For all its innovation, Malcolm Bricklin's concept for a safer sports car was doomed to failure. Alastair Clements drives one of the few to reach British shores.
Motor industry bigwig dreams of building his own sports car. Fashions bizarre wedge-shaped, gullwing-doored contraption from unconventional materials. Blags a load of cash from a government desperate to reduce unemployment and constructs a factory. Builds a few cars – badly – then goes bust under a cloud. It’s a familiar tale to most classic fans, only this time the Henry Ford wannabe isn’t John Zachary De Lorean but Pennsylvania-born Malcolm Bricklin. Instead of the De Lorean DMC-12’s brushed stainless steel, his creation uses acrylic and glassfibre panelwork. And the country whose resources were taken advantage of wasn’t Northern Ireland but Canada. Oh, and one other small point: the 1974 SV1 arrived some seven years before the more famous De Lorean saga began to unfold.
If you haven’t seen a Bricklin SV1 before – or even heard of it – you can be forgiven, because this example is one of only a handful to cross the Atlantic to Europe. Although it was marketed as the ‘Safety Vehicle 1’, the Bricklin’s lines are hardly the usual plastic-clad, pedestrian-friendly curves of the tree-hugging genre. Nor is it any coincidence that the SV1’s dimensions are broadly similar to those of a contemporary Corvette, as Bricklin told Brock Yates in Car & Driver: “People will buy safety if they don’t have to look at it and they don’t have to pay for it.” Thus Bruce Meyers was tasked with the job of designing an affordable, crash-worthy sports car. Further design input came from Marshall Hobart and Ford-sourced Herb Grasse, customiser Dick Dean built the first prototype and engineer Tom Monroe was also poached from Ford to turn their ideas into reality.
Read the sales literature and it’s hard not to be impressed by the ‘revolutionary new safety features’ incorporated into the car: ‘Energy absorbing urethane bumper, bumper height side rails, Gull-wing doors don’t swing out in traffic, steel frame that surrounds occupants, front and rear energy absorbers, fuel tank enclosure... the first production vehicle that is truly worthy of being called a safety vehicle.’ That’s before you get to the paintwork – or, more correctly, the colour-impregnated acrylic gelcoat – which was offered in ‘Safety Green’, ‘Safety Suntan’, ‘Safety White’, ‘Safety Orange’, plus the decidedly tangerine ‘Safety Red’ you see here. Bricklin also claimed to be working on further ideas for later versions, including anti-lock brakes and externally mounted cameras to aid visibility.
Blame the clumsy pillars for the restricted view, but they are thick for a reason – to disguise the hefty steel ‘Safety cell’ beneath. Yet, pillars aside, in many ways it’s a clean shape. The big bumpers (mounted on shock absorbers that will withstand 10mph impacts without damage, rather than the 5mph required by Federal law) are well integrated, the wipers disappear beneath the bonnet lip and the black-painted lower body helps to prevent the car appearing too heavy and gives the side profile a long, sleek look. Wander around to the front, though, and it appears tall and narrow, with the Turbo Mag wheels sitting proud of the wheelarches, and there are too many ideas going on for a truly cohesive style.
Though its maker claimed the combination was ‘many times stronger than steel or fiber glass alone’ and ‘impervious to the elements’, the unusual bodywork finish – made up of ‘space-age’ vacuum-formed acrylic bonded to glassfibre panels – is pretty poor, nearly as rippled as the naff faux air vents in the nose and B-pillar that substitute brightwork for decoration. But who needs showy chrome when you have a party trick such as the electro-hydraulic ‘gullwing’ doors? Appearing for the first time on a production car since the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, those 90lb doors were problematic from the start. There’s a hint inside, where a little trim panel by your elbow proudly boasts ‘SV1 safety latch’ – pull the cover off and you’ll find a conventional handle beneath for when the complex electro-hydraulic systems fail and you’re locked in.
And fail they did. Even when they were working they took a geriatric 9 secs to wheeze open, which is why this example – as most – now uses a compressed-air system developed by Bricklin specialist Terry Tanner. It’s certainly impressive: turn the key in the conventional barrel lock mounted just aft of the driver’s door, push what looks like an electric window switch and the door flings itself silently skywards at an alarming rate. Press the other way and the door drops with a hiss and a clunk as the latch engages. The system is still not perfect: corner too enthusiastically and the switches on the centre console are ideally placed to release the doors with your elbow should you forget to disable them.
