Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Ford Crown Victoria (1991) and DMC DeLorean (1981)

Two unlikely stars of the silver (and small) screen, the Ford Crown Victoria and DMC DeLorean were launched a decade apart… and although they are very different cars, they are familiar to audiences the world over.

Let’s start with the most unlikely one – the Ford Crown Victoria. The first model of this car rolled off the production line in Canada in January 1991. A big and fairly bland-looking thing (the Americans call it a “full-sized sedan”) it had rear wheel drive and a 4.6 litre V8 engine – although this only ever produced a maximum of 250 horsepower on production cars.

Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor
Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor

But it was as a police car that the Crown Victoria found its fame. Massively popular with law enforcement throughout North America and also sold in the Middle East and Russia, the “Crown Vic” was durable, had lots of space, a decent amount of power and the street presence that a police car needs to be taken seriously.

Success in law enforcement was reflected in films and TV. The cops would drive a Crown Vic. Undercover FBI agents would hang around in an unmarked government plate Crown Vic. Whether it had police markings or not, the car ended up as something of an icon. And on the rare occasions it isn’t the law, the Crown Vic is also a popular choice for taxi drivers.

With some minor changes the Crown Vic stayed in production for 20 years, and despite being badly obsolete by 2011 it seems that police forces were reluctant to move on. Today, most of the Crown Vics on sale in the US are ex-police interceptors, many of which retain police colour schemes and are typically priced at $12,000 or less. Occasionally they are available in the UK and other countries having been personally imported. If ever you feel like remaking the Blues Brothers, then this car is probably for you.

The Crown Vic was a car aimed at the US market, but built in Canada. A decade earlier a very different car was aimed at the US market, but this time built in Northern Ireland. The DMC DeLorean (also called the DMC-12) was a two-seater sports car made famous by the DeLorean Time Machine in the Back to the Future Trilogy. But their relative paths to fame were very different.

Where the Crown Vic was a highly successful car in its niche, the DeLorean was frankly a disaster. Launched in 1981, it was only in production for just less than two years. A troubled development history compared with woeful quality control issues killed the company after only 9000 were built.

The history of the DeLorean is complicated and fascinating. The brainchild of ex-GM boss John Z DeLorean, the car was originally envisaged as a showcase for safety features using several highly advanced production techniques that had not been used before. These blue sky ideas were continually pared back as development proceeded.

Ultimately, what was delivered to customers had potential.  The overall design of the car was penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign who – frankly – has designed some of the best-looking cars ever produced. The DeLorean had a clean, sleek design in bare stainless steel with gull-wing doors that gave the car plenty of “wow” factor. The tidy design continued inside, in an era when car interiors could be a thrown-together mess.

Early and late model DMC DeLoreans
Early and late model DMC DeLoreans



Added to the genius of Giugiaro was the work of legendary Lotus founder, Colin Chapman. Chapman was brought in quite late to the project to re-engineer the car in a way that it could actually be built. Chapman’s design borrowed heavily from Lotus. Things were looking promising with these two names on board.

A sticking point was the engine – originally designed to be a Ford V6, DeLorean then looked to use a complete drivetrain from Citro├źn before settling on the V6 offering from Peugeot-Renault-Volvo, placed in the back rather than the mid-engined arrangement planned. Although this 2.85L V6 was a solid enough engine it only gave a moderate 130 horsepower, and the shift to the back of the car impacted the handling and overall stance.

Despite having big names on board, the production of the DeLorean was plagued with problems. The British government forked out a staggering £77 million to help build a car factory in Northern Ireland. Now, although Northern Ireland has a rich engineering history, especially in shipbuilding and aircraft, it basically had none at all when it came to cars. So, everything needed to be built from scratch, and employees needed comprehensive training. Predictably, this led to severe problems with build quality – and cars leaving the factory often required extensive remediation work to make them saleable.

Faults were numerous, resulting in many recalls, and the goodwill that customers had soon evaporated. And even if everything worked properly, the unpainted stainless steel panels were incredibly difficult to repair if they suffered damage – you couldn’t simply fill and paint – and the car was underpowered compared with rivals such as the Lotus Esprit.

