Ten years ago, Justin Sookraj was among the top sales associates for the smart car brand in Canada. He was good—too good. His success on the showroom floor kept elevating him to bigger, better roles within Mercedes-Benz, until he’d been promoted to after-sales marketing at Benz’s corporate office in downtown Toronto.
But while most would be content working at a major manufacturer, Sookraj had other dreams—dreams that involved wrenching on gullwing-doored automobiles, and not ones with Benz badges, either. So he quit his secure well-paying job to start a restoration centre that works only on DeLoreans.
Sookraj’s skillset has since grown to the point he’s one of the only people in the country qualified to restore the iconic car’s stainless steel body panels and perform certain mechanical repairs. He’s now so well-respected in the DMC-12 community, to many owners, he’s pretty much DeLorean Canada.
John Z.‘s cutting-edge catastrophe
You may think you already know the DeLorean story – it has been told many times over – but it’s worth repeating. The brand was the brainchild of John Zachary DeLorean, a former General Motors engineer credited with developing the Pontiac GTO, the world’s first real muscle car.
As DeLorean climbed up the corporate ladder at GM, he was getting more and more frustrated with the cost-cutting measures taken by the American auto giant, and by the early 1970s, friction started forming between him and other GM execs—and they really must not’ve been pleased to see DeLorean invite Lee Iacocca, then president of rival Ford, to serve as best man at his second wedding.
In April of 1973, DeLorean resigned from GM to create a car company at the cutting edge of technology and quality. By the mid-‘70s, a prototype penned by famed Italian automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro was revealed—it was called the DeLorean Safety Vehicle, though it would go on to become the production DMC-12.
DeLorean decided to set up a factory in one of the most unlikely of places – Dunmurry, Northern Ireland – because he was able to convince the Northern Ireland Development Agency to fork out about $200 million in funding, telling them it’d bring employment to the region and put Dunmurry on the map.
But plenty of delays meant the cars didn’t enter production until 1981, years behind schedule. That wasn’t the only thing that didn’t go as planned. DeLorean had named the car “DMC-12” because he wanted to price the exotic sports car at just $12,000 US—by the time the finished models hit the showroom floor, the MSRP was very nearly $25,000 US.
What killed the company, though, was John DeLorean’s being accused of drug trafficking by the U.S. government. Even though he was acquitted of all charges against him, his reputation was tarnished, and DeLorean never quite recovered from it. He dreamt of making a comeback all the way up to his death in March 2005, but nothing materialized. His ashes lie in Troy, Michigan.
A burning desire
It wasn’t the politics behind the brand’s demise that earned the attention of a young Sookraj, though, or even the vehicle’s starring role in the Back to the Future movies. It was, in fact, more of a love-at-first-sight deal. Sookraj recalled the moment he first saw one at age nine at a used car lot on Queen St. in Toronto.
He begged his dad to take him to see the car up close, and when they finally did, the salesperson told him that he didn’t have the key for it, so he couldn’t look inside. When Sookraj next returned, the car was gone.
A few years later, Sookraj spotted one again at another Toronto dealer, on Dundas St. With dad in tow, they went to see the car. This car, a non-runner, was in more of a neglected state, and – because its stainless steel panels had been baking in the sun on a hot day – Sookraj burnt his hand when he touched it.
It didn’t matter. He was close to another DMC-12, and this time, he was given the keys and allowed to sit inside.
Sookraj’s dad turned the car into a excuse to get his son to exercise, prodding him to make the hour-long walk up to the dealership every couple of weeks. The salespeople were nice enough to let him poke around the vehicle, and when a second one arrived, Sookraj now had two DMC-12s to play with.
By the time Sookraj turned 17, he was aching to own a DeLorean. He had a part-time job, plus his own car detailing business, and when he found another neglected example for sale, got his mom to co-sign a loan to make his dream come true.
However, the deal was for a running car, and while it started, it had plenty of major faults. After over a week, the car still couldn’t be driven home, so Sookraj demanded his money back. The dealer gave him a refund, but also a warning to never come back.
It took another 13 years to find the right one, but he managed to do that in April 2009, just before his deadline to own one by his 30th birthday.
