By Brian Earnest
Only about 1,700 Bricklin SV-1 automobiles are estimated to remain in the world. Where Les Dahl lives, he’s probably more likely to see Sasquatch than see a Bricklin. Except for the one in his own garage, that is.
Dahl, a resident of Olds, Alberta, Can. — about 40 minutes north of Calgary and a stone’s throw from the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies — doesn’t live out in the middle of nowhere. But nowhere isn’t too far from there. It’s not a place where you’d expect to find a weird, racy, low-production sports car from 45 years ago.
“No, there aren’t too many of them around here!” laughs Dahl, talking about his Bricklin one morning surrounded by some of his buddies over breakfast at the local diner. “But they were built in Canada, you know!��
If you don’t remember the Bricklin, don’t be too hard on yourself, eh. For a pretty memorable little car, the futuristic little buggies really don’t receive a lot of love in the collector car world. With looks akin to a cross between a Corvette, Opel and Datsun 260-Z, with some Delorean gull-wing doors thrown in, the Bricklin was certainly one of the most unique cars built in North American during the 1970s. Less than 3,000 of the cars — exact totals seem to vary — were built during the model’s two-year production run, but like so many fledging car-building endeavors over the past 100-plus years, the Bricklin couldn’t overcome all the obstacles it faced on the production side and was destined for a quick demise.
That just makes them even more appealing to guys like Dahl, who enjoys unique cars and decided this one needed a home about four years ago. Dahl’s nephew had found the car in a private museum in Minnesota and owned it for about six years before he started having some health problems.
“He developed Parkinson’s Disease, and he’s a big, tall guy and couldn’t get in an out of it with the gullwing doors,” Dahl says. “He decided after a few years to sell it and I thought, ‘Well, I kind of hate to see that go, what do you want for it?’ And we talked about it and then in spring I phoned him back and said ‘I’ll take it from you.’ It only had about 8,500 miles on it. Now it has just slightly over 10,000 miles It’s still basically like a new car. The guy who had it in Minnesota was a dealer and he had a collection, and it had sat there for so long that the paint got quite faded so he gave it a new paint job in about 2000. Other than that it’s an original car. It still had the original tires on it and everything. Since then I’ve put a new set of tires on it because I didn’t trust the old ones.”
“As far as who owned it originally, I don’t know, but they sure didn’t drive it much. I guess I would be the fourth owner.”
THE 'CANADIAN SPORTS CAR'
Malcom Bricklin was a mercurial American businessman who wasn’t afraid to take chances or think big. He helped expand and franchise his father’s hardware business while still a teenager, and in 1968 founded Subaru of America. Bricklin wanted to blaze his own trail on the new car market, however, and in 1974 founded his own company, General Vehicle, based in New Brunswick, with the backing of local government that welcomed the opportunity to add jobs and commerce to the area.
Bricklin’s goal was to build an affordable, exotic-feeling sports car with gull-wing doors. And above all, he wanted the car to be safe. Indeed, the SV in SV-1 stood for “safety vehicle” and the car was designed with an integrated roll cage and beefy, impact-absorbing urethane bumpers. The fuel tank was guarded by frame rails to protect it from rear impacts. The car was also offered only in five “safety” colors: Safety White, Safety Suntan, Safety Green, Safety Red and Safety Orange.
The fiberglass body might not have been made with safety in mind, but it didn’t rust and gave the SV-1 a “cool” factor because of its similarity to the Corvette. So did the hydraulic gullwing doors, which gained fame on the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL but had never been tried on a large scale on this side of the Atlantic.
At first glance, the SV-1 resembled a mid-engine European super car, but it was actually a traditional front-engine car with an AMC 360-cid V-8 shoehorned under the hood, mated to a Chrysler-source automatic transmission or a manual four-speed. For 1975, the AMC engine was dropped in favor of the 351 Windsor V-8 from Ford, which was linked to an FMX automatic transmission.
