45 years later, Malcolm Bricklin still proud of his New Brunswick-made car
Now 81, the U.S. entrepreneur is still trying to break new ground in the car business
For New Brunswickers of a certain age, the name Malcolm Bricklin brings forth a couple of images.
One is a man in his mid-30s, good-looking. A charming playboy dressed in hip, casual clothes — sunglasses included — and with a salesman's gift for gab.
Of course, they also remember the car. The sleek Bricklin SV-1, with gull-wing doors, New Brunswick's foray into the world of luxury sports cars.
It was the result of Philadelphia-born entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin's dream to build the safest production vehicle in the world, wrapped in what he hoped would be a beautiful car to own and drive, combined with then-premier Richard Hatfield's desire to paint this province as a progressive place to do business.
The dream ended in 1975, when Bricklin Canada went into receivership, with only three years of production models made, fewer than 3,000 in total.
Forty-five years later, Malcolm Bricklin still has a lot of similarities to the entrepreneur who took New Brunswick by storm in the mid-70s.
Gone are the American playboy clothes, replaced with Wall Street power suits, but the 81-year-old CEO of Visionary Vehicles still has a passion for finding the next big thing in the car business — and the charm and eloquence to pass along that passion to others.
And reached by phone in New York City, he's still happy to talk about the SV-1
"It still looks like tomorrow. Yeah, I love it, I love it." Bricklin said, "I really think it's great. I'm proud of the car. I'm proud of the people who did it. It was one of my great adventures."
The adventure begins
It was an adventure that began as the head of Subaru America. Bricklin was importing the Japanese cars for sale in the U.S., but the tiny Subaru 360, which weighed less than half a tonne, became a target for a consumer market growing more safety-conscious.
"Consumer Reports put it on the front cover of a Cadillac nose to nose to our little 360," Bricklin recalled, "And then it was 'The most unsafe car in the world', which it wasn't, by the way. And it doesn't matter. It ruined that business."
At the same time, the big car companies were pushing back against new safety regulations.
"I was reading all these statements by the automobile companies about, 'Oh, please don't give us all these safety rules, the cars are going to be ugly,'" Bricklin said, "'And because they're going to be so ugly, nobody's going to buy it. That's going to ruin the business.'
"And I kept thinking to myself, 'Why are they saying that other than self-interest?'
"And something just got in my system … a 'damn it, I'm going to build the safest production car there is. And it's going to be beautiful."
By the end of 1972, he had a prototype, and engineers went to work redesigning and re-engineering it.
The SV-1, which stands for "Safety Vehicle 1" had many innovations that are now considered standard on today's cars. They included a welded roll cage and impact-absorbing bumpers.
And the body was made from acrylic and fibreglass, so it would not rust.
But Bricklin needed a place to build his car, and an investor with deep pockets to help.
Enter Richard Hatfield
He looked at coming to Canada and setting up in a former Renault plant in Quebec, but concerns around a rocky labour environment in the province ended the idea.
That's when Premier Richard Hatfield's name came up.
"Somebody that was working for me that was familiar — was Canadian actually — and I can't remember his name, but said to me, 'Hey, I know where you can get money and they'll give you enough money to build a factory. New Brunswick,' Bricklin recalled.
"And I remember saying, 'New Brunswick, where's that?'
"He said, 'Well, you've got to meet Premier Hatfield. He is really a sharp man. He's somebody you're going to really like, and he's going to really like you'."
According to Bricklin, the first meeting proved that now nameless co-worker was right.
"I was taken with the man. I thought he was really intelligent, very personable and told him what I wanted to do."
"And he told me, 'Malcolm, I'll help fund your factory. And here's what I want to get out of it. I want publicity that New Brunswick is more than fishermen and loggers, that this is a progressive place and they're building this futuristic car. And if they can do that, they can do anything'," Bricklin said.
"I said, 'Well, I can guarantee it will get a lot of publicity.' He said, 'I'll be there with you.'"
And Malcolm Bricklin delivered on that promise. The SV-1 got lots of publicity.
Unfortunately, as time went by, a lot of it wasn't the kind Richard Hatfield wanted.
The car factory was set up in the Grandview Avenue industrial park in Saint John. The plant to make the unique acrylic-fibreglass body panels was put in Minto.
