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It’s a grey day of a bleak year, and what few people there are on the street are walking with purpose, coats pulled close with eyes fixed firmly on the pavement ahead.
Even the buildings are cold, looming over us with something between menace and indifference, blinds drawn and doors locked.
Then, something out of the ordinary: the growing rumble of a Windsor V8 and the uneven clamour of a Douvrin V6 bouncing and ricocheting off the concrete balconies and high-rise offices of central Milton Keynes.
It’s enough to make people break step, to snap out of their routines and see what’s making all the racket.
And as they do, the dreariness and drudgery of the day seems to evaporate in a sea of smiles, quizzical looks and cameraphones, and as quickly as the De Lorean and Bricklin come to rest a crowd has gathered, bristling with an enthusiasm it’s hard to imagine being mustered for any other car.
The De Lorean, of course, is the money maker: thanks to that film, Back to the Future, even those with less than a passing interest in cars instantly recognise the shape.
Young or old, none need to read a badge, the trademark gullwing doors and striking brushed-steel bodywork all that’s needed to jog their memory.
Its companion is something quite different altogether, and were it not for the time machine sitting next to it you could conceivably mistake the refrigerator-white sports car for its movie-star rival.
Where the De Lorean needs no introduction, the SV-1 demands it, such is its rarity both in the UK and in its native North America.
It’s a curio among curios, and though the visual similarities with the De Lorean are clear to see, the story of its inception and creation also chimes with the off-the-wall and sometimes torrid tale of the Belfast-built wedge.
Milton Keynes feels a fitting place for both cars.
One of the UK’s famed ‘new towns’, it was designed and built solely to suit the needs of modern Britain, a response to the overcrowding and poor planning that marked life in the capital.
Its grid-style layout and wide, open boulevards lined with trees speak to a forward-thinking utopian dream born out of a Europe still scarred by the memory of the Second World War, and the idea that life could – should – be better.
Of course, the dream was sometimes better than reality, and for all its lofty ambitions the town of Milton Keynes has sadly remained the butt of endless jokes – roundabout one-liners from people who have probably never even been.
When it comes to utopian visions of the future, few cars aimed so high yet fell so short of the mark as these two forward-thinking sports cars, the De Lorean DMC-12 and Bricklin SV-1.
A man obsessed with safety, Malcolm Bricklin’s machine aimed to prove that the wellbeing of its occupants was a saleable commodity; that, packaged correctly, the ability to keep driver and passenger free from harm could be as big a draw as horsepower figures and 0-60mph times.
De Lorean’s dream began on a similar theme: to create a safe sports car that was built to last, a car of timeless design made from materials that would defy the built-in obsolescence and throwaway culture of the time.
While John De Lorean’s antics are better known, Malcolm Bricklin was no less a rebel.
An outsider looking in, Bricklin was convinced that he could beat the Big Three at their own game and succeed where the likes of Preston Tucker, Curtis Brubaker and so many more had failed.
It’s remarkable that he got quite as far as he did, given his youth, inexperience and an eccentricity that left contemporary automotive journalists reeling; period interviews paint a picture of a mile-a-minute borderline madman in a cowboy hat, striding around an office decked out with rattlesnake skins and riding-saddles for seats.
The self-made businessman had remained admirably tight-lipped about his project until the first few cars were shown to the press in 1974, but the apparent ease with which he brought his cars to market belied a sometimes frantic gestation.
For a start, by his own admission, Bricklin knew very little about cars.
The son of an entrepreneur, he made his fortune in hardware stores, selling his company and becoming a millionaire by the age of 22.
From there he made some successful deals buying and selling overstock Lambrettas, before a poorly timed switch to the Subaru 360 just as they were deemed unsafe by a leading consumer group.
In an attempt to save some 900 of the microcars from languishing in the Long Beach docks, Bricklin hatched a plan to open a series of go-kart-style tracks outside shopping malls, where punters could get behind the wheel of several recreational vehicles – including those Japanese kei cars.
