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How Fans Restored the Original Back to the Future DeLorean

By David Konow

In 2011, Back to the Future producer Bob Gale recruited some die-hard Back to the Future fans and made his case to Universal to restore Doc Brown's original DeLorean. Here's how they brought the classic car back to life.

It’s remarkable how much love fans still have for Back to the Future after 28 years. We're still waiting for October 21st, 2015, when we can ask where our 3D Jaws movie and hoverboards are. And even though we may have have flying cars or auto-lacing shoes, Back to the Future is not a dated relic from another era; it still holds up very well. And thanks to the efforts of producer Bob Gale and a talented group of car replica builders, Doc Brown’s legendary DeLorean will continue to live on well past 2015.

As Gale explains, it was director Bob Zemeckis’s idea to make the car a DeLorean. “It was a solution to a production problem, which had to do with the time chamber. Doc Brown had to carry it around on the back of a pickup truck. In pre-production, Bob thought, How are we going to do this? There’s a lot of logistics in moving this thing around, then he came in and said, ‘Let’s put it in the car, let’s make it mobile, and that saves a lot of nuts and bolts stuff production wise.’ John DeLorean was either on trial, or was about to go on trial for a cocaine sting. That put the DeLorean back in the public consciousness, because the company went out of business. Now it had this added notoriety of the cocaine bust, and that made it even hipper as an outlaw car.”

The car was also picked because its gullwing doors gave it a unique look, and DeLoreans are made out of stainless steel, which prevents them from rusting. “That clearly made it look futuristic to someone in the ‘50’s.”

Gale says once they decided it would be a DeLorean, there was no second choice. One day, someone from Universal’s product placement department came in and told Gale if they changed the car to a Mustang, Ford would pay them $75,000. Gale’s response? “Doc Brown doesn’t drive a fucking Mustang!” (This classic response has been printed up on t-shirts that you can buy at DeLorean car shows.)

What some people don't know is that the film almost didn't happen--it took five years to get the movie made in the first place. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were close friends from USC film school, and their first film together was the underrated 1978 gem I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Then they wrote the notorious Steven Spielberg bomb 1941, which was followed by the comedy Used Cars. That movie had some of the highest test scores in Columbia history, but was still a commercial failure.

Meanwhile, the Back to the Future script had been around since 1980, but Gale and Zemeckis got over forty rejection letters from studios. Over and over they were told that time travel movies weren’t big at the box office, and with comedy entering the age of raunch with Animal House and Porky’s, the story was considered too sweet and nice. Spielberg had read the script years previously, and wanted to help Zemeckis and Gale out (Spielberg was an executive producer on both I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars.) But Zemeckis and Gale were initially wary, afraid that if Back to the Future flopped they would be known as the guys who couldn’t get a movie made without Spielberg’s help.

Zemeckis finally had a hit with Romancing the Stone in 1984, and many suitors came to him wanting to make his next movie, but he wanted to go back to Spielberg, because he was the guy who believed in Back to the Future from the get-go.

Bob Gale, Joe Walser, and Terry Matalas in the original DeLorean.

Back to the Future was a magic movie for a lot of fans, including Joe Walser, who would one day fulfill a dream of restoring Doc Brown’s DeLorean. “I was lucky enough to have seen Back to the Future in the theater in 1985,” Walser says. “I have no idea how many times I saw it … more than a few. I was Marty’s age, in High School, when I saw it and like so many other people my age, and I instantly connected with it.”

As for why he feels Back to the Future is still remembered and revered, Gale tells us, “It’s a really excellent movie, I don’t think anybody will argue about that. Back to the Future is a unique blend of genre, and it deals with a timeless subject, which is the realization that every kid makes at some point, which is their parents were kids once themselves. The performances are great, Bob Zemeckis’s direction couldn’t be better, the fact that it’s directed in such a clean, straightforward way without any gimmicks, that helps it stand the test of time. All the planets lined up when we made the movie, and it looks like they’re pretty well lined up today.”

The impetus of restoring the Back to the Future DeLorean happened back in 2011. Nike was making limited edition Back to the Future shoes, and Gale was at the publicity event that launched the shoes at Universal Studios. The original DeLorean was brought out, and Gale was appalled at the shape it was in. This galvanized Gale to act.

As he explains, “I knew these guys who were active in the DeLorean restoration community. I’ve been at these DeLorean car shows, I’ve been a regular attendee, and I’ve known a lot of people who’ve converted DeLoreans into Back to the Future cars. I started talking to a couple of people I knew to see if there was anything we could do about this.”

The DeLorean restoration team was led by car replica fanatics Joe Walser and Terry Matalas. Gale, Walser, and team member J. Ryan all went to Universal to plead their case. Gale told the powers that be, “This is a major asset to the studio, and the idea that it’s just sitting on the backlot weather-beaten, exposed to the elements, not being protected. We need to do something about this.”

Then Gale told the Universal execs, “I can call the Peterson Car Museum in L.A., I can approach the Smithsonian…there’s probably four or five museums that would kill to have that DeLorean in their collection, and would pay money to restore it, so it would be a museum worthy addition.” Not wanting to lose an important piece of studio history, they finally told Gale, “No, no, you’re right, we need to protect this, and we’ll see what we can do.”

