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Bricklin's ventures often went awry

November 11, 2003|by TODD BURLAGE/Wheelbase Communications

Malcolm Bricklin isn't quite sure where it all went wrong, although his investors have a few theories.

Bricklin's dream of beginning an automobile manufacturing company on the east coast of Canada was supposed to be a can't-miss venture. But by the time Bricklin Vehicle Canada folded in 1975, Bricklin's bankruptcy petition listed $2,000 in assets and $32,354,870.03 in debts.

A rifle, wrist watch, skis and some clothing were the only assets he noted. His debts included three bank loans of $3 million or more and another few million from private investors.

These are probably the most striking details in what has been a wild ride for one of the most infamous entrepreneurs in auto-industry history. A handful of remaining Bricklin SV-1 cars are all that's left.

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"(Bricklin Vehicle Canada) was an interesting adventure, one that I am very glad I went through, one that I wish hadn't lost all my money or anyone else's money," Bricklin now says.

Handyman hardware stores. The Yugo. The Fiat.

Bricklin Vehicle Canada wasn't his only business venture. It might not be his last.

At 64 years of age, Bricklin is attempting to launch an environmentally friendly car out of Serbia with DeLorean-like wing doors and a modest price tag. Whether production of the ZMW will ever begin remains a mystery.

Bricklin's strange trip from nowhere to millionaire and back to nowhere began in the early 1960s when the urban cowboy from Philadelphia founded Handyman hardware stores in Orlando, Fla. Decent returns allowed him to draw off established lines of credit. His bold and persuasive ways allowed him to attract plenty of private money as well.

Investors paid Bricklin $250,000 as a franchise fee for Handyman, an investment they say included nothing but headaches and broken promises.

By the time Bricklin was 25 years old, he was already listed on dozens of law suits and judgments stemming from the hardware chain. By the time he was 30, Bricklin had moved away from hardware and onto his first love - automobiles.

With a modest $75,000 investment, he and business partner Harvey Lamm began Subaru of America. The two drew investors from 20 dealerships on the east coast and 60 in California, and began importing the Subaru 360 - a rear-wheel drive microcar that zipped to 50 mph in 37 seconds, got 65 mpg and sold for about $1,300. Only about 6,000 units sold (cheap gas and a public more interested in horsepower than fuel economy didn't help) and Bricklin was finished with Subaru only a couple of years after he began.

In 1971, Bricklin created FasTrack, a franchise business that combined recreational-vehicle sales with a tight, twisty race course that the public could drive on. And the vehicles used for this purpose? They were 900 unsold Subaru 360s that were rebodied as tough, durable coupes by legendary dune buggy inventor Bruce Myers.

Importing inexpensive, fuel-friendly cars was a notion about 20 years ahead of its time. Even the failed Bricklin SV-1 - with its innovative urethane bumpers, wing doors, roll cage and heavily protected fuel tank - probably would have sold well 10 or 15 years after its introduction, but not in the 1970s.

The wildly-optimistic original plan called for 12,000 Bricklins 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.

After securing financing from some U.S. banks, Bricklin managed to convince both the Canadian Government and the tiny Province of New Brunswick of the viability of his project. Wanting for for job creation, the province eventually ponied up $20 million in start-up funds, plus $1 million for the purchase of a plant.

The Bricklin SV-1 made its public debut on June 25, 1974 in New York City, with production beginning shortly thereafter. Problems with quality control, a lack of parts and an eager, but untrained workforce, plagued the car from day one. Some of the $10,000 vehicles were being shipped to an increasingly annoyed dealer network in an incomplete state.

But with mounting financial and production woes, only 2,083 SV-1s were completed in 1975 before the factory was forced into bankruptcy, leaving a trail of debt exceeding $30 million. Total number of cars produced: 2,873.

But even through bankruptcy and lawsuits, Bricklin pressed on. With his Bricklin Vehicle Canada fiasco and a failed Fiat partnership behind him, one of his best business ventures came in 1985 when he began importing the Yugo from Yugoslavia. The cheap and memorable machine became the top-selling European import car but it quickly fell out of favor with consumers and was discontinued.

In the United States, Bricklin will always be remembered for the Yugo. In Canada, he'll always be remembered for Bricklin venture that cost New Brunswick and its disenchanted taxpayers more than $23 million.

But as is always the case with Bricklin, the glass is never half empty.

"Consider the fact that hundreds of Bricklins are still on the road, still providing the service to their owners they were designed for," Bricklin said in an interview last year.

"And how about the hundreds of New Brunswickers who were earning good wages and salaries during the period of Bricklin production?"

So, with his legacy firmly intact, Bricklin moves forward - ambition in his favor, history against him.

"What would I like to be most remembered for? What a fabulous guy. Great lover. Fabulous human being,'' Bricklin said. "You name anything best, that's what I would like people to remember.''

One way or another, they'll remember.




Todd Burlage is a feature writer and contributor to Wheelbase Communications.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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