Bricklin, the Safety Sports Car

Safe but Crashed in the Marketplace

Was Malcolm Bricklin a visionary entrepreneur or just a character with oddball ideas and a few million bucks to play with? We’ve never met the man but evidence suggests a mixture of both.

On the one hand, it was Malcolm Bricklin who first brought Subaru to North America. But on the other, it was he who gave us the Yugo. Bricklin made his imprint on motoring history with a most unusual sports car, yet producing it cost the government of New Brunswick $23 million in lost subsidies. In 1971 that was a lot of money, especially for a small Canadian maritime province.

Following his success with Subaru, Malcolm Bricklin decided to create a sports car built from American components. No, correct that… he wanted to build a “safety car” with technology beyond what conventional manufacturers were prepared to offer. It seems to us, however, that while making a safer sports car is a viable concept, if one wishes to impress the populace with a crash-survivable cocoon, a family sedan might provide a better opportunity.

Our guess is that Malcolm Bricklin, like others before and since (think Colin Chapman, Ferruccio Lamborghini, John DeLorean) was motivated to produce an ego-flattering sports car that would bear his name. Seeking that “something special” which would distinguish the vehicle from its competitors, he felt that crash protection was the answer. The Bricklin would therefore become a “safety sports car.”

Influenced by the legendary Mercedes 300SL, the Bricklin featured the same high sills, ideal for the fitting of side guard rails — part of a tubular frame protecting the passenger compartment — and gull-wing doors which, when opened, required a mere twelve inches of entry and exit space.

Bricklins also had energy-and-impact-absorbing 5-mph bumpers that receded into the car on impact. The fuel tank was protected to prevent fires. The five available colors were chosen to meet European standards of high visibility. A vacuum-forming process bonded color-impregnated acrylic to each fiberglass body panel. Minor scratches would be buffed out, similar to the technique Pontiac used in the 1980’s for the Fiero and later for the TranSport.

Under that exotic skin, the steering/suspension/braking technology was nothing special. Still, we must offer kudos to Bricklin for making a deal with American Motors to use that company’s 220 hp V-8 engine; unfortunately AMC’s financial woes soon caused a switch to 175 hp Ford V-8’s.

Colorful as all this sounds, the Bricklin was never a commercial success. Predicted production was 1000 a month; 429 was the highest achieved. Quality was always a problem, especially with the troublesome electro-hydraulic door system and leaky weather-stripping around the doors.

The New Brunswick government, perhaps motivated by Volvo’s successful Nova Scotia KDA assembly, put more dollars in the pot to keep the plant going but to no avail. Bricklin went into receivership in September of 1975. 2062 cars had been produced, a dozen were left on the assembly line. More than half of those Bricklins still exist, owned and maintained by enthusiasts all over the USA and Canada.

We’re compelled to suggest that the Bricklin’s safety-dictated lines were not as handsome as other sports cars of the period, while naive New Brunswick politicians were perhaps too eager to keep the factory open. Nowadays deep-south states lure Japanese manufacturers with similar carrots but at least the promise of a saleable vehicle is more realistic.

Malcolm Bricklin’s legacy is probably not what he planned. Still, there are a thousand-plus cars on the road with his name prominently visible, so at least he won’t be forgotten.

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