For the DeLorean, it's back to the present

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Danny Botkin's love affair with the DeLorean got off to an unpromising start.

It was the early '80s and a teen-age Botkin was tagging along while his father shopped for a new car. A Ford dealer had a rear-engined, gull-winged DeLorean on display, and the flash of stainless steel automotive skin caught Danny's eye.

"I was smitten," Botkin, now 40, recalls. "I said, 'Hey Dad, let's get this.'

"He got a Bronco instead."

Botkin had to grow up and buy his dream car himself. He drives a restored DeLorean modeled after the one that served as a time machine in the 1980s blockbuster "Back to the Future."

He also manages a repair and refurbishing shop in Garden Grove that's affiliated with DeLorean Motor Co. (Texas), a suburban Houston company that rebuilds DeLoreans and is laying plans to bring the car back into limited production.

The last DeLorean rolled off the assembly line in Northern Ireland in 1982. But like Duran Duran, the Rubik's Cube and other Reagan-era icons, the car retains a following.

Of the 9,000 built in 1981 and 1982, about 6,500 are still on the road, according to James Espey, vice president of DeLorean Motor. Enthusiasts gather at clubs from Cleveland to Norway. An event next week at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park is expected to attract more than a hundred DeLoreans.

"People of all ages are interested in this car," says Espey, a San Diego native. "Kids who can't tell you what a Camaro is come through here on tours because they've seen 'Back to the Future.' "

From the start, the DeLorean seemed destined for cult status. Its gull-wing doors and rakish lines stood out in an auto market that was still living down the AMC Pacer. And the stainless steel exterior looked like it belonged on a jet fighter.

Then there was the man himself. John DeLorean had been a rising star at General Motors Corp. in the 1960s -- he's credited with conceiving the GTO and the Firebird -- when he decided to chuck it all and start his own car company. (He'd already shed the button-down GM lifestyle, opting for flashy clothes, styled hair and celebutante girlfriends.)

Despite his attention-grabbing persona and product, DeLorean couldn't sell enough of the $25,000 cars to stay afloat. By 1982, his company was in receivership. He hit rock bottom that year when he was busted on charges of cocaine trafficking. He was acquitted, but the ordeal in effect ended his business career. He died in March 2005.

DeLorean's car would live on, thanks primarily to "Back to the Future," the top-grossing film of 1985. Ditching their original idea of using an old refrigerator as a time machine, the scriptwriters opted for a modified DeLorean because of its futuristic look, particularly the doors, according to co-writer Bob Gale.

The movie made Michael J. Fox a star -- and launched the DeLorean pop cult.

"John DeLorean wrote us a fan letter after the movie came out: 'Thank you for keeping my dream alive,' " Gale recalls. "Probably half of the people who own DeLoreans today own them because they saw 'Back to the Future.' "

The enduring appeal of the car keeps Espey's Texas shop and its affiliates busy.

Espey's company acquired the parts and engines that were left over after DeLorean's company went belly up; it also owns the trademarks and many of the engineering drawings.

Espey's 20-person operation handles a dozen or so rebuilds a year and has an eight-month waiting list. (Buying and restoring a used DeLorean will cost you about $25,000; they'll strip one to the frame and completely rebuild it for a base price of $42,500.)

At DeLorean Motor Co. (California) in Garden Grove, there are 15 cars in for service or refurbishing at any given time, Botkin says.

With 200 of the original 2.8-liter V-6 engines still in stock and facing a dwindling supply of cars suitable for rebuilding, Espey figures that within a year or so they'll start making the cars from scratch.

Their manufacturing plans are modest -- maybe 20 or so cars a year. But it would be quite a comeback for a car that was given up for dead more than a quarter of a century ago.

And based on the reaction Botkin gets when he takes his "BTTF" DeLorean out for a spin, there's a market out there.

"I can't park it without attracting a pile of people," he says. "We like to cruise up and down PCH just to get people's reactions.

"It's a smile maker."

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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