Bricklin’s automotive odyssey is ending happier all the time
August 2, 2013
VAIL — Malcolm Bricklin will talk about his past if you ask. That's where he learned his lessons. But he'd rather talk about the future and what's next.
Bricklin has made and lost fortunes, then made them again. Through it all, he's still so full of positive energy he makes the Little Engine That Could seem like a total drudge.
The drive, the energy, the focus, the eccentricity are all captured in "The Entrepreneur," his son Jonathan's documentary film about Malcolm's five-year odyssey to import Chinese cars into the United States. The movie has dreams, love, betrayal, failure, success – and it even has a happy ending that's getting happier all the time.
"The Entrepreneur" went on iTunes last week, where it's the No. 1 documentary, and is available on bricklinfilms.com.
"Everyone is an entrepreneur," Malcolm said. "People used to think there was security in working at the same place for 20 years. There isn't; they know that now. They used to think their house would always go up in value. It won't; they know that now."
"You need to be able to depend on yourself, but understand that no one does anything alone," Malcolm said.
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About that happy ending
"The Entrepreneur" has a happy ending, we just didn't know how happy until now.
Earlier this week Malcolm won a $2 million verdict in one of the cases stemming from a former employee who betrayed him when he was trying to put together an import deal Chinese automaker Chery. Three months ago an arbitrator in Hong Kong handed him a $1.2 million win, and they're going back to Detroit to pursue a racketeering case against Chery.
"That many levels of betrayal, I've never experienced in my life," Malcolm said. "Even I've never seen anything like this."
They're winning because Jonathan spent more than 1,500 hours filming every meeting Malcolm had with the Chinese, and everyone else. When the court fights heated up and the Chinese denied something, you could almost hear Malcolm's attorney shout, "Let's go to the videotape!"
That footage, along with miles of documents, was submitted to the court as evidence. Jonathan's not sure it was ever used, but its presence was always felt.
"Which is one reason we're winning everywhere," Malcolm said.
Now, 10 years after Jonathan started filming, "The Entrepreneur" is available, just as the lawsuits have Malcolm back in the news.
"Releasing the movie to the public earlier might have complicated his lawsuits. The lawsuits are over and that's completion of the story," Jonathan said.
Enter 'The Entrepreneur'
"The Entrepreneur" started tugging at Jonathan's imagination just as he'd finished his first movie, "Minimum Wage," about the ski bum life he lived in Vail, waiting tables in a diner, working in a toy store and skiing. Malcolm has lived in Vail on-and-off for years.
Jonathan got serious about the film industry and was logging experience by editing home movies for celebrities like Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner and Bruce Willis, which Malcolm says was complete with Demi Moore giving birth to their child. Jonathan signed a confidentiality agreement. He smiles and said nothing.
In 2003, Jonathan caught up with his dad in New York City as Malcolm was headed to Warsaw, Poland, to meet with a car manufacturer. Malcolm invited him to come along and film the meeting.
So that's what they did. Then they filmed the next meeting and the next and the next … for four years. They decided Jonathan would get all the rights to the film — 1,500 hours of it — and complete freedom to do with as he chose. Malcolm would not interfere.
A documentary filmmaker has little control over what happens, and no one controls Malcolm, Jonathan says laughing. New York is packed with documentary filmmakers all looking for compelling characters with a story to tell.
"There's no one more compelling than Malcolm. If I filmed him, I'd get a story," Jonathan said.
"The Entrepreneur" is sort of about cars the same way "Field of Dreams" is sort of about baseball. It's a father-son story, Jonathan says.
Malcolm sits up a little straighter, his eyes shine a little brighter and talks a little prouder when he describes his son's film. Although there was this one time in Amsterdam after a meeting with the president of GM's European division president. The hotel reservation was messed up and they had one bed instead of two in their small room. They were exhausted, hungry, cranky and bickering.
Malcolm looked at his son, smiled and said, "Jonathan, if we were dating this is where we would break up."
Success begets success
Jonathan was already successful before "The Entrepreneur" started getting rave reviews. He runs SPiN, a string of ping pong night clubs, has a documentary series in the can about professional ping-pong players and is shopping around his first novel, "Flicking Boogers In The Wind," named for an Alabama law that makes it illegal to do just that.
Still, he's his father's son and there's always room for another project.
He and Malcolm are developing reality television show that is really real, not one of those things over-scripted with contrived conflict.
"There are enough obstacles in the world. We don't need to create them," Malcolm said.
They pitched it as a documentary series but no one bit. They re-pitched it as a reality show and are getting some interest. It'll likely launch as a web series, Jonathan said.
Now that you can buy "The Entrepreneur" on iTunes and bricklinfilms.com, Jonathan and Malcolm are getting all kinds of feedback from the movie.
"It's overwhelmingly positive, and most people say, 'If that old man can do it, I can do it,' whatever it is," Malcolm said. "People are calling to say, 'Thank you, I'm going to try again.'"
Jonathan says spending all that time with Malcolm gave him the confidence to start SPiN. He says he didn't know how to open a bar or find investors, but — like father, like son — he didn't let that stop him.
"You come up with your dream or goal and do everything you can. Sometimes it doesn't work out and you don't know what you're going to do. You don't know how you're going to pay the bills," Malcolm said. "People think, 'Nothing is going to save me now.' But something always does."
The Malcolm chronicles
"In 70 years Malcolm married four women and started more than 30 businesses. Less than half were successful, that is, if you define success as positive financial returns. For Malcolm, success seems to be based on the experience itself," Jonathan said. "If I had to guess how many more businesses or wives he'd have, I'd say as many as he can."
In the 1960s, Malcolm launched Subaru of America to import cars. He wanted to be in the import business, but not necessarily the car business. He picked the Subaru because it weighed less than 1,000 pounds and wasn't subject to lots of federal regulations. He was 28 years old.
The list lines up something like this:
1965-66: He imported Lambretta motor scooters from Italy.
1967–73: He launched Subaru of America to import Subaru cars.
1974-76: Be built The Bricklin, the first sports car with gull-wing doors.
1983–1985: He imported Italian sports cars Bertone X1/9 and the Pininfarina Spyder.
1985–1989: He imported the Yugo, at $3,900 the cheapest new car in America. He also had a contract to see a car line from Malaysia called Proton.
1994–1997: EV Warrior, an electric bicycle
2004 – 2007: A failed odyssey to import cars from Chery in China.
The EV Warrior was America's first electric bicycle, and Malcolm distributed it through automobile dealerships. Salesmen would throw it in as a sweetener for a Cadillac. They didn't bother selling the bike on its own because it took as long to sell the bike as it did a car. Since they only made about 50 bucks from selling the bike, they didn't.
When he was in the Yugo business he was summoned to Yugoslavia to meet with president Slobodan Milosevic. He says he'd never been in the presence of pure evil before, and when he left the meeting he decided to sell the company.
The Italian Lambretta scooter begat the Fiat roadster he imported in 2000, just as Fiat was pulling out of America.
When he went looking for another auto import project, someone pointed him toward Chery, the Chinese manufacturer.
'The Entrepreneur' rides again
The Bricklin 3EV is The Entrepreneur's latest project. The mission statement is not complicated: "It's the most fun car you'll ever drive."
It's a three-wheeled car —classified as a motorcycle, actually — that seats two and is powered by two electric motors. It'll have a 200 mile range and the motors are powered by newly designed turbines that's so simple that the idea makes you smack your forehead with the heel of your hand, as in, "Well that was obvious!"
It's a metaphor for Malcolm's life: The faster it goes the better it works.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.