Look ahead from the low-set seat and it’s impossible to see the nose, which plunges down away from sight, but ignore the great brown slab of a dashboard and it’s quite an evocative view with pronounced humps over the big V8 and the front wheelarches. That narrow look from without translates to a cosy cabin, but there are no complaints about the driving position, which is reclined and comfortable – albeit with your head just brushing the padded rooflining. Ah yes, the trim. According to Bricklin it’s ‘a luxurious suede-like material’, giving ‘no-slip security’. In fact, he has an excuse for everything. No cigar lighter? ‘We don’t think smoking while driving is safe, we don’t want you dropping a hot cigarette in your lap and driving our beautiful car into a tree.’ Exterior looks a bit dull? Why that’s because there’s ‘no superfluous chrome trim to either rust or rip off’. Marketing genius.
By now you’ve learnt to take most of Bricklin’s claims with a pinch of salt – particularly when you read him admitting “I don’t give a shit about cars” in Car & Driver – so anticipation of the driving experience ahead is not heightened by promises of ‘impeccable’ handling, ‘designed to help keep you from getting into an accident in the first place’. But the SV1 is far from awful to drive. The steering is ridiculously light, but feels sharp and eager. There’s a reasonable 52:48 front/rear weight balance and not much roll – though the squeals of protest from the ageing doughnut-style BF Goodrich tyres when you get enthusiastic remind you that all of the safety gubbins makes this is a deceptively hefty car. Do anything sudden with the throttle or steering mid-corner and it all gets a bit wallowy and unseemly – this isn’t a car for chicanes – but for a car of its era and design (never mind ‘Canada’s sports car’, this car’s creation was an entirely American effort) it feels agile and poised.
After the drama of its looks and the proclamations of its maker, perhaps the biggest surprise is the Bricklin’s conventionality. It’s front-engined and rear-wheel drive, with most underpinnings – including the engine and transmission for the first year of production – from the stodgy AMC Hornet. Thankfully, this is a 1975 car and, for its second year, Bricklin abandoned the 360cu in AMC motor in favour of the 351cu in Ford ‘Windsor’ V8. Only 144 buyers opted for a four-speed manual in 1974, so for ’75 a three-speed auto – also Ford-sourced – was the only option. Despite the Windsor’s laziness and a reduction in power from 220bhp to 175bhp, if you hold it in gear for first and second it’ll outpace the AMC manual to 60mph by nearly a second.
It’s hardly surprising that a certain amount of development work continued into production. The SV1 went on sale in June ’74, just two years after Malcolm Bricklin had driven the prototype – itself a lash-up built in 83 days – to the First Pennsylvania Bank to raise capital for the project. Bricklin was just 35, but by all accounts a brilliant salesman. With the aid of a self-made movie, he drummed up more than $1m to get his project rolling and set up General Vehicle Corp in Detroit – later admitting that his success was “99% luck, 99% stupidity and having a whole helluva lot more balls than anybody else”.
Those prodigious balls next took Bricklin across the border to Canada where, after a knock-back from the Quebec government, he found himself in the office of the premier of New Brunswick. He left with some $9m of funding in industrial development loans to build two new factories in the high-unemployment areas of St John (assembly) and Minto (body production).
Not wanting to be another Preston Tucker, Bricklin tried to keep his new car under wraps until it was ready for production and he made a decent fist of silencing the press. Not so when the car was launched at a huge bash in Las Vegas with the likes of Paul Newman, Bobby Unser and a gaggle of Playboy babes present – not to mention a conference of car dealers in the same hotel. Before long he had signed up 247 dealers – each forking out an $8k franchise fee – and claimed to have $100m in advance orders.
Unfortunately, using a workforce made up largely of miners and lumberjacks to build a complicated car inevitably led to delays and production problems. When the press could get its hands on SV1s – they were so hard to come by that Road & Track had to borrow a customer’s car – reviews were mixed and, when owners finally took delivery, they found their Bricklins poorly put together. Doors failed, composite panels cracked, pop-up lights didn’t and roofs leaked. Instead of Bricklin’s projections of 100,000 sales after the fourth year, in the end less than 3000 SV1s were thrown together by the inexperienced St John workers.
By then carrying IOUs to the tune of more than $20m, the government of New Brunswick could bail out the embarrassing project no longer. Bricklin went into receivership in September 1975 and the last cars had trickled off the line by early 1976. There was a brief stay of execution that same year, when an SV1 was sent to Newport Pagnell for Aston Martin engineers to assess the pros and cons of putting the car back into production but, despite a positive reaction, the necessary funding was not forthcoming.
It’s ironic that in death the SV1 has achieved the kind of success it never approached in life. More than three decades on, some 2000 of the 2897 cars built reportedly remain on the road, their strong construction leading to longevity and giving rise to stories of owners stepping unscathed from terrible accidents. It seems the car, like its maker, was a survivor. But then, in the classic world, everyone loves a white elephant. Particularly if it’s Safety White.
This article was originally published in the September 2007 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.
Words: Alastair Clements; pictures: Tony Baker