After dealing in hardware, motor scooters, and the tiny Subaru 360, Malcolm Bricklin decided to build his own car, the 1974-1975 Bricklin SV-1. It would ride a rocky road.
The early 1970s promised to put a damper on street performance as it had been known in the muscle-car 1960s. With the introduction of the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) smog standards, everybody in the auto business was in a tizzy. There was also talk of mandated fuel economy standards, catalytic converters, and smog pumps.
The further restriction of possibly having to use lower-octane unleaded gasoline was practically unthinkable. Would a car even move without the lead needed to add some "kick" to the fuel? Ethyl Corporation's early testing of unleaded gas was extremely disappointing.
Engines that had been test-run merely a fraction of normal life expectancy were disassembled only to reveal that harmful deposits had already taken a heavy toll. Privately, Ethyl chemists and engineers advised their friends to use only leaded fuel, official recommendations to the contrary.
Were upcoming new cars all going to be gutless wonders as some predicted? The main question asked by enthusiasts was: "Has the day of the muscle car finally come to an end?"
The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards Code (FMVSSC) had become the final word regarding car manufacturing since 1967. Adhering to the code meant your livelihood if you were producing anything that resembled a car and used public highways for mobility. The loophole was that a car wasn't considered a vehicle under the guidelines if it weighed less than 1,000 pounds. This spelled opportunity for Malcolm Bricklin.
Bricklin's dream began taking shape after he sold his Handyman America operation, a chain of hardware stores based in Orlando, Florida. He reportedly made a few million on the sale. He went on to import Italian Lambretta motor scooters and Japanese Rabbit scooters made by Fuji Heavy Industries Limited. The latter connection led to Bricklin's founding Subaru of America, which he prematurely sold out to a partner who continued on to great success.
Bricklin meanwhile imported the tiny Subaru 360 (made by Fuji), totally circumventing the FMVSSC because of the car's lightweight construction (about 900 pounds). Unfortunately, the car was condemned by both Consumer Guide®, which called it "the most unsafe car on the market," and Ralph Nader, the Unsafe at Any Speed public watchdog.
A brainstorm of putting go-cart bodies on 360s and renting them out on enclosed tracks called Fastrak wasn't the solution, either, so Bricklin bailed out. It was now 1972, and the stage was set for his next move.
Bricklin envisioned a car that would set America on its ear, one that not only met but far exceeded all safety standards. That car would be the Bricklin SV-1 -- Safety Vehicle-1 -- promoted as "the first production car that is truly worthy of being called a safety vehicle." Gull-wing doors, hyped as "practical, as well as safer than ordinary doors," were part of the package.
The car would sell for $3,700, the same price as a 1972 Chevy Impala and fully $1,500 less than a Corvette Stingray. It would be available to the average person who could do his own repairs with readily available American parts. The automotive climate was right and the time was now!
To see how Bricklin embarked on his dream with the first Bricklin concept car, continue to the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
The First Bricklin Concept Car
The first Bricklin concept car, latter dubbed Grey Ghost, was built by Bruce Meyers of Meyers Manx dune buggy fame in California. Its initial powerplant was a Valiant Slant Six. But that engine, as well as an Opel powerplant from General Motors of Germany, was tossed aside. No matter, the first design was unfeasible for production, anyway. A total redesign was necessary.
Prototype number one was originally to be fitted with an Argentinean motor and five-speed manual transmission, but it didn't arrive in time and was replaced by an American Motors drivetrain. This was to be the forerunner of the 1974 SV-1, 772 vehicles powered by AMC's trusty 360-cubic-inch V-8 with a four-barrel carb.
Prototypes one, two, and three were a collaboration by Bricklin Vehicle Corporation; Herb Grasse Design; and AVC Engineering, a fabrication shop run by Bob Urbant and Tom Monroe. Monroe was responsible for the final chassis design.
The first SV-1s were hand assembled by designer Herb Grasse, whose company was made up of a group of young, motivated designers and modelers eager to share the experience of creating a new car. The initial body was developed in clay to manufacturing tolerances. Using automotive styling techniques on clay mock-ups and visual aids, Grasse was responsible for the total design.
AVC Engineering's Tom Monroe was selected Chief Engineer of Design. He was fully responsible for chassis development and the handling personality of the car. Mike Steifanti replaced Tom as Chief Engineer after Tom left for dubious and sundry reasons. Allan Cross came on board from Ford to help plan the building of the chassis, and shuffled over to John Z. DeLorean's new operation after the factory shutdown. AVC's Livonia, Michigan, facility later doubled as a dealer prep and customer service center.
