One is always quick to assume that the DeLorean is the only major motoring scandal ever to hit the roads of the world, but they’re wrong. 10 years before the DMC-12 slipped out of its Belfast Factory and into the pages of history, another small car manufacturer caused a big impact to one community, one that would once again bring a dream to the unemployed, but it would quickly sour into a nightmare. I give you, ladies and gentlemen, the Bricklin SV-1.
To follow this car, you need to follow the man from which it takes its name, Malcolm Bricklin. Bricklin aspired to be an entrepreneur from a young age, and began his business career early with a chain of hardware stores across the US known as Handyman America. Bricklin founded the company shortly after leaving university in 1958, assisted by the wealth of his vast family. However, Bricklin was also quick to build a reputation for himself as something of a crook. After making himself a millionaire off the profits made by Handyman America, the company started to ail financially, thus he sold his share of the business to his corporate partners in the days before it went into liquidation, thereby landing them with the debts.
But even though he’d achieved in 3 years what many only dream to achieve in a lifetime, Bricklin was far from done. His next venture was into the world of motorcars, and he quickly saw the potential of importing new Japanese models into the USA, a way of selling cars without having to put large amounts of his own money into making them. In 1965, he signed a deal to import the very strange Subaru 360, a Japanese facsimile of the Volkswagen Beetle, as well as multiple variants of their Scooters and Motorbikes. The deal was going well, right up until the moment an American safety reviewer noted that the 360 was so flimsy that in a low-speed collision with a typical US car, the front bumper of the 360 would end up inside the passenger cabin. With such a damning report, the
deal was quickly stopped and imports ceased.
However, Bricklin’s ambitions were much greater than just selling other people’s cars, he desired to create his own. His idea was, surprisingly, very similar to that of John DeLorean’s creation 10 years later, in that he wanted a very safe, low-slung sports car with gullwing doors, a wedge design, be economical and remove the planned obsolescence that had been plaguing the Detroit Big-Three. His inspiration apparently came from seeing space-age, futuristic cars on the shows his children watched.
Design of the car was handed over to Dick Dean, the legendary custom car builder who created such fantasy cars as the Black Beauty for The Green Hornet and the Monkeemobile for The Monkees. Bricklin presented him with an initial sketch, and over 90 days Dean created the first running prototype known as the ‘Grey Ghost’. The construction process for the car was incredibly secret, with Bricklin fearing that someone may attempt to steal his idea. Once the car was built, he filmed it driving around Los Angeles before sending the film to the First Pennsylvania Bank, the firm he’d hope would provide his venture with financial backing. The plan worked and nearly $1 million is raised, but when presented to the Big-Three of Detroit, their top engineers were quick to laugh it off stage. Their criticisms were mainly to do with each body-panel being unique, and the fact that it had been poorly designed.
But Bricklin was unfazed, and sought the assistance of aspiring Ford designer Herb Grasse to help him redesign the car to become a suitable road-going machine. Bricklin, however, didn’t make it easy for him, demanding that a full scale clay model was designed and built, together with the overall engineering of the car, in just 90 days, a process that, for other motoring brands, takes up to 3 years. The reason was to create an elaborate game of bluff with his financiers, who would regularly stop by to check on their investment. The biggest issue when it came to the design was the tail lights, which were deemed unstylish and didn’t suit the car. Grasse improvised at the last minute by fitting it with tail lights from a De Tomaso Pantera, the car he was driving at the time. The idea worked, and, as such, all future Bricklin cars were fitted with lights from the Pantera.
With his new concept now dubbed ‘The Red Car’, Bricklin sought out a location in order to build his dream machine, and to find the remainder of the financial backing necessary to fund the project. With the incredible cost of real estate in the Detroit motorworld, combined with the fact that pretty much all the major American car manufacturers had kicked him out before he’d even opened his mouth, Bricklin eventually setup shop in New Brunswick, in the far reaches of eastern Canada.
Why such an obscure and remote place?
Bricklin was recommended to the area by a friend, largely due to the influence of the new Premier for the region, Richard Hatfield. Hatfield had been elected in 1970, and was determined to work hard to reduce the extremely high unemployment level in New Brunswick by any means necessary, his primary goal being to try and woo a potentially lucrative construction project that the local population can help to build. Unfortunately, Bricklin’s arrival in New Brunswick was dampened, quite literally, by the flooding of the St. John River, which meant that the first meeting between himself and Hatfield was both quite short and informal, due to Hatfield having to deal with a state of emergency situation. However, in that short meeting, Hatfield was able to endear himself to Bricklin, and was enthusiastic to both back and host the project in New Brunswick.
