many other documentaries and biopics about the DeLorean story, the show’s lead presenter Chris Harris paid special tribute to Northern Ireland’s place in this novel of novelties. Scenes of Harris driving the 80s time-machine around Belfast’s Titanic Quarter instilled a strong reminder that, whilst Belfast is famous for many things it shouldn’t be, there’s still a small section of time in which we can all come together a proudly say “Belfast made that”. But Belfast’s ties to the iconic machine don’t end in 1982. In 2015, QUB Students unveiled their all-electric version of the car. Led by Dr David Laverty, Electrical Engineering students at the University developed a modified DeLorean DMC-12 to be all electric, using as many original parts as possible; the modified machine is considered to have been the first produced in Northern Ireland since the Dunmurry Plant’s closure in 1982.
The DeLorean was built with the financial backing of Harold Wilson’s Labour. In an effort to instigate political and communal stability, Wilson’s Labour Government felt that job creation was the way forward. With the backing of the British Government on his side, DeLorean opened a factory in Dunmurry in 1978. Operating with a strict positive discrimination policy, the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) factory was staffed by an equal 50/50 Catholic and Protestant workforce. In Sunday’s episode of Top Gear, it was reaffirmed by Barrie Wills – the Director of Product Development at DMC between 1978 and 1983 – that staff at the factory, irrespective of background, would work side by side; a small part of the DeLorean story and the Troubles that rarely gets discussed, if ever. According to Wills, “We had a workforce that worked together alongside each other. There was not one iota of problem inside the plant”.
When the company closed down in 1982, it took with it 2,500 jobs; many of which were lost here in Belfast. Approximately 9,000 DMC DeLorean’s were produced at the Dunmurry site, with an estimated 6,500 still on the road today; many of which can be found on campus and around Northern Ireland. An icon of screen and road, the DMC DeLorean should once again been seen as a proud, if not unconventional, moment in Northern Ireland’s industrious history.
You can watch the full episode of BBC One’s Top Gear here!