Winging It

Kindred spirits take wing.

All images: The Author

Today’s subjects have more in common than just gullwing doors. Both were American brands produced outside of the USA, both attempted to tackle the same market segment, both ended up with a purchase price much higher than initially promised, suffered manifold quality problems and delivered only lukewarm performance; both lasted only three years on the market and were created under a business financing model with at least a whiff of sharp practice, leaving foreign governments eventually holding the bag.

They even almost ended up with similar names: Bricklin named its sportscar “SV-1” (for Safety Vehicle), and the original prototype of the DeLorean was known internally as the “DSV-1” (for DeLorean Safety Vehicle).

Malcolm Bricklin became wealthy by operating a nationwide franchise operation of do-it-yourself stores named Handyman. After this he ventured into the automotive field by becoming the American importer of Subaru in 1968; the Japanese company had only the tiny 360 to offer at the time but Bricklin became interested because it delivered excellent gas mileage and did not require federalizing in the USA because of its sub-1000 pound weight.

The Subaru 360 proved a difficult sell nevertheless. Bricklin later tried to put the 900 unsold cars still in stock to use by opening a franchise of small race courses under the name FasTrack where customers could race the little Subarus, but this also met with little success. Undeterred, Bricklin established the General Vehicle Company in 1971 with the aim of making his own car.

John Z. DeLorean was the charismatic inventor of the Pontiac GTO, driving force behind the Firebird and the one who suggested that the Pontiac Grand Prix should switch from the full-size body to the intermediate size for 1969 which would prove a very astute commercial decision. The youngest General Motors division CEO of all time, DeLorean left GM in 1973 under something of a cloud – and created the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) a year later.

Smooth talking Bricklin managed to persuade Richard Hatfield, then governor of New Brunswick in Canada to invest millions into a car factory to be, in exchange for an ownership share in the company of 67%, and on the condition that the car would be produced in New Brunswick. At the time, the region suffered high unemployment numbers causing Hatfield (in the process of running for re-election as governor) to go for it; after all, Bricklin predicted sales figures of 10,000 vehicles annually.

DeLorean initially planned to locate his car factory in Puerto Rico, but changed his mind after the Northern Ireland Development Agency (NIDA) offered him close to £100 million if he would produce his car in Ulster. Here too the prospect of decreasing the high proportion of unemployment was the primary motivation behind NIDA’s backing.

Malcolm Bricklin’s sales angle was safety, hence the name chosen for his vehicle. The bumpers were claimed to be capable of absorbing impacts in excess of the federal safety standards, and the fuel tank was protected by steel partitions. The bodywork was a specially formulated acrylic fiberglass mould with the colour blended into the material.

Even the colour names were chosen accordingly: safety red, safety green, safety suntan, safety white and safety orange. The SV-1 was probably also the first non-smoker’s car. Bricklin perceived smoking while driving as being unsafe because the driver might drop a burning cigarette in his lap, hence there was no ashtray or cigarette lighter.

Originally fitted with an AMC sourced 360 cubic inch V8 that delivered 220 horses, not long after production started this was replaced by a Ford Windsor V8 with a displacement of 351 cubic inches which put out a bit less – 175 horsepower.

Puzzlingly, the Bricklin brochure’s photography, while perfectly fine for the time, shows only exterior views of the SV-1. Only on the last page of the brochure do we get to see the interior; there being no illustrations at all showing the engine, chassis or construction.

The DeLorean catalogue offers the reader more illustrated information (it also has almost twice the amount of pages); there are several views of the cabin, as well as the engine and chassis. There are even two pages dedicated to the factory and production of the DMC-12.

DeLorean’s sales pitch was modernity in styling and engineering. As a former big name at GM he was able to utilise his reputation and network to get Ital Design involved for styling and enlist Lotus Engineering to help engineer and finetune the chassis and suspension. The stainless steel bodypanels (SS304 austenitic stainless steel to be exact) together with Giugiaro’s rakish lines produced a striking looking car.

Both inside and out, the DeLorean, although it benefited also from being a few years younger than the Bricklin, presented itself more convincingly as the product of a professional car maker while the Bricklin’s overall impression gravitated more towards the kit-car spectrum. Unfortunately, the DMC-12 was let down by the engine it was fitted with – the European Douvrin PRV V6, in this guise delivering a rather gutless 130 horsepower.

