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The unsinkable Malcolm Bricklin

Published December 7, 2012

A month ago, Toronto Star Wheels columnist Tim Miller wrote about the Bricklin, a futuristic sports car built in New Brunswick between 1974 and ’76. In October, inventor Malcolm Bricklin and his son Jonathan attended the Waterloo Region Film Festival where the documentary, The Entrepeneur, a film by Jonathan Bricklin about his father, was featured. Malcolm Bricklin sat down afterward for an interview with motorsport historian John R. Wright, which we present here.

A first-person account of owning a Bricklin, written by former Queen’s University prof. Alan Listiak, is featured on W30. We hope you enjoy the interview and Listiak’s reminiscence.

John R. Wright: Malcolm, tell me about your first car.

Malcolm Bricklin: That’s easy. It was a Triumph TR3 and I bought it for $1,500 in 1959. I guess that’s what got me going with cars.

JRW: Malcolm, let’s cut to the chase with some history on your ill-fated Bricklin SV1 sports car. Tell me about the story of how you came to build the car and where you chose to build it.

MB: Well, it started in 1972. I had decided that the new safety rules had resulted in ugly cars. What did safety have with beauty? My drive was to design a car with gull-wing doors and 25 m.p.h. bumpers.

I eventually got 10 m.p.h. bumpers and gull-wing doors that, when they opened, did not impede traffic. They told me you couldn’t do that, do doors like that because of all the force on doors when the windows were down.

For the safety bumpers, which would go in and out on impact, I said the wheels on airplanes go up and down when they land, and so I got the idea of doing the same thing for bumpers. So, I went to an aviation company for a hydraulic mechanism to use for my bumpers and got a similar mechanism for $20.

JRW: Let’s get to the specifics of how you came to Canada of all places to build the car.

MB: I was asked to look at an abandoned Renault plant in Montreal, Que. However, relations with the French unions would have been a strain. I didn’t need that.

The person who took me there later introduced me to (then New Brunswick) Premier Richard Hatfield. I met him and we bonded and became good friends, in spite of all that happened later. He was a talented man. Politics was his life. He wanted to bring recognition to the province of New Brunswick. He wanted to get people away from the traditional jobs of logging and fishing.

We got an abandoned shoe factory in Saint John and, because it was not large enough for the bodies to be painted, we got an empty paint factory in Minto. We trained people but we had some problems.

JRW: What problems?

MB: Well, in 120 weeks, we had an 80 per cent turnover in staff, because the workers would work for four months and then go on unemployment for a year. They had always done that and it was built into the culture.

JRW: What other problems did you face?

MB: We were undercapitalized and I accept the responsibility for that. You look at the Bricklin SV1 today and I say, “If, If, If.” Part of it was success but the failure started with me. You know, upon reflection, I don’t look at it as a failure, especially as a Canadian failure. It was an American and Canadian failure.

But, you learn by failure. I went to New Brunswick with no experience in building automobiles. It was pride that kept us going. We built a great car and didn’t have time to correct its faults. To me it was the saddest moment I ever experienced.

To repeat, the car was used politically and it became a political conversation. I was not given the time, and seeing the car disappear was the worst thing.

JRW: I was told you offered John DeLorean the company?

MB: John called me and, I should say that many of my people came from Corvette. He was a thorn in the side of GM. I flew to Detroit and John picked me up. He said to me he was impressed and to be president of the company — which was what I offered him, he would want $1,600,000. Then I said, “Come and meet me.” We went to my bank — I had told them to put up my Subaru stock as a guarantee because I was going to bring in John DeLorean and they were all happy and we all agreed. It fell apart. He called me and told me he wanted $1,600,000 after taxes. That was not a deal breaker but he said I think we’re going to have a problem with whose name goes on the car. That was no deal and there was no way anybody else’s name was going to go on my car. Later he called me again. He said Malcolm I’m going to build a car, I told him that he should budget $300 million for a paint factory!

JRW: However, he chose a different material in the construction of his car.

MB: Yes. He chose to make his car out of stainless steel. And he chose to make his car in Ireland. I had been offered Mexico and Ireland as places to make my car, but I didn’t want to go to Ireland, as they were shooting people there.

He also asked me what I thought of the GM engineers we had brought to the company. He hired some but he didn’t take as many as I thought he would. I told him if he was ready to brave the dangers of Ireland, to go ahead. I think he got $200 million from the government, and you know how that turned out.

JRW: So, the key is you were undercapitalized as you mentioned before. Compare that situation with the Fisker and Tesla companies.

MB: Look at the Tesla car company today. They are producing cars but have been funded to the tune of a billion dollars. Back to the Bricklin. There were political problems, too, as I said.

