Pulse: Affairs: Bricklin’s Back

The Philly native who brought us the Subaru and the Yugo has a new auto to market. Chinese cars, anyone?

“Everyone calls the Yugo venture a failure,” says former Philly fixture Malcolm Bricklin, who wears a bright purple tie and orders his three-course lunch with a Grey Goose martini. “It wasn’t a failure for me!” In fact, Bricklin, the 66-year-old auto entrepreneur who brought America, among other automotive disasters, the Yugo, made a neat $20 million selling his stake in the doomed auto importer months before it filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1989.

It’s money that Bricklin, who left Philly in 1973 and now makes his home in New York, has been funneling into his fifth act, becoming the first American to import cheap cars from China, made by the mainland manufacturer Chery. At $3,600 in Beijing, Chery QQ cars are even cheaper than the $3,990 Yugos that once earned the Consumer ­Reports testimonial “one of the worst cars [the magazine] has ever tested” — a title that topped Bricklin’s first auto-importing endeavor, Subaru of America, originally based in Bala Cynwyd, whose Subaru 360 model was called the “most unsafe car in America” by Consumer Reports. But Bricklin is perhaps best known in these parts for the Bricklin SV-1 — that’s safety vehicle — which came equipped with gullwing doors like the Millennium Falcon and sold a mere 780 cars the first year. (The venture’s money ran out in 1975.) With Chery, Bricklin says, things will be different. By the time the first Bricklin Cherys come on the market in 2007, he promises hybrid-like fuel efficiency, a solicitous batch of 250 dealerships nationwide — and a new name.

“They messed up the translation the first time,” he says, in explanation of the cars’ current brand name. “They wanted something that meant ‘happy,’ so they used the word ‘cheery’ but got it one letter off.” They still haven’t chosen a name, and Bricklin welcomes ideas. (“Malcolm” isn’t taken!)