This year, two documentaries concerning serial automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin have been released. Coincidentally, both of them were the products of sons whose fathers were part of the story they were telling. First, after four years of sitting completed, in the can so to speak, The Entrepreneur, filmed and directed by Bricklin’s son Jonathan, with an executive producer’s credit to Supersize Me‘s Morgan Spurlock, was finally released this past summer for public viewing.
Trailers were released, a premiere party was held at Jonathan Bricklin’s trendy NYC ping-pong club, there was a bunch of publicity in the automotive and general media, and the film was supposedly available for viewing on Hulu, iTunes and Snagfilms. However, a search of those three sites shows that the film is not actually available at this time, so I can’t tell you if The Entrepreneur is a fair assessment of Malcolm Bricklin’s career and character or if it’s a son’s hagiographic tribute to his father.
There are a couple of trailers you can check out here and here. One can’t help but compare the seeming ephemeral nature of his son’s movie to the many stillborn projects of Malcolm Bricklin. I did observe Jonathan shooting video of his father when the senior Bricklin was at the 2007 NAIAS, holding a guerrilla press conference in Cobo Hall’s concourse hyping the deal he was trying to consummate with China’s Chery and my impression then was that Jonathan Bricklin was hanging on his father’s every word, shooting some kind of puff piece, another angle for the Bricklin family to make some coin.
Andrew Watson’s life was also intertwined with that of Malcolm Bricklin. Watson’s father Ian, a accountant working in the auto industry, uprooted his family from Stratford, Ontario and moved to New Brunswick, where he took the position of comptroller for Bricklin of Canada.Watson says that the move and his father’s involvement with the Bricklin car project left a “long term negative impact” on the Watson family, his father’s co-workers at the company and on the people of New Brunswick. That statement runs on the screen before the opening credits of SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry. As such, just as I’d expect The Entrepreneur to be favorably disposed towards Malcolm Bricklin, I expected Watson’s film to be nothing but a slam at Bricklin, whose record is unquestionably spotty at best. Instead Andrew Watson has presented a nuanced view of the Bricklin car project and of the man behind it that seems to me to ultimately be fair to all involved.
I discovered Watson’s project while trying to find a copy of The Entrepreneur to review. He was in the middle of doing his final cut, but we stayed in touch and now that the film has had some public showings, including winning the Best Documentary award at the 2013 Silver Wave Film Festival and is available on Vimeo video on demand, Andrew graciously gave TTAC access for a review.
SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry started out as a video Watson was making for his father’s 80th birthday. The more material he uncovered, the more archival footage he came across, the more he realized there was enough for a full-length documentary. “The deeper I got I realized the story was taking me for a ride,” he adds. “It was a vehicle for me to discover myself and to share this discovery. Despite how imperfect the car is, each car has a soul, a collective soul of each Bricklin worker.”
The people who worked on the Bricklin SV-1 are proud of it, which may be why Malcolm Bricklin doesn’t come off as as much as a villain as one might expect. It started out as a safety car, proposed to be able to protect occupants in 50 mph crashes and with bumpers that could withstand 20 mph impacts without damage, hence the nameplate SV-1, for Safety Vehicle. How the SV-1 came to be built in St. John, New Brunswick had to do with a politician, provincial premier Richard Hadfield, looking to create industry and jobs and Malcolm Bricklin looking for somebody else’s money to bankroll the project. Bricklin had first pitched the Quebec government on financing a plan for him to take over an idled assembly plant that had produced Renaults from kits and a failed sportscar project. The Quebec provincial government looked into Bricklin’s past enterprises and wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole.
By looking at the people involved in the SV-1 project, Watson explains how the unlikely project came to fruition only to come to an end after two years of production when the provincial government pulled the financial plug and wouldn’t put yet more millions into Bricklin of Canada.
SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry tells the story about the project from the perspective of most of the participants:
Bruce Meyers, who stuck a fiberglass body on a VW Beetle chassis and created the Meyers Manx dune buggy. He later made the Meyers SR, for Sports Roadster, one of which Malcolm Bricklin bought. Meyers had a hand in the the early design of the SV-1.
Dick Dean, famous car customizer. He carved foam from Marshall Hobart’s original styling sketches and built the first prototype
Richard Hadfield, Conservative premier of New Brunswick who championed the Bricklin project, even campaigning in the car. His political career would suffer as a result of the Bricklin failure.
Marshall Hobart, an Art Center student who worked as a designer for Meyers. While visiting Bricklin’s offices Malcolm asked him if he could design the car. He started doing sketches and one was chosen to become the SV-1.
Herb Grasse, the “controlled lunatic” designer tasked with taking the work of Dean, Hobart and Myers and turning it into a production “safety car”. Watson obviously thinks that Grasse has taken undue credit for designing the Bricklin car, depriving Hobart of his props.
Leon Klein, the man with connections who knew how to get money out of the provincial government.
Terry Tanner, managing mfg engineer for General Vehicle Inc., Bricklin’s holding company
Ian Watson, the real reason for this film. He moved his family to New Brunswick so he could take the job of comptroller for Bricklin’s Canadian operations, the St. John assembly plant and a satellite operation that made the SV-1′s body panels. The SV-1′s body was made of fiberglass bonded with a skin of color embedded acrylic that Malcolm Bricklin promised would look just as good 20 years later. To his credit, surviving Bricklins do look good, though the Minto, NB plant had a difficult time getting the lamination process to work. Watson tried instituting practices that would have operated the facility and the company in a more professional and fiscally responsible manner, but his superiors didn’t want the provincial government and other backers to know of any problems. Had the procedures been implemented, later financial problem might have been avoided. Another less practical idea of Ian Watson’s for saving the company’s money, borrowing a coworker’s .45 and shooting Malcolm Bricklin, never got beyond fantasy stage.
Most of the people mentioned above were interviewed recently for the documentary but the central character of the story, Malcolm Bricklin himself, is only heard from in the form of archival footage.
Another person that Watson did not interview was the late Albert Bricklin, Malcolm’s father. Malcolm made his father a manager in the company, much to the chagrin of just about everyone involved in the project. Albert’s role in the dysfunctional car company isn’t something I had been aware of. Albert Bricklin was simultaneously incompetent to do the jobs with which he was entrusted and authoritarian. Since he had a direct connection with Malcolm, he couldn’t be overruled. The Bricklin employees dedicated to actually building a functional car learned how to keep him out of their hair.
According to the film, Malcolm also used company funds to buy a home in Arizona for the use of him and his wife, only to have the title to the property transferred to them personally. Travel from Arizona to New Brunswick, or to the engineering office in Livonia, Michigan near Detroit, was via private charter. Apparently Mrs. Bricklin didn’t always travel with Malcolm, who seemed to always be accompanied on his trips by a half dozen or more attractive young women.
Andrew Watson’s narration sometimes sounds a bit amateurish, and it looks like he used some footage only tangentially related to the Bricklin story, like movie clips of Elvis Presley driving a dune buggy, an early 1960s Canadian Volvo ad (Volvos were built for quite some time in a New Brunswick plant) and ruin porn of Detroit’s decrepit Packard plant, to pad the film to a suitable length, but it’s an entertaining film nonetheless. Once piece of archival video is, appropriately, from an episode of Let’s Make A Deal, with Monty Hall himself dangling a brand new Bricklin SV-1 as a potential prize. That kind of rare footage and archival photos make Watson’s documentary an important source of history on the Bricklin car project, along with original interviews with key players in the story. He even managed to track down the prototype for a second generation SV-1 that Malcolm Bricklin claims inspired John DeLorean’s car and car company.
When a company fails, the people’s whose hopes and dreams fail with it are often invisible. Watson shows that the Bricklin SV-1 wan’t just a fast talking dealmaker’s route to fame and possibly fortune, it was in a number of ways an innovative automobile with a lot of people who believed in the project. Against some steep odds, including having to work with Malcolm Bricklin, they built a factory, designed a car, and put it into production, selling thousands of them. Automotive cons and hoaxes are not uncommon, but it’s hard to call Malcolm Bricklin a complete con artist because the factory did get built and it made thousands of cars.
Watson isn’t nearly as hard on Malcolm Bricklin as I had thought he would be, though the entrepreneur doesn’t exactly come out of SV-1, The Bricklin Inquiry smelling like a rose. Bricklin’s a hondler for sure, whose accounts in both senses of the word don’t always agree with others’, a man who can point to some success, which he invariably has embellished, while at the same time has a very spotty record with more misses than hits. Perhaps it is cosmic justice that more people remember Malcolm Bricklin from the fiasco of the Yugo than for whatever success the SV-1 had.
I had the opportunity to review the film for free, but after watching it a couple of times, I think that I would have paid the $4.99 video on demand rental fee. Even if you aren’t an enthusiast of the Bricklin SV-1, if you have an interest in automotive history, I’d say that it’s money well spent, barely more than a latte at a NYC Starbucks. If you own a Bricklin SV-1 or are otherwise a Bricklin car enthusiast, though, you’d probably want to pop for the $12.99 it costs to buy. The movie fills in a lot of the gaps in the written history of the SV-1 project and Watson fills in those gaps with human faces.