(first posted 8/12/2015) Of all the cars I would expect to see on the way to the subway, I never would have anticipated spotting a Bricklin SV-1. Waking up that morning, I never would have expected to see one of just 2,854 gullwing door-wearing, Canadian-built “safety vehicles”, just two blocks from my apartment! And of all the days to see one, it had to show up on a day I slept in and was running late to work so I couldn’t take any pictures worth a damn!
That’s quite an assortment of newspaper stands! Oh, and there’s a V8-powered sports car behind them. Oh, if only I had had the time to chat to that driver and find out his Bricklin’s story. Fortunately, we at least have some much better pictures from the cohort, courtesy of Curbsider “improbcat”.
As for the Bricklin story itself: Malcolm Bricklin, showman and prolific spender, had spearheaded the importation of the wholly unsuitable Subaru 360 microcar to North America, but he wasn’t content to be a mere importer. He wanted to build! The SV-1 – short for Safety Vehicle 1 – would be a modern, safe sports car costing about as much as a Chevrolet Impala sedan.
The safety goal was achieved in both meaningful and bizarre ways. The SV-1 came only in a range of “safety colors”: red, green, orange, white and “suntan”. A striking fiberglass and bonded acrylic body, penned by Herb Grasse, was wrapped around a steel tube perimeter frame with an integrated roll cage. There were also hefty 12mph bumpers which added considerably to the car’s already long front overhang.
There was no cigarette lighter, as Malcolm loathed smoking. Ironic, because he was often blowing hot air. The interior did, however, feature full instrumentation and suede trim. The latter was also touted as a safety feature. Well, it was grippier than vinyl.
Underneath, the SV-1 utilized AMC Hornet suspension componentry. The front suspension used A-arms and coil springs, while out back sat a live rear axle and leaf springs. Curb weight was 3470 lbs, slightly heavier than a Corvette.
Unfortunately, the Bricklin arrived smack-bang in one of the worst eras for performance. Initially, the SV-1 came with AMC’s 360 V8 with a 4-barrel carbureter and 220 horsepower, mated to a four-speed manual transmission. The next year, the sole powertrain was a Windsor 351 V8 from Ford, with only a 2-bbl carb, 175 hp and the C4 Cruise O-Matic three-speed automatic. The automatic seemed ill-suited for the SV-1’s mission, but according to critics the four-speed manual wasn’t anything to write home about, either. Ford couldn’t obtain EPA certification for a manual transmission 351, and AMC lacked the availability to continue providing its 360 V8.
It took 8.3 seconds to race to 60 miles per hour with the 351, and it took the same amount of time to open and close the 90-pound gullwing doors.
Car & Driver found the Bricklin compared favorably, performance-wise, with the Corvette, but America’s Sweetheart’s was aging and performance was down. The SV-1 was criticized for its uncomfortable and cheap interior, with lumpy seats, tacky materials, awkward seating position, poor visibility and ample interior noise. Motor Trend said the SV-1 wasn’t quite in the Corvette’s ballpark, but all the car’s problems, chiefly its interior, could be easily fixed. But Road & Track was the most critical in their verdict, concluding the SV-1 needed “less creativity and a lot more basic Detroit-style practical automotive engineering, plus a measure of European-style weight saving.”
Therein lay the problem. With Malcolm Bricklin’s desire to make an exotic and distinctive sports car, engineering and performance sacrifices had been made. The gull-wing doors were attention-grabbing, but added excess weight. The money spent on developing them and the acrylic fiberglass body apparently left little money to refine the conventional mechanicals. That they could cobble a Corvette rival out of Hornet mechanicals was admirable, but there were still inadequacies like a live axle that skittered over bumps. Some critics even went so far as to describe handling as “sedan-like”.
Those faults were nothing compared to the SV-1’s Achille’s Heel: poor build quality. Production had proved to be a disaster. Bricklin had set up a factory in labor-hungry St. John, New Brunswick and received considerable provincial funding to the tune of $23 million (over $100 million in today’s money). The plan had been to manufacture 1,000 units per month, but production never even reached half that. A lot of the blame could be levelled on the inexperienced workers who were used to working in mining and agriculture; absenteeism was high, particularly during hunting season. Their new boss probably didn’t endear himself with his extravagant spending as their paychecks were delayed.
Build quality was atrocious. Initial models featured an undersized radiator, resulting in myriad engine fires. The electro-hydraulic system for the doors was prone to burning out. The fiberglass/acrylic bodywork was ambitious, but the technology wasn’t fully developed and consequently the panels warped with alarming regularity. There was also no weatherstripping to speak of, so SV-1s leaked horribly.
The $3500 idea had also blown out to a $9780 reality thanks to production costs. This meant the SV-1 was actually priced higher than the Corvette, to the tune of a whopping $3,000. That was a huge chunk of change extra for a car with worse build quality and slightly inferior dynamics, even if it did look pretty.
On September 25, 1975, Bricklin Vehicle Corp failed. Creditors swooped in and armed guards were placed on site at the St. John factory to prevent looting. The initially enthusiastic New Brunswick government, led by Premier Richard Hatfield, had refused to extend an extra $10 million to the troubled company, and production ceased entirely. Malcolm Bricklin also declared bankruptcy.
Consolidated Motors bought up the unfinished SV-1s, completing assembly and titling and selling them as 1976 models. Fortunately, the sports car’s quirky charm had endeared it to enthusiasts and a dedicated fan community quickly coalesced. Terry Tanner was one such fan who was an engineer at Bricklin Motors. He formed Bricklin International, a club providing parts and servicing still active today. And although the SV-1 is a famous failure, it has also inspired documentaries, a musical and even appeared on stamps and coins.
Malcolm Bricklin’s track record with cars is dubious at best. The importation of the Subaru 360 was ill-conceived, the launch of Yugo was a fiasco and his more recent attempts to import Chinese cars have gone nowhere. But the SV-1 is such a colorful and charming failure of a car, poorly-built but full of character. It added a little bit of [safety] color to our automotive landscape.