Rare, exotic, and inexpensive, the Bricklin SV-1 ticks some oddball boxes
The first time Malcolm Bricklin laid eyes on the Mercedes-Benz C111, he was probably thumbing through the latest issue of Sports Car Graphic. The mid-engine, wedge-shaped concept car had just caused a stir at the 1969 Frankfurt motor show, and 30-year-old Bricklin, who made a fortune franchising his father’s hardware stores, had recently entered the car business.
Bricklin had cofounded Subaru of America a year earlier and began importing the comically small Subaru 360, with its odd suicide doors and two-cylinder engine. But Bricklin was already dreaming down the road, and five years later, he began manufacturing his own sports car, with more than a few visual and mechanical similarities to the C111.
Like the legendary Benz, the Bricklin SV-1 was a gullwinged wedge with two seats, rear-wheel drive, and a fiberglass body. Although the Wankel-powered Mercedes was mid-engined, Bricklin’s aim was to undercut the $6400 Chevy Corvette with a price of about $3500, so he mounted an American V-8 up front and borrowed parts from existing cars.
Initially, the SV-1’s suspension, front-disc and rear-drum brakes, and 220-horsepower 360-cubic-inch V-8 all came from the AMC Hornet. For 1975, however, Bricklin switched to Ford power, with a 175-hp 351-cubic-inch V-8—still 10 more horsepower than you got in a Corvette. About 155 cars were built with the available four-speed manual; all Ford-powered cars got a three-speed C4 automatic.
The “SV” in SV-1 stood for “Safety Vehicle,” and the company hyped the sports car’s tubular steel perimeter frame and robust bumpers, which could withstand a 12-mph impact, far beyond the government’s new 5-mph standard. SV-1s weren’t equipped with a cigarette lighter because smoking and driving was dangerous, of course.
The cars weren’t painted. Rather, one of five bright colors was impregnated into their fiberglass body panels: Safety White, Safety Green, Safety Red, Safety Suntan, and Safety Orange, which appeared to be lifted from the C111.
In a 1975 comparison test with a base 165-hp Corvette, Car and Driver complained about the Bricklin’s shoddy construction—but not its performance. In fact, the SV-1 wasn’t too far behind the Corvette around Willow Springs International Raceway, and it covered the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds, a half second behind the Chevy.
Rather than undercutting Corvette prices, production SV-1s ended up costing about $7900, and by 1975, prices rose to nearly $10,000. Despite plans to build 12,000 cars a year in New Brunswick, Canada, fewer than 3000 were manufactured from 1974–1976. Then the venture unraveled, much like similar ventures failed for Preston Tucker and others with carbuilding dreams. A little more than half of the production run is believed to survive, including the first Bricklin, which was built on June 24, 1974, and now lives in a Chicago collection.
Despite their rarity, Bricklins are still quite affordable, with cars in #3 condition averaging about $15,000, which is roughly a third of the cost of a DeLorean in similar condition. There’s an active online community dedicated to these attractive machines, and fixes have been found for their known issues, including the finicky hydraulically-operated gullwing doors. Each door weighs 90 pounds, so getting out of the car isn’t easy when there’s a problem. “It feels a lot like climbing out a manhole while a semi-trailer is parked on the cover,” wrote Car and Driver in 1975.
The Bricklin International Owners Club recommends checking for rust on the chassis, on the bodies’ metal reinforcement plates, and in the fender wells. Whether the hydraulics are functional or not, buyers should expect those doors to leak, even with new weather stripping.
Did we mention Malcolm Bricklin started importing the Yugo in 1985? That’s a whole other story.