May 18, 2013

Hesston man gets a Bricklin of his own

The moment must have been a little like finding an old, faded photograph in a box of misplaced keepsakes.

The moment must have been a little like finding an old, faded photograph in a box of misplaced keepsakes.

When Robert Figger laid eyes on the bright orange 1975 Bricklin SV-1 coupe in Offerle, it had to trigger thoughts of the orange Bricklin that had belonged to his father.

"My dad had one when I was about 4 or 5, growing up in Hudson," said Figger, now an industrial research and design engineer at Agco Corporation in Hesston. "It was orange like this one, actually newer than this one," he recalled, noting that his father planned to restore his car eventually, but it never happened.

"He took it to an auction and ended up selling it," Figger said.

Given the chance to own a Bricklin of his own, he wasted no time striking a deal with the owner of the car in Offerle. Fewer than 3,000 Bricklins were built in the Canadian company’s short three-year lifespan.

"The guy had bought a new white one … and had the bright idea that he would buy one of every color," Figger said.

The Bricklin, conceived as a "safety sports car," was available in five colors: Safety Red, Safety White, Safety Green, Safety Orange and Safety Suntan, a sort of flesh tone.

The orange car had been a project car that was never finished, but Figger hopped in it without hesitation.

"I drove it around town once, then I drove it 60 miles to Hudson at 70 miles an hour," he said.

The Bricklin was the brainchild of Malcolm Bricklin, one of the founders of Subaru of America back in 1968. In the ’70s, he decided the time was right to build a sports car that featured cutting edge safety technology.

With help from a Canadian government loan, Bricklin began producing cars in New Brunswick in 1974, using an AMC Hornet chassis and 360 cubic inch V-8 engine. The gullwing body was fabricated of vacuum-formed acrylic plastic panels that had the paint colors embedded in the plastic.

"The idea was that if you got a scratch on a panel, you could just sand it and buff it right out because the color went all the way through," explained Figger.

But there were problems right from the start and running changes meant that cars built one month had different equipment or dimensions than those the next month. "They made changes every 30 or 40 cars, so not a lot of them are the same," Figger said.

The 90-pound gullwing doors, for example, relied on a weak hydraulic lift mechanism that sometimes left owners trapped inside the car. So a fail-safe safety pin was installed that would allow the doors to be lifted manually — not an easy feat for most people, who chose instead to climb out a window, Figger said.

His car had been converted to an aftermarket pneumatic system, but he installed a stronger air compressor and a keyless entry system which open the heavy doors in a couple of seconds. The doors require less than 10 inches of space on either side of the car to swing fully open, he said.

Figger’s car was built in 1975, by which time Bricklin had switched over to Ford 351 cubic inch V-8 engines and automatic transmissions (155 Bricklins built the first year were assembled with 4-speeds.)

Targeted as competition for the Corvette, the Bricklin was hampered by heavy front and rear spring-loaded urethane bumpers and other safety equipment like the side impact bars below the door openings. The car weighed in at just under 4,000 pounds.

"It was one of the safest vehicles on the road at the time, though," he said.

Styling was a combination of a Corvette-like front end and a rear that resembled Mustangs of the era, Figger said. Inside, a pair of bucket seats faced a padded dash full of analog instruments tilted toward the driver. There was neither a glove box nor a cigarette lighter, which designers considered possible distractions to the driver.

Figger was able to locate a correct set of turbine-style wheels for his Bricklin and plans to replace the out-of-place red carpet soon. Various trim pieces will be repaired or replaced and the black portions of the car will be repainted, but not the original orange acrylic panels, he said.

"I want to try to restore it back to better than original," he said.

The company went broke in 1975, with the leftover parts assembled into 31 cars in 1976. Malcom Bricklin would go on to import the ill-fated Yugo in later years and is now involved in bringing a low cost Chinese car to market in North America.

Few people today recognize the Bricklin for what it actually is.

"I get a lot of people who say it’s a kit car. One guy at work actually thought it was a Camaro," Figger grinned.

"But when I stop for gas and open the doors, that’s when people turn around."

Editor’s note: The Bricklin is one of those cars that can cause your head to snap around reflexively when you spot one. But rarity doesn’t guarantee high collector value. Figger said the few remaining Bricklins still only command prices in the $7,000-10,000 range.

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