They only had to look different, and to be safe.
He turned to Bruce Meyers, of Manx fame, to rebody the little 360s – to make them appealing to look at and capable of withstanding repeated abuse.
As it turned out, Bricklin underestimated both the ongoing cost of the facilities and the torment to which the cars would be subjected, but through that failure the germ of an idea had formed that set him on the path to building a car bearing his own name.
For his part, John Z De Lorean was no outsider.
A high-flying maverick, he became the youngest division head in General Motors’ history before going it alone.
Like Bricklin, he dreamed of creating a sports car for the future, but though his project came later, De Lorean hit similar stumbling blocks centred around funding and quality control.
As well as vision, the two men shared common ground as gifted salesmen and marketeers, each assembling talented teams to take their projects forward.
Bricklin managed to bring in Meyers and Ford’s Tom Monroe and Herb Grasse, calling on customiser Dick Dean to put his prototype together.
De Lorean opened his little black book and commissioned Giorgetto Giugiaro to pen his design, roping in Colin Chapman and Lotus to consult on dynamics.
Meanwhile, each entrepreneur looked to national governments for funding, with Bricklin convincing leaders in New Brunswick, Canada, to back his effort with $9m to build a factory in St John and a bodyshop in Minto.
De Lorean struck a £100m deal with the Northern Ireland Development Agency to build his factory in Dunmurry, just outside the capital.
In Las Vegas, against a backdrop of bunny girls and A-list celebrities, Bricklin managed to woo 247 prospective dealers into putting down $8000 apiece, claiming $100m in advance orders.
His apparent success wasn’t achieved solely because he had the gift of the gab. On paper at least, the ‘Safety Vehicle 1’ was remarkable.
Early prototypes promised a number of cutting-edge features, including body panels created from vacuum-formed and colour-impregnated acrylic bonded to glassfibre, which could be replaced quickly and cheaply, with even heavy scratches said to buff out with ease.
Learning from his FasTrack Subaru 360 adventure, the SV-1 boasted impact bumpers front and rear capable of being driven into a wall at 10mph.
Beneath the thick pillars and deep sills lay a ‘Safety Cell’ rollcage to protect occupants in the event of a crash, and brightly coloured finishes with names such as Safety Red and Safety Orange brought greater visibility.
There were some concessions, of course: the first appearance of gullwing doors since the 300SL was this time purely aesthetic – or ‘Pure Sex’ as Bricklin colourfully put it – and more likely to trap a poor unfortunate in the event of a crash than help them escape.
Broadly speaking, there was a lot to get excited about in the early days – not least at a price of just $6500.
By the time the De Lorean was unveiled to the press in 1981, many must have felt that history was repeating.
Giugiaro’s design was much more sleek and modern, but it was also innovative in ways that mirrored its Canadian predecessor.
De Lorean, too, spurned the use of conventional paints, opting instead for Grade 304 brushed stainless-steel panels that he guaranteed for 25 years.
Under the naked steel is a lightweight yet strong glassfibre underbody, which in turn sits on a double Y-frame backbone chassis echoing the Lotus Esprit – enough to tempt many to pay over the odds for their production slot, as excitement built for the new sports car.
While both cars are undeniably futuristic and certainly talk a good game in terms of advanced materials and production techniques, at their core each was quite simple.
The front-engined, rear-wheel-drive SV-1 sits on a perimeter frame AMC chassis, with early cars powered by the Hornet’s 360 cu in V8.
When sourcing AMC engines became a challenge, Bricklin tapped up Ford for its 351cu in Windsor V8 and corresponding gearboxes.
The De Lorean, meanwhile, went through a number of different permutations before settling on the Peugeot-built Douvrin V6, which necessitated a change from a mid- to rear-engined layout.
The Peugeot-Renault-Volvo joint-venture V6 isn’t particularly powerful or characterful, in truth better suited to saloon cars than sports cars, and it was one of the main contributing factors to dynamic performance that hamstrung the car throughout its short life – particularly in America, where smog restrictions sapped power to just 130bhp.
