The DeLorean DMC-12 and Bricklin SV1 have more in common than gullwing doors
It is frequently said that birds of a feather flock together, and that certainly seems to be true with the gullwing Bricklin SV-1 and DeLorean DMC-12. Not only do the cars looks comfortable roosting side-by-side, but their owners also have similar attitudes. In fact, when I began looking for Bricklin owners in the Vancouver, BC area, the first pair found turned out to also be members of the local DeLorean club.
Looking at the story of both vehicles, the overlap makes a lot of sense. Both were conceived of by hard-driving entrepreneurs, men who made their stamp on the automotive world (although perhaps not in the way they initially hoped). Both cars were forward-looking in intent, and built with huge infusions of both government cash and optimism. Both were assembled in areas rife with unemployment, in the hope that their success would lead to booming factories, changing the lives of working people for the better. And, unfortunately, in the end both went extinct. Dead as dodos.
However, the DeLorean and Bricklin are still beloved by a certain type of owner. They are unique, and interesting, and cool, and when you put the doors up in a parking lot, the bystanders come running over like you just scattered chicken feed on the ground. The question seems to be, is either of them actually any good?
Alighting in a parking lot on the way up the Sea-to-Sky highway between Vancouver and Whistler, our little flock of gullwings drew plenty of attention. Three DMC-12s and one SV-1 braved the wet autumn conditions, their owners all to0 happy to have a chance to chat about why they love these quirky machines so much.
Dave Graham’s 1981 DMC-12 is the most heavily modified of the three cars, and he’s done most of the servicing and upgrading himself; he’s the group’s unofficial mechanic, and acknowledges that the tight engine bay is a pain to work on. He drives the car regularly, has taken the trouble to have it officially certified to carry a child seat, and does an annual long-distance rally with his dad. I’ve driven Graham’s DeLorean before, but lifting the gullwing door to climb inside still feels like a treat.
Inside, the DMC-12’s Lotus-influenced origins are obvious, but really the experience is mostly about the gleam of the stainless steel hood in front of you and the louvres filling your rearview mirror. A DeLorean! If you were a kid during the 1980s, this was a very special car. That thrill hasn’t faded.
It’s no surprise that finding DeLorean owners to share their stories is relatively easy. The DMC’s starring role in the Back to the Future series took it from forgotten weirdo to a poster car for many a young enthusiast. People grew up equating the DeLorean’s desirability with some very exotic metal, which is perhaps why so many are disappointed to find out that the power and handling don’t really live up to modern standards. It also has a reputation for being heavy.
This last stereotype is rather unfair. What are other cars supposedly made out of to make them so much lighter than a DeLorean? Styrofoam? At approximately 2700 pounds, a DeLorean DMC-12 is about a hundred pounds lighter than a steel-bodied Ferrari 308.
Still, you won’t be giving Magnum P.I.‘s Ferrari much trouble, not with the DeLorean’s 130-horsepower 2.85-liter PRV V-6. Initially developed by Peugeot, Renault, and Volvo, the DeLorean’s powertrain was shipped up from France to Northern Ireland during assembly. The unrelated Renault Alpine had a rear-engine layout similar to the DeLorean, and had nearly 160 hp to call on from its PRV. Built to hit emissions standards in the U.S. market, the DMC-12 is more modestly powered in stock form. Then again the contemporary C3 Corvette didn’t quite get 200 hp out of twice the displacement.
The DeLorean’s handling, too, is perhaps unfairly maligned. Its chassis was designed by Colin Chapman, and has some of the attributes of a first-generation Lotus Esprit, a car known for its poise. Yes, hanging a big V-6 out back did tilt the balance rearward, and raising the nose didn’t help. This last was perhaps done to meet U.S. bumper requirements and spoiled both the DMC-12’s looks and the dynamics. Many DeLorean owners bring their cars back to a more even ride height, acting in the same spirit as the enthusiasts of other marques do when retrofitting European bumpers.