Bricklin attempted to line up a sizable network of dealers in the U.S., but in a familiar story for upstart companies trying to break through and make it against the “Big Three,” shaky finances, production problems, backlogs and a myriad of other problems — including plenty of criticism over the car’s build quality — ultimately doomed Malcom’s grand vision. The original purchase price of under $9,000 eventually ballooned to over $15 grand on some car lots, putting out of reach of many potential buyers. The death blow came when government subsidies were discontinued after officials became convinced that bankrolling Bricklin was going to be a bad investment.
In the end, only 2,906 SV-1s were actually constructed (at least that's the most commonly quoted figure): 772 in 1974, 2,100 in ’75 and 34 using leftover parts in ’76.
The SV-1 was around long enough to draw the inevitable comparisons and road tests against the Corvette. In general, automotive scribes of the day echoed the sentiments of the general public — the small slice that got to drive them, anyway: The SV-1 was no screaming Ferrari or Porsche, but it handled great, was fun to drive, and stacked up favorably against the ‘Vette. Car and Driver reported in its May 1975 issue: “Hit the road with a Bricklin and women fall hopelessly in love from two lanes away. Z-Car drivers circle in for a closer look knowing full well this new kid on the block has lowered their car's sex appeal a hefty notch.” The magazine took note of the car’s attempts at safety, but gave a thumbs-down to the interior features and workmanship. “While they're working on those interior problems, Bricklin's engineers would do well to take a careful look at the general quality level of their materials. The car looks a little too much like a carefully finished Fiberfab with its glued-down vinyl trim, carpeting that doesn't quite cover the fiberglass floor and flimsy plastic shift gate (a part fine for the Hornet it came from but hardly up to the standards of a $9,780 GT car).”
For guys like Dahl, having a car that hardly anybody knows about or can identify is a big part of the fun. He’d have to drive a lot of kilometers to find another one in Alberta, but he doesn’t have to take his white SV-1 far to find somebody who wants to talk about it.
“Most people think it’s that car from “Back to the Future”, the Delorean,” he laughs. “They see the doors and think it’s a Delorean, then they walk around and see it’s a Bricklin and they think, ‘What the heck is a Bricklin?’ Then I have to tell the whole story about Malcom Bricklin.”
Dahl noted that his nephew improved the car’s reliability and performance by replacing the original intake manifold and two-barrel carb with a four-barrel carburetor and higher-rise intake. “Other than that, it’s a completely original car. I haven’t done anything to it mechanically. It’s still running the original brakes and everything.”
“It had an overheating problem in the summer, but that was an easy fix. Right around the wheel wells there is a nice, big rubber flap around the wheels wells, like a splash guard. I took those rubber guards out of there and now the heat can escape down through the wheel wells. That cured the problem.”
Dahl certainly has no complaints with the car’s drivability and fun factor. He still gets a charge pulling a few G’s around tight corners and getting his foot into the Ford V-8. When it comes to an exhilarating ride from the ‘70s, he says the SV-1 is still hard to beat.
“That roll cage … I don’t know how you’d ever get that thing to roll,” he laughs. “It’s a lot wider than it is tall. It will slide before it will ever roll.
“It’s really a nice little car to drive. It goes like hell, it’s really fun to drive, and a lot of car guys in my area really think it’s pretty neat. It gets a lot of attention. I don’t think I’d want to take it on a cross country trip. It’s fairly, I wouldn’t say rough riding, but after about a three-hour drive, you’re ready to get out and walk round. It’s low to the ground and it handles like a dream, but it’s not the most comfortable car to drive.”
And as far as build quality issues, whatever quirks and imperfections the car carries with it, Dahl happily takes them in stride. The imperfections and troubled back story of the company are all part of the car’s appeal. And so is the price on the collector market. For driving enthusiasts looking for something different at an affordable price, the SV-1 remains a steal. Most trade hands for between $10,000-$20,000, with only the nicest examples getting much above $30,000.
“It’s just been a pretty neat little car to own,” Dahl concludes. “I’ve really had a lot of fun with it.”
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