Initially, the Government of New Brunswick invests $6 million to start the project, however, there were huge problems, largely due to the fact the car hadn’t actually been
finished yet. Designers struggled to get the iconic gullwing doors to work properly, and the body has a propensity to crack. This wasn’t helped by the condition of the factory in New Brunswick, which used a former shipping warehouse, and was found to have massive holes in the floor and a very low roof. The biggest hindrance to the project wasn’t Bricklin, but his family, who he had appointed as members of the high ranking staff in order to help run the company. The problem is that Bricklin refused to oppose any suggestions or decisions they made, regardless of how wrong they actually were. Bricklin himself on the other hand was nowhere to be seen, he instead having disappeared off to Arizona in order to start a ranch and live out his lifelong dream of being a Cowboy. So while Bricklin was busy living out his fantasies of the O.K. Corral, the company was already in financial difficulty, and at this point it wasn’t even building cars. Hatfield, however, could not afford to go back on his promise of a big project to help relieve unemployment, and thus continued to inject government money into the car.
In June 1974, the Bricklin garnered itself something of an amusing launch at a public unveiling in New York City. Bricklin envisaged three cars being positioned on the iconic fountains inside the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, but found that the car was 1 inch too wide to fit through the doors! Their response was to hastily build (at 1am mind you) essentially a giant spit that would rotate the cars on their side and slip them through the doors, similar to the rotating mechanism used to get James May’s Lamborghini Countach inside the Mima Art Gallery on Top Gear. Regardless, the launch was a massive success and dealers signed up in their droves, even though the forecast for the car’s sales was incredibly vague. Bricklin’s charisma and showmanship however was the main factor behind a lot of the car’s promotion and success, he had a natural talent at winning over the crowds, even if the situation looked bleak. By the end of the day, dealerships had placed orders for 40,000 cars to be put on their forecourts.
Immediately afterwards, he and Hatfield flew back to New Brunswick to open the Bricklin factory, driving out to an awaiting crowd in a working Bricklin, now known as the SV-1 (SV actually means Safety Vehicle, and are usually just basic models used to test safety features such as bumpers and cross members, but it’s a cool sounding name nevertheless!). However, the launch was something of a sham, as the SV-1 that was
displayed to the crowd was a hand-built one-off, the only fully built or working Bricklin car. Their bit of subterfuge however seemed to pay off, as hype continued to be strong for the car, and the local population was eager to pitch in on the project. It wouldn’t be another 3 months though until the first Bricklin actually rolled off the production line.
So, what was the car actually like in terms of design? The car was powered by a 5.8L AMC 360 V8 from the AMC Rebel and the Jeep Cherokee, which meant its performance was actually competitive against the likes of the Corvette. The car comprised of two separate forms of suspension, with coil springs for the front axle, and leaf springs for the rear. Initially, the car came with the option of either manual or automatic transmission, as well as a slew of colours, but after the first year of production, the car was only available as an automatic to try and save on costs. Perhaps the most endearing things about the Bricklin was the car’s acrylic plastic body and its electric powered gullwing doors. The Bricklin had, and still has, the distinction of being the only production car ever to be fitted with electrically assisted gullwing doors, with the likes of the DeLorean and the Tesla being just manual.
However, such features were nothing if not a gimmick, and an expensive one at that. The plastic industry had not perfected the concept of bonding fibreglass to acrylic plastic, and the result was that moulding the shape had a very low success rate, sometimes cracking before the plastic had even left the meld. The doors were also very expensive to fit, and incredibly heavy, seeing as it included both its own weight and the weight of the gears that operated it. There were also major issues with the single radiator opening on the original model of 1974, which made the car prone to overheating. While the 1975 model created a larger radiator opening, this did little to solve the problem. There were problems also with the suspension springs, where the wrong coils had been chosen which meant the car had a tendency to ‘bottom-out’ and strike the tyres or the road surface because it was too low.
These combined issues meant the company was running at a horrendous loss, with cars costing $16,000 to build, but only being sold at $5,000 so as to try and undercut the likes of the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Corvette. The company was skimming bankruptcy,
but Bricklin and Hatfield kept this fact very much to themselves. Hatfield was then faced with an election for Premier of New Brunswick in October 1974, an election he called as a way of testing the people’s faith in the car, placing it very much at the forefront of his campaign. This was promising as he absolutely trounced the competition during the election period, bringing home a strong lead and much needed enthusiasm for the Bricklin project. The election however put Bricklin himself into a touch of worry, fearing that if, by chance, the opposing Liberal party had won, they’d have quickly pulled the plug on his operation. Bricklin asks for more money from Hatfield prior to the vote as a contingency in case the Liberals win, a wish that is granted. $17 million is put into the company in secret, most of which is spent paying the rent on the factory which had been overdue a year. The public had been deceived by the government (not like it’s the first time) into thinking the Bricklin project was running smoothly, when in fact the company had to be bailed out frequently by the Hatfield government in order to pay even the most basic parts of the company’s finances.