Graham’s car has the evened-out ride, and around 200 hp from its V-6. It is thus about as quick as a modern Subaru BRZ, but much smoother and obviously more charismatic. The rear-engine bias is clearly evident, especially in these wet conditions, with the tail breaking away up an off-camber on-ramp. Yet it does so in an easily catchable way, and the car is overall fun and nimble, with good steering feedback and a low-slung driving position. It feels far more youthful than its 37 years. This really is a 1980s time machine—with style.
Sitting properly, the DMC-12’s a great-looking car, crisply styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and iconic whether the doors are up and down. It’s immediately recognizable to the kind of people who want to run up and shout, “Great Scott!” Today, however, our cluster of DeLoreans attracted the attention of several Irish tourists, who insisted on having their picture taken with one of the cars.
Northern Ireland doesn’t have much of a motoring history, apart from producing one of the greatest rally drivers of all time in Paddy Hopkirk and one of the motorcycle world’s greatest legends in Joey Dunlop. As a site for a car factory in the late 1970s, Northern Ireland’s main advantage was a British government anxious to get people back to work as a means of easing sectarian violence, and a population that was well-known for skilled steelwork and ship construction. The Titanic was also built in Belfast. Perhaps that fact could have been taken as foreshadowing.
Or perhaps not. While the DMC-12 failed due to a slumping market, cost overruns, and a ballooning price tag (the “12” was supposed to be the DMC’s $12,000 cost, but it sold for $25,000), the Dunmurry factory itself was and is actually something of a success. Workers were evenly divided between Protestant and Catholic, yet arguments were rare. The atmosphere, at least initially, was one of general hopefulness and pride in the work. Incredibly, the factory is still open today, producing cylinder heads for GM, Ford, Peugeot, and Citroën. Bits of the old DeLorean test track can still be found on the grounds.
Then there’s John Z. DeLorean himself, 6-foot-4-inches tall, lean, charismatic, and with the sort of bushy eyebrows that’d make a grizzly jealous. The creator of the Pontiac GTO, DeLorean was a self-made man who had served in the U.S. Army in WWII, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson. Many celebrities bought into DeLorean’s dream of a car with his name on it.
We now know how the story ends, with a collapsing market, rising debt, a cocaine sting by the FBI, and DeLorean’s eventual (but too late) exoneration when charges were dismissed as entrapment. However, 1985’s Back to the Future gave the DMC-12 the cult following it needed to survive and become collectible. That popularity provided the impetus for people to become interested in the car itself, with its unique history, Italian styling, and Lotus-influenced chassis.
“My family’s from down in the Cork area,” says owner Daniel O’Connell, whose car features a dashboard signed by Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox. “But it’s still a bit of Irish pride, isn’t it?”
Embrace John DeLorean’s audacity, iron out some of the DMC’s production kinks, and you’ve got a machine worthy of any owner’s pride. DeLorean values have been steadily on the rise for the last couple of years, but the cars are still more accessible than many other 1980s action heroes. The community is active, parts are readily available, and with stainless-steel construction, weather isn’t much of a deterrent.
Driving a DMC-12 isn’t just about hitting 88 mph and blasting into the past, it’s engaging to drive right now, and lights up the faces of everyone else on the road. As for our other, orange gullwing here today, that one perhaps does an even better job of raising eyebrows.
DeLoreans are uncommon, but they’re nowhere near as rare as a Bricklin SV-1. When this wedge-shaped chunk of 1970s Canadiana hit a financial wall, there was no movie role to rescue its reputation. Values are flat over the last couple of years, even down a little overall. It’s not a great investment vehicle, and with a 175-hp V-8 married to a three-speed automatic, it’s also not much of a performer. Add in notoriously iffy build quality, and you’ve got something of a bright orange turkey.
However, there’s a reason two of our DeLorean-owning families here today also have a Bricklin stashed in the henhouse. Henning White, whose DMC-12 is just 10 VIN numbers later than O’Connell’s, sums it up. “I’d always wanted a DeLorean since I was a kid. But prices were up a little bit, so I started looking into Bricklins, and they’re really interesting. Totally different, but still cool.”
The SV-1 here today has a great backstory, belonging as it does to the elegant and cheery Zofia Kaczmarek, who has turned up sporting a handbag and leather jacket, color-matched to her SV-1. “I bought the little orange things before I bought the big one,” she says with a laugh.