Photo courtesy Justin Sookraj
Buying an old car is one thing, but keeping it running is another. Sookraj was always mechanically inclined, and spent much of his youth fixing vintage Hondas. However, the DeLorean was a different kettle of fish. You’d think a car powered by an old Volvo motor would be quite reliable, but, as he learned, things can go from “easy to terrible in seconds.”
With plenty of trial and error, Sookraj really got to know the ins-and-outs of the DMC-12. A few years later, he bought another one with his dad, as a father-and-son project car, and learned even more about the cars’ nuances.
Goodbye, Benz; hello, DeLorean
Sookraj’s ever-expanding DMC-12 know-how got the attention of members of the Ontario DeLorean Owners Club (ODOC), and they soon started consulting with him regarding issues with their vehicles.
The constant stream of DeLorean-related work he started tackling sparked an idea in Sookraj’s head, and an opportunity arose where he could take over his uncle’s auto repair and sales business in Guelph, Ontario.
All that stood in the way were his duties as a service and parts marketing specialist at Mercedes-Benz Canada. Goodbye, secure job with a major auto manufacturer; hello, life spent fixing a quirky ’80s sports car.
By August of 2014, Wells Auto had been established – the name had been registered by Sookraj’s uncle back in 1999 – and by January 2015, it was recognized by ODOC members as the first and only real DeLorean-specific service shop in Canada.
Sookraj held his first DeLorean meet later that year, and 17 stainless steel cars ended up showing up—not bad, considering there are reportedly only 160 of these cars in all of Canada, and about 110 in Ontario.
Photo courtesy Justin Sookraj
Things have been going rather well for Sookraj since he lit the ‘OPEN’ sign at his Guelph location, so much so that in May of 2016, he opened up his second location, in Milton, Ontario. Keeping DeLoreans running is a thriving business, apparently—he even has a few for sale. Plus Sookraj is recognized as one of the few people in the country qualified to work on the car’s stainless steel body panels. ODOC members basically think of him as DeLorean Canada.
Driving a time machine
So, the oddball stainless-steel dream car of John DeLorean still has quite a following, but are the cars worthy of such admiration? The only way to find out is to take one for a test drive.
I got to steer Sookraj’s pristine 1982 example around, a car that according to him is period-perfect in the way it looks and performs, a veritable time machine to the early ’80s (pun intended).
If you’ve driven classic cars before, you’ll appreciate the DeLorean; but if you’re only used to modern cars, you’re not going to like it. The DMC-12 is a physically demanding vehicle to drive—the steering is not power-assisted and is hence very heavy. Remarkably, the clutch is even heavier, and it lacks any real feel.
The gearbox – a Renault unit – has very long throws and needs to be guided and seated properly, while the power from its Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) 2.85-litre V6 is not abundant – you at best get 130 hp and about 160 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels.
Photo courtesy Justin Sookraj
The DMC-12 is not an adrenaline rush, but if you look at it as more of a cruiser, it makes a lot more sense. At speed, the ride comfort is excellent, while stability and road-holding is quite good; since its chassis was designed by Lotus, this comes as no surprise.
Living the dream
But DeLorean’s dream car, it seems, didn’t quite live up to many people’s expectations, and thanks to production delays and the drug bust, it and the company died before it could be further honed and developed.
If the DeLorean Motor Company had survived, Sookraj believes it would have traced a path similar to Tesla Motors’ today—both companies built a sports car engineered with the help of Lotus, and both have taken risks with unconventional technologies. The only difference is, Tesla’s still taking risks while DeLorean’s not.
The DeLorean story, however, refuses to die. Stephen Wynne, a British entrepreneur based out of Humble, Texas, bought the rights to the DeLorean Motor Company name and its DMC logo in 1995, as well as all the remaining parts inventory from the original company. His operation is involved, too, in the reproduction of old parts, to keep as many of the 8,583 vehicles originally produced still on the road.
Then there’s the possibility Wynne might even add to that total number, as he keeps promising to put the DMC-12 back in production. He plans to charge $100,000 US for each revised-and-improved brand-new example.
Up here in Canada, Sookraj is always on the hunt for DMC-12s in any shape or form, so he can either restore the car to its former glory, or use it for parts, so other cars can live. With his shop booked up months in advance, it seems like there is no shortage of people who wish to – as DeLorean’s marketing once put it – buy a DMC-12 of their own and “Live The Dream.”