A [gull]wing without a prayer

The year is 1974. A curtain rises on a car from the future. Its shape arguably presages the second-generation Nissan Z car and Toyota Supra by a full decade. Its American Motors’ 360-ci V-8 pushes a warm, robust bleat through the tailpipe.

The gullwing doors begin rising slowly. Very slowly. Lacking sufficient amps, and with fluid still filling hydraulic cylinders, the motor tasked with pumping duties stops cold. The wings freeze mid-flap.

Presenting the Bricklin SV-1: a car that found a wrinkle in time and never managed flying out of it. The dream of North America’s first Subaru importer, Malcolm Bricklin, it rolled off the line in St. John, New Brunswick packing a bundle of industry firsts.

In a comparison test that featured in Car and Driver’s May 1975 issue, Don Sherman noted that the Bricklin handily trumped heroic models like the Chevrolet Corvette in the panache department. The articulation of those gullwings delivered a sense of occasion matched only by a Mercedes 300SL or, a few years later, the DeLorean DMC-12.

That drama, however, demanded a pound of flesh. “If you lined 10 Bricklins up, nine of their doors might not fit right,” says Joe DeLorenzo, owner of Bricklin Autosport in Rochester, N.Y., the largest Bricklin seller and service center in the world. DeLorenzo has messianically maintained and brokered sales of 80 Bricklins over his career. Having bought a ’74 (“VIN 523” he notes proudly) and driven it to the factory in the summer of 1975, DeLorenzo says that the Bricklin’s seduction powers outweigh any flaws.

The charm proved unable to counter the car’s steep price, though; by 1975, Bricklins, now powered by a Ford 351 cid engine, carried a price tag crowding $10,000. A contemporary L82 Corvette would run closer to $8,000, and a few ticks quicker around a track, making the Bricklin a niche proposition before it ever left the factory. Before the year was over, the provincial government withdrew its support, and the company entered receivership

With the platform, powertrain and much of its switchgear sourced from American companies, mechanical maintenance is straightforward. The AMC and Ford power plants require no specialized knowledge in their Bricklin applications. “I can speak with confidence and say you can buy a Bricklin and it’s gonna run,” DeLorenzo says.

The same features that earned Bricklins their slackened jaws, however, earned them reputations for being temperamental. “There’s only one hydraulic motor for two doors,” DeLorenzo says. “If you hit the button and that door doesn’t unlatch, you have to stop immediately. It means the battery must be low.” Idiosyncrasy or poor design? It’s a matter of perspective.

Most Bricklins wore a 1/16-inch layer of acrylic over their fiberglass body panels, which presented its share of issues. “You do see ripples and dimples and waves, which can turn some people off,” DeLorenzo says. “But you can take all that out. You can block-sand it. Nothing is so deep that you can’t buff it out.”

Owners of ’75 or ’76 models may experience some interior headaches. “The door panels on ’74s had a hard core, whereas the ’75s had a cushioned door panel, which could separate and lift away,” DeLorenzo says.

Befitting its rich backstory, the Bricklin was a subject of a musical staged at New Brunswick’s Fredericton Playhouse in 2010. “We ran the show in the summer of 2011, too, because audiences were fantastic,” says Tim Yerxa, the Playhouse’s executive director. “There’d be these informal show ’n shines. Malcolm Bricklin came to the opening night in the second season. He spoke afterward, and was glowing about it.”

Yerxa said that while the box office was strong, the production was still dependent on subsidies to survive. That’s when the Bricklin Effect took hold. “Without the subsidies, we couldn’t bring it back for a third season,” Yerxa says. “So I guess you could say art imitated life a bit.”

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