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Malcolm Bricklin

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The Fredericton Playhouse and Theatre New Brunswick put on a workshop two weeks ago to give the public a sneak peak at their new joint venture-a musical built around the story of the Bricklin. For those who don’t know, the Bricklin is a car that was briefly produced in Saint John in the mid-70’s. While the musical’s premiere is months away (slated for an August run), I thought it would be a good idea to give some background on New Brunswick’s automotive Icarus.

The picture above is a restored Bricklin. As you might notice it bears a resemblance to the DeLorean made famous in Back to the Future. There is also a Bricklin in the New Brunswick Museum. I worked at the Museum last summer, and cannot recall how many awkward corrections I had to make when a visitor would cry out “Oh my God, a DeLorean!” “Well, actually sir/and or madam, this here is the Bricklin….”.

The Museum Bricklin sits in the middle of a gallery called Wind, Wood and Sail. The car is noticeably lacking in these three categories. It ended up where it is simply because the museum wasn’t sure where to put it. That is kind of the story of the Bricklin, a car Caleb Marshall, the co-producer of the Bricklin musical, calls “New Brunswick’s Avro Arrow.” Of course, the story isn’t really about a car, its about two men, Malcolm Bricklin and Richard Hatfield.

Malcolm Bricklin is an American entrepreneur and high school dropout who made his first million in the plumbing business. After he helped start Subaru of America, Bricklin begin tripping from one auto project to another. Bricklin was a showman, the kind of person who used to be called (with begrudging affection) a huckster. He embraced the ’70s: its hard to find a picture of him from the period without a patterned button-down shirt (with the first 4 or so buttons unbuttoned) and giant aviator sunglasses.

Although Richard Hatfield would become known as the freewheeling, enigmatic premier of New Brunswick (a phrase which I am not sure has been applied to any premier before him, and certainly not to any since), his early life was standard upper-middle class. His father Heber, also a politician, took his son to a political convention when the boy was only 7.

Hatfield would go on to study law at Dalhousie University. After a series of twists and turns that I do not have space to do justice (at one point he sold potato chips around the province), Hatfield became premier of New Brunswick in 1970, a post he would not relinquish until 1987. Hatfield developed a reputation for being flighty, taking spur of the moment vacations. He travelled alone most of the time, to places like New York, Argentina and Israel. One year Hatfield was only physically in the province for 168 days.

It is in many ways unfair that this legacy, and that of the Bricklin, are most associated with Hatfield. It was his government that brought in the Official Languages Act making New Brunswick the only officially bilingual province. He championed the cause of other minority groups, and pushed the development of New Brunswick art and culture. Yet his history is inextricably bound to the dream of Malcolm Bricklin.

Bricklin envisioned a sports car that was both sexy and safe (two words which do not often inhabit the same sentence.) Herb Grasse, who designed the Batmobile in the Adam West portrayal (I use the term loosely) of Batman, was brought in to design this paradoxical vehicle. Bricklin’s company, General Vehicle Inc. was born.

Bricklin had a dream…but he needed cash. Its difficult to find someone willing to sink millions of dollars into an unproven company with an unproven car design and a murky business plan…or it should be. Hatfield, a “big idea” man, liked the idea of an auto industry in New Brunswick. In 1974 he gave Bricklin $5 million for the project, assuming that it was simply to get production started at the plants in Saint John and Minto.

Bricklin had not been entirely forthcoming with the Hatfield government. The cars were nowhere near the production stage. The first car rolled off the assembly line in 1974. By 1976 General Vehicle was in receivership (essentially a type of bankruptcy) and the provincial and federal government had burned $23 million, more than $19 million of which was New Brunswick money. Instead of just getting production going, they had financed the entire operation right down to the company payroll in some cases.

So what did New Brunswick get for its $23 million contribution? The original plan was to have 12,000 Bricklins made the first year, then 30,000, then 50,000 and finally 100,000 in year 4. If you are keeping score, that’s 192,000 cars. The total number of cars actually produced was 2,854. General Vehicle made just under 1.5 per cent of its quota…and government paid $8054 per car when each car was being sold for $7490, although the price would be hiked to $9980 at the end.

As for the cars themselves, Bricklin did (kind of) realize his dream of a safety sports car. The Bricklin SV-1 (SV standing for “safety vehicle”) was indeed one of the safest vehicles of its time. The all-acrylic body was the first of its kind in a production car, and was available in 3 main colours, safety green, safety white and safety orange.

Ultimately the Bricklin was not brought down by any one thing. Selling for more than $7000 at a time when the average car cost about $4000 did not help. Nor did the fact that the acrylic panels often warped from heat or cracked from cold. My favourite anecdote to tell at the Museum was the folly of the gull wing door design. There was no handle on the outside of the door, simply a key and a button. The button would activate the hydraulics,which were connected to the battery. This works fine until the battery dies. If that happens, you are essentially locked out of your own car.

About 1500 Bricklins survive today. Around a third of them are actually on the road. They have developed a cult following and the small number of existing cars makes it a pretty exclusive club. That worked out well for me, since sites like Bricklin.org made researching this article much easier (to give you an idea how much they love the Bricklin…the site can be viewed in safety green, safety white and safety orange).

Malcolm Bricklin is still around. He’s looking to launch a line of plug-in electric vehicles now, after getting burned by a partnership with a Chinese company called Chery Automobile. Richard Hatfield survived the Bricklin fallout, and stayed active in politics until his death in 1991 from a brain tumour. It is his car that sits in the New Brunswick Museum, in a gallery where it doesn’t really belong.

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Written by Colin Hodd

April 16, 2010 at 3:59 PM

Posted in Print

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