Cars and Guitars #6: 1975 Bricklin and David Bowie

Cars and Guitars #6: 1975 Bricklin and David Bowie’s “Golden Years”

Your silky print shirt complements your white polyester blend slacks perfectly. You’ve unbuttoned the shirt almost down to your navel, ladled on some Brut cologne and you’re ready to strut your stuff. The new Bricklin SV-1 you just bought is packing a two-barrel, 351W Ford V8 boasting a whopping 175hp but you don’t particularly care.

Chicks will be all over the place tonight and one way to win them over is to display your new gullwing spaceship and eclectic taste in music. Turn on the radio and David Bowie’s latest hit “Golden Years” begins to percolate from the speakers. Ah yes, perfect. Who knows how many vivacious beauties await?

The perfect driving experience, the melding of music and machine is what Cars and Guitars is all about. So buckle up, drop it into reverse, and floor it back a thousand years to 1975 when glitter rock and winged Canadian muscle cars ruled the earth. This time, let’s look at the 1975 Bricklin SV-1 and the song “Golden Years” by the legendary David Bowie. We’ll also zoom in on the events of the day, reconstructing the “garden” that sprouted these two icons.

Both Bowie and the Bricklin were progeny hatched in the darkest moments of the malaise era. Bowie’s work in the mid-seventies was considered to be the most fertile and groundbreaking of his career. On the other hand, the Bricklin SV-1 never attained superstar recognition, even though the car was devilishly good-looking and pioneered several innovations in auto manufacturing back in the day.

Microsoft founding members in 1978. Bill Gates – lower left, Paul Allen – lower right.

1975 was a tumultuous year for planet Earth as well. Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockerfeller were in the White House, Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the US withdrew from Viet Nam after years of conflict. In late 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was thwarted in her attempt to assassinate President Ford in Sacramento, California.

Bricklin had his sights set on the Corvette with SV-1

Crazy days indeed, but despite all that drama, Malcolm Bricklin and David Bowie broke through the din and dominated the headlines. Bricklin was an automotive pioneer, paving the way for John DeLorean and Elon Musk, and Bowie was reinventing rock and roll (and himself) with every album. Decades later, the ruckus created by these two guys left an indelible mark on pop culture.

To get everyone in the mood, let’s rewind back to 1983 and watch an electrifying performance of “Golden Years” in Vancouver, British Columbia. Bowie was one of our last true rock stars and this live performance clearly illustrates the communion of spirits that only a master musician can achieve with an audience. He is in top form here delivering a killer performance in front of adoring fans, fawning at the hem of his baby blue, rock and roll trousers.

David Bowie was arguably at the peak of his career in 1975, in the middle of a string of smash albums. Diamond Dogs featuring the classic “Rebel Rebel”, Young Americans with the blockbuster track of the same name, and Station to Station, released with “Golden Years” in late 1975. For your humble scribe here, these albums were the crème de la crème years of Bowie’s creativity and musical chops.

Bowie had “Golden Years” mostly written when he went to record Station to Station in Los Angeles in 1974. He brought guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar into the studio and together they whittled Bowie’s idea into perfection. Another Bowie cohort Warren Peace contributed backing vocals and assisted with the vocal arrangements as well. The soulful guitar riff, the doo-wop background vocals, and Bowie’s smokey croon on the top resulted in a very funky concoction. Although it never reached #1, it charted strongly around the world and hit #10 in the US, staying on the charts for 16 weeks.

Bowie was heavily addicted to cocaine during this period and his inebriated appearance on the TV show Soul Train was considered a disaster. Upon reflection decades later, most viewers wouldn’t be the wiser and write it off as eccentric rock star behavior, you be the judge.

Malcolm Bricklin gained notoriety by founding Subaru of America in 1968 and established himself as one of the first American businessmen to foresee the popularity of Japanese cars. Occupant protection was all the rage at the dawn of the seventies and Bricklin hatched the idea to build a gullwing sports car with style and safety.

He hired Bruce Myers (of VW dune buggy fame,) and a team of engineers to flesh out a road-going prototype that was a hodgepodge of parts from around the world. The test bed car dubbed the “Gray Ghost,” had a six-cylinder Chrysler Slant-six engine, rear suspension from a Datsun 510, a braking system cobbled together from Opel, Datsun, and Toyota parts, and a tilting steering column from General Motors.

