Remember that maverick auto executive that tried to start his own car company back in the 1970s? You know, the one that got all that government money to locate his plant in an area with high unemployment, and he was going to build this really radical looking sports car with gullwing doors, one that would never rust, but they only made a few thousand before it all went bust. Know which one I'm talking about?
No, not John Z. DeLorean--I'm talking about the other maverick auto executive and the other gullwing sports car that (mostly) never rusts.
The Bricklin and the De Lorean have a lot of parallels, and it's not just the gullwing doors. If you're familiar with the story of the De Lorean, you'll be having déjà vu moments all through the rest of this post. As far as I can tell, John DeLorean and Malcolm Bricklin only met once and never did business together, and most of the parallels are just eerie coincidences--though it's often speculated (and could easily be true) that the Bricklin's signature gullwing doors influenced John Z. to include them on his eponymous car.
While John Z. DeLorean first made his mark as a (somewhat nonconformist) Detroit insider, Malcolm Bricklin has always been an industry outsider. He got his start, and made his first fortune in the hardware business before trying his hand at motor vehicles in 1965, when he started importing Subarus.
No one could say that Mr. Bricklin hasn't kept himself busy since then, albiet with mixed success. He introduced the Yugo to North America, and imported the "Bertone" X1/9 after FIAT abandoned the American market. More recently, he started up a joint venture to import cars built by Chery in Wuhu, China to the U.S. market, but the deal collapsed and ended in litigation. (He's not the only person to have gotten into a joint venture deal with Chery that didn't quite come off.) Mr. Bricklin is still in the game at age 72 (as of this writing); his latest project is a start-up company that hopes to build a luxury plug-in hybrid.
The Bricklin car which is today's topic came about in the early 1970s. The musclecar era was drawing to a close, done in by first-generation smog controls which took the muscle out of the musclecar's V-8 engines, a simultaneous explosion in safety regulations that mandated heavier construction, the 1973 oil price shock, and skyrocketing insurance rates that added even more to the cost of high-performance car ownership. At a time when so many were resigned to a bleak future of gutless wonders with double-digit 0-60 times, Malcolm Bricklin envisioned a high-technology sports car--the SV-1, with the "SV" standing for "Safety Vehicle"--that would be engineered to exceed safety standards, but would also have performance worthy of the "sports car" category and would be easily maintainable by the average owner.
The car that resulted was an intriuging combination of "thinking outside the box" and "straight out of the parts bin." The styling, by designer Herb Grasse, was appropriately racy, with a strong Car of the Future vibe. From some angles, the louvers and character lines on the hood seem a little too busy, but it's still quite attractive.
The outside of the car was made of an entirely new composite material: an acrylic plastic bonded to a layer of fiberglass. You could wallop a Bricklin's outer body panels with a sledgehammer without denting them, and small scratches could be easily polished out. The acrylic/fiberglass material would never rust, of course, which was no small consideration in the 1970s.
The acrylic contained the pigment that gave the car its color, so no painting was necessary. The lower body panels on all Bricklins were black, while the upper body came in one of five "Safety" colors: Safety Red, Safety Green, Safety White, Safety Orange, and Safety Suntan. Those first four were typical mid-1970s "notice me!" shades. (The green in particular is more than a little garish by today's standards.) The fifth option, Safety Suntan, was an inoffensive beige that lacked the "pop" of the other color choices, and would look completely appropriate on a '96 Camry. I guess they called it "Suntan" because calling it "Safety Beige" would only have compounded the absurdity.
Under the acrylic/fiberglass panels, the car had a steel inner structure, sort of a cross between a unibody and a spaceframe, with integrated energy-absorbing 12 MPH bumpers and what amounted to a roll cage around the passenger compartment. This sturdy construction was touted as a safety feature, and it actually lived up to the hype--the Bricklin did an excellent job of protecting its occupants in a collision. According to one first-person account by a Bricklin employee:
. . . We had an incident in our own yard one day. I think it was in the late spring or summer of 1975. Cars were being loaded on one of the auto-carriers when the driver made a mistake. The first vehicle, on the upper level, sits over the cab of the truck. Well, that's where it is supposed to go! He drove it off the end and it took a nose-dive to the ground. Fortunately the driver wasn't hurt, embarrassed YES, afraid he would lose his job YES, but hurt .... NO!
