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Mobility A repair shop that specializes in the DeLorean: ‘We left logic behind a long time ago’

Justin Sookraj shows off a DeLorean in front of Wells Auto, his restoration shop in Milton, Ont.

Neil Vorano/The Globe and Mail

A dusty industrial complex just north of Milton, Ont., is the kind of place where you’d expect to find tires for your car or get some accident repair done. It’s not a place where you’d expect to relive a time when shoulder pads, tape cassettes and pastel colours were all the rage.

But going back in time, as it turns out, is a big part of the story. Pulling open the door to restoration and repair shop Wells Auto reveals why. There, sitting in a tiny showroom, sits a low, sleek and gleaming DeLorean, the short-lived sports car from the early 1980s.

“I saw my first one when I was nine years old in Toronto at a used car dealership,” says Justin Sookraj, owner of Wells Auto. The shop is a small operation, dedicated to the restoration and sales of these classic sports cars with only Sookraj and a helper, and certified technicians coming when needed.

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“My dad and I were driving by and I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and I just screamed ‘stop the car, stop the car! That’s a DeLorean!’" he says. “I still have a photo of me beside it. The dealership wouldn’t let me sit inside, but just to see it made me know I had to have one.”

After a failed attempt at buying and restoring one at the age of 17, Sookraj says he finally bought a decent DeLorean in 2009, a 1982 model. He learned how to fix the decades-old, finicky sports car, and soon members of the local DeLorean car club were clamouring for him to work on their own vehicles.

Sookraj opened his garage dedicated to the cult classic in 2016.

Neil Vorano/The Globe and Mail

But it wasn’t until 2014, when he left a corporate job working for Mercedes-Benz and bought his uncle’s used car sales and repair shop in Guelph, that things started to get serious. By 2016, he was opening up his second location in Milton dedicated solely to the gull-winged classics.

“This is the most eighties thing ever,” Sookraj says. “It really embodies all of it, and the story can never happen again.”

The story of the DeLorean is both short and controversial. A former General Motors executive and international playboy, John DeLorean, envisaged building his own car company. Engineered by Colin Chapman of Lotus, designed by the famed Italian stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro and powered by a V-6 from Peugeot-Renault-Volvo, the DeLorean was heralded for its sleek stainless-steel body and gull-wing doors, but critics were disappointed with its lackluster 130 horsepower and high price, which ranged from about US$25,000 to US$35,000 – more than US$70,000 in today’s prices.

The original vehicle's 130-horsepower engine disappointed critics who appreciated its sleek body and gull-wing doors.

Neil Vorano/The Globe and Mail

Built in Northern Ireland, the car made its debut in 1981, but production lasted only until 1982. John DeLorean was indicted on drug trafficking charges in 1982, and although he was exonerated, the company went bankrupt.

DeLorean became just another failed car company – until the car was featured in the 1985 film Back To The Future as a stylish time machine, which, along with two other sequels, cemented its 1980s cult status.

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It’s no surprise then that behind a showroom curtain at Wells Auto lies an exact replica of the film car, complete with a flux capacitor, Mr. Fusion and those famous exhausts.

A replica of the Back to the Future DeLorean sits behind a curtain at Wells Auto.

Neil Vorano/The Globe and Mail

But there’s certainly more going on here than just storage. In addition to the two other cars in this bay, six others sit in a bay next door, many of which are in various stages of repair.

“Spring is always a crunch time, because everyone wants to be on the road, so it’s really quite stressful,” Sookraj says. “I’ve been here 14 hours a day the last week. I really wish I brought a futon back here.”

In addition to fixing DeLoreans, Wells Auto also doubles as a dealership, selling about five a year on average. But don’t expect to be able to drop by and pick one up the same day.

“We don’t fully complete the cars until there’s a deposit on it,” he explains, which stops customers from asking for additional upgrades after the fact.

“That’s happened, like, three times, so I thought, ‘that’s enough,'" Sookraj says. “If someone is serious about ownership – and we make sure they are – they must understand that it’s not perfect and it will be brought up to their specs somewhat bespoke. If they’re not happy with that, then they won’t be happy with what life will be like with an almost 40-year-old car, period.”

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Given the limited number of DeLoreans still in Canada, Sookraj admits the business is 'more of a passion thing.'

Justin Sookraj/The Globe and Mail

Still, Sookraj has created plenty of devoted customers. After all, not many people out there know the engines were also used in certain Volvo and Renault cars, and that Renault and Lotus also used the transmission parts.

He knows that the left-side front quarter panels are the rarest to find, because of a story that the factory did a double run of right-side panels instead of both sides before it closed.

And he knows one of the most troublesome parts of the car is the frame, which tends to rot out – hence the two piles of frames he’s bought over the years, which he calls Frameosaurus 1 and 2, and which are then restored to better than original to make sure they last.

“It’s a finicky little machine, and always will be," he says. "And we do our best to keep up with the finickyness, but don’t forget, it keeps getting older.”

Last year, he played host to Chris Nicholson, a metalworker from Britain famous for travelling the world hand-beating stainless steel body panels for DeLoreans. But while he keeps busy here, there are only so many DeLoreans in Canada that need servicing, and Sookraj doesn’t envisage expanding drastically any time soon. And he’s fine with that.

“We left logic behind a long time ago. It’s more of a passion thing; we do enough to get by, and ensure the cars will live on.”

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But then he shakes his head. “If someone told me all the DeLoreans in Canada were fixed and we’d have to start fixing brakes on Hyundais, I’d probably go back to the office.”

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