Something in a Canadian loves a loser
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 June 2003)

The ghost of the failed Bricklin sports car flapped its famous wings this week, recalling the wildly hopeful old days of "industrial policy" and "public-private joint ventures," when provincial governments eagerly poured millions into projects that promised to create jobs and prosperity in depressed regions.

What brought it all back was a piece of startling news from Ottawa: The Royal Canadian Mint has created a $20 coin to commemorate the Bricklin. With the gullwinged design of the car on one side and the Queen on the other, it sells for $59.95. A representative of the mint recently paid tribute to Malcolm Bricklin as "a maverick entrepreneur who had the gumption to go ahead with something which really, at the time, had never been seen before." Nor since, it might be added.

The Mint has provided fresh support for the theory that something in a Canadian loves a loser. Can that notion be true? Certainly we have a tendency to embrace the ethos of the nursery school. We have no failures in Canada, you see, just different kinds of success. This explains why we make a point of remembering precisely the sort of disaster that less enlightened countries try to forget. It's our commitment to egalitarianism. Someday we will erect a monument to the scientists and politicians who organized the Canadian fisheries policy, and another to the computer engineers who designed the $1-billion gun registry and then lost the files.

We still celebrate the style of the Clairtone sound system, which was built with the help of the Nova Scotia government before its manufacturer went bankrupt. Peter Munk, in recalling his days as head of the Clairtone Sound Corp. in the 1960s, has argued that government involvement was a big mistake. As he once explained to Canadian Business magazine: "We fooled ourselves by falling into the trap of getting capital easily -- a Nova Scotia government program to alleviate unemployment. We found ourselves negotiating with a team who kept on telling us, 'You want to take an extra million.' So we built a factory and it was too big. The worst thing was that mix of private and public capital."

The Bricklin also mixed private and public money, but the public made the larger investment. This was more embarrassing than most failures, partly because the design became famous. Malcolm Bricklin, who had earlier made a small fortune with a chain of hardware stores, came up with a plan for a sports car in 1971. The SV-1 was a two-seater with a steel-reinforced fibreglass body and electro-hydraulic doors that opened upward rather than sideways, like the wings of a gull. He raised $1-million in the U.S. but found his main backer in Richard Hatfield, then the premier of New Brunswick, who was said to have fallen in love with the car's elegance.

Bricklin brought in components from the United States while using plants in Saint John and Minto for bodies and assembly. He hoped to break even at 5,500 cars a year, but produced only 2,875 before a Pennsylvania bank called its loan and seized the inventory. That cost New Brunswick $23.3-million.

Malcolm Bricklin moved on. He later founded Yugo America Inc., to sell European cars (it went bankrupt in the 1980s) and the Electric Bicycle Co., to sell $2,700 bikes (it went bankrupt in the 1990s). Regrettably, Bricklin is an American citizen. If he were Canadian, we could recognize him with the Order of Canada as well as a silver coin.

In 1971 Harry Bruce, early in his career as a chronicler of the Maritimes, wrote in Saturday Night: "The poor, suffering underdeveloped people of the world are natural suckers for gigantic engineering proposals, government development programs and magical administrative formulae that will somehow make them as fat and rich as everyone else." He was talking about the plan to produce electric power from tides in the Bay of Fundy, but he could as easily have been speaking of the Bricklin, or of Joey Smallwood's many schemes for Newfoundland progress. In this form of investment, Smallwood was a world champion.

From his first days as premier, he began reorganizing the economy. He paid some Icelanders to introduce herring fishing, a plan that failed, mainly for lack of herring. The Icelanders brought in only nine barrels, at a cost of $412,000, then went home. Later Smallwood invested in factories to produce plywood, leather, batteries, chocolates and anything else that came along. He promised to build the world's largest oil refinery at Come-By-Chance. In all he invested more than $400-million in his schemes, none of which worked.

In 1950 Smallwood brought European sophistication to his government by hiring a Latvian economic thinker, Alfred Valdmanis. Smallwood predicted that one day Newfoundlanders would consider him the saviour of the economy and erect statues of him, but Valdmanis declined to wait for his reward. He began requesting fees from companies hoping for government aid, fees that the RCMP chose to call "bribes." He went off to prison, and no statues have materialized. Still, I see no reason why we shouldn't strike a coin in his memory.

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