Everyone went outside to see this. Rather than being upset, the engineers and senior management were pleased, no, happy with what they saw. Many pictures were taken. The car was barely damaged! It was thoroughly examined for the next several weeks by the engineers before they released it. I think the hood and bumper assembly were the only items replaced.
The"safety" theme continued inside the passenger compartment. There was no ashtray and no cigarette lighter because, as Mr. Bricklin explained, smoking is bad for you, and smoking in the car is even more unsafe.
The gullwing doors were also described as a safety feature because they didn't stick out in traffic when you parallel parked your Bricklin, but as with the DeLorean, they were mainly there to look cool. Malcolm Bricklin must've been a fan of the British TV series UFO, because the Bricklin's doors, like those of the fictional "Strakermobile," were power-operated, as demonstrated in this short video:
The drivetrain powering all this futuristicness was absolutely dead conventional. For the 1974 model year, it was an AMC "gen 3" 360 cubic inch V-8, mated to either a 3-speed automatic (a Chrysler TorqueFlite) or a four-on-the-floor manual, and a limited slip differential bringing up the rear; essentially, one of the more aggressive drivetrain options then available on a Hornet or Gremlin. After AMC advised Bricklin that it would be unable to supply engines for the 1975 model year, the Bricklin's powertrain switched to a Ford 351 Windsor V-8 and a Ford automatic transmission.
The suspension was straight off the Hornet as well: control arms and coil springs forward, a "Hotchkiss drive" solid axle with leaf springs aft. There's enough commonality with AMC's 1970s compacts that the Bricklin International Owners Club advises its members that if a Bricklin's shock towers rust out, they can be replaced with corresponding parts from a junked Hornet, Concord, or Gremlin.
Malcolm Bricklin himself lived in Arizona, and that's where his company, General Vehicles, had its executive offices and design studio, but the car was actually built in New Brunswick by a wholly-owned Canadian subsidiary, Bricklin Canada Ltd. New Brunswick, and the Canadian Maritime provinces in general, are less wealthy and less urbanized than the rest of the country. Their economies are mainly dependent on "resource extraction" (fishing, lumbering, mining) and agriculture, with very little manufacturing other than paper mills. (Service industries such as banking and insurance are a growing presence today, but that wasn't true in 1974.) Though New Brusnwick is clearly not the first place you'd think of as a logical site for an auto plant, Bricklin decided to locate there after the provincial government agreed to kick in a considerable sum of subsidy money and provide other assistance. In the mid-'70s, New Brunswick's unemployment rate was pushing 25%, and Premier Richard Hatfield (his position is the equivalent of a state governor south of the border) touted the Bricklin venture as a way of establishing a manufacturing base that could provide steady, high paying jobs. He even went so far as to drive a Safety Orange Bricklin during the 1974 campaign, which is now known in Canadian political lore as "The Bricklin Election."
The main assembly plant was located in the former T.S. Simms facility in Saint John, which the provincial government bought for Bricklin's use, while a satellite facility in Minto, 100 miles to the north, made the body panels. Except for a few production engineers with previous industry experience, none of Bricklin Canada's employees had ever worked in an auto plant before; most had never worked in manufacturing before, and for quite a few it was their first paying job, period. Some did not adapt well to the demands of an industrial job, but most did, and what they lacked in experience and acculturation they made up for in enthusiasm. In the summer of 1974, Bricklin SV-1s started coming off the assembly line.
Malcolm Bricklin promoted his new ride with a lavish party in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City on June 25, 1974, another one in Las Vegas, and product placements on game shows such as in the video above. The car got mostly positive reviews from the buff books. In Car & Driver's comparison test, a '75 Bricklin with the Ford engine proved to be nearly a match for a '75 Corvette in every performance category--and the Bricklin's power-operated gullwing doors maxed out the all-important "coefficient of cool" metric. Admittedly, the mid-70s C3 was something of a low point in Corvette history, but still, the Bricklin was not doing too badly for a rookie. C/D concluded that despite some build quality and ergonomic deficiencies, and a price disadvantage, the Bricklin was "a tangible threat to the Corvette."
Barely a year later, on September 25, 1975, after burning through all the venture capital and 14 million of New Brunswick's tax dollars, and after a desparate plea for another $10 million in subsidies was denied, Bricklin Canada declared bankruptcy and shut down production. The entire enterprise collapsed and Malcolm Bricklin himself soon filed a personal bankruptcy petition. The last cars, and the stock of unused parts, were disposed of by a Columbus, Ohio liquidator--the same liquidator that would also dispose of the last leftover DeLoreans seven years later.