Sales were weak and unsold cars began piling up. Just a year into production, DMC were in serious financial trouble. Financial restructuring, incentives and improvements in quality didn’t help. In October 1982 things took a weird turn when John DeLorean was arrested trying to traffic cocaine in order to generate money to prop up the company. DeLorean was later acquitted though, as details of the FBI’s sting operation undermined the prosecutor’s case.

By the end of 1982 it was all over, except for a large number of unsold and heavily discounted vehicles. Several of these ended up with Universal Studios where they were converted for filming the Back to the Future trilogy. By the time the film came out in 1985, the DeLorean was something of a joke. The movie trilogy transformed it into a cult car – and over the years many replica DeLorean time machines have been built on top of the original cars.

Today, prices for a DMC DeLorean range between £30,000 to £50,000. But it’s not an easy car to live with, but I suppose if you find it too troublesome you could always take it back to the time before you bought it..

..and for the record, the Internet Movie Cars Database has nearly 10,000 references for the Crown Vic and 165 for the DMC Delorean. Make up your own mind about which is the biggest star.

Image credits:
Krokodyl via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0
IChurakv via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0

Monday, 11 January 2021

Commodore VIC-20 (1981)

Launched January 1981

Microcomputers had been on a rollercoaster ride since the launch of the holy trinity of the Commodore PET, Apple II and Tandy TRS-80 in 1977. These early computers were expensive and limited in capabilities, so take-up was somewhat limited – especially in the home. But if there was one machine that finally brought the micro into living rooms and bedrooms all over the world, it was probably the Commodore VIC-20.

Commodore VIC-20



Selling more than a million units in its first year of production, the VIC-20 was based on the familiar (and Commodore-owned) MOS Technology 6502 CPU combined with a graphics-and-sound chip called the VIC which MOS had designed but had yet to find a market for.

Graphics were a fairly blocky 176 x 184 pixels in a maximum of 16 colours, with a fairly ungainly text resolution of 22 x 23 characters (at a time when business computers would have up to 80 columns)
Sound was a slightly more impressive three channels plus a noise generator. A tiny 5Kb of RAM left just 3.5Kb for BASIC applications, but it could be expanded to 32Kb.

BASIC itself was a cut-down version of the one in the PET – a smaller codebase was needed because of the limited ROM and RAM in the VIC-20. Unfortunately this meant that the VIC-20 lacked any commands to control graphics or sound in BASIC which had to be done through a series of POKES and PEEKS. The later VIC Super Expander cartridge helped, but BASIC programs written using it could only be used by people owning the expander cartridge.

Everything was packaged in an attractive and durable single box costing a shade less than $300 which would need to be connected to a domestic TV set (via an external modulator) or composite video monitor… which wasn’t included in the price. Nor included was the almost-essential “datasette” cassette drive needed for storage, but even taking all this into consideration the price was a steal compared to the previous generation of computers. And in a bare-minimum configuration you could use the family TV and a software cartridge plugged into the back.

It was an expandable system – floppy disks and joysticks being a common option, but the built-in serial port and CBM-488 bus allowed a variety of other add-ons including the sub-$100 VICMODEM which sold over a million units.

VIC-20 plus peripherals


About a year-and-a-half later, the VIC-20’s successor was launched – the Commodore 64. Almost identical in exterior design, the C64 was a much more complex and expensive beast. The VIC continued to be sold alongside the C64, by the time it was discontinued in January 1985 (four years after launch) it was priced at less than $100.

The VIC-20 cemented Commodore as one of the key players in the early 80s microcomputer market, but of course that position wouldn’t last. Today a Commodore VIC-20 in very good condition can sell for up to £400, the VIC-compatible floppy disk units are much in demand and can also sell for hundreds of pounds. Alternatively, the Linux-based THEC64 includes a VIC-20 emulation mode in convincing replica hardware for much less.

Image credits:
Science Museum Group - CC BY 4.0
Marcin Wichary / MagentaGreen via Wikimedia Commons -  CC-BY-2.0