Both the SV-1 and DMC-12 of course targeted Chevrolet Corvette buyers, as well as other established players such as the Datsun 280ZX and BMW 6-Series. Two major impediments ruined any chances the two newcomers might have had in this segment: their suggested retail price was steadily inflated during development and by the time the cars were put on the market both the Bricklin and the DeLorean had become too expensive for the performance they offered.

The DeLorean for example cost over $25,000; a 280ZX was both faster and cheaper – and for about $5000 more, one was handed the keys to a Porsche 911. The second problem suffered by both were levels of construction quality and finish that varied between just about acceptable and awful.

In the end the disappointing sales numbers must have dismayed the investors – one may wonder if Malcolm Bricklin in particular really believed he could sell 10,000 SV-1s per annum – but should really not have come as a surprise. The counter stopped at 2900 cars in New Brunswick and at 8583 (officially, the actual figure is believed to be less than that) in Belfast.

The General Vehicle Company was declared bankrupt in 1976, almost $(US) 40 million in debt, for which the state of New Burnswick had to take 67% of the burden. Malcolm Bricklin continued to operate in the automotive field, founding International Automobile Importers (IAI) in 1982 and importing the Fiat X1/9 and Fiat Spider 2000- renaming them Bertone and Pininfarina Azzura respectively.

Thereafter he brought the infamous Yugo to the United States, and his most recent activity has been trying to import the Chinese Chery range of cars in the USA and Canada; this ultimately failed for complex reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. Malcolm Bricklin is still with us at the time of writing.

For the Bricklin SV-1 two different promotional brochures were issued; one is a large foldout poster that is only printed on one side and shows only a front view of a safety green SV-1 with opened gullwing doors. The other is the brochure shown on these pages which offers rather more information both visually and text-wise.

DeLorean issued a small folder and the more elaborate brochure as shown here – the far more common folder has some of the same photographs but the black-covered catalogue is of course the one to have. Because the DeLorean is infinitely better known (and likely also more cherished) than the Bricklin, its brochures command higher prices – although if you exercise a bit of patience while looking online neither of these should break the bank.

The DeLorean story is covered in more detail here.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

17 thoughts on “Winging It”

  1. Good morning Bruno. An interesting comparison between two (almost) contemporary market failures, thank you. When I was researching my DeLorean series, I came across this YouTube video comparing the two:

    The DeLorean comes off better in dynamic terms. That’s no great achievement and it’s Lotus rather than DMC that deserves the scant credit for it.

  2. I always preferred the Bricklin’s looks, even if it was a bit ‘kit-car’ like, particularly from the rear:

    Which brings us neatly to today’s DTW teaser: identify the car from which the Bricklin borrowed its tail lights. I don’t think it will be long before the correct answer is forthcoming. 😁

    1. Are those from Datsun’s Z Car? Funnily enough, the SV-1 itself looks like a caricature of the 240z

    2. Good guess, Andrew. Close, but no cigar on this occasion:

    3. It is claimed that the designer Herb Grasse opted to use the same taillamp units fitted to his personal DeTomaso Pantera for the Bricklin

  3. Probably I am completely wrong again, but they look like from the Alfa Romeo Berlina 2000.

    1. …is the right answer! Well done, Fred:

      Now, for another credit towards your spotters’ beige anorak, identify the rather more exotic car on which they also featured.

    2. They were everywhere during those years. Famously integrated into the rear glass panel on the Maserati Khamsin for the European market and hanging below the bumper in the US spec cars.

    1. I thinks so. You can find them also on the Longchamp and Deauville.

    2. Yes, they popped up in lots of places, for example the Maserati Bora and Merak as well. They were a nice shape and suitable for mounting to a flat panel, so an obvious choice.

      (For anyone who doesn’t recognise it, the car in Robertas’ post is a DeTomaso Pantera.)

      Well done, spotters!

  4. A great article – thank you.

    Like Daniel, I think that although the Bricklin has a bit of a kit-car vibe, it’s still an attractive design – characterful and a bit sinister, in a good way, and distinctively American.

    The Reliant Scimitar was similar in that it was clearly made by a smaller company, but it still had ‘something’.

    The Bricklin’s small windows and high sides make it look quite contemporary.

    Those rear lights are also interesting, to the extent that they appear to change character depending on where they are fitted.

    Here’s a closer look at a Bricklin brochure.

  5. There was an episode of Fantomworks where a Bricklin devotee/owner brought in his car for some upgrades. They were seriously unimpressed with the competence of the build and construction. The Bricklins’ beauty was barely skin-deep.

  6. Just by way of clarity from a Canuck – Richard Hatfield was the Premier of the Province of New Brunswick (the USA has governors and states).

