Malcolm Bricklin’s Waterloo

ARTICLE: “Death of a Salesman” by Todd Lassa, Motor Trend, November 2005, p. 80

(Okay, I’ll admit, this is an 8 month old article, but in my defense I just got it a couple of weeks ago via my mail forwarding service, since I’m too cheap to pay for airmail, and I only read it last weekend. Nonetheless, it’s a superb feature and worth the read.)

I read Motor Trend because it manages to cover the car business from the horsepower-and-torque all the way up to the executive suite all without forgetting something that almost every other business publication probably never figured out: the automobile is as much recreation as transportation, and the business of designing, making, and selling cars belongs more squarely in the entertainment industry than lumped in along steel and other heavy industries. Also, unlike most of the other gearhead rags, Motor Trend occasionally remembers that there is, in fact, a whole big world out there south of Florida, east of Maine, north of Montana, and west of Hawaii.

Detroit editor Todd Lassa’s interview with serial car entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin did not disappoint. For those of you just joining us, Malcolm Bricklin is the gentleman who: built and crashed the Handyman Hardware chain just as the do-it-yourself craze was hitting a high point in suburban America; built and crashed a sports car company in the middle of the cocaine-fueled 1970s; and managed to build and bankrupt the infamous Yugo car company in the late 1980s.

So it is with a bit of skepticism that Lassa approaches his subject, but he gives Bricklin a more than adequate opportunity to hype his newest venture, Visionary Vehicles. You see, Bricklin believes that by working with Wuhu-based Chery Automobile Company he can import and sell Lexus-class vehicles for about half of a Lexus price. Which Chery is happy to do, providing Mr. Bricklin first hands over US$200 million in cash.

Is it me, or are there are so many interesting ways this train could wreck that you’re not sure who to warn about whom?

• Do you warn Bricklin, who is about to spend his sunset years, a lot of investor money, and the livelihoods of his dealers doing the hard work to build a market for Chery in the U.S. that Chery could crush at will as soon as they figure out they don’t need a middleman?

• Do you warn Chery president Yin Tongyao about how Mr. Bricklin has walked away from a procession of broken enterprises in the past, and that he may not be the safest guy upon whom to wager the company’s future market in China?

• Or do you just sit back and watch as Mr. Bricklin gets squeezed between his investors, his dealers, his consumers, and Chery in a mashup that seems bound to go wrong?

Something about this tells me that somebody is going to get taken for a ride in this situation, and it’s pretty clear Mr. Lassa, our writer, gets that, and he manages to inject just the right amount of skepticism at every turn. And it’s pretty clear he’s more worried about the Chinese than about ol’ Malcolm, who always seems to land on his feet.

Frankly, I’m more worried about the little guys in this process – the investors putting up the $200 million serious-money, the dealers who will put their lives and their savings into Visionary Vehicles, and the American families who will put their hard-earned dollars into a VV because that’s all they can afford.

Caveat emptor, y’all.