The Bricklin — Scooters to Subaru's
Malcolm Bricklin dropped out of college at the age of 19, his reasoning being that the time could be better spent. After all, he was determined to become a millionaire by the age of 25. He took over his father's building supply business, beefed up its sales and sold it off, thereby pocketing nearly $1 million before his 25th birthday.
From there the self-proclaimed "business consultant" made contacts with the Innocenti Company, makers of Lambretta motorscooters. Several hundred of their ugly little scooters were languishing on a pier in New York and the fast-talking Bricklin convinced the NYC Police Department that their officers would be more mobile while patrolling Central Park. He parlayed that venture into a rental franchise scheme to recreation concessionaires.
By the early 1970s, Bricklin turned his attention to the burgeoning econo-car market. Seeing a loophole in the Federal emissions regulations (which stated that anything under the nominal weight of one-half ton was, in fact, not an automobile and could therefore be imported and sold without emission certification) he latched upon the Subaru 360, a diminutive car that weighed 960 pounds. He quickly convinced Subaru's maker, Fuji Industries, that he should have exclusive rights to sell in the U.S.
Very little time passed before Consumer Reports and other organizations labeled the Subaru 360 as unsafe (actually, the most unsafe car in America!). The bankers called in the loans. At this point, any rational businessman would have backed off, but not Bricklin. He turned the tables on Subaru and convinced them to give him rights to sell the fully-certified 1000 model in the U.S.
Bricklin continued to sell the Subaru 1000's and also got involved in a silly go-kart-like racing venture (featuring the unsold 360's) called FasTrack. It was during this time that he got the idea for an ultra-safe sports car.
By 1972 the Bricklin Vehicle Corporation and General Vehicle, Inc. had been formed and both were headed by the super-confident Malcolm. He brought on Herb Grasse (formerly with Chrysler and Ford), Garth Dewey (from Ford) and Tom Monroe (Ford racing). Bricklin told the team that he wanted a sporty car that would have a fixed-barrier crashworthiness of 25 mph, an unheard-of safety specification. To make things more difficult, Malcolm also demanded gull-wing doors! It would be called the Bricklin SV1, meaning Safety Vehicle #1.
Much has been written about Bricklin's overall honesty-factor. No judgement is made here, but you can come to your own conclusions after reading the following description of the SV1 prototype:
The car was built of fiberglass. It used Datsun 510 suspension on a 3-inch square titanium tubing frame. The Datsun steering was so badly cobbled that the front wheel toed-in when it was in a curve. It had a '47 Buick muffler, a two-gallon fuel tank and a toaster oven handle to lift the hatchback. It could only go one mile before overheating, the gullwing doors were fitted with fixed glass and Corvair hood hinges, and no air cleaner could be fitted to the engine.
Bricklin spent most of his time searching for fresh financing, staging many dog-and-pony shows. He also struck a deal with American Motors for their 360-cubic-inch V8 drivetrains. His weird prototype SV1 managed to perform well enough to convince the First Pennsylvania Bank to give Bricklin $500,000, with which he hired marketing people, not engineers. That money was quickly spent on lavish lifestyles rather than development. Bricklin moved the company from Livonia, Michigan to New Brunswick, Canada.
The biggest problem with development of the SV1 was the door. Hydraulics, glass-fitting, weight, leakage and a host of other problems ate up money and created future service nightmares. Eventually, $400 per car was budgeted to cover warranty claims on the doors. The plastic/acrylic body also posed problems unforeseen by the design team and the resulting body panels came through with distortions and waves, looking crude and amateurish.
On the safety side, the SV1 really did work well. Massive urethane-steel-shock absorber bumpers, door beams and a very stiff frame made the car resistant to front and rear crashes. It didn't matter, though, because the car was doomed to failure.
P.T. Barnum Would Be Proud
By January of 1975, Bricklin's company had scraped up $26 million and car production was averaging 16 per day. Quality problems had gotten so far out of hand that dealers, buyers, the press and the bankers realized that the venture was a bust. Malcolm's father was replaced as president, his mother was no longer the service manager and American Motors stopped delivering engines. A last-ditch replacement was found in the Ford Windsor 351.
Requests for more money from the New Brunswick treasury were turned down in the summer of '75, as by now everyone knew the Bricklin venture was a house of cards. In all, 2854 cars were produced at a production cost of close to $16,000 each (the cars sold for $9980!). The company went into receivership and all assets were claimed. The genius promoter, Malcolm Bricklin, moved into something more promising a few years later...theYugo.
Bricklin SV1's are considered "niche" collectables, in the same way that Crosleys and Tuckers are viewed. Such cars might be of historic interest or curiosities, depending upon one's point of view. They aren't worth much and seldom generate interest, but if you have a large collection and want to add an automotive oddity, Bricklins can be had for about $3,000.