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The DeLorean: A Comeback for the Future? : Cars: The co-owner of a Canoga Park shop that repairs and restores DeLoreans wants to have the last laugh on those who doubted the value of the stainless steel, gull-winged sports car.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Owners of DeLorean sports cars are used to being razzed. After the DeLorean became known as the “cocaine car” in the early 1980s when creator John Z. DeLorean was indicted on drug charges (he was later acquitted), DeLorean owners say drivers in other cars would grin at them and put their fingers to their noses, mimicking cocaine users.

The embarrassing moments for DeLorean’s company were legion, such as the time Johnny Carson, an investor in DeLorean Motor Co., drove a DeLorean in front of a crowd of fans during a promotional outing, only to have the engine stall.

But Edward R. Bernstein wants “the last laugh on everyone that made fun of the owners when they bought the cars.”

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Bernstein is co-owner of DeLorean One, a 4-year-old Canoga Park company that repairs and restores DeLoreans and sells DeLorean parts. Bernstein says his company is profitable and will rack up about $2 million in sales this year, as one of the biggest DeLorean parts and repair outfits in the country. About half his volume will come from sales of more than 2,700 parts and accessories--from 97-cent nuts to $1,777 stainless steel doors.

Bernstein contends the car’s image is on the mend, thanks in part to the popular “Back to the Future” movies, which featured DeLoreans souped up into time-traveling vehicles. And because the car is about 10 years old and relatively rare, Bernstein is betting that DeLoreans will become prized by investment-minded car buffs who will use his services to keep their cars in shape.

Others, however, say the car might be more like an Edsel than a Ferrari. “I wouldn’t put my hard-earned money into it as an investment,” said Rick Cole of Rick Cole Auctions, a North Hollywood seller of exotic cars. “The car was not very well made, it was underpowered and had problems in . . . air conditioning. From a serious collector’s standpoint, there’s absolutely no collectibility.”

Still, when the first DeLorean car rolled out of a factory in Northern Ireland 10 years ago, many people were impressed. The stainless steel sports coupe with gull-winged doors that open up instead of out was the long-awaited creation of former General Motors maverick DeLorean.

The car was sleek and stylish and carried the stamp of Detroit’s former golden boy, whose former wife, fashion model Cristina Ferrare, helped support him while DeLorean was starting the company. The British government would invest more than $150 million in DeLorean Motor.

“We were trying to build a car that would last, that had the quality of eternity,” DeLorean said last week in a telephone interview.

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But DeLorean’s dream had a short life span. The first car was produced in 1980 with a sticker price of $26,000. But soon DeLorean’s personal life became tabloid fodder. He was arrested in October, 1982, after he allegedly tried to sell $24 million in cocaine to federal agents who were posing as drug dealers. That same day, the British government closed the DeLorean car plant.

In 1984, a jury found DeLorean not guilty of all drug-related charges after a sensational seven-month trial in which his lawyers accused federal agents of entrapment. In 1985, a federal indictment charged him with bilking investors in his company through fraud and racketeering, but a jury cleared him of the charges in 1986.

By then DeLorean Motor was history. It filed for bankruptcy protection in 1982 and was later liquidated. Only 8,583 of the two-seat cars were made.

“Political problems led to its demise,” DeLorean said of his company.

But in books, such as “Hard Driving, My Years With John DeLorean,” by William Haddad, a former DeLorean Motor executive, and “Grand Delusions, the Cosmic Career of John DeLorean,” by Hillel Levin, the company’s collapse was blamed on DeLorean’s unrealistic sales goals and his refusal to slow production when mechanical and production problems surfaced.

Critics also complained that the car lacked some of the promised safety features, such as air bags, and was plagued by mechanical foul-ups, such as a faulty mechanism in the gull-winged doors, which sometimes left drivers trapped inside their cars.

Nonetheless, today the DeLorean has developed an almost cult-like following.

