Malcom Bricklin wants to start a revolution.
By now, everyone in America has heard of Bricklin's plans to import cars from China. The fast-talking entrepreneur is good at nothing if not promotion, and his scheme to start selling hundreds of thousands of Chinese vehicles annually through his new company, Visionary Vehicles, has been well documented.
That, alone, has more-established auto companies quaking at the thought of competing with another influx of low-cost cars — Bricklin says 30% less than comparable models sold here — in an already cutthroat market.
If targets are hit, the man that made Yugo a household name — then watched as poor quality turned it into a late-night talk show punch line — will sell 250,000 vehicles in the U.S. beginning in 2007 and 1 million annually in four years, unprecedented for a start-up importer.
In another groundbreaker, Bricklin is vowing to introduce a new model every three months — everything from hardtop/convertibles to cross/utility vehicles to sedans and minivans, with 4-, 6- and 8-cyl. engines.
But the agenda goes well beyond that. The 65-year-old huckster also aims to radically alter the car-buying process, eliminating the hard-sell approach and turning dealerships into “destination centers” that coddle and entertain shoppers with free car washes, outdoor videos on giant Times Square-like screens and track time testing out the new models.
If sufficiently wowed, the experience will turn shoppers into buyers, Bricklin believes.
Because Visionary Vehicle dealers will be situated off the beaten auto showroom path, conveniently located service chains such as Wal-Mart or Pep Boys will be contracted to perform warranty repairs. In addition to covering defects, Visionary will provide routine service and, perhaps, replacement tires when the first ones wear out.
Of course, for all this to go right, Bricklin will need to roll a string of sevens.
For starters, the cars coming from Chery Automobile will have to be right in styling, performance and quality. Bricklin isn't planning on rolling out cheap econoboxes. He wants upscale models with the “quality of a Lexus and the soul of a Mercedes” — a difficult assignment for a startup manufacturer from China.
He'll also have to convince a couple hundred dealers to ride along with him, and he'll need consumers in big numbers to buy into the new way of retailing.
And won't Bricklin's competitive advantages erode when other low-cost models start coming in from other Chinese car makers?
But Bricklin exudes confidence. He says he has a 3-year jump on his Chinese competition, and assistance from such top-notched European specialists as designer Bertone and engineering house AVL will ensure the cars come out right.
As for the new retail scheme and everything that goes with it, Bricklin says, “It is so much easier starting something than changing something. We'll have a clean slate, and that means we can do it the way we want to.”
This time, if he succeeds, Bricklin certainly will alter the U.S. automotive landscape — which is why many industry insiders are hoping he doesn't.
David E. Zoia is editorial director of WardsAuto.com.