Great Scott! How a DeLorean with 977 miles was found in a Wisconsin barn

What seemed like a scene out of “Back to the Future” recently became a reality in Wisconsin

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Two men went on a mission to retrieve a DeLorean from a remote location where the car had been left preserved and unused for decades.

No, not Marty McFly and Doc Brown -- although there are many parallels to the scene in “Back to the Future III” where the two remove the time machine from a cave in hopes of restoring it to full working condition.

“This does remind you of that scene,” said Michael McElhattan, who recently unearthed a dirt-and-dust covered 1981 DeLorean with just 977 miles on it from the darkened corner of a Wisconsin barn where it had long sat.

This car doesn’t run on plutonium, it doesn’t have a flux capacitor, it doesn’t travel to various decades. But it most certainly took McElhattan back in time.

“The car is just as it was in 1981,” he said. “Nothing has been updated or changed, it’s an extremely original example. It was an absolute time capsule.”

The Delorean removed from a barn in Wisconsin had all original parts and just 977 miles on the odometer. Credit: Michael McElhattan

‘It changed the trajectory of my life’

The phone rang on the afternoon of September 27 at DeLorean Midwest – a shop owned by McElhattan in Crystal Lake, Illinois that specializes entirely in the repair and restoration of DeLoreans.

McElhattan had first began working at the shop when it opened in 2007 after applying for a job listing he saw in the newspaper that was seeking a DeLorean technician. McElhattan, who had shop experience and an associate’s degree in automotive technology, had gained a familiarity with the DeLorean a decade earlier after his parents were convinced to buy one for his brother while the family attended an auction.  

McElhattan got the job and went on to spend nine years as the shop’s lead technician. He was then promoted to shop manager and in 2016 became the business’ owner with his wife Suzanne. He estimates that around 1,250 DeLoreans have been serviced at his shop in the 17 years he’s been there, including a dozen or so time machines.

“Looking back, the only reason my brother owned that car was to put me where I’m at,” said the 46-year-old McElhattan. “He loved the car, but he did very little with it, drove it I’m guessing under 1,000 miles in the 15-plus years he owned it.

“Had he not purchased that car, I probably never would have replied to that ad in the newspaper. My connection to a DeLorean and being familiar with the car was the reason I had enough confidence to even respond to that ad. It changed the trajectory of my life.”

It was his destiny. Or as George McFly would say, his “density.”

Now let’s go back to the future to answer that September phone call at his shop.  

It was from a DeLorean owner in Albuquerque, New Mexico who was looking to sell his car. For McElhattan, who was surrounded by about 30 of his customer’s DeLoreans in his shop, the thought of traveling to see the car or purchasing it sight unseen and trailering it 1,300 miles seemed an unwarranted logistical challenge.

“Then he said the car is at his uncle’s barn in Dousman, Wisconsin,” McElhattan said, referring to a town just over 60 miles north of his shop. “And he mentioned it only had 977 miles.”

Great Scott!

Only about 9,000 DeLoreans were produced between 1981 and 1982 amid eager anticipation for its debut, making the car itself a rare classic. Finding one that’s been driven fewer than 1,000 miles? Almost nonexistent.

“When he mentioned the mileage,” McElhattan said, “I was pretty motivated to go take a look at it.”

‘The barn find of all barn finds’

McElhattan and one of his technicians, Kevin Thomas, went to see the car the following week, becoming a modern-day 1885-version of Doc and Marty. They even documented it, not with photographs like Marty, but on their YouTube channel DeLorean Nation.

The DeLorean – for years, if not decades – had been inside a barn on a secluded 60-acre residential property, as if waiting to be discovered by time travelers...or car enthusiasts hoping to restore an original to its 1980s showroom glory.

Surrounded by a lawnmower, an ATV and a Dodge pick-up truck, the DeLorean was nestled in the corner of the barn, covered in dust and debris. All four of the car’s tires were flat, its rims sunken into the gravel.

The tires were dry-rotted and cracked but had no treadwear, and the stamping on the Goodyear NCTs proved they were factory originals.  

“These are the tires that went around the test track in Ireland where they were built,” McElhattan said.

The muffler had minimal browning, the body had no sun damage, the front bumper, which typically warps slightly by the headlights when driven regularly, was perfectly flat. The original parts and cosmetic details helped confirm that the car traveled no more than the 977 miles listed on its odometer.  

“This was the barn find of barn finds,” said Thomas, a Wisconsin resident who owns two DeLoreans, one of which he built into a replica time machine. “People are always looking for barn finds like these, and you hardly ever actually find one. This was the quintessential barn find that any classic car enthusiast dreams of.”

Except for the mice living inside the car.

‘We can make an excellent car out of it’

When McElhattan and Thomas opened the DeLorean’s gullwing door, they noticed its original interior was fully intact but covered in mouse droppings, the rancid smell of which overpowered any musty odor a long-unused car might produce.     

“We opened the door and the first thing I saw was a mouse running across the center console,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! What is going on in here?’ We’ve never come across a car that had living rodents in it. There were mice crawling all over it.”

But they were crawling on what was a very structurally sound and entirely original DeLorean in need of professional detailing and McElhattan’s shop’s expert restoration.

“We can make an excellent car out of it,” McElhattan said.

So, he negotiated a price on site, received the title to the car and began the process of removing it from the barn.

“We had to unearth the thing,” McElhattan said.

Like Doc and Marty, they had keys to the DeLorean, but that were of no use for a car that would not start.

Michael McElhattan (right) and Kevin Thomas (left) pose with the DeLorean they removed from a Wisconsin barn. Credit: Michael McElhattan

McElhattan and Thomas used a portable air compressor to fill the tires. After two failed attempts using the ATV to tow it, they used the Dodge pick-up truck to remove the DeLorean from the barn, the sun reflecting off its stainless-steel body for the first time in years.    

They then placed the car onto an open trailer, just like Doc and Marty after they removed the DeLorean from the cave where Doc said it had been for 70 years, two months and 13 days.

“Obviously this one hadn’t been there quite that long, but it sure looked like it had been,” Thomas said. “It was definitely reminiscent of that. As a fan of ‘Back to the Future,’ you look at the car and see it sitting there, your mind just automatically goes straight into that scene.”

‘Connecting with your past’

If the Barn DeLorean was a customer’s car, getting it back on the road would be a roughly six-month project for McElhattan. Being that it’s his own car, he expects it will take a year.  

“It’s a bit of a case of the shoemaker’s children go without shoes because with 30 cars in the shop, the customer cars come first,” he said. “But we do have a plan for this car.”

The first part of that plan has already been completed by letting it air out and ensuring that all mice have vacated.

“The mice are gone now and they’re not using this poor car as their toilet anymore,” McElhattan said. “The eviction has been done.”

Next is making sure the engine has not seized. The plugs will be pulled, the cylinders will be lubricated, the battery will be replaced and the engine will  - probably, hopefully - run for the first time in a long time.

“I’ve done enough of these that there’s a good chance of it coming back to life,” McElhattan said.

Then comes a thorough wash at a professional detailing facility, with the entire interior being taken apart to be cleaned and, if the odor is fully eliminated, reinstalled. Finally comes whatever mechanical repairs are needed to get the car up and running.  

“I’m going to, of course, try to keep this car as original as possible,” McElhattan said.  

With the story of the DeLorean Barn Find having gone viral and garnered public interest, McElhattan and Thomas plan to document each step of the car’s restoration on YouTube so viewers can travel back to 1981 with them.

“That’s what old cars are about for everyone, they bring you back to a certain time,” McElhattan said. “It’s so much about connecting with your past.”

And your future.  

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