Malcolm Bricklin on electric hybrid plans
Reuters James B. Kelleher sat down with Malcolm Bricklin, founder of Visionary Vehicles and a colorful entrepreneur who wants to bring Chinese-made cars to the U.S. market. An edited transcript of the interview follows:
REUTERS: Whats the most interesting thing youve seen here today? A colleague told me they saw you hanging around GMs Chevy Volt electric vehicle?
BRICKLIN: Thats the way were going.
BRICKLIN: A little bit different. They have the engine bigger than we want. … We can have a little engine, a little engine — not a big one like that a little engine that runs in one constant RPM that does nothing more than fill up the battery full time, along with regenerative braking, and you can get 100, and if you plug in, 150 miles to the gallon.
REUTERS: So thats the kind of powerplant youre talking about?
BRICKLIN: What I saw there, which is more sophisticated than you need, is what were planning on putting in the car now.
REUTERS: So whos going to build it? When last we talked, at the September Reuters Auto Summit, you were talking to Chinas Chery Automobile. But since then, theyve partnered with DaimlerChrysler instead.
BRICKLIN: And in fact made it impossible for them to pay attention to building great cars and cheap cars at the same time They really think you can build a cheap car and get away with not-quite-as-good quality. Of course, Chryslers going to teach them a whole new game. … So we went out and spoke to 15 other manufacturers to make sure that were going to end up with three that we liked, and weve been interviewing people and sending people over there. But what I also did was find out ‘Can we do this electric hybrid, either faster or slower’. Well, you get rid of six-speed transmission, you get rid of my V-6 engine, you get rid of my catalytic converter, you get rid of all my emission problems, yeah, (and) we can do it and get it in 09. And were starting to build the prototype.
REUTERS: So let me check my comprehension: Chery will not be building the car?
BRICKLIN: No. It will be one of 15 people were talking to in China right now.
REUTERS: Any names you can share with us?
BRICKLIN: I cant. Heres my problem: They said, You cant use any of our names until you decide who we are. Because youll get everybody excited about us and if we lose, were going to lose face. When we pick the three, well let everybody know.
REUTERS: So the date I just heard was 2009?
REUTERS; And thats for?
BRICKLIN: Cars here in the United States.
REUTERS: Powered by?
BRICKLIN: Powered by electric, hybrid, plug-in.
REUTERS: Lets talk about distribution, dealerships. Again, when we were talking last time you said youd lined up some number of dealers and they were willing to put $2 million down each.
BRICKLIN: Twenty-eight dealers put up the money. Over 100 hundred dealers were ready to do it in August when we stopped and said, Whoa. We dont know where were going. Everything we did, we always did with those 28 dealers that were in. We told them what we were doing and how we were doing it. One dealer dropped out.
REUTERS: Does the vision for these cars, outside the new powerplant, remain the same?
BRICKLIN: Its all the same. Powerplants different. And the car will be modified a little because the powerplant changes the way the car is, you wind up with a flat floor.
REUTERS: When did you have the eureka moment about electric power?
BRICKLIN: I was talking to my son the other day and I told him, Everybodys going to say were making this big change In 1975 or 1976, I started investing in technology that I thought would make a big difference in the car business. What I found is, you cant invest in a technology and try to sell it to somebody. … Nobody wants to change anything. Why, if I was General Motors, would I want to get rid of all my transmissions and engines and start all over? I dont think so.
REUTERS: Talk to me about the dealers who are onboard and their feelings about the powerplant change.
BRICKLIN: They love it. The guys Im talking to are guys my age. They made plenty of money — $2 million is not a big deal in their lives. What theyre really looking to do is truly get into the car business and make a change. Everybodys got it: Chinas coming. Everybody knows Chinas the next car country. No question about it. But would they like to get into cheap cars? Or would they like to get into cars they can be proud of? If we can do what were talking about, its the same thing. … They know we can do it. I have people right now scouring every single battery plant in China and they found the battery technology that Motorola is using that doesnt have the problems with that and theyre already building electric things for buses and cars and trucks and everything else, just not in big quantities because no ones buying them yet in big quantities. The technology is there now. The battery technology has made the next step its not the last step its just the first step that makes it practical to have a true plug-in hybrid that works. (Chevy Volt pictured left)
REUTERS: One of your ambitions was to be the first mover bringing Chinese-made cars into the United States. Given this new time line, is that still a reasonable hope?
BRICKLIN: The only competition I think we have would be Chrysler. Now what do I know about Chery and what do I know about Chrysler? Chrysler certainly knows everything you need to know about the car business. And they sure as hell know about China, because they were the first ones in there in the 80s. So they know how to do business with China a lot better than I know how to do business with China. I also know Chery. And Chery are very independent and very strong-minded guys who are going to do what is good for them. Theyre going to have to try selling Chrysler a car that will retail for $10,000. That means they have to sell the car for under $5,000. And they have to have all the airbags in there. They have to have all the safety devices. And they have to meet all the emissions. I know for sure Chery does not have the ability alone to do it. But with Chrysler, they could do it. But they still have to do it. And it takes two years to do anything. If you want to breathe in the car business, it takes two years from the day you say, Ill breathe to the day it comes in. So I dont believe theyll be in until 09. And if we come in and they come in, I dont even think were in the same game. You want to buy a $10,000 car from Chrysler called a Hornet or whatever you want to call it? Or do you want to buy a car that has everything going for it, thats comparable to a Mercedes, except its 30 percent less?
REUTERS: So what kind of prices point are we talking about?
BRICKLIN: The first car were going to do will be in the same class as a Mercedes E. But itll be a $50,000 car that sells for $35,000. So our cars will be in the $25,000 to $35,000 bracket.
REUTERS: It seems to me that when we were talking to you in September we were trying to get you to confirm or deny billionaire George Soross possible involvement in your project.
BRICKLIN: Soros (pictured left) had put up the $200 million. That really was the case. But when we realized we werent going to do it, he took back the $200 million. We gave it back to him and he had his money.
REUTERS: So if I think about the financial situation right now
BRICKLIN: Were still going to need the same half a billion. You still need the same distribution system. The R&D, instead of giving it to Chery, we have to spend it ourselves.
REUTERS: So how do your raise that?
BRICKLIN: The dealer money, plus my investors I already have, takes care of everything I need to do.
REUTERS: So if were trying to benchmark the progress youre making, whats the next big step?
BRICKLIN: The next big step will be somewhere around six months from now I have to show you a car that you can get in and drive that looks like, tastes like and is the car Im going to build.
REUTERS: So does that mean a proof of concept or prototype, right? Not just a picture.
BRICKLIN: Not just a picture. No. You drive it. It gets 100 miles to the gallon. It has great performance. The interior is the interior that we want.
REUTERS: So within six months there should be something that can be driven?
BRICKLIN: Probably heres whatll happen if Im true to form: six months from now, youll give me a call and Ill say, Im a month or two away. But itll be that close.