Car lovers are inherently drawn to the flair and flamboyance of classic gull-wing sports cars. In the third installment of a series looking at short-lived automotive marques and models, Glenn Arlt offers some automotive déjà vu with a look at the Bricklin SV-1.
Ever since Mercedes-Benz unveiled the 300SL in 1954, gull-wing door design has intrigued automakers looking to create a buzz. Reminiscent of the cockpit door of a fighter jet, gull-wing doors are one styling feature almost guaranteed to make a car instantly memorable.
A decade before John DeLorean employed this eye-catching door design on his now famous bid for eponymous automotive immortality, there was another auto executive maverick named Malcolm Bricklin who, tried to ride his way to fame on the wings of a gull.
After transforming his father’s Orlando-based building supply business into a million dollar franchise of Handyman stores, Bricklin began selling franchises for motor scooters in the mid 1960s. His best selling model, the Fuji Rabbit, was made by Fuji Heavy Industries — the same company that produced a little car call the Subaru, a make then unheard of in the United States.
Bricklin saw great potential in the 3-speed microcar with the funny name and made a deal with FHI to introduce American buyers to the Subaru 360. But his new company, Subaru of America, almost immediately collapsed when Consumer Guide condemned the new import as “the most unsafe” on the market after the car, which weighed less than 1,000 pounds, fared terribly in crash tests.
America’s new obsession with automotive safety standards was crystal clear, so Bricklin decided the time was right to give the country what it wanted. Wrongly believing Subaru had no future, he sold his share of the company and used the money to begin production on a safe and economical sports car he would call the SV-1.
Safety at Any Cost
Development of Bricklin’s high performance “safety vehicle” began in 1971. Originally estimated to sell for $4,000, the SV-1 saw its ticket price nearly double over the three years it would take to bring an actual car to market. While the base 1974 Corvette coupe was $6082, the price for a standard SV-1 came in at $7,490.
As DeLorean would discover years later, the cost of turning a dream car into reality was not cheap. For starters, the SV-1 had a massive safety frame with integrated roll cage, huge energy absorbing urethane bumpers (which exceeded legal requirements) and a fuel tank within huge frame rails for additional resistance against explosion in rear-end collisions.
Bricklin always claimed that he wanted gull-wing doors not for the distinct style it offered but rather because the doors didn’t swing out into traffic and were therefore safer. Bricklin’s focus on safety extended to the choice in color options — Safety White, Safety Suntan, Safety Green, Safety Red and Safety Orange. The acrylic bodies of the original SV-1s were actually impregnated with these colors (another expensive process) and if scratched could be wet sanded and buffed out.
Fewer than 800 SV-1s made it to market its debut year. Original SV-1s were powered by AMC (American Motors) 360 cubic inch 220 hp V8 engines and came with a choice of 4-speed or Chrysler supplied automatic. For the 1975 model-year, a Ford’s Windsor 351 V8 engine and FMX automatic (only) were offered in the SV-1. In 1976, around 20 cars were built using new single exhaust and catalytic convertor for the Ford V8.
A Familiar End
Ending as unceremoniously as it began, Bricklin ceased manufacture in 1976. Like Kaiser, Frazer, Crosley and other upstarts unable to compete with the Big Three, Bricklin’s failure to mass produce his visionary car hinged on a number of reasons: lack of capital; too few development resources; too little time; too few engineers; and the necessity of starting from scratch in the production process.
Bricklin’s project was largely funded by the Canadian Province of New Brunswick after he was unable to find funding in the United States. Key figures in New Brunswick believed the car company would provide work for a growing number of unemployed. This arrangement meant Bricklin was constantly scrambling to keep the government subsidies flowing for his company, Canada Limited.
Reviews were also less than stellar for the SV-1. The men of New Brunswick, a coastal country were the primary occupation is fishing, were not accustomed to factory work. This translated into a car with numerous fit and finish problems. Buyers were also less than thrilled with the ergonomics of the car, namely the push-button power door mechanism that was very slow and broke down often (trapping people in their cars in some cases). To many potential buyers, the SV-1 more resembled a cheap kit-car than a viable Corvette competitor.
A little more than 3,000 SV-1s were produced between 1974 and 1976. Although values are modest, Bricklins do have a cult following. Depending upon condition, the Hagerty Price Guide values SV-1s at between $5,000 and $27,000.