Where did it all go wrong? Much like the contemporary Chevy Vega, the Bricklin project was a perfect storm of multiple mistakes and miscalculations. The biggest single problem, and arguably the cause of most of the others, was Malcolm Bricklin himself. He was, and always has been, a salesman and a bit of a showman rather than a manager or administrator. Mr. Bricklin lived a very flashy, jet-set lifestyle, all on the company (and provincial) dime. Some of that spending was justifiable as advertising and promotional expense, but nowhere close to all of it.
He also staffed the upper echelons of his organization with family members--his parents, wife, and brother-in-law--and close friends. They were placed in key positions because of their personal relationship with Malcolm Bricklin, and not because they necessarily had any relevant talent or skills. They drew salaries which were, to say the least, a little above the going market rate, and had generous expense accounts.
While the people at the top were living the high life and racking up the overhead expenses, things were far different down at the sharp end of the enterprise. Whether through misbehavior or simple mismanagement, Bricklin Canada was chronically short of cash, and quickly became what your accounts receivable clerk refers to as "a slow pay." After being stiffed or shorted a few times, vendors would either start demanding payment up front or stop dealing with Bricklin entirely, while Bricklin had to cut back on its purchasing. This forced the company to acquire components in smaller lots (that is, not ordering enough to get quantity discounts), and often on short lead times. Bricklin Canada employees tell stories of having to go to the Saint John airport at o-dark-thirty to pick up mission-critical parts that had been ordered at the last possible moment and shipped in by (very expensive) air freight so the plant could open that day. This did not do the company's cash flow any favors.
The dodgy supply chain also forced the engineering staff to rework the detail design of the car numerous times to accomodate differences in components made by different vendors. This led to a few design peculiarities: for instance, there are torque link rod brackets on the Bricklin's rear suspension even though the torque link rod itself was deleted from the design. It also led to the '74s being fitted with an undersized radiator--because that was the only radiator they could get, apparently--causing overheating problems and a tendency toward engine-bay fires.
The car's two signature features, the powered gullwings and the acrylic-fiberglass body panels, became two of its biggest headaches. The doors were operated by a hydraulic system driven by an electric motor. The system was prone to breakdowns, and had a major built-in flaw. If you tried to open one door while simultaneously closing the other--there was no interlock system to prevent it--you'd burn the motor out. Even when it was working right, the door mechanism drew a lot of power. If you simply opened and closed the Bricklin's doors more than a few times, without starting it up, you'd soon have a dead battery. At that point, you either lifted the 100-pound doors by hand or, if you couldn't get the hydraulically-driven door latch to disengage, had to climb in through the hatch in order to jump-start the car.
The body panels were a more noble failure. The basic idea of composite panels over a steel substructure was a good one, but the trick of bonding acrylics to fiberglass was a little beyond what materials science
could do in 1974. It was nearly impossible to get a consistent product, and as many as half of the body components produced in Minto were unusable. Once on the car, some panels quickly delaminated or developed a "curl" at the edges which made them look like they weren't securely fastened--but others still look as good today as they day they left New Brunswick.
While the high failure rate in the body shop was mostly the fault of the material the panels were being made of, the relative inexperience of the Bricklin workforce probably didn't help. The early cars had a lot of build-quality issues, and racked up significant warranty costs. While the line workers improved quickly, the cars that went to the early adopters gave many potential buyers a bad first impression.
Between the messed-up procurement system, the greenhorn work force, the unreliable process for making body panels, and the high overhead resulting from Bricklin family nepotism, the accountants who looked at the books after the bankruptcy figured that it cost Bricklin $16,000 to make each car. That car sold to the dealer for about $5,000, less than a third of what they were spending to build it. This is why, if you look up the word "unsustainable" in the dictionary, there's a picture of a Bricklin illustrating the definition.
