by Bill Vance
Dreams and disaster in New Brunswick
The similarities between Malcolm Bricklin and John DeLorean are inescapable. Both were high-flying promoters who tried to launch a modern North American-based automobile company. Both went into high unemployment areas and convinced desperate, gullible governments to invest millions in public money. Both ran afoul of the law during their careers. Both seemed to have delusions of grandeur. And both even insisted that their cars have gull-wing doors.
There were differences, of course. DeLorean was a bright automotive engineer whose rise in General Motors Corp. brought him within sight of the presidency at the relatively young age of 48.
Bricklin, on the other hand, had dropped out of his first year at the University of Florida where he majored in “time and space.”
But he had drive. By the time he was 25, Bricklin had parleyed the family building supply business into a chain of franchised Handyman Hardware stores in the U.S. He sold out in 1964 amid a flurry of lawsuits, claiming to have made a million dollars.
Subaru 360, courtesy www.digii.com/MyCar
His next enterprise, marketing a warehouse full of Lambretta motor scooters, led to selling motor scooters made by Fuji Heavy Industries of Japan. They also made a basic mini-car called the Subaru 360.
Bricklin convinced Fuji that he and a partner, Harvey Lamm, could market the car in the U.S. Since the 360 weighed less than 454 kg (1000 lb), he knew it was immune from automobile safety regulations.
Sales of the 360 proceeded until Consumer Reports magazine labelled it the most unsafe car in the U.S. Exit Mr. Bricklin in 1971, again with allegations of wrongdoing, to set up General Vehicle Corp. in Scottsdale, Ariz. to build his own car. Bricklin engaged a California custom car builder to produce a prototype. Originally to have a four cylinder engine, this changed when he got a deal on American Motors 5.9 litre V-8s.
Although marginally engineered, the prototype ran well enough to shoot a short film that Bricklin used to promote his car. He called it the Bricklin SV-1 (for safety vehicle, another DeLorean similarity). It had gull-wing doors and was good enough to convince several banks, including the First Pennsylvania, to invest close to a million dollars.
While a small shop in Livonia, Michigan, developed the prototype for production, Bricklin hit the road with his film and his charisma. His quest to sell his dream led him to Canada.
Bricklin joined forces with Jack Reese a former sales executive with Renault Canada, which was closing its St. Bruno, Quebec, assembly plant. They were able to pre-sell a number of Bricklin franchises, and obtain orders for 2000 cars.
This encouraged Malcolm to contact the government of Quebec about acquiring the St. Bruno plant. In return for $7 million, Bricklin would give Quebec a 40 per cent interest in the company. Quebec was interested, but cautious.
It asked Jean de Villers who was disposing of the plant for Renault, to visit Philadelphia and investigate Bricklin. De Villers reported that Bricklin lived a lavish lifestyle, with a Rolls-Royce, a Corvette, and a Lamborghini. He was a good promoter, but a questionable manager. Quebec declined Bricklin’s deal.
Bricklin’s next stop was New Brunswick, and the office of then-premier Richard Hatfield. Hatfield saw the film and was captivated by the idea of a New Brunswick-produced car. A deal was struck; the province would provide loan guarantees of $2.88 million, and purchase 51 percent of Bricklin Canada’s shares for $500,000.
A plant in Saint John would assemble the car, with the glass fibre-backed acrylic-skinned bodies produced in Minto. By August, 1974, 200 dealers had been signed up, all in the U.S. because Bricklin could not join the Auto Pact and sell his cars in Canada. Production started slowly in Saint John.
There were problems. The car was still under-engineered, and the acrylic-covered bodies were of poor quality, with many body panels damaged enroute to Saint John.
The Bricklin’s crowning touch, the gull-wing doors, were a disaster that the engineers worked mightily to overcome. They were heavy (41 kg; 90 lb), slow to open, subject to leaks, and in the event of an electrical failure, the occupants had to exit through the rear hatch, not an elegant way to arrive at the opera.
Assembly quality was poor and the bodies were subject to cracks and scratches. The pop-up headlights often didn’t pop up, and windshields would leak.
Receivership came in September, 1975. New Brunswick had stopped the infusion of cash at $23 million, a staggering amount for a small, high unemployment province. The best estimate is that 2857 Bricklins were produced.
Back in the U.S. Malcolm Bricklin went on to other enterprises such as importing Fiat X1/9s as Bertones, and then organizing Global Motors to distribute the Yugo car from Yugoslavia.