The team put together a proposal with a budget, and finally Universal game them the green light, telling Gale and company, “Let’s do it, let’s make it happen.” Walser can’t disclose what the budget was to restore the DeLorean, “But we definitely low-balled Universal because we wanted the restoration to happen.” Then the real work began.

“Physically most challenging part of restoring the Delorean was the flux bands,” Walser continues. “They’re a very complicated thing to do – nobody ever gets them right. I wanted to absolutely nail it. I believe I got as close as anyone’s ever gotten before. It took forever and it really hurt. There were times I just laid on the cement floor of the shop and moaned. Got it done, though. Same went for the two guys on my team that were working on the front bars. They had been working on them all day and brought them to me to sign off. I said, ‘They’re really good, but they’re not perfect.’ There was some steam that got blown off that night, but they fixed them and now they’re perfect. It was rugged on lots of folks, but the pain fades while the perfect car remains.”

But it wasn’t just the physical work of restoring the car. “The most mentally challenging part of the job was keeping track of everything,” Walser says. “It was a logistic nightmare, a real exercise in organization, management and a little O.C.D. Tracking down all the parts was tricky, and being a bit at the mercy of people returning time machine parts they had acquired was tasking, but that was also exciting, seeing parts reunited with the car after they’d been missing for years.”

“It was a logistic nightmare, a real exercise in organization, management and a little O.C.D."

The restoration team also got in touch with a lot of fans they knew who were active in the DeLorean community who came forward to help. Gale told us, “A lot of guys really stepped up to the plate and said, ‘If you’re restoring the DeLorean, I’ll donate this item back so it goes back on the car where it belongs.’ We were very grateful to everybody who pitched in with their time and energy. Nobody made any money off this, it was a labor of love.”

As for how long this all took, Gale says, “A lot longer than we thought (laughs). I think it took close to two years to when we pulled the trigger to when it was finally put on display. It was over a year for sure, and I think it was closer to two years.”

Walser recalls, “The short answer is that one year after the restoration got approved, we turned the fully restored car in to Universal. But it also took about a year to get from the words, ‘OK, let’s do this’ to the official green light. The job was so massive that as prepared as we were, even though we hit the ground running, it still took a year to do everything right.”

When the restoration was finally completed, it was a hell of a moment for the team. As Walser recalls, “I had been running ragged for ages, constantly comparing our work against every known research photo, nitpicking my crew to death – ‘This isn’t the right bolt. It’s one size too big.’ Tweaking wires, moving things around. I would walk around the car with post-it notes and put them on anything that wasn’t 100%. Every day the same, but there were less and less post-it notes until one day, there weren’t any. We stared and got on our hands and knees with flashlights and there just wasn’t anything left to fix. It was a weird feeling. Equal parts disbelief and relief.

“The most amazing thing to do now is to go to Universal and just stand there in the room with the car and listen to people,” Walser continues. “I could do it all day long. It happens all day long. Amazement. Excitement. Disbelief. It’s pretty magical.”

The dedication that the fans have given to restoring important pieces of movie history like the Back to the Future DeLorean is remarkable. There’s an effort underway right now to restore the Ghostbusters Ecto-1, and you get the feeling that without the work and effort of the fans, a lot of this stuff would ultimately be lost.

“Movie Studios are in the business of making movies, definitely not storing or restoring movie props,” Walser says. “Many are getting better at that, since it’s pretty difficult to ignore the huge money that people are willing to spend on movie props these days. The DeLorean Time Machine, now that it’s been fully restored, is a multi-million dollar prop. I know Universal is happy about that, but I wish they would dust it more often. Without fan movements like this, lots of props would go by the wayside for certain. Unfortunately, few fanatics actually have the skills to match their interest. It takes a certain combination of skills, people and events, but when it happens, it’s so great.”

"John DeLorean wrote us a fan letter when the movie came out. He was so happy to see his car immortalized in a movie."

“With the viral media we have today, nobody wants bad publicity,” Gale says. “Nobody at the studio wants to say, ‘I was the guy who said we don’t care about the Back to the Future DeLorean, I don’t care about the Ghostbusters car…’ Nobody wants to be that guy. The fans can mobilize and talk about that. It helps remind the people in charge how important these things are to generations of fans. You’re working at the studio, you don’t necessary have any contact with that part of the audience.”

These days, there’s a lot of interest in the DeLorean again, and Gale tells us, “Whenever anyone’s driving around in a DeLorean, people smile. They think of the movie when they see a DeLorean, which is great. We never envisioned that the DeLorean would be so closely identified with the movie. John DeLorean wrote us a fan letter when the movie came out. He was so happy to see his car immortalized in a movie. When I went to a DeLorean car show, I found out there were people that had seen Back to the Future and wanted to get that car, or they had a DeLorean and because of Back to the Future they weren’t going to get rid of it. I’d say that three quarters of people who had DeLoreans, Back to the Future is in their consciousness.”

Photos courtesy Joe Walser, taken by Josh Turchetta and Steve Concotelli