“The people who love them really love them, which is probably more than enough to keep a company like that going,” Jack R. Nerad, editor of Motor Trend magazine, said of DeLorean One. Marvin Katz, vice president of Kapac Inc., the Columbus, Ohio, auto parts company that bought the DeLorean inventory when the company was liquidated said the cars have shown surprising resilience: “There are very few problems with them.”

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More than anything, it’s the DeLorean’s style that owners say they love. “If you want a fast car, buy a Porsche or a Ferrari,” said Bernstein, who bought a DeLorean when they first came out, smitten with its design. The initial design was by an Italian firm that also designed cars for Maserati and Alfa Romeo.

Don Steger, co-owner of the DeLorean Motor Center, a DeLorean service facility in Garden Grove, had a procession of 16 DeLoreans waiting outside the church where he was married. After he deposited his bride inside his car and shut the gull-winged door, the other car doors were lowered in sequence.

DeLorean told of one owner who was so infatuated with his car that he arranged to be buried in it when he died.

Bernstein said these enamored owners provide him with a bustling business. “On any given day, we have 17 to 28 DeLoreans in the shop,” he said. Bernstein markets his merchandise through a catalogue that he mails to 7,000 DeLorean owners. The rest of the firm’s business comes from fixing the cars at a shop Bernstein runs in Canoga Park and another shop in Houston, where Bernstein’s partner Stephen Wynne is based.

DeLorean One isn’t the only company specializing in DeLoreans. Katz said about 90 dealers offer DeLorean parts and service, including DeLorean Motor Center and DeLorean Motor Club of America in Huntington Beach, both of which were started by former DeLorean Motor employees.

The DeLorean was actually a compilation of parts made by other car companies. The DeLorean motor, for instance, was made by the French auto maker Renault, while the heating and air conditioning systems were made by a division of General Motors. Katz said he has about $23 million of DeLorean inventory left, which he estimated would last another 15 years.

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Bernstein buys many of his parts from Katz, the rest directly from the original manufacturers. Because he has developed relationships with these manufacturers, Bernstein said, “we will fill the void” when Kapac has run out of inventory.

That will come in handy if the DeLorean achieves status as a true collectible. But if DeLoreans are becoming a hot commodity, it has not shown in prices yet. The cars sell for $10,000 to $26,000, depending on the model year and condition, according to Cars of Particular Interest, a quarterly price listing of collectible cars.

Lewis McCune of Woodland Hills said he’s trying to sell his DeLorean for $19,000. McCune said when he bought the car in 1981 he thought it would be a good investment. “I’m giving up on that,” he said.

But Dave Campbell, co-owner of Harry Kaufman Motorcars in Milwaukee, which has sold 200 DeLoreans, said it is just a matter of time. “I’m 100% sure the DeLorean will be a good collectible someday,” he said, adding that rare or unusual cars usually start jumping in price when they reach the age of 15.

Maybe so, but the Bricklin, another gull-winged sports car that was built in Canada in the mid-’70s by Malcolm Bricklin, another auto industry star, has yet to become a valuable collectible. About 3,000 Bricklins were made; they now sell for about $10,000 apiece.

Nonetheless, Wynne asserted, “We’ve got years of business ahead of us.”

DeLorean One is actually a second career for Bernstein, 51, who owned four Red Carpet Realty brokerages in Los Angeles before selling out in 1983. Bernstein planned to retire and spend his days lying by his pool and polishing his DeLorean.

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But in 1985, Bernstein was driving on the freeway when his transmission went out. He called an exotic car repair shop in Canoga Park owned by Wynne and was so impressed with the service he received that the two started a repair and parts business devoted exclusively to DeLoreans. Wynne, 33, later moved to Houston, where there is a high concentration of DeLorean owners, to oversee that operation, while Bernstein oversees the DeLorean repair shop in Canoga Park.

Meanwhile, John DeLorean, 65, lives in New York and is working on what he says is a new “super-exotic, limited production, fast and expensive” car that he hopes to build in Germany. But he’s been talking about starting another sports car company for several years now.

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