But building a car from scratch isn't easy. Especially one using new materials never used in car manufacturing before.
A test of the new car in the desert of Arizona discovered a problem with the chemical used to bond the acrylic panels to the fibreglass underbody.
"I remember getting this call from one of the test drivers who said, 'Mr. Bricklin, we have a very serious problem ... we've been driving around in the heat and we put it in an air-conditioned [garage]. I came out at nighttime and I looked and the body had fallen off'," Bricklin said.
The bonding agent between the acrylic panels and the fibreglass wasn't able to stand up to the expansion and contraction of the two different materials in the desert heat.
"The whole body is sitting on the ground and the fibreglass is now your body! I mean, you want to talk about a nightmare."
Neither the company that supplied the fibreglass or the company responsible for the acrylic panels could find a solution. So Bricklin's own people had to find a chemist willing to tackle the problem.
It wasn't the only issue. As production ramped up, Bricklin learned his engine supplier, AMC, was refusing to sell him any more engines.
He was forced to switch to a Ford V-8, one that had 50 fewer horsepower, and that made it impossible to offer a standard transmission.
Then there were those famous gull-wing doors. They operated by hydraulics and took six seconds to open, and six seconds to close.
Twelve seconds was fine, until one day Malcolm Bricklin himself tried to get into his car in a downpour.
"You know what that is when it's raining on your head? It's horrible, unbelievable. Nobody had figured that out until I sat and got rained on my head."
The solution was to replace the hydraulic fluid with air. But Bricklin never got the chance to get that fix into his cars.
The Bricklin was becoming an expensive venture for the New Brunswick government. Its initial $4.5 million investment had turned into $23 million, a lot of money in 1975.
And the fledgling car manufacturer had seen its retail price balloon to almost $10,000 a vehicle to try to stay above water.
Despite Car & Driver magazine comparing the SV-1 favourably to the Chevy Corvette, its reputation for having design and workmanship problems was taking a toll.
But Malcolm Bricklin said he still had thousands of buyers waiting to get cars, and he was feeling safe with his friend, Richard Hatfield, just newly re-elected in late 1974.
"The front pages of the papers were 'Premier wins the Bricklin election,' and had a cartoon of him with a Superman costume flying out of the top of a Bricklin.
"Now, I saw that and thought, 'Well, it sounds like we were pretty well in now with the government, he won the election, he used the Bricklin, and it's called the Bricklin election."
Hatfield had a different view when he visited Bricklin the next year.
"He said, 'I'm closing it down.' And I looked at him like, 'I don't even know where the joke is,'" Bricklin said.
"He said, 'Malcolm, I made a mistake. I used the car to win an election. You know what happens to me every day of my life now, when I go out to talk to the reporters? I want to tell them what's going on. I want to tell them what we're going to be doing. You know what? They're interested in two things. How's Malcolm and what's happening with the car? That's all they're interested in.
"Nobody will talk to me about anything else. I am no longer politically viable,' he said. 'So here's what I'm going to do. We're going to close you down. I'm going to get a lot of abuse. A year from now, I'm going to call another election, which I'll win on my own.' And he did exactly that."
Bricklin said he holds no ill will toward Hatfield.
"We were close friends. I really like that man. A great man and I still do have great respect for him."
The years and hindsight have been much kinder to the SV-1. There are still some 1,700 on the road, with that acrylic body looking just like it did the day the cars rolled out of the Saint John plant.
Bricklin said most of those owners have worked out the bugs and teething troubles that Bricklin never got the chance to fix.
He personally bought five, and gave them all away to museums. He said he's not a collector.
Bricklin has stayed involved in the car business, importing Yugos into North America in the 1980s.
He spent the early years of this century making electric bikes and is now jumping into the electric car business.
Visionary Vehicles is looking to produce the 3EV, a three-wheel, two passenger electric car that looks like a luxury vehicle but will sell for under $30,000 US.
He hopes to have prototypes by the new year and be in production in late 2021.
Bricklin said there were two lessons he learned making cars in New Brunswick.
"Well, the first thing is I don't want to do business with the government because they're too arbitrary.
"Number two is ... experience. I know what it is to build a car. I put together a team that knows what they're doing.
"I just know what I can do. I know how to do it."