Stage: Car at centre of new production travelled many kilometres to make it to The Playhouse stageZoe McKnight
There is nothing like driving a classic car -especially when that car is safety orange with a V8 engine and gull-wing doors that open at the touch of a button.
“Everybody hears it coming,” Hillier, development director at the Playhouse, said of the powerful motor and air compression system operating the doors. “It has a lot of power. You don’t have to press that gas pedal very hard … And then the doors come down and you sort of feel like you’re in a spaceship.”
The car makes several appearances onstage during the course of the two-hour musical, which centres on New Brunswick’s ill-fated venture into automotive manufacturing in the mid-1970s. During that time, the Richard Hatfield government and American rainmaker Malcolm Bricklin financed the Bricklin’s manufacturing. The company crumbled in 1976, weighted down by design flaws and financial mismanagement. Fewer than 3,000 cars were produced from 1974 to 1976 and the province lost its entire investment in the Bricklin, to the tune of $23 million.
The musical comedy is a joint effort between The Playhouse in Fredericton and Theatre New Brunswick. It was written by Allen Cole and Paul Ledoux, both from Nova Scotia.
When Tim Yerxa, artistic director of The Playhouse, had the idea to mount a stage production of the Bricklin’s high-stakes political and business intrigue, he knew he needed to find the real thing. Only 1,500 or so Bricklins remain, in the five original colours: safety orange, red, white, green and “suntan.”
“We wanted an orange one all along, just because orange is such an iconic colour, from a design point of view, of (the 1970s),” Yerxa said.
To find the car, he turned to Jim Gilbert’s Wheels and Deals in Fredericton for help. It took Gilbert five months to track down the right car, import it to Canada and get it up to speed for the show.
“I checked every source we had,” across North America, Gilbert said. “I checked day in, day out. It was look, look, look. Finally I came across one.”
Gilbert found the Bricklin on eBay for around $15,000. He and his wife flew down to Florida in February to make the sale from a collector, Pedro Fernandez, who lives in Cape Coral. Then he and his wife drove it the 3,000 kilometres back to Fredericton. Other than the fact that there was no heat, the car handled well.
“I’ve never driven one before, so it was kind of neat … it actually worked quite well. Surprisingly, for a 30 year-old car,” said Gilbert, who drove it at 80 miles an hour to get home in a day and a half. “We pushed it quite hard,” he said.
Gilbert said the Bricklin might not deserve its reputation as a lemon.
“I’ve seen cars that are five years old that wouldn’t make it to Florida,” said Gilbert, who has been in the automotive business for 30 years.
Fernandez has also been dabbling in cars for years. He bought and sold his first Bricklin, a white one, in the 1980s. He bought two others in 2005 for $21,000 from a Texan millionaire with a private car museum. The tan one was sold to a buyer in California, and the orange one was sold to Gilbert, who sold it to The Playhouse at cost for the musical.
Fernandez, a retired real estate agent, said he was drawn to the Bricklin’s famous doors.
“They looked like something very futuristic. It looked like a Corvette with gull-wing doors. And I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Fernandez said. The car’s Ford 351 engine takes standard parts and the acrylic and fiberglass body ensures a long life, but because the air compression system in the doors is so unusual, it’s the rare mechanic who knows how to fix it.
The car needed about $5,000 worth of work done to the body, motor and interior. This week, Hillier handed the keys back to Gilbert so his technicians can prepare it for the stage. All fuels and liquids have to be removed, and the famous gull-wing doors have to be changed over to an electric mechanism that can be operated behind the scenes. Then, once Bricklin: An Automotive Fantasy completes its run, the car will once again be made road-ready. Gilbert has committed to caring for the Bricklin for the foreseeable future.
As for Hillier, she said she will miss the Bricklin, even though it was a gas-guzzler.
“I have to go back to my four-cylinder,” she said.
The car’s distinct look that mixes the past and future drew a lot of welcome attention.
“A lot of people turning and staring, slowing down, people pulling up beside you and waving to you, honking their horn,” Hillier said.