Once upon a time, Malcolm Bricklin had a dream. It came in any one of five colors. It cost $9,895. It had doors like the hatches on a plane and a snout like a space-age boar. And it had a tough mission: It was to be all things to all people.
It had to be a sports car, capable of whizzing 140 miles an hour. A safe car, capable of surviving fearsome crashes. A car $10,000 cheaper than a Maserati, but just as likely to turn heads at a red light. A car for the shopping center as well as the open road. And some day, maybe, a car that would be a household word.
Malcolm Bricklin gave his dream a heck of a shot. He invested $65 million, 10 of which were his own. He hired top designers and salesmen away from other manufacturers. He convinced The Wall Street Journal that, young as he was at 35, he was "one of the few men" who might take on Detrot and succeed.
And he had bushels of flair.
He named his mother consumer affairs director and installed a toll-free phone in her Philadelphia-kitchen. From there, Mrs. B. fielded customer complaints and dispensed "chicken-soup car philosophy." Meanwhile, to introduce his 1974 model, Bricklin parked his creation in a Las Vegas hotel lobby and draped it in showgirls. They were wearing as much as they usually do.
But in 1975, after only a year, Bricklin drowned in red ink. He had turned out only 2,857 of the cars that bear his name.
Today, Bricklin lives in Los Angeles, where he promotes soul singers, helps run a Go Kart track - and schemes up ways to reenter the car business. But Bricklin's first generation of namesakes are still very much with us. And they continue to pack a wallop of loyalty that no Fairlane could ever approach.
Consider the scene on recent Saturday night at a motel in Manassas. Around cocktails sat a classic collection of Washingtonians - oldies and teenies, skinnies and biggies, wealthies and welfares, tee-shirts and ties.
But no one asked what anyone else did. No one checked for wedding rings. No one declared provocatively that Jimmy Carter was finished.
The talk was spark plugs. These were Washington's Bricklin owners, about half the 47 persons who could answer to that description. They had come to celebrate the obscure car they own and love.
Jack Siuta, of Alexandria, was clearly the most dedicated celebrant. A marketing executive and the international president of the Bricklin fan club, Siuta owns three of Malcolm's brainstorms, including a rare four-speed standard shift (only 50 were ever made).
But Siuta seldom drives his Bricklins. He is more likely to be found on the phone or at the mimeo machine, working to ensure that the memory lingers on. This night he was emceeing a slide show, and for two hours he supplied a running description of celluloid Bricklins that Howard Cosell might envy.
Siuta is so bonkers for Bricklins that he sometimes doesn't go out on Saturday nights if one of his three cars is ill. "I get so-o-o-o-o despressed," he said.
And what of Dennis Lautner, a missile consultant for Lockheed Aircraft Corporation? Transferred to Washington from California earlier this year, Lautner had the choice of crossing the continent in a motorcycle, a Honda Civic, a Ford convertible or a Bricklin.
Understandably, Lautner quickly eliminated the motorcle. But even though one can drive it only with arms fully extended, and even though it gets a paltry 13 miles to the gallon. Lautner chose the Bricklin from among his cars. "No choice at all," he said. "It's the ego satisfaction."
Bricklin owners often remark on how similarly those satisfactions show themselves.
A classic Bricklin vignette is to drive into a gas station, where a pack of groupies is ogling a Corvette. "In no time at all, they'll be back checking out the Bricklin," said John Hall, an Alexandria mechanic who owns one of each.
Another "repeater" occurs on freeways. Bricklins carry their names only on the right rear. So it is standard for a curious soal to range up to the left of a Bricklin, notice it, study it, looked puzzled, pass it, slip to the right side of it, study it some more, look puzzled some more, then finally glide behind it to learn its name.
But Bricklin ownership is more than private jokes. As it does with all rare and defunct cars, the going price keeps right on going as long as the car does. Fifteen thousand is not uncommon for a Bricklin that looks and runs decently. "I'd say we're all aware of the fact that we have an investment," said Lautner.
Many Bricklin owners have ragged nerves, too. In his short time afloat, Malcolm Bricklin never debugged some of the car's design features. Thus, the hydraulic doors sometimes refuse to open or close. And it is impossible to stack anything on the rear shelf without it falling over when the driver corners at eight miles an hour.
"But think of it this way," said jack Siuta. "No matter how great any other car is, after four years, it looks its age. This design, though, is not obsolete. It holds up."
The parking lot bore silent witness to this. There, shoulder to shoulder, shimmering in the mercury, vapor lights, were nine of Malcolm's finest. Only one had a noticeable dent. The rest could have come straight from a showroom.
Okay, realists, how does it drive? Excellently, to judge from a quick three-mile spin. One aims it as much as one steers it. But Bricklining quickens the pulse, and draws a very distinctive kind of stare from passersby.
As Dennis Lautner put it, "Anybody can own a Porcsche."