Premier Hatfield used the Bricklin to win one election. He took three of the cars and the first one was at the front of the parades he’d run. His mother was in the second one, and he rode around in a third with the gull-wing doors open and wearing a Superman suit to publicize what he had done for the province.

The Bricklin car did have its problems, and he told me this: “I used the car to win an election and now it runs my life. I’ll never be able to escape it.” It became a millstone around his neck and it became a political football.

JRW: So let’s come back to the car itself. You said you wanted to build a car.

MB: But, I didn’t want to own a car factory. I just didn’t think far enough ahead.

JRW: That’s a good overview, and now let’s get to the construction process of the car. How did Henry Kissinger get in on the Bricklin?

MB: Henry Kissinger was my consultant on the Yugo project and so was Lawrence Eagleburger, who was on the board of the Yugo importing company. Later, I went to Kissinger’s brother who ran a car parts factory. His company built a complete bumper assembly for the front and the rear. It would retract when it hit something and then would come back out without any damage.

JRW: Then there was a hurdle to get over with the paint job and the material from which you were going to make the bodies.

MB: We had an acrylic body strengthened with fibreglass. Both materials expanded at different rates in the heat and cold. With the prototypes, we bonded them in the 116 F heat of Phoenix and then put them into air-conditioned buildings. They split apart.

What could we do? We had to invent glue and marry the two parts together — by the way, we were 60 days from production and we had to invent that chemical. After the bodies were completed and production began, we never had that splitting problem ever in the field. We solved that problem with the help of Owens Corning.

Then there were the doors and the windows. No one had figured out how to put roll-down windows in gull-wing doors. We solved that problem, too.

JRW: But, by now you are in production with a car that is basically unfinished. In addition, you couldn’t get the gull-wing doors to go up or down very quickly, as you found out one rainy day.

MB: Right. One rainy day, I went out to one of the cars and pressed the button to open the doors. It took six seconds for the door to open and I got in. It took another six seconds for the doors to close and I was soaked. What to do?

JRW: But you got a fix through a friend you called Mr. Turner, because as you told me earlier you couldn’t remember his first name.

MB: I am having a senior’s moment! I went to Detroit and tried to get some help but there was nothing. Then a Mr. Turner came to me and told me he knew how to solve the problem. We hired him to do that. He said get rid of the hydraulic function and use compressed air to raise and lower the doors instantly. By this time, the car had already been in production and, by the time we got the fix, we were out of business.

JRW: You were unable to solve your cost and quality problems. However, your company made 2,854 cars. As a result of your failure with the Bricklin, you have had your detractors.

MB: If you choose to walk on stage, there will be people for you and people against you.

JRW: Would it be fair to describe you as a deal maker?

MB: It’s not that I make deals. I put together things I want to do.

JRW: So, what deals and projects are you working on right now?

MB: I am working on two things. One is a three-wheeler, a car, an electric one with double the range and with a very low weight. I am also working on a three-wheeler that will become an air car. It will not rise more than 10 feet because, if it did, I would run into problems with the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency).

We won’t have any problems with the EPA because it’s electric and, because it’s electric, we won’t have any problems with NHTSA over the three wheels. It could also be used in developing countries with no roads or infrastructure. Also in the U.S., we have 600,000 bridges — 10 per cent of which are ready to fall down. There is no money in either state or federal budgets to fix them. Our road systems are deteriorating and this vehicle would not be affected by deteriorating roads.

JRW: This concept is futuristic, almost too unbelievable.

MB: It would have a zero to 60 (m.p.h.) time of four seconds and would go 200 miles (320 km) between charges. It would use multi-bladed wind turbine. Each turbine is its own generator, sending a charge into capacitors, and it would have one-, two- or three-wheel drive.

JRW: What is the timetable for such a car?

MB: We have built three prototypes, but it’s not ready for mass production. Perhaps we are 20 months away from getting it going. The air car is not ready beyond the concept stage right now.

I have been thinking about this for quite a while. I bought a hovercraft, but that was no way to go, as it made too much noise and threw stuff around. I met a fellow who has a patent for an air car and I have been dealing with him.

His concept works like this. It acts like an airfoil. It is a unique system. I could sell this type of vehicle to the police or fire departments and they could use them for rescue.

JRW: Some people might hear this and become very negative about your ideas.

MB: There are always people who look at the negatives. Something has to be done about transportation today. I have to try it at least.

JRW: You’ve had success and you’ve experienced failure. If you had it to do all over again, what might you do differently?

MB: I wouldn’t change a damn thing!

wheels@thestar.ca

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