Dr. Emmett Brown took 30 years to build the DeLorean time machine in the iconic movie Back to the Future. In real life, a team of movie and car enthusiasts needed a year to completely restore the stainless steel classic as seen in the 1985 film.
Last month, the DeLorean DMC-12 with a flux capacitor was quietly placed on display at Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park inside a giant glass box. This was the result of a team of about 20 people, including a Hermosa Beach resident, working on the car and bringing their own expertise to the project along with an inevitable boyhood excitement.
“It’s an honor, really. I’ve always been a fan of Back to the Future,” said Joe Walser, an art director in Culver City who led the restoration team.
Marty McFly was Michael J. Fox’s most memorable role as he struggled to return to 1985 after inadvertently time traveling to 1955 with the DeLorean. As far as inanimate objects go, the 1981 DMC grooved hood five-speed is one of those rare movie props with a sort of cult following. The DeLorean car that needed 1.21 jigowatts of electricity to time travel earned its rock star status for many solely through its role as Doc Brown’s most successful invention.
“The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style,” said Doc Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd in the movie.
Perhaps that’s why it was disheartening to learn for many fans that the famous DeLorean had been stored outside in the elements at Universal Studios for many years. Universal did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
“A lot of fans are irritated that the car got in bad shape in the first place,” said Walser. “Universal doesn’t want to feel responsible for doing that— and they’re not. There’s a lot of different ways to look at it, but we choose to look at it like this: They still had it, and they allowed it to be restored. There are a lot of movie properties from 80s that were just tossed out.”
Walser’s journey to restore the famous DeLorean began six years ago when he and a friend decided to build a DeLorean time machine replica “just for fun.” Although many others throughout the country were building their own replicas, few were willing to share their knowledge. In response to the lack of information sharing, Walser worked to create a group that did share their individual knowledge on how to restore the flagship car of the DeLorean Motor Company, which went out of business in 1982.
“And what happened was pretty quickly we were being known for building the most accurate time machine replicas in the world,” said Walser.
It was in fact Walser’s replica time machine that was featured during the 25th anniversary celebration for the Back to the Future series in 2010, called “We’re Going Back.” Walser described the weeklong celebration as “out of control from a total geek perspective.” After the conclusion of the celebration, which included a re-creation of the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance at the original location at Hollywood United Methodist Church, Walser sold his DeLorean at auction for $112,500, with a portion benefiting the Michael J. Fox Team Fox Foundation in its research of Parkinson’s Disease.
Then Walser and his team built another replica that was even more accurate than the previous one, and that car was used in a Nike commercial to re-release the Back to the Future shoes to raise money for charity.
Soon Walser’s team could be found involved in every legitimate Back to the Future event, and Walser was feeling as if he finally had a strong enough reputation to approach Universal about restoring the original DeLorean car. Walser made that presentation to Universal executives with his restoration partner Terry Matalas and Back to the Future co-creator Bob Gale.
“Universal couldn’t deny the new peak of fan interest, and so they decided to let us do it, and to pay for it,” Walser said.
When the restoration project began in February 2012, Walser started a Facebook page that followed the progress of the work for fans. That’s how Hermosa Beach resident Alex Abdalla found out about it.
Abdalla was 8 and living in South Pasadena when the movie was released. He knew right away he wanted to own a DeLorean someday. Over the years he researched the car exhaustively, and finally bought one that needed work for $14,500 last year. It’s not unusual to see him tinkering with it in his garage.
“A lot of things had to come first,” said Abdalla, who has lived in Hermosa Beach for seven years and is hopeful he will finish up the restoration of his own DeLorean this week. “I had to make sure I had a place where I was going to store it. Honestly, I think any type of ownership prior to ‘05 or ‘06 would have been pretty difficult. I think at that time the internet was still developing, and one thing that has made ownership incredibly easy has been a lot of websites are out there, and a lot of ownership groups where owners can talk about what’s wrong with their cars— how they can fix it as opposed to just taking your car to the shop, and in turn you learn a lot about mechanical things in general, but also the inside and out of your car, troubleshooting your car.
“Since the movie came out up until the point I got mine, even to this day, I continue to learn more and more about them,” Abdalla said. “I was almost prepping myself for ownership, what was wrong with the car, why did it fail mechanically, why did the business fail on a business level, and just collecting information here and there and knowing someday I was going to own one of my own.”
The DeLorean Motor Company was resurrected in 1997 under different ownership, and Abdalla, who works as a paramedic in West Hollywood, said diagnosing irregular symptoms of a human body isn’t that much different than figuring out what’s wrong with a car.
“My goal with the car through the years was just gathering so much information— exactly what was wrong with the car, why it didn’t run, so basically to take out all the problematic components and update it with today’s technology and still have it look like a regular stock DeLorean,” Abdalla said.
That knowledge of stock DeLorean components was a perfect fit in Walser’s restoration team working on the original Back to the Future car. Walser didn’t need help with the time circuits, but rather with the body and interior.
“We’re time machine experts, not necessarily stock DeLorean experts,” Walser said, adding that he received about five requests a day from fans asking to simply sit in the car or watch the restoration proceed. Time limits and liability, however, meant Walser could not bring in guests but only people performing work on the car.
“What struck me about Alex is he seemed like a smart guy, level-headed, and clearly a fan but not a fanatic. And he had some expertise with stock DeLoreans,” Walser said. “Every single piece of the DeLorean, inside and out, stock parts and time machine parts, every single one had to be repaired. There was no part on that car that was perfect as is. And the stock Delorean stuff was the worst, the seats, carpet, dash, the headliners. All that was destroyed and had to be completely repaired, refurbished or replaced, and Alex helped do that.”
In fact, Abdalla used to work at Universal Studios from 1999 to 2005 as a paramedic, and he said he couldn’t help noticing the disrepair the original Back to the Future car suffered while stored outside.
“It really took a beating from the sun over the years,” Abdalla said. “It was actually in pretty poor shape. I remember seeing it at Universal and kind of took it to heart then.”
Abdalla said speakers were drilled into the car at one time for an event where a Doc Brown character drove around Universal playing Huey Lewis and The News, and it was parked beneath a tree for many years.
“It was sort of accessible to whoever,” Abdalla said. “Things were magically taken off it over the years, taken as souvenirs. It was slowly whittling away.”
So when Abdalla sent Walser a message on the restoration Facebook page saying he had his own tools, Abdalla knew exactly what he was getting into. And he’s so glad he did.
“Knowing its background, knowing what they were doing to it, and having worked at Universal before, I really wanted to get involved with it. Luckily, they needed the help,” Abdalla said.
Or as George McFly tries to communicate to Lorraine at the malt shop, it was density, or rather destiny, that brought them together.