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Sloppy assembly helped doom Bricklin

August 31, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

A fiberglass-bodied hatchback with a burbling V-8, pop-up headlights and "gull-wing" doors sounds like a high-performance exotic that can't miss.

However, the car in question is the Bricklin SV-1, a quirky, yet affordable-for-the-time Canadian-built coupe that lasted less than two years before disappearing under a deluge of debt and disappointment.

Much has been said and written about just how big a failure the Bricklin turned out to be. But the idea behind this GT-style sports car was actually ahead-of-its-time brilliant. It was in the execution that things went awry.

Malcolm Bricklin conceived his namesake in the early 1970s as an inexpensive two-seater that could withstand significant collision damage and protect its passengers in cocoon-like safety (the model designation SV-1 stood for Safety Vehicle No. 1). The front and rear bumpers were built to absorb a 10 m.p.h. whack without hurting the fiberglass body and the bolt-on body panels hid a protective safety cage with side guard rails that were built to withstand rollovers and side impacts. Some of these features are considered normal today, but they were ground-breaking 30 years ago.

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Bricklin, a former building-supply chain-store mogul and North America's first Subaru importer, was actually on to something with his concept. The Bricklin SV-1 made its public debut on June 25, 1974 in New York City, with production beginning shortly after.

Along with its safety features, the Bricklin's skin was made using an advanced vacuum-forming process that mixed the paint into the gel-coat in much the same way boats and personal watercraft are made. The body was then bolted to a steel frame that could be easily detached for quick repairs, if necessary.

For the sake of simplicity, Bricklins were only available in five exterior shades: red, orange, green, white and tan, all using the "safety" prefix. An eight-inch-wide black strip was painted along the bottom of the doors and fenders, supposedly to make the car appear lower and to hide stone chips and assorted road grime.

Inside its electrically operating swing-up doors, the only trim color to be found was beige.

The Bricklin was actually similar to the Chevrolet Corvette in most key dimensions and, with its rear hatchback, promised greater practicality compared to the stowage-starved plastic Chevy.

Even before the Bricklin entered production, enthusiast publications began gushing over the car. One popular automotive magazine proudly trumpeted that "...Bricklin will have no trouble selling all the cars than he can build." and went on to refer to it as "a tangible threat to the Corvette".

First-year 1974 cars, 780 in total, used a 220-horsepower 360-cubic-inch V-8 and related automatic transmission and suspension components supplied by American Motors Corporation (an available four-speed gearbox, however, came from Chrysler). The 2,117 '75 SV-1s came with Ford's 351-cube Windsor V-8 that generated 175 horses and used that company's automatic transmission.

Regardless of powerplant, all Bricklins were fully equipped with air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM stereo radio, digital clock, tinted glass, front disc brakes and alloy wheels. The only key item lacking was a spare tire, a potential disaster well before run-flat tire technology and cellular phones had been invented.

The actual production volumes were nowhere near Malcolm Bricklin's pie-in-the-sky plans of 12,000 units to be built in the first year, 30,000 in the second, 50,000 in the third and 100,000 by the end of 1977.

Problems immediately surfaced when the first batch of cars arrived at dealer showrooms. Most had second-rate door and hood-panel fit, missing weatherstripping, electrical problems and a host of other glitches. What was to be a leading-edge Grand Touring machine seemed more like a poorly constructed kit car.

Price also became a bone of contention. Originally, dealers were told that each Bricklin would sticker for around $6,500, $2,000 below the Corvette. But the final list was closer to $10,000, further negating the SV-1's competitive edge.

The Bricklin plant teetered along until September of 1975. By that time, the tiny Canadian province of New Brunswick, which had sunk millions of dollars into the project, finally had enough. Funding was cut off, the company placed into receivership and hundreds of employees were suddenly out of work.

Some Bricklin die-hards argue that, with a bit more time to get its act together, the car could have become a financial success. That's doubtful, since there never was, nor will there ever likely be, a high demand for the kind of two-seat fun-mobiles that Malcolm Bricklin envisioned.

Its safety legacy lives on, but lacking sufficient quality, practicality and the necessary price-point advantage, the Bricklin dream was destined to become a nightmare.




Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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