Even if Malcolm Bricklin had taken a vow of poverty, and the outer body panels had been made of more practical materials, and the door mechanism had worked better, and the supply chain had been managed correctly, and the cars had been assembled by katana-wielding samurai autoworkers with the same fanatical devotion to build quality normally bestowed on Honda Accords, the Bricklin would still have been an underdog. In terms of raw performance, it was almost as good as a Corvette, but it was saddled with a sticker price 17% higher than the 'Vette. Bricklin could never match GM's economies of scale and compete on price, so it would have to offer more car than the Corvette. The Bricklin had the nifty trick doors, it's true, but that's a pretty steep premium to be paying just for gullwings, even reliable gullwings.
Unfortunately, the Bricklin's underlying mechanical systems were considerably less sophisticated than the Chevy's. In terms of drivetrain and suspension design, the Bricklin was little more than a Hornet X with plausible deniability. It would have taken considerably more money than Bricklin had available, even with the Province of New Brunswick writing additional subsidy checks in politically unlikely amounts, to re-engineer the car with a fully independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, or a powertrain with either more oomph or better gas mileage. Even if it caught up with the Corvette technologically, the Bricklin, like the Corvette, would have still been at an increasing disadvantage compared to imports such as Nissan's rapidly evolving Z-cars. Attracting the investment capital to meet those competitive threats would have been even more daunting. While Malcolm Bricklin had dreams of selling 50,000 cars a year by 1976, the market for two seat cars is only so big.
The generally accepted production total for the Bricklin SV-1 is 2,854. That figure includes cars that were still on the assembly line when Bricklin Canada filed bankruptcy; these were finished up by the liquidator and sold as 1976 models. It's believed that still more Bricklins may have been assembled from leftover parts, which would make the total built more like 3,000, if not more.
In 1976, Bricklin production engineer Terry Tanner and other Bricklin owners formed the Bricklin International Owners Club. The BIOC today has 570 active members with cars on the road and in restoration, and the club estimates that about 1,500 "Bricks" survive. 1974 Bricklins are considered "honorary AMCs" by the American Motors Owners Association and welcomed at AMOA meets; Ford owners' clubs have extended similar courtesys to Windsor-powered 1975s and '76s.
Shortly after the plant shut down, Mr. Tanner developed a pneumatic power door system to replace the unreliable hydraulics, and any Bricklin you may see on the road has probably been given an "air door" conversion. Most surviving Bricklins have also been retrofitted with larger radiators, and had their other minor mechanical peculiarities addressed. (The BIOC website's tech section explains it all.) The drivetrains are, of course, made up of stock Ford or AMC components for which parts are not hard to get. As low-production oddball collector cars go, a properly-restored Bricklin is a relatively user-friendly proposition.
The "Brick" also has a place in Canadian culture completely out of proportion to the number of cars produced. As one Canadian said in a blog comment thread discussing that Let's Make a Deal clip I embedded above:
"Oh, we know all about the Bricklin up here. In Canadian schools, we’re raised on a steady diet of home-grown 'noble failure' stories. (Avro Arrow, anyone?)"
There's much more to that Bricklin fascination than schoolbooks. Canada Post issued a 45¢ Bricklin commemorative stamp in 1996, and the Royal Canadian Mint issued a $20 Bricklin coin in 2003. Both collectables sold in much greater numbers than the car they depicted ever could have.
There have also been two TV shows on the Bricklin produced in Canada: a 2004 episode of the documentary series Turning Points of History, and a 2006 docudrama, Plan B: The Bricklin Legend, in which Malcolm Bricklin played himself. Last year, a theatre company in Fredericton, N.B. staged a Bricklin musical with a retro-70s score. Perhaps the most honest retelling is a satirical folk song by New Brunswick songwriter (and proud Bricklin owner) Charlie Russell; you can listen to it (and even download it) here.
As for the "Brick" itself, there's a green one that lives somewhere close to my house, and shows up in parades from time to time, rolling slowly along behind the middle school marching band with its gullwings open. The Bricklin may have been a failure as a business proposition and as a demonstration of the benefits of government subsidies and industrial policy, but on a sunny day a bright green Bricklin is a fundamentally happy car, and you can't help but smile when you see one.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The large-format Bricklin brochure images were uploaded to Flickr by the Canada Science & Technology Museum, which is located in Ottawa. (The Museum is currently running an exhibit on Canadian cars which looks to be well worth a visit all by itself.) The shot of the "Safety Suntan" Bricklin and a DeLorean showing off their gullwings is from Flickr user toolnorth. The other illustrations came from the "Story of the Bricklin" pages at the Heritage Resources Sain John website.