The “Gray Ghost”

In 1972, Bricklin pulled in Herb Grasse Design and AVC Engineering to style and engineer a production-ready version. The final clay model was produced in a record-setting three months’ time and christened the Bricklin SV-1.

Herb Grasse had been employed by both Chrysler and Ford and had gained fame by working with George Barris on the conversion of the 1955 Lincoln Futura show car into Batmobile for the TV show. Under deadline, Grasse was having trouble finalizing the tail lights so he took the rear lenses off his own Pantera to get the SV-1 prototype finished. They worked so well, they were retained for the production model.

Not only were the engineering details tricky, but there was the hurdle of securing financing and finding a factory. Bricklin garnered the attention of Richard Hatfield, the Premier of New Brunswick, Canada  There was 25% unemployment in New Brunswick and Hatfield thought a car factory could provide much-needed middle-class wage jobs.

Malcolm Bricklin-left and Richard Hatfield-center

Hatfield and the government agreed to loan Bricklin $4.5 million dollars (a huge amount in the mid-seventies,) and a factory was secured in Saint John, New Brunswick. The government believed that this money would be used to cover expenses incurred to begin the production of cars, instead, the money was used for the engineering and development as well as salaries back at Bricklin’s headquarters. 

Nonetheless, the car went into production in 1974 and was widely covered in the press. The SV-1 had a steel chassis with a built-in roll bar, energy-absorbing bumpers, and gull-wing doors. The gullwing doors were heavy and troublesome but nothing compared to the acrylic body panels that were pioneered on the car.

The idea was to skip the paint booth, and bond color impregnated panels on top of a glass-reinforced plastic body. Think of the material used in a one-piece bathtub surrounds and you get the idea. Only five colors were offered, Safety Red, Safety Green, Safety White, Safety Orange, and Safety Suntan because those were the only hues the supplier could provide. They were finicky, to say the least, The panels would blister at 150 degrees and crack and delaminate from the fiberglass substructure. It was a cool idea that created enormous manufacturing and warranty nightmares.

Then there was major drama with the engines. Bricklin secured a contract with AMC to supply 225 hp, 360cid V8s engines for the SV-1, but at the last minute, the 4th biggest US automaker welched on the deal. After much floundering and threats from Bricklin, AMC agreed to sell him 700 engines. After that, they pivoted and swapped in 175hp, 351W Ford engines. The AMC motor was certified for a four-speed transmission and a handful were built, but the Ford engine was offered with a three-speed automatic only.

SV-1 with AMC’s 360cid V8

Underneath, the car’s running gear was fairly unremarkable. The suspension was borrowed from AMC’s Hornet, with disc brakes up front and drums in the rear. Nonetheless, the car was a good performer back in the day, boasting 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds and running 15.6 in the quarter-mile at 90mph.

By the end of 1975, it became apparent that Bricklin was losing money. The New Brunswick government refused to grant any more funds and the company was forced to declare bankruptcy. There were a few cars built from the remaining parts which were designated 1976 models but after that, the company, tooling, and fixtures were liquidated.

When all was said and done, there were 772 1974 models built with a mix of 617 automatics and 155 four-speeds. For 1975, 2100 cars were built and just 34 units for 1976. The total production run was 2,906 cars. It’s been estimated that half of that total number of cars survive.

Both Bowie and Bricklin were in their heyday almost fifty years ago. Bowie died in 2016 but left an incredible legacy of music, fashion, and fame. Malcolm Bricklin has an interesting legacy as well. He survives today at 83 years old, and although creating a car company from scratch was a tough act to follow, he got “back on the horse” and brought Yugo to America (for better or worse) and never let the failure of Bricklin cars deter him from other endeavors.

As we say goodbye to this month’s installment of Cars and Guitars, we leave you with a rock and roll fantasy: Imagine a “Safety Green” Bricklin pulling up to the curb at Studio 54 in New York in 1975. As the gullwing door opens, dry ice fog slithers over the door sill and David Bowie steps out in a lime green, linen suit with a matching fedora. The flashbulbs pop and the crowd goes crazy. “Golden Years” indeed.

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an Editor at Power Automedia. A zealous car geek since birth, he digs lead sleds, curvy fiberglass, kustoms and street rods. He currently owns a '95 Corvette, '76 Cadillac Seville, '99 LS1 Trans Am and big old Ford Van.
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