Herb Grasse, an alumni of the prestigious California Art Center College of Design, took the early mock-up of the interior, instrument panel, and crash pad layout and fine tuned it. He jettisoned the original haphazard pod-like effect, creating instead a considerably more driver-friendly cockpit.
Dashboard visibility, though somewhat hampered by the leather-covered steering wheel, was greatly enhanced via improved placement of the gauges. The combination of full instrumentation and back-up idiot lights was a plus for even the most discriminating Mario Andretti "wannabe."
The barely below-eye-level crash pad made it mandatory for the driver to sit upright in the "no-slip security" of simulated suede bucket seats (a safety feature). Visibility was further hampered by the sharp slope of the rear hatch glass, necessary to maintain the sleek lines incorporated into the space-like vehicle. This was a rarity in the early Seventies when a 240Z was considered the ultimate sports car.
Further, the rear quarter windows riding behind the shark-like gills on the wide B-pillars were tiny, more ornamental than functional. Wheelwell openings were deliberately made large enough to accommodate a set of road-burning 15-inch tires without sacrificing turning radius or raising the beltline to an unacceptable level. The low roofline would most certainly flatten tall people's "pomp" hairdos, but the high hood center promised unlimited power out of a V-8 that roared like a lion when asked.
Following the prototype designs and consultation work, Herb Grasse went on the Bricklin payroll in 1974, and most people with the firm migrated to Scottsdale, Arizona, to establish a second design center. Bricklin wanted to keep his finger on America's automotive pulse.
After the firm folded, Grasse moved to Australia to become Principal Designer for Ford Asia-Pacific. There he remained for 16 years, after which he returned to Scottsdale to found Grasse's Motoring Archives, one of the largest automotive literature outlets in the Southwest. Though retired, Grasse's interest in the Bricklin remains strong.
To see how the designs translated into the 1974 Bricklin SV-1, continue to the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
1974 Bricklin SV-1
A rolling chassis was used to make sure the new federal five-mph bumper standards were met for the 1974 Bricklin SV-1. Jeff Neal's group testing the first prototype mule car included a volunteer, Glenn Nutting, who would be abused as the human "test dummy." He was tied to a box behind the steering wheel and instructed to keep it in a straight line.
Lacking the funding for sophisticated facilities, test equipment, or basic tools for conducting legitimate crash tests, the group loaded boxes with rocks to equal the weight of a completed vehicle. They then pushed the mule as hard as possible down a loading dock ramp with Nutting aboard. Hanging on for dear life and likely questioning his own sanity, he and the test vehicle slammed into the dock with a resounding crash.
Amid the cheers and back slapping from the engineers, there came a wail of pain emanating from the cloud of dust settling around the crashed chassis. Seeing Nutting upright on his wooden box, everyone had assumed that all had gone well. Upon closer inspection, however, they noticed a large six-inch splinter protruding from Nutting's derriere.
Without hesitation, they dropped his drawers and removed the offending splinter with needle-nose pliers. After all the figures, specifications, and the splinter were in, the test was hailed a resounding success.
New York's exclusive Four Seasons restaurant hosted the premiere unveiling of the first Bricklin released to the public. This initial showing was held to quell the uneasiness spreading among investors eager to see Bricklins rolling off the still uncompleted assembly line. The showing also served to stem the rising tide of public anticipation that had been building since the car's first announcement.
In Livonia, the show Bricklins had to be drained of all fluids and the interiors still needed to be installed. The latter arrived just one hour before the planned departure time to New York. Fortunately, the trip itself was uneventful. When the crew arrived at 2:00 a.m., however, they discovered that entry into the restaurant was up two flights of stairs, through a doorway two inches too narrow, followed by a left turn squeezing past a million-dollar Picasso, and onto a rotating platform fabricated on a raised fountain in the center of the room.
To get to the turntable required building a set of guide tracks, rotating the car on its side, and strong-arming it through the corridors. When the doors opened the following evening at 6:00 p.m., the car sat high with the gull-wing doors opened; it appeared ready to take off in flight.
Out West, a red Bricklin -- prototype number three -- was trailered for its debut at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, where it was displayed in a private room for West Coast dealers and investors, as well as Bricklin's Scottsdale staff. Accent lights dramatized the car's black-out bodyside moldings, trim, and absence of gaudy chrome or stainless steel emblems and bumpers -- which would eventually become the standard look of the 1980s.
Invited guests, who walked past armed guards and metal detectors, were lucky enough to meet famed race-car driver Bobby Unser and Hollywood's leading man, Paul Newman (neither of whom were actually involved in the Bricklin venture).
To learn about the formation of General Vehicle, Incorporated, which manufactured the Bricklin SV-1, continue to the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
The Formation of General Vehicle, Incorporated
The formation of General Vehicle, Incorporated (GVI), in Scottsdale; Bricklin Motorcars, Limited, the assembly plant of Bricklin Canada, Limited, in St. John, New Brunswick; and the GVI design group in Livonia rounded out the companies Bricklin founded to support his car manufacturing venture.
With one company supporting the work of the next, a virtually guaranteed market was assured for this small network of related entities. Bricklin was by now a firmly established jet-setter trying to keep track of his far-flung empire. But it was now time to rein in the spiraling costs associated with a loosely knit organization top-heavy with management personnel and a payroll gone wild.
Enter Albert Bricklin, Malcolm's father. Although unfamiliar with the automotive manufacturing industry, he was qualified to aid the fledgling firm. With the inclusion of The First Pennsylvania Bank in the finance package, an accounting and complete audit would surely be forthcoming. Controls would have to be instituted to help guarantee a continued infusion of working capital. It would also be necessary to establish a solid relationship with New Brunswick government accountants, whose nervous presence seemed to hover continually over the books and receipts.
There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians, so Albert gave his head honchos a simple directive to write down their past six months' achievements and what they hoped to accomplish in the next six months. By 11:30 a.m. that same day, one director had already resigned, and within a week four more left.
Cost-cutting progress included trimming the fat at every level. The bottomless cup of funding was being siphoned off faster than it could be replenished -- the well was drying up. Creditors were becoming restless and demanding payment for their wares, while some suppliers put Bricklin on COD.
At the production plant, BCL Plant Manager Morey Adams was facing his own problems. Coming out of Chrysler as Production Manager, he was used to a different type of operation. While attempting to orient himself in a new direction with the assistance of Ed Jones, Director of Operations for GVI, Morey was also very conscious of quality control. After all, his incentive pay relied on it. Jones brought with him a wealth of information via his background as Production Manager of Ford of Canada and Head of Quality Control for General Motors in Oshawa, Ontario.
For more on the production of the 1974 and 1975 Bricklin SV-1, continue to the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
Production of the 1974 and 1975 Bricklin SV-1
In late 1974, with production of the 1974 and 1975 Bricklin SV-1 imminent, John Z. DeLorean, then head of Chevrolet, visited the Grey Ghost in Livonia. He negotiated with Bricklin, offering his services to source parts and smooth the way with his numerous Detroit contacts.
But Bricklin wouldn't meet his price, so DeLorean founded a company to develop an Irish-built car with a gull-winged stainless steel body and more than a passing resemblance to the Grey Ghost. Later, when his company failed amidst allegations of drugs, payoffs, and federal entrapment, DeLorean passed into history.
Bricklin, the quintessential promoter and salesman, signed his name in a brochure, saying that "When we decided to build the BRICKLIN, we knew that it could not be just another car. We dedicated ourselves first and foremost towards building a car that would be as safe as we could possibly make it. A vehicle that would provide people with greater protection from the havoc of our highways. Our car also had to be beautiful to look at, durable and easy to maintain."
Bricklin put together a promotional video of his car to use in his search for investors. It didn't take the charismatic Bricklin long to find believers in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. The province not only anted up a goodly sum of cash, but provided a plant suitable for automobile manufacturing and subsidized the hourly rate paid to the local workers.
One of the many employees to view the premises was the new manufacturing engineer lured away from Ford with the promise of two Bricklin cars and "a chicken in every pot." The site of the empty body plant when Terry Tanner arrived on March 3, 1974, was -- at its very best -- bleak. Without the necessary tooling readily available, how were they to produce a car by June 1974?
Enter Adolf Dubil, the new Head of Plastics Engineering and Tooling. Formerly a Chrysler toolmaker, the Polish-accented survivor of a German World War II concentration camp graduated from the University of Detroit with a 4.0 average at the age of 40, while working full time. Dubil had the inside knowledge needed to deal with suppliers and considered every setback a new challenge. Within weeks, the factory was starting to fill up with machinery and equipment.
Quality control was a constant problem on an assembly line screaming for organization. Most of the assembly line workers were hired in a province suffering from an unemployment rate approaching 25 percent. Unfortunately, because of their previous occupations, the workers cleared out as soon as hunting season opened. At times, only two women were left holding down the line in an otherwise deserted plant. Lessons were learned and changes implemented.
One of the most important start-up men at GVI was also Bricklin's right-hand man, Dick Volmer, Vice-President. He was the one who negotiated the first batch of engines from AMC. All 1974 Bricklins boasted a 360-cubic-inch V-8 with four-barrel carburetor, AMC Hornet suspension, transmission, and rear end.
Reportedly, 137 cars (of the 772 1974s) were equipped with a four-speed manual transmission. Performance figures rated favorably against the contemporary Corvette, which most auto magazines used as a point of comparison.
The 1975 SV-1 (2,100 built) came equipped with Ford's 351W (Windsor) V-8 with a two-barrel carb and Ford FMX automatic transmission, this due to AMC's reported inability to produce engines beyond its in-house needs for 1975. No manual transmission models were made for 1975 because Ford Motor Company didn't receive EPA approval for manual gearboxes mated to the 351W.
To read more about the problems with the Bricklin SV-1, see the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
Problems with the Bricklin SV-1
Problems with the Bricklin SV-1 meant that Malcolm Bricklin's dream of an affordable, gull-winged vehicle that doubled as a high-performance sports car was destined to be greatly modified before the first car rolled off the assembly line. Its aerodynamic design was a tribute to its designers' foresight, and auto magazines and car enthusiasts welcomed the SV-1 as the first serious challenger to the American "King of the Hill" Corvette. Alas, the dream was not to be.
The first sign of trouble surfaced in the attempt to mate heretofore non-compatible materials. Body panels were molded out of an acrylic material which also contained the color and was backed by fiberglass. The acrylic came in five "safety" colors, reportedly the five most visible colors on the road: Safety White, Safety Red, Safety Orange, Safety Suntan, and Safety Green.
The acrylic-fiberglass laminate was highly susceptible to temperature changes, appearing to have a mind of its own. On the plus side, the acrylic skin was impervious to dents, scratches, and resisted all the imperfections associated with paints and primers. Twenty years later, a wax job on an acrylic skin would return it to its former showroom gloss. Although a 10-pound sledgehammer would only scratch the surface, the formula was its own worst enemy in terms of production tolerances.
The second major hurdle was dumped into the lap of the engineering department by a special request from Malcolm Bricklin. He wanted automatic gull-wing doors at any cost. After many different solutions were offered, a hydraulic system driven by an electric motor was finally settled upon.
Unfortunately, a high failure rate and resulting warranty repairs continued to rise as the cars were distributed along the Eastern seaboard to more than 300 dealers. The system was complex and foreign to mechanics in the field. That aggravated the unreliability problem, giving the car a bad reputation and a lot of bad press. It was in fall 1975, after the factory closed, that Terry Tanner developed a reliable door system based on a vacuum pump and air pressure.
Reliability was a key that Bricklin had a hard time latching on to. As it turned out, the two most unique aspects of the car -- the body material and the gull-wing doors -- were at the same time its most valuable assets and its costliest liabilities.
For reviews of the Bricklin SV-1, continue to the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
Reviews of the Bricklin SV-1
Reviews of the Bricklin SV-1 were a mixture of praise and criticism for everything from design to performance. Here is a sampling of what the automotive press had to say:
Motor Trend (May 1975):
- The Chevrolet folks dismiss the Bricklin as a feeble effort with little to redeem itself save the flying doors. It is still the only other plastic bodied two-seater in town.
- The secret pretender to the throne is not yet in the same ballpark with the Corvette, but the problems are all correctable.
- Driver environment is a contrast between excellent and poor. Dash layout is excellent with a full set of instruments, but the engine gauges are unlabeled. Although the quality of the interior vinyl is excellent, the trimming is poor.
- Those grand and glorious doors are really a kick for the first couple of days. Then you enter phase two, where the novelty has worn off. Phase three is when you remember the time it takes to open and close the doors -- eight seconds.
Car and Driver (May 1975):
- Out of the tears, toil, money and show-biz flackery, a tangible threat to the Corvette has appeared. Skeptics be damned; the Bricklin lives!
- On paper, [the Corvette and Bricklin] are almost interchangeable-with the Corvette enjoying a small performance edge. But live with them and they become completely different cars. Each has a character so individual that you know immediately if your mount came from St. Louis or New Brunswick.
- The Bricklin's interior problems ... soon cancel much of its tremendous novelty advantage over the Corvette. Every furnishing seems to work against basic comfort. The roof is too low for headroom, the throttle pedal raises your right knee into interference with the leather steering-wheel rim and the lumpy seat doesn't offer any support for your thighs.
- And it's a hard car to see out of as well. The thick-section A-pillars block a fat wedge out of your forward vision, and a belt line hiked up to earlobe level cuts off the side view.
- ...Bricklin's engineers would do well to take a careful look at the general quality level of their materials. The car looks a little too much like a carefully finished Fiberfab with its glued-down vinyl trim, carpeting that doesn't quite cover the fiberglass floor and flimsy plastic shift gate...
Road & Track (April 1975):
- ... the high box-section perimeter frame and the encircling rollcage structure should provide occupants with considerable passive safety and the massive bumper system is claimed to have better-than-legal impact resistance.
- Most of the body panels fit poorly and neither the hood nor the decklid would release properly.
- There is no weatherstripping between the doors and sills, so air and water pour through the openings.
- We have only one thing to say about the 4-speed: don't order one. Only a masochist or a circus strongman could endure its 90-lb clutch effort and its unacceptably high shifter effort for long.
- On rough roads . . . the Bricklin's live rear axle and high unsprung weight betray the car and the back end hops and skitters more than the Corvette's with its independently sprung rear wheels.
- We'd suggest that what the Bricklin really needs now is less creativity and a lot more basic Detroit-style practical automotive engineering, plus a measure of European-style weight saving.
To see how the Bricklin SV-1 reached the end of production, continue to the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
The End of the Bricklin SV-1
September 1975 marked the end of the Bricklin SV-1. Premier Hatfield, the leading proponent of the Bricklin venture and a political hero to the people of New Brunswick for bringing in a manufacturing concern and raising the employment potential, was losing ground. An additional $10 million that Bricklin requested from the province to continue operations was not to materialize.
The factory thus shut down, and was put into receivership on September 25. Armed guards were posted to prevent looting or ex-employees from entering the factory. Cars stood half-assembled on the line, some without engines, doors, or even bodies. Creditors flew in like vultures to clean out the remains. Employment contracts and promises became worthless; salaries went unpaid.
Weeds would again grow up around what had briefly been a thriving factory. And despite rumors (and hopes) to the contrary, its doors would remain closed because Bricklin's efforts to refinance were fruitless. To add insult to injury, Bricklin suffered personal bankruptcy as a result of his efforts.
George Byer and Sol Shank of Consolidated Motors, an automotive liquidator out of Columbus, Ohio, came in and purchased the majority of the parts and remaining cars left on the line. These cars surfaced later, completely assembled, some sold as 1976 vehicles. Though not assembled at the factory, they sported official-looking VIN plates. Authority to finish the remaining 1976 cars had been granted to Consolidated Motors at the time of the auction.
Some ex-employees continued to service and work on Bricklins after the fact because of the lack of service expertise generally available. Dealerships designated as warranty stations refused to continue servicing Bricklins because previous warranty claims remained unpaid by the factory.
Among the former employees of Bricklin, Jeff Neal, Glenn Nutting, and Terry Tanner provided parts and service long after the factory closed. Tanner developed improvements, new products, and updates from the original that have been instrumental in the preservation of SV-ls. Working in a hangar-sized shop near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, outside the small community of Bedford, Tanner stored upwards of 35 Bricklins while painstakingly restoring, repairing, and painting others.
Tanner was also instrumental in establishing an international organization whose members banded together in desperation to exchange information, parts, and tech tips. Bricklin International's members own the majority of the Bricklins still on the road. Most of the remaining cars are entered into the club's database, the Brick-file, a compilation of SV-1s by color, state, and identification number (which lists color, engine, transmission, and production date).
BI's membership has taken advantage of the technical information and expertise available to make their SV-1s better than ever. Bricklins entered in car shows across the country triumphed in their category, and are regaining the respect lost when the cars were in production.
The reputation of undependable doors, falling door glass, and poor electrical systems is now a thing of the past. Bricklin SV-1s already considered a collectible in automotive circles and are now reaching for their very own "classic" status.
For more information on cars, see: