by Dimitry Anastakis
Projects evolve. And if you take long enough to get them done, they can evolve in weird and wonderful ways, ways that ultimately result in something much better than what was first envisioned.
Or so I hope.
I say this because I have been wrestling with/working on/procrastinating over/thinking about my project on the Bricklin and its meaning for a long time; really, on and off for nearly a decade. At this stage of the project—and I have actually published some of my work on Bricklin, most notably in this journal –some might see this as a bad thing, or a reflection of my inability to “finish the job.” But this form of procrastination is actually more of a choice of project priorities, one which has resulted in a whole new way of thinking about Bricklin. In this sense, the benefits of procrastination (or, at least, shifting priorities that allow one more time to think about something), may in fact be a very good thing, indeed. Again, so I hope.
Let me explain: My interest in the Bricklin, a car built in New Brunswick in the early 1970s, stemmed from a project that was published in 2013, Autonomous State: The Struggle for a Canadian Car Industry from OPEC to Free Trade. I had done quite a bit of research on Bricklin as part of this project, and realized that Bricklin was more than enough for a fascinating stand-alone project. After fighting my way through the New Brunswick archives, scouring the Detroit Public Library’s holdings, and re-examining anything in the LAC on Bricklin, I had completed virtually all of the archival work for the project. But I needed interviews to be done (I did one with Malcolm Bricklin in New York City in 2013; quite an experience and probably worthy of its own blogpost), including a number of former workers at the plant, and some government people. I stopped for a bit to catch my breath.
That’s when other projects got in the way. I was asked to do a text book based on my second year Canadian history survey at Trent, then another post-1945 reader. Along with various other tasks, Bricklin got put aside (or “back-burnered” as I would explain to people who were always giving me excellent yet guilt-inducing leads on the project—thank you David F. and Gwen D.!). Aside from bits and pieces presented or published here and there, it sat. My guilt mounted.
But at the same time, as I was working on these other projects, my thinking about how I conceptualized Bricklin evolved. As an economic and business historian, one who is interested in political economy and, in the case of the auto industry, the development of the sector from that perspective, I had originally had a vision of what the project would look like: It was to be a business history of the Bricklin firm, and how the firm navigated and interacted with broader issues, such as the state and the market, that shaped its ultimate demise. I gave a few presentations which addressed the question of Bricklin as a case of business failure, or how Malcolm Bricklin was a certain type of entrepreneur. This was pretty straight-up business/economic history. My Acadiensis article, for example was concerned with “industrial modernity,” and thinking about Bricklin as an example of regional/state industrial development and economic evolution.
The funny thing was, Bricklin was far too interesting to be cast solely in such a light. This was a venture that was also very much caught up in the zeitgeist of its period. Here was a story of sexy cars, plastic, showmanship, baby boomers and economic busts. It had scandal, cross-border fame, and Bricklin had even birthed a (very good) musical. Focusing my energies solely on how Bricklin’s corporate organization reflected a Chandlerian model of the M-division, or how Bricklin fared in the pantheon of automotive entrepreneurial archetypes wasn’t really all that inspirational or interesting on some level.
Meanwhile, as I worked on other projects, especially the textbooks, my thinking about New Brunswick, about postwar Canada and its economic, political and cultural relationship with the United States, about broader international events and about the emergence of globalization, kept forcing me back to Bricklin, and the connections between this little car company and grander themes.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realize(d) that Bricklin really was and is a vehicle (pun intended) for us to better understand the 1970s, and that decade’s important role in shifting from a postwar, baby-boomer prosperity to a neoliberal world. How could one obscurely famous/famously obscure story about what is considered one of the world’s worst cars have such deep meaning? What can Bricklin tell us about cultural change, economic change, politics and power? What does this story say about the financialization of our economy, deindustrialization, the nature of fame and showmanship?
Well, you’ll just have to wait to find out. At some point, hopefully.
There, that was really therapeutic. Now, back to work.
Dimitry Anastakis’ most recent book is Death in the Peaceable Kingdom: Canadian History Since 1867 through Murder, Execution, Assassination, and Suicide (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015). He teaches Canadian history at Trent University.