"A Bit Of P.T. Barnum In Me"

Ford dealer Bob Tasca III was wary of Malcolm Bricklin when he first showed up proposing a scheme to bring Chinese cars into the U.S. A third-generation car dealer in Rhode Island, Tasca and his family had never sold anything that didn't come from Ford Motor Co. (F ). Now, Bricklin was asking Tasca to sell the Chery, a Chinese car largely unknown in America. "We were skeptical of Malcolm," says Tasca, 29. "We had heard things."

That doesn't surprise Bricklin one bit. After all, this is a man who, in the course of a four-decade career, has founded one car company, Subaru of America, that went on to become a great success; watched another, Yugo America, fail; and botched the launch of an exotic DeLorean-like sports car called -- what else? -- the Bricklin. Indeed, the 65-year-old entrepreneur acknowledges he's pretty good at starting companies but has had problems managing them. "Bricklin is a great idea guy, but his history shows that it takes someone else to execute after the start-up," says automotive analyst Joseph S. Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting.

Clearly, this is no Harvard Business School grad. In fact, Bricklin finished only two years at the University of Florida. But at age 28, he and college buddy Harvey Lamm, impressed by the inroads being made by Japanese auto makers, started a business importing Subarus from Fuji Heavy Industries. Quality was a major issue from the get-go -- as it was for Toyota and Honda -- and a damning 1972 report in Consumer Reports tanked sales. Bricklin left Subaru's management but retained an 8% share, which he later sold. But Fuji later bought the company, and Subaru went on to become a success.

Over the next few years, Bricklin started a range of small companies, including the early 1970s launch of his eponymous sports car; the company collapsed spectacularly in 1975, bedeviled by quality problems and money woes. But he's best known for founding Yugo America in 1985. Yugo's now-jokey legacy -- How do you double the value of a Yugo? Fill the gas tank -- dogs Bricklin still. He unloaded the company for $18 million in 1988, under pressure from investors, he says. The company soon collapsed amid the political upheaval in Yugoslavia. But before he left, Bricklin managed to create a phenomenon around a 25-year-old Fiat hatchback built at a 50-year-old factory in a Communist state -- ultimately selling 160,000-plus cars in seven years. "I have a bit of P.T. Barnum in me to have pulled that off," says Bricklin.

Bricklin's credibility took a beating in 2002, when he announced he was starting a company called ZMW (Zastava Motor Works), which would supply him cars built in Serbia -- formerly part of Yugoslavia. The auto press snickered at the notion, and it wasn't long before Bricklin headed off to China, where his first sight of Chery cars drove the Serbian idea clear out of his head. "I knew when I went to Chery I had been on the wrong continent," he says.

So will his current project suffer the same sort of problems that have plagued him in the past? Not if Bricklin can help it. This time, he says, he has blue-chip talent to help him run the show, including investment bank Allen & Co., PepsiCo (PEP ) co-founder Donald M. Kendall, and Swiss shipping magnate Per Arneberg. "The last time I had a real investment bank and such people behind me was never," says Bricklin. Adds Arneberg: "Malcolm has a lot of help to make sure it gets executed properly." Dealer Tasca, who figures to spend $10 million before selling his first Chery, still has questions. No doubt Bricklin will have answers.

By David Kiley in New York

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