1974-1976 Bricklin SV-1: The Other, Other Gullwing Car
Say the word "gullwing" to any automotive enthusiast, and chances are you'll trigger one of two images: the classic Mercedes-Benz SL300 coupe, or the movie star DeLorean DMC-12. Actually, forget the idea that it's an either/or kind of situation, because pop culture saturation has reached the point where you can't bring up a gullwing car in casual conversation without invoking the spirit of Back to the Future.
Chronologically wedged in between these two vertical-door stalwarts, however, sits a winger that's been almost forgotten by both the masses and gearheads alike. Unveiled in 1974, the Bricklin SV-1 represents a short-lived chapter in the history of not only the Canadian auto industry, but also in the annals of on-road safety and innovation from an era where almost every other car company in North America was churning out cookie-cutter land yachts or fuel miser penalty boxes.
That the "SV" in SV-1 stood for "Safety Vehicle" gives you a pretty good idea of where company principal Malcolm Bricklin was coming from when he designed this unique sports coupe. The vehicle featured a fiberglass and resin body that was wrapped around a perimeter frame and a roll cage (that also protected the inboard fuel tank), riding on top of an A-arm suspension up front and a live axle at the rear borrowed in large part from the AMC Hornet. Urethane crumple bumpers intended to safely take a hit at 5 mph contributed to the unique, almost anteater-like profile of the car, which cribbed its sleek shape from the supercars emerging from Italian factories in the early to mid-1970s.
There were five exterior colors available (Safety Green, Safety White, Safety Red, Safety Orange and Safety Suntan), and in a bid to avoid the production step of actually having to paint the car, the Bricklin had its hue embedded directly in its resin body panels at the time of manufacture. The acrylic panels, laid over top of the fiberglass, could be polished if scratched, and were better at resisting damage than a traditional paint job.
Even without the gullwing doors, the look of the Bricklin SV-1 would have been enough to snag eyeballs, but the opening of the doors was such a spectacle—it took a full 12 seconds from crack to egress—that they quickly became the car's conversation piece. This was especially true with both doors hovering over the SV-1's body like a bird-of-prey at rest. Unlike the 300SL, which used lightweight materials to allow for manual opening, or the DeLorean, which relied on gas struts and torsion bars to pop open the cockpit, the SV-1 used a hydraulic pump to lift and support the 90 pound slabs. Bricklin claimed that the gullwing setup was safer than a traditional door because it didn't run the risk of swinging out into a lane of traffic.
Better Than Expected on the Road
The Bricklin SV-1's safety focus wasn't just limited to rollovers and bumpers. The team behind the vehicle—which included, at various times, men like Bruce Meyers (of Manx dune buggy fame), Marshall Hobart (former employee of Meyes and Art Center College of Design) and Herb Grasse (Art Center alumnus and future Ford Asia-Pacific design chief, who ended up responsible for the production version of the SV-1)—also believed that adequate performance would be just as important as a crash structure in keeping occupants alive.
As a result, in a bid to keep the 3,500 pound car fleet enough of foot to avoid a potential accident, the SV-1 featured a stout V8 engine as standard equipment. First year cars came with an AMC-sourced 360 cI unit (220hp and 315 lb-ft of torque), while the second model year swapped in a 351 ci Ford motor that dropped output to 175hp and 286 lb-ft of twist. Transmission choices included a three-speed auto or a four-speed manual in 1974, while 1975 and 1976's Blue Oval engine was automatic-only. Disc brakes up front measured 11 inches, with drums complementing at the rear.
As a result of its respectable output and sporty suspension tuning, the Bricklin SV-1 offered a driving experience not all that different from the emissions-hobbled, displacement-challenged, but still benchmarked Chevrolet Corvette. In fact, a comparison between the two cars published by Car and Driver found the '75 SV-1 to be within a half-second of the Vette in the quarter mile: 16.6 seconds at 83.6 mph, on its way to a top speed of 118 mph.
That the Bricklin SV-1 has remained an obscure footnote rather than enjoyed the accolades afforded other gullwingers is due to the swirling circumstances that surrounded the fragile economic underpinnings of its production.
Malcolm Bricklin himself was a somewhat controversial entrepreneur at the time, having seen his reputation soar and then crash after he was instrumental in bringing Subaru to America—just before Consumer Guide torpedoed its only export model, the pint-size 360, as being the most dangerous vehicle on the road. Liquidating his stake in Subaru, and still stung by the safety slings and arrows he had endured in the media, Bricklin decided to make that his primary focus—only he had considerable difficulty convincing anyone to back his second automotive venture with the ashes of his first still glowing red hot.
Eventually, the First Pennsylvania Bank and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia stepped up and provided much of the funding required to get the SV-1 in showrooms, with the proviso that the coupe be built within the latter's borders. This led to one business entity building the cars in Saint John, New Brunswick, while General Vehicle, Incorporated in Scottsdale, Arizona, controlled both it and another design group located in Livonia, Michigan.
Things quickly began to spin out of control. Executives and staff churn was substantial, cash flow was slow to non-existent, and quality control issues resulted in a steady stream of problems from a manufacturing perspective. In fact, it was estimated that more than half of the acrylic material initially used to produce body panels was ultimately wasted, a figure that was compounded by bonding issues between the acrylic and the fiberglass that ate nearly a quarter of all parts produced even a year later. These issues extended to customers, who found themselves dealing with faulty door hydraulics trapping them inside their vehicles and unusual behavior from the laminate body panels in extreme temperatures.
Approximately 2,850 Bricklin SV-1 coupes were built from 1974 to 1976, with the final model year being assembled by a company called Consolidated Motors that acquired General Vehicle's assets after it closed its doors. In addition to a shaky financial foundation and production difficulties, the soaring cost of the SV-1, which was originally pegged at around $3,500 (roughly $18,000 in today's dollars), but ballooned to nearly $9,500 ($48,000 in 2018) on certain models, significantly narrowed the field of potential customers.
With running gear that's simple, and easy to source replacement parts thanks to the community supporting both Ford and AMC, there's nothing all that exotic about maintaining the coupe's mechanicals in a modern context. Owners are also typically able to find body panels, if necessary, with interior components typically the hardest to locate. If you can find one of the 1,500 or so survivors thought to still be out there, the Bricklin SV-1 is an interesting conversation piece that's surprisingly inexpensive to own.
Just get used to people asking you about Doc Brown at the gas station.