If you were to think of a sports car that epitomized the mid-1970s, the Bricklin SV-1 would be the perfect choice. The car was the brainchild of Malcolm Bricklin, a somewhat eccentric auto-industry executive whose resumé includes bringing Subaru to North America. His idea was to build a much safer V8-powered sports car to compete with the Corvette, and to build it in low-overhead New Brunswick, Canada.
The story of the Bricklin company is sadly familiar. The upstart automaker had grand designs but was dogged by labor and financial troubles. In the end, Bricklin produced far fewer cars than they intended, and those cars never performed the way the designers intended. To cap it off, Bricklin’s patron politician decided the fledgling company was a political liability and suddenly pulled the plug on money and support.
“We built a really good, safe car for a relatively low price,” Bricklin says. “The quality didn’t meet my standards, of course. We rushed everything. We rushed the engineering. We built it in an old paint factory with nowhere near the money to do it. We needed more money and more time. We would have had more sales.”
Features of the future
The Bricklin SV-1 (for Safety Vehicle 1) included advanced features such as an integral safety cage, heavy-impact bumpers, side intrusion protection beams, and a composite body made of bonded fiberglass and acrylic. Bricklin famously refused to include a cigarette lighter or ashtray because he believed smoking while driving was unsafe. The SV-1 also came with distinctive hydraulically operated gullwing doors.
“We made the gullwing doors with windows that went up and down,” Bricklin points out. “That was never done before and it’s never been done since.”
Engine power in the 1974 Bricklin came in the form of an American Motors 360 cubic-inch V8, paired with either a 4-speed manual transmission or a 3-speed automatic. The AMC plant produced 220 horsepower, which may sound anemic today, but remember that the 1974 Corvette had only 195 horses with the small-block 350. Bricklin cars built in 1975 and 1976 came with a Ford 351 Windsor V8 rated at 175 horsepower, mated only to automatic gearboxes.
“We meant it to meet the dimensions and the expectations you would get from a Corvette, except it was cuter,” Bricklin says.
Facing financial and production difficulties, Bricklin made just 772 cars in 1974, and 2,082 more in 1975 and 1976 before the company lost its support and folded.
“If we’d had another year or two,” Bricklin said, “we had 44,000 orders and dealers were getting more than list price. We needed some time to fix some things.”
A mediocre standout
Viewed with a modern eye, the Bricklin is primitive. The panel fit of the composite bodywork is visibly poor on every example you can find, but then again, the Corvette of the era was little better. Similarly, the interior of the SV-1 is an amalgamation of AMC components, but not appreciably worse than any other domestic car at the time.
Those doors, however futuristic they may have been, can be trouble. If the hydraulic motor that runs them fails, or the battery that runs it does, you’re stuck. Literally. Failure rates are high, too. But there are compressed-air conversions for the door system that solve that problem.
The SV-1 offered middling performance. Car & Driver magazine ran a head-to-head comparison between the 1975 Bricklin and Corvette and found their performance about on par. Of course, that par included a 16.6-second quarter mile with a terminal speed of just 83.6 mph. The Bricklin offered a 0–60 time of 8.3 seconds and a top speed of 118 mph.
But one doesn’t buy a mid-’70s car for its performance. A Kia Rio does 0–60 in 8.5 seconds today. No, the reason to buy a Bricklin is in its status as a rare bit of automotive history that no one else will have at Cars & Coffee. For all its lackluster performance and rough edges, the Bricklin, in any of the five available jellybean colors, really is a futuristic-looking car.
Plus, the Bricklin is perfectly representative of its era. Sure, the mid–’70s were the absolute nadir of automotive malaise, but you can spot the Bricklin in iconic Hollywood movies like “Corvette Summer,” “Smokey and the Bandit Part III,” and the eminently forgettable “Cannonball Run II.” What more could you want?
The car that inspired this column sold this fall for $17,600. It’s a bona fide low-miles original in Pumpkin Spice Orange, and given its unmolested state, the car was well-bought. A quick look at the SCM Platinum Auction Database shows that this is far from the highest price paid recently, with a comparable SV-1 selling for $33,000 last year (SCM# 6803691).
But there are also plenty of Bricklins available for far less. So get out your “Starsky & Hutch” soundtrack cassette, put on a pair of bell-bottom pants and let your freak flag fly. ♦