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Thursday, December 13, 2012

1974-1976 Bricklin SV-1

Bricklin bristled with many innovative features, the most dramatic being hydraulically-mounted gull-wing doors. Less than 33 centimetres (12 inches) is needed to open the doors, thus minimizing  odious parking lot scratches.
Malcolm Bricklin made his millions as owner of a chain or hardware stores. He had a good life but he wanted more. The California-based entrepreneur began to  import the tiny Subaru 360 into the US market in the late 1960s. The Japanese micro car was actually laughable by North American industry standards but the quirky little critters sold and owning the import license made Bricklin a force to be reckoned with.

The 1968 Subaru 360.
In 1971 Bricklin resigned from his post as President of Subaru of America. He had bigger fish to fry. Opening a corporation in Delaware, the super salesman was ready to try his hand at creating a sports car. Well, safety car. Bricklin fired the first designer for creating a coupe that looked too much like the Datsun 240Z. Design guru Dick Dean then came up with sketches that appealed to the demanding tastes of owners. A prototype was ready in late 1972.

Changes were forced upon the design almost immediately. The original sleek and trim 1,600-pound prototype called for the use of off-the-shelf Japanese mechanical components. This was a world that Malcolm Bricklin understood. But signing deals became an elusive art and the car grew from harbouring an efficient four-cylinder German power plant under the fibreglass hood to take on Chrysler's slant six engine. That deal fell through, too.

The car would grow larger and heavier than ever intended when Bricklin finally wrangled 3,000 thunderous 360 (5.9-litre) V-8s from American Motors Corporation. These were competition engines rumoured to have been developed for a special AMC racing Javelin--a project that had been ultimately nixed by AMC management.

Malcolm Bricklin could sell microwaves ovens to the citizens of Hell. Armed with his prototype vehicle and a movie, he promoted his company, General Vehicle, Inc. The hype was amazingly effective.

Bricklin was revolutionary in using new approaches to automotive design and engineering. Passenger protection was a recurrent theme and to that end Bricklins came in five body-impregnated safety colours: Safety Red, Safety Green, Safety Suntan, Safety White and Safety Orange.

The body frame was made of tubular steel. Passengers sat in a steel roll cage. Innovative front and rear bumpers simply receded into space provided in the event of impact. Literature claimed the gull-wing doors were safer than ordinary doors, needing only 33 centimetres (12 inches) of clearance to function and when moving, hydraulically locked for safety.

Oh, and there was snob appeal, too. Bricklin was shameless; this car came with no options. One could choose automatic or manual transmission but the list of standard features was exhaustive, including such premium goodies air conditioning, space-age acrylic exterior surface, mag-style aluminum cast wheels, custom suede-like interiors and a digital clock. The one thing one couldn't order on a Bricklin was a cigarette lighter because Malcolm Bricklin believed that smoking while driving was not safe and he didn't want you "...dropping a hot cigarette in your lap and driving our beautiful (Bricklin) car into a tree."

Spinning this yarn for potential investors, Malcolm raised more than a million dollars . With cash in hand it was time to put the car on the road. A deal was almost inked for a factory when Bricklin heard about space up for grabs in Canada.

The French automobile consortium of Renault-Peugeot-Citroen was winding down assembly of its Canadian products in the suburbs of Montreal. Bricklin was interested in taking over the St. Bruno facility that came with an already trained work force. Talks were held but failed when the Government of Quebec balked at having to cough up $7 million for a minority shareholder position in the company. It didn't sit well in Quebec City that Bricklin was perceived as being all promoter with no management skills.

Bricklin was a quick study and that experience prompted him to rapidly put together a first-rate team of of managers, each with a most impressive array of credentials. General Vehicle Inc. was suddenly talent laden with folks from Ford, Chrysler's British subsidiary and Renault. The experienced team would prove itself as soon as it could find a manufacturing home.

Through accountants' gossip the Bricklin team got in touch with New Brunswick's Multiplex Corporation. Multiplex was a Crown corporation created by Premier Richard Hatfield's government to bring industry into the province. Multiplex had a good track record of bringing jobs to the ruggedly beautiful but poor Maritime province including Venus Electric, a manufacturer of personal-care products, principally hot hair curlers and curling irons.

Canada Post issued a Bricklin stamp in 1996.

Bricklin and the people of New Brunswick would do business together. Things looked good even after the federal government agency responsible for giving out job venture grants in the hard-pressed Atlantic Provinces refused to kick in for the Bricklin project.

In 2003 the Royal Canadian Mint struck a $20 coin honouring Bricklin.

A second blow was delivered when the federal minister responsible refused to allow Bricklin access to the duty-free Auto Pact accord between the United States and Canada. Despite the setbacks the project was still considered viable by all accounts. Bricklin Canada Limited was established. The Canadian company would sell completed vehicles to the Bricklin Vehicle Corporation of Scottsdale, Arizona.

New Brunswick's citizens became the majority shareholders as 51% of the shares were purchased by the province. Premier Hatfield announced that the government of New Brunswick would back the deal with some $9 million worth of loans and loan guarantees.

Malcolm Bricklin and his sporty namesake in the Saint John factory.

The factory in Saint John was far too small from the very beginning, so the space-age acrylic fibreglass body panels were built in Minto, New Brusnwick and shipped to the port city. Losses were staggering from the very beginning. nearly two thirds of the Minto plant's body production had to be scrapped and then another 25% of what arrived in Saint John was damaged beyond repair.

The situation was exasperating to say the least. The 200 dealers in the United States wanted their cars but by the end of calendar year 1974 only 800 or so of the Safety Vehicles had trickled out of the Saint John factory. 
Bricklin production projections were pegged at 12,000 units for the first year, 30,000 the second, 50,000 the third and 100,000 at the end of four years.
 Problems got solved and production kicked up a notch. One change was AMC's power plant was dropped in favour of Ford's 5.7-litre (351-cubic inch) V-8. More than 2,000 Bricklins were built and shipped in 1975 but money became scarce. Malcolm Bricklin went hat in hand to Fredericton where Premier Hatfield guaranteed to pump more money into the company if the private sector would offer matching funds.

A total of 2,854 Bricklins were built over three years.

Sadly, there were no takers and Bricklin Canada Limited slipped into receivership in September of 1975. Canadian Press reported that 183 vehicles were in various stages of assembly at the time the plant closed. This author lived in Saint John at that time and remembers peering through the factory's chain link fence in foggy damp winter rains after the plant closed, watching brightly coloured Bricklins being loaded onto car carriers for undisclosed designations.

While the original plan called for the Bricklin to be built in Canada, the smart two-seater couple could not be purchased by Canadians. Regardless, a few Bricklins were sold here at home. Records show that 13 Bricklins were registered domestically in 1975 and a further 117 were registered in 1976.

Had Bricklin been successful the next generation might have looked like these renderings, dubbed 'Chairman'.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

Copyright James C. Mays 1999
 All rights reserved.


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