You are here
Home > Curious Corner > Visionary Vehicles: when the smartest guy got outsmarted

Visionary Vehicles: when the smartest guy got outsmarted

Malcolm Bricklin has always been a controversial businessman. Some call him a genius, other call him a crook. He was the man behind Subaru’s US debut, the futuristic Bricklin SV-1, Fiat’s US foray in the early 80s and Yugo’s brief success in the US. In the 00s, he was now trying to bring Chinese cars in North America. But he got outsmarted…

Yugo, it doesn’t
In October 2000, Slobodan Milosevic is ousted. American may now do business again with Serbia. Malcolm Bricklin has just sold an electric bike project to Lee Iacocca. He’s got plenty of cash and he’s looking for a new business opportunity. The Canadian millionaire goes to Kragujevac, where Yugo are build. Bricklin loves buzzing and he declares he’s about to bring back Yugo to the USA!
Soon enough, he realises, that the Koral and Florida are comicaly outdated. Even the very patriotic Serbs don’t buy them anymore. So long for the “Yugo part 2” project…

Chinese connection
Then, Bricklin hears about Chinese cars. China is expected to join the WTO in December 2001. After that, one could freely import its products to the US, including cars. China has a reputation of being the “wild west” of the automotive industry. New brand are appearing almost daily and they sell ridiculously low-priced cars. To Bricklin, it’s a promising industry. Also, inexperienced partners won’t be to picky. It reminds him of dealing with Subaru in the 60s or with Yugo in the 80s…
Bricklin targets Chery. This up-and-coming brand has a three model-range, while most of the other chinese brand only produce one model. Back in the mid-90s, the poor Anhui province tried its hand at automobile. Local man Yin Tongyue was a top-manager at FAW-VW and he was hired as an expert. Yin had a small budget. The factory site was a wasteland and the machine were bought from a Ford factory. For the car, Yin set-up a shell company in Brazil, who bought the first-gen Seat Toledo’s dice and tooling. Then, the burgoning company tried to buy Daewoo Motors. It didn’t work out, but as the Korean manufacturer seemed doomed, many engineers joined Chery. Some with blueprints. In 2001, Chery launched the Toledo-based Cowin sedan. The QQ supermini and the Eastar larger sedan (respective clones of the Daewoo Matiz and Magnus) followed within the next months. A Syrian businessman brought a few Cowin ; the first chinese cars ever exported. That might explain why Bricklin flagged Chery.

Visionnary Vehicles
We’re now in 2002. Chery has the ambition to conquer the world. Malcolm Bricklin is able to set-up a whole dealership network in the USA. Nontheless, it’s impossible to sell those Chinese cars right away. They wouldn’t pass the emission and safety tests. And of course, there are copyright issues. Volkswagen isn’t really ok with Chery selling what looks like a Seat Toledo…

Bricklin thinks that Chery isn’t a great name. It’s too close to “Chevy”. In order to lure investors, he needs something big : Visionnary Vehicles. George Soros gives him $200 millions. Bricklin sets up a team of lobbyist : William van den Heufel (former US ambassador at the UN), Maurice Strong (former vice-secretary of the UN), Ron Harbour (international automotive consultant), Marianne McInnerney (former manager of the US dealership association) et Per Arnberg (international shipping company manager.) Then, he asks Pininfarina, Bertone and Ital Design to create a whole range of cars based on the existing Chery platform, while Austrian-firm AVL has to bring some horspower in the Chery engines.

Visionnary Vehicles is officially launched in December, 2004. A few month later, at the 2005 Detroit Auto Show, everybody’s talking about Bricklin’s new venture. Visionnary Vehicle introduces a Bertone-designed supermini, a Pininfarina-designed sedan and an Ital Design-designed large station-wagon. Then, at the Shanghai Auto Show, Visionnary Vehicle and Chery shares a common booth with a Lotus-engineered SUV and a spectacular Pininfarina-designed roadster. The new brand is ambitious. Its unofficial motto is Japanese quality and technology with a “made in China” pricetag. Bricklim claims he will sell 150,000 cars in the US, by 2007. And it really seems that nothing could stop him.

But then it got worse…
Chery is getting impatient. Their only experience with export is with Middle-East and later on Africa, with businessmen buying batches of cars, on spot. They believe at Detroit, too, dealers would come and place orders. If not, it must be Bricklin’s fault ! They hire Dennis Gore, Visionnary Vehicle’s head of R&D, whose task is to set-up a parallel importation structure, in the USA.
Also, they’re fed-up with Bricklin treating them as a subcontractor. They’re a car manufacturing company subcontracting their North American’s operations by Visionnary Vehicle, not the other way around!

Bricklin’s first reaction is “fine, try to move on by yourself!” That’s when he realised he has been outsmarted. In order to manufacture Visionnary Vehicle’s cars, they gained all the blueprints. In 2006 and 2007, Chery launched locally the A1 supermini, the A5 sedan, the V5 station-wagon and the Tiggo3 SUV. All the cars meant for Visionnary Vehicle with the exception of the roadster (codenamed M14.) They also launched the Austrian-designed engines, too. Thanks to Bricklin’s money and input, the manufacturer now has modern manufacturing capacities. It became China’s largest car manufacturer (outside of joint-ventures) with a nationwide network. Competitors that were ahead of Chery in 2002 are now closing down.

This means war
By all definitions, the Visionnary Vehicle project becomes a disaster. The ties with Chery are formally cut in late 2006. In 2007, the investors know they won’t see any of the 150,000 units that are supposed to come stateside by the end of the year. And they have no way to get their money back. Chinese courts are known for being partial. Challenging a chinese company would be a waste of time.

Bricklin wants to confort his investors and even attracts new ones. He’s got a plan B : the EVX, a luxury plug-in hybrid sedan. He reunites with Herb Grasse, the Bricklin SV-1 designer. V V (Visionnary Vehicle’s new avatar) will produce the EVX in China, by 2010. It will be sold for only $35,000, thanks to the proverbial “made in China” cheap manufacturing. But the timing is awfull. All the major Chinese manufacturer are now trying to walk on the steps of Chery, with their own North American project. No one wants to be V V’s subcontractor.

Bricklin knows that, at best, he looks like a moron. His son Jonathan Bricklin is tasked with filming a documentary, The entrepreneur. It portrays Bricklin Sr as a victim of Chery’s evilness and Dennis Gore’ treason, but whom keeps moving his goal of bringing the EVX to production… In 2010, Grasse died of cancer and no one took over his small design firm. 3 years later, Chery tries to bring its luxury brand, Qoros, to the USA. Bricklin takes this opportunity to sue the Chinese manufacturer : V V is the only company that could distribute cars produced by Chery. Meanwhile, Gore is tried for espionnage. He’s not convicted, yet Chery has to let him go.

Since then, Bricklin has retired. V V became V Cars, which has a vague hydrogen-powered car project. It’s mostly there to prevent Chery to export to the USA.

Joest Jonathan Ouaknine
Joest Jonathan Ouaknine, PhD, 39, French. Former racing instructor and award-winning novelist, writing about cars for over 12 years. I could -and I did- drive or fly for hours just to see some cars or meeting car guys. My favorite cars are the Mazda MX-5 "Miata" (NA) and the Lifan 320 ! Author of "Indycar : les stars des speedway" (2010) and "Les voitures Chinoises" (2018.)

Leave a Reply