I thought everybody knew what a Bricklin was. The ill-fated car company founded by entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin in 1974 was one of the hottest topics of conversation when it was launched. Malcolm Bricklin was a master at promoting himself. He and his car, the SV-1, made headlines in nearly every newspaper and magazine in the country. If memory serves, he even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
So I was a bit surprised while perusing a Bricklin that was for sale at the Spring Jefferson (Wis.) car show to hear a young man in his late teens ask his dad, “What’s a Bricklin?” Even more surprising, a co-worker who was with me that day, a young man in his late 20s and whose dad is a serious gear head, asked me the same question on the way home.
Well. I guess everybody doesn’t know what a Bricklin was.
Safety vehicles were all the rage in the 1970s. Encouraged by the DOT, a number of manufacturers built experimental safety cars and even defense contractor Fairchild-Republic got into the act. The cars had one thing in common: they were hideously ugly. Despite having no manufacturing experience, Malcolm Bricklin was determined to change that.
Bricklin did have some experience in the auto industry. After turning his father’s hardware distributorship into a chain of stores, he sold it to take over a franchise that sold motor scooters built by Fuji Heavy Industries. After selling all the inventory he had, he tried to talk Fuji into selling him a factory but settled for the distributorship of a little car they made, the Subaru 360.
When Bricklin and Subaru parted company in 1971 he quickly moved on to new horizons and began work on the SV-1, Bricklin’s contribution to the safety car craze. Designed by the legendary Herb Grasse, the Bricklin SV-1 actually looked good with proportions that were vaguely reminiscent of Datsun’s Z car or Saab’s Sonett.
The Bricklin SV-1 probably had decent credentials as a safety car with its true 5-mile-per-hour bumpers and a full-perimeter box frame with integrated roll cage. Part of the overall safety, as envisioned by Bricklin, was the ability to get out of harm’s way quickly so he equipped all Bricklins with relatively potent V-8 engines – 360cid units from AMC during the first year and 351cid Ford Windsors for 1975 and ‘76.
Buyers were presented with few options. For 1974 they could opt for either a manual or an automatic transmission and their choice of five “safety” colors. For 1975 and ‘76, the automatic was the only transmission offered so body color was your only option.
Gull wing doors on a car always attract attention so Bricklin had to have them. Rather than operating on hydraulic struts the way most other gull wings work, Bricklin chose a complicated electric system that proved to be slow and unreliable. Another poor choice was the material that the body was made of, a fiberglass/acrylic composite, the manufacturing process for which had not been perfected. Panel fit was abysmal and some panels came out of the molds cracked and unusable.
Total Bricklin production came to a little more than 2800 units, most of them 1975s. Production of 1976 model year cars was initiated but only a handful were built before production was halted. The company went into receivership in September of 1975 and all assets were liquidated, leaving the Canadian province of New Brunswick, which had provided much of the financing for the factory, on the hook for the $23 million it had invested in the venture.
Bricklin wasn’t ready to give up on automotive ventures. He went on to import rebadged Fiat X1/9s as “Bertones” and, of course, will forever be remembered for giving us the Yugo. He dabbled in electric vehicles and fuel cell technology and signed a deal with China’s Chery to import some of their cars into the U.S., a venture which never reached fruition. At 73 years old, Bricklin is still going strong and now heads up an outfit called Visionary Vehicles, dedicated to developing pure electrics and plug-in hybrids and the technologies necessary to make them viable.
The history of the automobile is littered with monumental failures but no single individual can hold a candle to Malcom Bricklin’s unprecedented string of failed automotive ventures. Somehow, you almost have to admire that.