Most American youngsters at some point fill their homework with sketches of their fantasy car. But very few of them carry that dream to adulthood and turn their visions into metal, glass and rubber that actually move people down the road. Invariably, those rare vehicle visionaries who have eked out even a couple of hundred cars—think Preston Tucker and John DeLorean—have failed to keep their reputations and their finances intact.
The attempt to build an original car from the ground up is an once-in-a-lifetime, audacious act. Trying it twice? Most consider it lunacy. Yet that’s what Malcolm Bricklin, at age 68, is aiming to do. “I’ll be the only human being in history that tried it twice,” Bricklin told me. “Tucker never tried it again. John died before he could try it again. I’m the only one alive, and I’m going to do it again.”
Thirty years ago, Bricklin founded an automobile manufacturing enterprise that produced nearly 3,000 units of a gull-winged sports car called the Bricklin SV-1. The company quickly racked up more than $20 million in debt, folded, and receded into the annals of auto history. Bricklin is more widely known for bringing the Subaru and Yugo brands to America.
Now, the indefatigable auto entrepreneur has taken his ambitions to a new level with his latest goal of single-handedly creating a mass-market, plug-in hybrid car industry, including: creating his own high-volume 100-mpg luxury vehicle; building a new dedicated component factory in China to produce lithium phosphate batteries and electronic parts for his car and for other fledgling electric car makers; organizing a chain of exclusive dealerships placing advanced bulk orders; and engineering a wireless network allowing service technicians to monitor the performance of a vehicle from a distance.
I spoke with Bricklin in the New York City office of Visionary Vehicles, his company.
Bradley Berman: Where does China fit into the future of the car business, both in terms of manufacturing and as a burgeoning market?
Malcolm Bricklin: China will be the biggest home market for cars in the world. They’re building the roads. They’re building the factories. They have the people. To not kill the whole population, they have to dramatically move into clean [car technology]. Not just environmentally clean, but really good mileage. We’re not talking going from about 26 to 28 mpg. I’m talking about 75 mpg.
The only thing that’s been keeping electric cars and electric hybrids from happening is the need for the next-generation in technology, the lithium battery. Engineers needed to get rid of the “boom” part…where the battery goes “boom” every once in a while. The engineers put phosphate and a couple of other things, and the “boom” is gone. But the price is too high. You want to put batteries in the car that are sufficient [for plug-in hybrids], it’s $30,000 to $40,000. But if you go to China, and order the quantity we’re about to order, the price drops to about $6,000.
By the way, we’re doing something else that seems counterintuitive. We are going to invest in the factories necessary to bring the prices down so our components’ costs are in line with conventional cars. So when you get rid of the engine and the transmission and the rest of the stuff [required for a conventional car, but not required for a series hybrid], we’re about equal. We’re going to make those same components available to other people who want to be in the electric vehicle business. On top of that, if they use those components—we’ll be the only ones offering them at a decent price—we will probably be willing to do their warranty and probably willing to let them sell it through our dealer network.
BB: You’re talking about being a manufacturer, parts supplier, distributor, marketer…
MB: I’m going to build a factory that will build a quarter of a million car battery components. Let’s say I’m going to use 150,000 of them. Say Tesla and Phoenix and all these people who are going to be in the electric car business, and who are trying to do it all by themselves, cannot bring the costs of the components down. I want those guys to succeed. They are not, in any way, competition, as far as I’m concerned.
The [electric and hybrid] industry needs to be started. It needs a good foundation. And if I have the [electric] components at a good price, a lot of people can get into the vehicle business now. It will be almost like it was in the beginning of the 20th century.
BB: You’ve said that you plan to manufacture Chinese-made plug-in hybrids, and bring them to the United States by 2009.
MB: The end of 2009.
BB: What are the greatest challenges in making that happen?
MB: Just about everything known to man. Where would you like to start? That we do the engineering right. That we test it sufficiently. That the battery factory capacity doesn’t produce flaws. That we find ways to check all the components of the electric system to make damn sure everything goes in perfectly. That the Chinese pay attention and give us the kind of quality we demand. That I don’t die too soon. That the ships with the cars don’t sink in the sea.
BB: It seems that you are blending two marketing ideas. You are going after a luxury product, but one that has great fuel efficiency. What gives you the indication that luxury buyers care about fuel efficiency?
MB: I don’t care if they do. I’m building a car that when you see it, and when you sit in it, and when you drive it, you would pick our car over a comparable car assuming that it didn’t have any environmental or mileage gains. Those are just a plus. I’m not trying to sell you a car because it’s environmentally good. I’m trying to sell you a car that’s so damn good that there’s not a reason you’re buying it except that it’s so damn gorgeous, and you want to have it. And it’s such a good value.
BB: It’s taken seven years for hybrids to reach 2 percent of the new car market. Are you concerned about the market adopting something that is so new?
MB: First of all, there were only a limited number of hybrids available. Number two, they are not very dramatic. To go from 25 to 32 mph, who gives a damn? The Prius, which was a cool idea, is a lousy looking car. We’re not asking anybody to make a sacrifice or pay more. And I believe when people see our vehicle and drive our vehicle, and with the warranty that we’re going to put on it—to say, if there’s a problem, it’s our problem, and a problem that you don’t have to bring back to the dealership—I think our problem will be that we can’t build them fast enough.
BB: Are you saying that all the vehicles you produce are going to be plug-in hybrids?
MB: Yep. That’s what I’m going to do.
BB: What’s your vision for transportation in the year 2030? How do you see it playing out?
MB: I’d tell you what I’d like. Except that I can’t find any technology that will do it. I’ve always wanted to build an air car that goes 18 inches off the ground, so we get rid of roads on top of everything else. Tires, and frames and all the other crap. The only problem is that I can’t find anything that will push it off the ground that doesn’t create all sorts of noise, not to mention serious wind and stability problems.
In the meantime, I think the electric hybrid is going to be the next serious replacement of the combustion engine.