The mood quickly shifted however when these payments were made public by way of a leak, and opinion polls in Hatfield drop substantially following his election victory. Faith in the company is rumbled, and people began to realise that this huge project was barely bringing in a quarter of the revenue it required in order to remain afloat. Outside of the government of New Brunswick, there was very little external interest, and thus very little other investment in the company, therefore making the Bricklin organisation almost a nationalised institute. Though 1975 began with an $8 million loan, the Liberal party began a lawsuit against Bricklin and Hatfield following continued leaks regarding the company bailouts, bringing further bad press to the company and the car. The scandal became so great that local singer/songwriter Charlie Russell writes the car it’s very own song which went to #17 in the Canadian charts, though the song’s lyrics are far from complimentary.
From the USA, complaints began to arrive on the company’s doorstep regarding build quality and multiple engineering faults that simply hadn’t been addressed, most notably the aforementioned problem with the radiator. In an attempt to save face, Bricklin makes quite possibly the most fatal move in the entire company’s history, he blames the inexperienced New Brunswick workforce for the car’s multiple problems. This very quickly creates a rift between himself and Hatfield, who refuses to offer any more government bailouts. By summer 1975, most dealerships refused to sell any more Bricklin cars due to the continuing and numerous faults that still weren’t being addressed, this meant that barely any cars were being sold at all and revenue plummeted. An audit, carried out in September of the same year, found that the company was making a loss of approximately $24 million, with Bricklin requiring at least $10 million in bailouts in order to keep the company buoyant for the next fiscal year. The result was that following the audit, the government unanimously refused any more bailouts of the Bricklin company. At the exact same time, Bricklin and his board of directors came to the decision that there was no hope for the company. When Hatfield arrived at the meeting following the audit, he was almost immediately told that the Bricklin company was no more, and now he had to face the eagerly awaiting crowd of news reporters outside to tell them that New Brunswick’s dream was officially dead…
As a result, 200 Bricklin employees were sacked, and while protests were made to have the company restarted by way of a government loan or through some intervention by Bricklin himself, he had chosen to file for personal bankruptcy. Assets were taken into receivership by the First Pennsylvania Bank, and the remaining equipment and cars were sold at auction for peanuts.
So what of Malcolm Bricklin and Richard Hatfield?
Hatfield was largely forgiven by the people of New Brunswick, as they were willing to understand that the project was worth the gamble and the cost, any attempt really to reduce unemployment in this deprived part of the world. He would go on to be elected as Premier twice more, eventually leaving office in 1987 before passing away due to cancer in 1991. Though he did get off comparatively lightly, rather than being crucified by the public and press for the project’s failure, he apparently went to his grave still smothered in the shame of the whole affair.
As for Malcolm Bricklin, he did eventually return to automobiles, this time buying up car plants in Serbia following the end of the Cold War, then shipping the infamous Yugo 45 and its derivatives to the United States, and, much like the Subaru 360 twenty years earlier, it was hopeless rubbish.
So, the Bricklin, what can you possibly say about this scandalous machine?
Is it as bad as the DeLorean? I wouldn’t say so, as nothing particularly illegal was done aside from hiding the bailouts from the public. While DeLorean ripped off both the taxpayer and the government, as well as trying to finance the company by way of cocaine deals, Bricklin and Hatfield did all their dealings mostly by the book. The problem with the Bricklin is that it was carried out with a sense of both smugness and incompetence; smugness on the part of Bricklin that his charisma could carry the car onto the forecourts of dealers across the world, and incompetence in that he didn’t know what he was doing and he appeared to take every wrong turn imaginable. While the Bricklin has garnered something of a cult classic status, it’s not a terribly well known machine, certainly not in the same way as the DeLorean. The car sadly didn’t make it into any time-travelling movies, and there are only a small number that trundle about the highways and byways of the world.
Me personally? It is a cool looking car, and if they’d only sacrificed a few things in order to cut costs and ease construction, then perhaps it could’ve been a bit more of a hit. It certainly wouldn’t have been the best sports car of the 70’s, but it would’ve survived a little longer, and maybe, once money was really starting to roll in, Bricklin could’ve added such expensive things as plastic fibreglass bodies and automatic gullwing doors.
He essentially tried to paint the Mona Lisa after his first art lesson, it really wasn’t going to work!