23 April 2014

Make it New John

Following the huge box-office success of Back to the Future in 1985, John DeLorean wrote a letter to Bob Gale. According to the recipient, it read, in part, ‘Thank you for keeping my dream alive.’ Gale was the producer of that Hollywood film, a vehicle for Michael J Fox.Delorean was the creator of the iconic, gull-winged DMC12 sports car that was used as Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown’s time machine in the movie, but which by the mid-80s wasn’t really a vehicle for anybody.

Three years earlier, the DeLorean (as it is widely known, being the only vehicle produced by the short-live DeLorean Motor Company), has ceased production after just 9,000 cars had rolled off the assembly line at the DMC factory in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. The car is a vexed and paradoxical symbol, at once desirable – mostly, as its architect acknowledged, thanks to a teen comedy made when the DeLorean was unavailable – and an index of failure. 

In 2007, two years after DeLorean’s death, it was announced that DMC was back in business and would be building DeLoreans again, due to popular demand. The proliferation of Delorean fan websites on the Internet suggests this isn’t spin, though few commentators could resist recalling how notoriously poorly the low-horsepower original had performed for a roadster-class vehicle. It can hardly be coincidental that the original target audience of Back to the Future is now collectively cruising into middle age. What they will be buying isn’t just a car, but the realisation of some kind of carbon datable, collective cultural fantasy: a weird species of nostalgia for a fiction. Fictions are potent things.

This association of vehicle and film is one that virtually everybody makes first, but there’s also a panoramic back-story to consider. This is confirmed – to the extent that such a slippery endeavour can be said to confirm anything – by Duncan Campbell’s Make it new John (2009), a film that traces the rise and fall of DeLorean, man and car.

Its fifty minutes of archive material and self shot footage refract the messy, paradoxical, couldn’t-make-it-up tale of a Shakespearean character who lived an outsize life, the Detroit-born son of a Romanian immigrant who became a wunderkind engineer at General Motors and who, through projects like the Pontiac GTO, reshaped American idealism (the pioneer spirit, mobility as birthright) as it is incarnated in cars. It is also, to some degree, a partial window on an American Icarus who was also a Lazarus – a maverick who believed his own myth, fell to Earth and was born again at Universal Studios. 


Free tickets for Make it New John are now available from the Box Office, online and by phone on 0871 902 5737.

Extract from the essay A Voice, Not Your Own by Martin Herbert, commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella for the publication Duncan Campbell (2010). www.fvu.co.uk/bookshop/detail/duncan-Campbell