  7. Bruno, we have no states in Canada, we have provinces, and Hatfield was the Premier of the province of New Brunswick, not governor – we don’t have such a position. A provincial premier and a US state governor are not comparable positions. We are not Americans, and our political system is Westminster parliamentary style British. A minor bit of research would have avoided using such incorrect terminology.

    New Brunswick is next door to the province of Nova Scotia where I live. No doubt Premier Hatfield was jealous of the established Volvo assembly plant in Halifax Nova Scotia which started in 1963, and was only stopped after Ford bought out Volvo in 1998.

    Dick Hatfield was a bit of an odd duck all around, really rather strange by reputaion. His family had made a fortune producing not particularly good potato crisps, which we do call chips like the Americans, at the family firm, er, Hatfield’s. The company was taken over by a Quebec firm in the 1960s and they have continued to produce Tier II snacks ever since. Dick Hatfield had to do something with his spare time, so entered politics. He was quite easy to flannel, or con, with a bit of flattery so they say, and Bricklin had no trouble at all setting up in Saint John, NB with some provincial government largesse. The workers came from the local shipyards more used to overhauling Royal Canadian Navy ships. So a spot of blacksmith tube welding didn’t stump them. The badly-designed gullwing doors did, just as Tesla still has problems with the Model X so-called SUV.

    Bricklin had no design team, he had an idea, and acquaintances. The detail engineering work he farmed out all over the place as Wikipedia relates, but the rumour was that few of the consultants bothered to visit the place selected for assembly. It was a “the plans are in the mail” operation with New Brunswick’s advance funds used by Bricklin to hire design people he knew. Ahem. So the locals had to get on with it while Bricklin swanned around the USA aggrandising himself “selling” the car. It was overall the exact way NOT to produce a car. The oversight from Hatfield’s government was perfunctory at best and they seemed to believe any excuse for holdups for quite a while. So the car was a load of rubbish, but fixable by good backyard mechanics, which is why half of them are still around. 18 months of misery and the New Brunswick operation was shut down. Bricklin was the one who blamed “labour”.

    Rubbish. Twenty miles down the road at the same time, New Brunswickers assembled a nuclear power plant, Point Lepreau, which is still in operation after a mid life complete overhaul. And somehow managed to build what is still the the biggest oil refinery in Canada as well.

    But you can’t put a good fella down. Bricklin, regarded as a bit of a con artiste but charming, began to import Yugos to the USA. Those were Fiats lackadaisically produced in the Balkans for pocket money where the unhappy-looking Fiat 500L is made these days. There’s a Wikipedia entry on that Yugo by Zasatava fiasco as well. Bricklin was a far slipperier operator than DeLorean, a hale fellow well met kind of chap in fact, who had “ideas” he sold people. Operated his whole life that way, I believe. Here’s a link to a Car & Driver interview if you like exaggeration and a loose grasp of the facts:

    To Mr Bricklin in 2009 looking back to 1985, a Zastava version Fiat 127 was apparently a 30 year old car, so recognition of reality is not his forte, I’d say. And all his failures were of course, someone else’s fault. I wonder if Chery ever coughed up the $14 billion?

  8. Hello Stumack and Bill Malcolm,
    Thank you for your correction concerning my mix-up of governors and premiers, and states and provinces.
    DTW is of course primarily a car/transportation oriented website so the primary focus when writing is on getting the car related facts right -which is sometimes tricky enough in itself- but it’s good to keep an eye on the background facts as well.

  9. I was eleven in the summer of ’74, at summer camp and one day amongst a small group I shared my excitement about the forthcoming Bricklin. And this kid I barely knew blurts out: “I’ve met Malcolm Bricklin, I know him… from Subaru… Have you seen my FasTrack T-shirt?” Yup (it was bright orange). [Further research suggests he was the son of a financial executive at Subaru of America]

    Not long after, I was riding in a car which pulled up next to a Bricklin, and I rolled down my window to get the driver’s attention frantically making “the gullwing motion gesture” with my arm. And the driver did it, (opened it just a crack, then closed it and drove off). Those were days of dreaming.

    A few years later around 1977, I encountered the son of a local Chevrolet dealer, and somehow it came up that his father had also sold Bricklins from his dealership, and that he owned one and was still using it as daily driver. “Is it green with one headlight stuck in the up position?” Yes, I had seen it a few times on the road, and that made a lot of sense to me. He was probably stuck with the car, but at least had the means to keep it running. Three years seemed like such a long time back then.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: