Automotive innovator takes Big Three to task, but still backs bailout

(Photo/wikipedia.com)
(Photo/wikipedia.com)
Malcolm Bricklin spent his life chipping away at the dominance of the American automobile industry by introducing innovative imports and championing affordability and fuel efficiency. But he doesn’t want to see the Big Three die.

“We have to keep them alive because if we don’t the catastrophic problems we are going to be facing are something I don’t even want to think about,” said Bricklin, who in the late 1960s founded Subaru of America. “We’re going to have a major depression like we have never seen before and it’s going to take the whole world down.”

Bricklin, 69, who splits time between Florida and New York, spoke to the Colorado Independent by phone this week. A documentary about his life called “The Entrepreneur” was directed by his son, Jonathan, and won critical acclaim and an award at the Vail Film Festival last year.

After a brief stint importing Fiats, in the ’80s Bricklin formed Yugo America, which sought to sell cheaply made Yugoslavian-manufactured cars to the U.S. market. The company flamed out amid complaints about the cars’ quality. In 2006, his plans to import Chinese-built luxury cars unraveled in a dispute over production quality and his insistence on a hybrid line.

Now his Visionary Vehicles company is focused on producing affordable electric or plug-in, electric hybrid vehicles and other technologies he promises will dramatically improve fuel efficiency. A tireless salesman, Bricklin said his firm will soon announce technology that can be installed in existing lines of new and used cars and double their mileage per gallon.

“All [the Big Three has] got to do is take the vehicles they’ve got and start putting on technologies that will increase those cars from whatever they’ve got to 100 percent better while they start spending time and money on electric-hybrid plug-ins and those technologies that unfortunately don’t happen very fast,” Bricklin said.

Charismatic and extremely self-assured, Bricklin was deemed by some an eccentric entrepreneur who’s made and lost millions taking extraordinary chances in the industry for more than four decades. He refused to divulge more details about the technology he says will save the Detroit carmakers, but claims to know what American consumers want.

“Right now they want a car that’s as clean as possible and gets as many miles as possible, and that’s not what’s available, and until they get that [the Big Three] can have all the bailout money they want but they’re not going to sell more cars,” Bricklin said.

GM executives said they need at least a $4 billion loan by the end of the year or the company will go bankrupt, and Chrysler, which is reportedly burning through $1 billion a month, on Wednesday announced it was shuttering all 30 of its North American production facilities until at least Jan. 19.

Republican senators last week scuttled a $25 billion congressional bailout package for the Big Three, but on Wednesday President Bush once again said some form of rescue package must happen “relatively soon.”

Bricklin said the Big Three’s network of more than 12,000 dealerships around the country is in serious danger, but he believes his fuel-efficiency technology can help there as well. Since it can be installed in new and used vehicles, he said dealerships and their service departments can get busy retrofitting used cars and upgrading new lines by late summer or early fall. Meanwhile, Detroit can remake all of its lines of new cars and trucks.

“If you’re really going to talk about how are we going to do something about global warming, how are we really going to make a dent on oil, you’ve got to have something on those 250 million used cars while we’re attacking the new cars, because the new cars are only a drop in the bucket compared to what’s out there,” he said.

Despite Bricklin’s history of importing lines of small, fuel-efficient cars (in the ’70s he built a gull-winged sports car called The Bricklin), he said Americans still want full- and mid-sized cars and trucks that cost less and get twice the mileage of existing lines.

“You’re embarrassed to buy a car that gets under 20 miles per gallon, you just are, and you’re going to feel pretty stupid when the price [of gas] goes back up again,” he said. “Right now we’re feeling pretty cocky because it’s only 30 bucks when you fill up.”

Bricklin chastises American automaker executives for their insular approach to new technology and refusal to innovate in the face of an energy and climate crisis that has been building for decades.

He added that bailout money can’t be injected into small, innovative companies instead of the Big Three because Detroit has the necessary manufacturing, engineering, dealership, parts supply and service infrastructure to remake the industry. All they lack is the vision.

“I am telling you right now today I can put something on your car and you can get 40 miles per gallon [in an SUV], and for [the Big Three] not to be able to look farther than their nose is not criminal, but close to it,” Bricklin said.

“They’re in this problem because they’re organizations that are not built to let outside influence come in, so they only have ideas that are generated internally that can get up through the ranks to people who will make decisions but are not qualified to.”

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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