Her husband, Slawomir, bought his dream DMC-12 after the pair’s kids were grown and out of the house. However, when he suffered a concussion, and some attendant insomnia, Zofia knew a new project might provide a welcome distraction. Through the club, she’d seen Henning’s SV-1 before, and despite having minimal interest in classic cars before, had fallen for it.
“What did I want a Bricklin for?” Slawomir huffs, with mock grumpiness. Zofia just grins. The pair worked together during the restoration process, with Zofia coming up with a set of perfectly-matched seat covers that are a little livelier than the original 1970s-brown units.
Like the DeLorean, the Bricklin takes its name from a larger-than-life person. Malcolm Bricklin came from the same modest background as John DeLorean, and enjoyed early success, building his father’s single hardware supply shop into a chain. He was also responsible for introducing fledgling Subaru to North America, bringing in the Subaru 360 and FF-1. The cars weren’t lasting triumphs, but they were at least thrifty and inexpensive, and introduced at a time when fuel economy was about to become a major concern for consumers.
For the SV-1, however, the timing wasn’t quite right. Bricklin’s ideas, however, were relatively sound. SV-1 stands for “Safety Vehicle One,” and the Bricklin’s integrated roll cage and impact-absorbing bumpers were ahead of their time. The hydraulic-assisted gullwing doors were effortless to operate (assuming the system didn’t fail), and the wedgy, two-tone silhouette was striking. Designed by Herb Grasse, who also worked on the Barris Batmobile, the SV-1 still has plenty of curb appeal.
Another parallel with the DeLorean story is Bricklin’s decision to build his factory in New Brunswick. Like Ulster, the Canadian Maritime Provinces were suffering from high unemployment, in this case caused by a collapsing fishing industry. The SV-1 was also soaring high on optimism, with millions in government funding. Like Icarus, both cars perhaps soared too high, too fast.
“Too fast,” is not a phrase ordinarily associated with a Bricklin. Early cars had a 220-hp AMC 360-cu-in V-8 and a four-speed manual—not bad. The Kaczmarek’s 1975 SV-1 has the later modestly-powered Ford powertrain and three-speed automatic transmission. Even so, it has little difficulty grunting up to highway speeds.
When Car and Driver‘s Don Sherman pitted a Bricklin against a Corvette in May 1975, the Canadian-made gullwing was up on the ‘Vette by 10 horsepower, and had
virtually the same amount of grip on the skidpad. At Willow Springs, Bricklin lap times were just two seconds slower than the Corvette’s. Sherman called the Bricklin, “A little crude,” but also remarked, “If your happiness computer accepts only performance inputs, the Corvette is your car. But if there is an adjustment factor for character and panache, you’d better cast your lot with the Bricklin.”
As a classic, betting on the Bricklin is a surprisingly safe option. The acrylic bodywork can be as much of a pain to repair as it was to get right for the factory. Slawomir recounts taking a single scratched door to multiple body shops before just having to tackle it himself. However, from a mechanical perspective, many of the parts are cheap and readily available as they’re shared with common domestic classics.
On a recent road trip, Henning’s SV-1 blew a headgasket on a long passing pull. “I limped it home,” he says, “but we were able to repair it in a day. The club has a huge database of parts and technical articles that you can get on a thumb drive for about $150. It’s well worth it.”
On the road, Zofia jokes that her car is a “Canadian lemon,” but the Bricklin is stable, surprisingly quiet (especially by 1970s standards), and substantial enough to make heavy modern traffic in wet conditions less worrisome. Driving one requires a bit of a sense of humor, but it’s far better than its flimsy reputation. Bricklin may have failed financially, but he really did produce a genuinely fun car.
Lastly, there are the intangibles for both cars. Club gatherings are small, but enthusiastic, supportive, and welcoming. You can roll up to almost any cars and coffee gathering and be welcomed with open doors… er, arms.
And, as I watch our half-dozen DeLorean and Bricklin fans joke with each other and onlookers, it really does seem like everyone is having the best time possible. Either DMC-12 or an SV-1, you never drive alone. You’ll always be able to find a wingman.