Plant your right foot Stateside and you’ll be lucky to crack 60mph in 10 secs; keep it buried and, despite ambitious factory claims, you might touch 110mph, providing you can find a long enough downward slope.
The suspension doesn’t help, either, being a bit too soft to keep the back end and its not inconsiderable weight in check.
It’s not terrible by any stretch, but because the promise was so great the disappointment was that much more palpable.
Confidence being a fragile thing, the early torrent of orders soon slowed to a trickle.
In contrast, the powerplant in our test Bricklin has better pedigree, finding a home in everything from the Galaxie to the Mustang.
Compared to the gruff V6, the Windsor V8’s throaty bark is a welcome distraction, though it too suffered from the effects of stringent US pollution regulations and was limited to just 175bhp.
With 284lb ft of torque on tap you can light up the rear wheels for fun, but, despite the tyre-smoking antics, a kerbweight of 1615kg dulls outright performance.
The SV-1’s top speed is a shade behind the De Lorean’s, while it manages to hit 60mph just over 2 secs quicker.
The De Lorean undoubtedly had the better start in life, and there was a time when the project genuinely looked as if it might take off.
Demand was strong initially, but it wasn’t long before a struggling economy, poor performance and reliability, and an impatient debtor, knocked the wind from De Lorean’s sails.
Although an impressive 8583 cars left the Dunmurry factory by the time it closed its doors in 1982, supply very quickly outstripped demand.
The Bricklin started brightly, too, but fell foul of similar problems.
As it happened, out-of-work lumberjacks and miners weren’t model employees for a cutting-edge sports car maker, and quality suffered alongside rising costs that would lead to the final price of a completed SV-1 doubling in two years.
The wheels well and truly fell off when the government of New Brunswick pulled the plug, and when the final car rolled off the line in 1976 fewer than 3000 had been built.
The saddest part of both stories, aside from the dashed hopes of steady work and a brighter future for the people of Dunmurry and New Brunswick, was the promise that both cars held.
Though they’ve been whipping boys almost since inception, neither is half as bad as their reputations would have you believe.
With continued investment and further fettling they could so easily have been successes. De Lorean and Bricklin were names for the future, both now sadly confined to the past.
Images: Will Williams
- Sold/number built 1974-’76/2897
- Construction steel perimeter-frame chassis and rollcage with glassfibre and acrylic panels
- Engine all-iron, ohv 351cu in (5745cc) V8, with two-barrel Motorcraft carburettor
- Max power 175bhp @ 3800rpm
- Max torque 284lb ft @ 2200rpm
- Transmission Ford three-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bar rear live axle, trailing links, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
- Brakes 11in (279mm) ventilated front discs, 10in (254mm) rear drums, with servo
- Length 14ft 10½in (4536mm)
- Width 5ft 7½in (1717mm)
- Height 4ft ¼in (1224mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm)
- Weight 3560lb (1615kg)
- 0-60mph 8.3 secs
- Top speed 118mph
- Mpg 12-15
- Price new $9780 (1975)
- Price now £15,000*
De Lorean DMC-12
- Sold/number built 1981-’82/8583
- Construction steel backbone chassis, glassfibre bodyshell clad with stainless-steel panels
- Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 2849cc V6, with Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection
- Max power 156bhp @ 5750rpm
- Max torque 162lb ft @ 2750rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual or three-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension: front double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear double radius arms and transverse links; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes 10in (254mm) front, 10½in (268mm) rear discs
- Length 14ft (4267mm)
- Width 6ft 6¼in (1989mm)
- Height 3ft 9in (1141mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 11in (2408mm)
- Weight 2843lb (1290kg)
- 0-60mph 10.2 secs
- Top speed 135mph
- Mpg 19
- Price new $26,175 (1981)
- Price now £20-40,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication