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Bricklin memories: The high price of coolness

The Bricklin turned lots of heads, but the Canadian-built sports car's problems were hellish.

Published December 7, 2012

I’ve always liked cars, and over the years have owned quite a variety of cars — at one point there were six in my collection. Back in the 1970s, I put this interest to use in graduate school at the University of Toronto where I did a dissertation on the relationship between hot rodding, the automobile industry, and the Muscle Car phenomenon.

I’m down to one right now, a ’58 Chev Impala convertible. I used to do a lot of street racing and hanging out at drive-ins with a ’66 Shelby GT350. Some of my cars were terrible, some were terrific, and some were terrifying.

But the one car that is hard to categorize is the Bricklin I owned from 1975 to 1980. I bought the Bricklin from a high school kid in Hamilton who won it in a drawing. He couldn’t afford the insurance and I was the first one at his door. The car was Safety White, VIN 2773, built near the end of the production. It had the 351 Ford Windsor engine and automatic transmission and had 104 miles on it.

More: An interview with Malcolm Bricklin

The story of the Bricklin 2773 experience is one of enthusiastic ambivalence.

Enthusiastic because it is an underdog American-Canadian tale of Nothing to Something Big (I love underdogs), to Big Mess (I love messes), and then to Nothing (I love orphan cars).

Enthusiastic, because the car was cool as hell. From its design as a rolling roll cage, its unique sculptured body, and its powered gull-wing doors that opened vertically, the car demanded attention and aroused just about everyone who saw it. Including me.

Ambivalence because the car was built in hell. The builders were inexperienced New Brunswickians, the managers were nepotists, parts got stuck at the border and then suppliers refused to send them without cash upfront, American Motors stopped supplying engines and Ford was forced into a deal; there were serious rumours about industrial sabotage. It added up to bankruptcy after three years of quasi-production.

Ambivalence because I wanted to love the car, but it wouldn’t let me. 2773 was flashy and cool, all right, but looks aren’t everything. The flaws, minor and major, sometimes added up to driving madness. Of course, I did drive it like mad, and I really wanted to forgive because it was a brand-new car and you should expect “teething problems.” The price of being on the leading edge and all of that.

I found out right away that the air conditioning wasn’t cool. During the first rain storm, I found out that it leaked in rivers — I almost floated out the hatchback on the Queensway. I found that the motor that raised and lowered the doors burned out after a month and drained the battery. I wound up getting a second motor so that I’d always have one in the car and coming out of the repair shop. Getting into 2773 via the hatchback when the doors wouldn’t open was always an exercise in comedy. Other owners dumped the motors and used a compressed air system to open and close the doors.

Bricklin interiors were all the same. They looked good from the outside, but they were rather chintzy, poorly finished, and low on the wear index. The carpets took a beating from the water leaks.

This was the mid-1970s and new cars did not reek of high performance — the Muscle Car era was over. 2773 handled reasonably well when pushed and reports said it held its own with the Corvettes of the day — but that’s not saying much. In fact, like the Corvettes, 2773 was basically a stone on the street. Unlike the Corvettes, 2773 had a softer, more comfortable suspension. It just didn’t have enough power to test its mettle. But it was a great boulevard cruiser and was well-mannered on the highway; it lapped up the miles. Unfortunately, the cockpit was cramped and the driver’s seat was lumpy. Two hours of driving pushed my endurance. One year, a good friend and I took 2773 to the Indy 500. To say we minimized the time on the road — can you say pedal to the carpet — is an understatement. But I did like the steering wheel. But it placed such that you couldn’t see most of the gauges. The car had no ashtray.

Best and worst of all was how provocative 2773 was. It never failed to enthuse — people would wave, smile and point — or make obscene gestures. When I was teaching at Queen’s University, I parked in the faculty lot. The young ladies in the dorm facing the lot would often leave notes on the windshield. Sometimes, these notes were quite explicit about what the ladies wanted to do in the car. But most often, they said, “keep parking here, we love to watch the doors go up and down.”

Other enthusiasts included the cops. The Mounties and local cops were especially happy to see 2773 coming down the road. No matter what time of day or night, they could feel the coolness coming and they apparently liked to pull me over. Half the time it was just to examine the car, but the other half was to give me a speeding ticket. Arriving in Kingston at 5:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, driving by the lake with not another car around for two miles, the local cop tags me for 40 in a 30. Not saying I didn’t deserve it, but if I had been in my beater, the local wouldn’t even have seen me — I know, because I’d been by there many times in my beater and been ignored.

Finally, in 1978, I had a chance to buy a true ’64 Shelby Cobra. I couldn’t afford both the Bricklin and the Cobra. Considering that the Cobra was a side curtains, overheating, rough-riding monster of a car that I wouldn’t dare park on the street. Considering all the work I had done on 2773 and that it was sexy, air-conditioned, OK on short hauls, and drew a crowd. Considering that both were going to be appreciating in value, I decided to pass on the Cobra. It still hurts.

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