By the late 1960s, the demand for small, compact imports, temporarily sated by Detroit compacts like the Ford Falcon, was on the rise again and Detroit was getting scared. Each American automaker fielded its own response, but American Motors, which had built its market position with economy cars, came up with two. The first was a clever improvisation, the second was a brave attempt to do something genuinely new. Some people call them the ugliest cars of the 1970s — a title for which there are many contenders — but nobody would ever mistake them for anything else. We’re referring of course, to the Gremlin and Pacer.
We begin with the 1970-1978 AMC Gremlin.
For the longest time, nobody in Detroit took Volkswagen seriously. Who could blame them? The Beetle was an anachronism, no matter how much steady but glacier-like evolution it underwent, no matter how conscientious its assembly or clever its ads. By the end of the 1960s, however, it was selling more than half a million copies a year in the U.S. In the February 1969 issue of Motor Trend, editor Eric Dahlquist laid it out, explaining that the Volkswagen was frequently the best-selling car in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s (and the world’s) largest automotive markets.
This was bad news for all of the U.S. automakers, but it was particularly threatening for American Motors Corporation. AMC had made its mark in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a purveyor of economy cars, alternatives to what George Romney called “Detroit dinosaurs,” but by the late sixties, its compact Rambler American was moribund, stigmatized as a car for little old ladies. AMC’s total sales for 1968 were 272,696, climbing a bit to 281,297 for 1969; Volkswagen’s sales for the same model years were 582,009 and 548,904 respectively. The Volkswagen was certainly problematic for Chevrolet and Ford, but for AMC, it was a deadly threat. Beyond that, Toyota and Datsun were beginning to emerge as real contenders. Something had to be done.
American Motors was already preparing a new compact, the AMC Hornet, to replace the aging Rambler American for 1970, but American management realized that, like the contemporary Ford Maverick, the Hornet was basically a new bottle for the same wine. Despite new styling, a longer wheelbase, and the revival of the storied Hornet name (which had been dropped when AMC abandoned the Hudson nameplate in 1957), the new car was not that different from the Rambler American underneath. To compete with the imports, AMC needed something different, something smaller: a genuine subcompact to take on the Beetle and its foreign brethren.
THE CUT-DOWN HORNET
The ever-resourceful Dick Teague, AMC styling VP, was already working on it. Back in 1966, Teague and stylist Bob Nixon had discussed the possibility of a shortened version of the Hornet, which was then in development. Its engineering would also be reminiscent of the production AMX: just as the AMX was a cut-down Javelin, the new subcompact would be a cut-down version of the Hornet. Nixon created a series of sketches along those lines, which Teague liked.
On an airline flight that fall, Teague presented the idea to Gerry Meyers, AMC’s VP of product development. Lacking any of Nixon’s design studies, Teague sketched the design on the only thing he had at hand — the back of an air-sickness bag. Meyers liked the idea, in large part because its tooling costs would be very low.
AMC showed a concept version of the new design at the New York auto show in April 1968 under the name AMX-GT. The AMX-GT was a trial balloon and AMC did not suggest any plans to build it. Nonetheless, public response was generally favorable and plans for the production model went forward. Perhaps mindful of Chrysler’s success with the Plymouth Road Runner, American came up with a cute name for its subcompact, with a cute, cartoon mascot to go with it: AMC Gremlin.
Structurally, the AMC Gremlin was a Hornet shorn of 12 inches (305 mm) of wheelbase, trimming its overall length by 18 inches (457 mm). At 161.3 inches (4,097 mm), the Gremlin was only 3 inches (76 mm) longer than a Beetle, although the AMC looked significantly bigger. It was only fractionally narrower than the Hornet, although it was around 200 pounds (90 kg) lighter. The similarity allowed a great deal of commonality: The Gremlin shared its big brother’s front suspension, steering, brakes, although the rear leaf springs were shortened, most of the rear legroom was extracted, a fold-down rear seat was added to increase its cargo space.
Despite the commonality, the Gremlin was not just a cut-down Hornet, although in 1970, Teague told Motor Trend‘s Eric Dahlquist that they’d built a prototype of just such a car, which would’ve been dubbed the Wasp, another old Hudson name. Instead, the Gremlin had a distinctive wedge shape, ending in a sharp “Kammback” tail (an aerodynamic technique named for the German aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm, who had outlined it back in the 1930s). The Kamm tail was theoretically a drag-reducing measure, but we assume that Teague and Nixon chose it mostly to give a stylistic rationale to the truncated shape.
Although the AMC Gremlin looked like a hatchback, a design becoming popular in Europe for small cars, it had no tailgate, although a flip-up rear window was optional, allowing cargo to be loaded through the rear. Teague explained to Dahlquist that American had avoided the hatchback because it would have reduced structural rigidity. That much was true — hatchbacks are significantly less rigid than coupes or sedans — but the real reason was that there was no money for its development. In fact, the entire development cost of the Gremlin was a modest $12 million, significantly less than Ford spent for its new Pinto subcompact and one fifth what AMC spent on the Pacer a few years later.
In Teague’s surprisingly candid interview with Motor Trend, he made no apologies for the Gremlin’s unusual styling. He admitted that it was unlikely to win any beauty contests, but said it had character and hoped it would be an attention-grabber.
ENTER THE AMC GREMLIN
The production AMC Gremlin made its debut a few months after its larger brother. It was introduced to the public, amusingly enough, on April 1, 1970. It carried a starting price of $1,879 FOB Kenosha, although that was for the most basic model, with a fixed rear window and no back seat at all. (Only about 3,000 of these price-leader fixed-window cars were sold and that version was soon dropped.) A four-seat Gremlin with flip-up rear glass started at $1,959, which compared well with the $1,995 starting price of Ford’s Maverick.
All early Gremlins used the same inline sixes found in AMC’s bigger cars, either the 199 cu. in. (3,258 cc) version with 128 gross hp (95 kW) or the 232 cu. in. (3,801 cc) version with 145 hp (108 kW). Standard also were a three-speed manual transmission with a non-synchronized low gear and four-wheel drum brakes.
Dynamically, the Gremlin’s hand-me-down mechanicals produced some decidedly mixed results. The shortened wheelbase made the rear seat basically uninhabitable except for very small children, although cargo room was reasonable, especially with the seat folded down. With the same engines as the Hornet and somewhat less weight, the Gremlin had respectable acceleration; in January 1971, Car and Driver clocked a 1971 AMC Gremlin with the big six and manual shift from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a sprightly 10.5 seconds.
On the other hand, because the Gremlin had so few purpose-built components, it was not particularly light for a subcompact, it was nose-heavy, and the manual steering was painfully slow. Worse, the shortened rear springs let the axle hop around in hard braking. The Gremlin was not well suited to enthusiastic cornering or panic stops.
The Gremlin’s fuel economy was also disappointing, at least compared to its import competitors. Conservative highway driving could reach 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km), but in harder use, the heavy body and big six would drop mileage below 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km), not exactly in keeping with its economy-car mission.
Despite its late introduction, the AMC Gremlin managed a modest 28,560 sales in the 1970 model year. Better yet, total American Motors sales were up sharply, climbing more than 100,000 units for 1970, so the Gremlin was adding business rather than cannibalizing existing AMC sales. Sales for 1971, its first full model year, were 76,908.
In 1971, the smaller six-cylinder engine was dropped and a bigger 258 cu. in. (4,235 cc) version became optional. The switch to net horsepower ratings for 1972 reduced the 232 and 258 engines to 100 and 110 net horsepower (75 kW and 82 kW), respectively, although they were mechanically unchanged from 1971. More helpful was a new automatic transmission; AMC called it Torque Command, but it was actually Chrysler’s TorqueFlite 904, which AMC quietly arranged to buy from its rival. Whatever the name, the automatic was a vast improvement over the archaic Borg-Warner “Shift Command” transmission it replaced. Gremlin buyers could also now order front disc brakes for an extra $47.25, providing notably better stopping power.
More interestingly, starting in 1972, you could get a Gremlin with V8 engine. It was not a great surprise — Teague had told the press back in 1970 that they would offer a V8 eventually and the Hornet had offered an optional 304 cu. in. (4,977 cc) V-8 from the start. The Gremlin’s V8, with a single two-throat carburetor, was credited with a modest 150 net horsepower (112 kW), but a healthy 245 lb-ft (331 N-m) of torque. A V8 Gremlin with TorqueFlite could run 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 8.5 seconds and the performance hardware AMC had offered for the same engine in the Javelin and AMX could be bolted on. The V8 cost $154 and added nearly 200 extra pounds (90 kg), but it made the Gremlin a real sleeper. Alas, the following year was the first OPEC oil embargo, making the demand for a relatively thirsty V8 subcompact somewhat limited.
Sales climbed steadily each year through 1974 — the Gremlin’s peak, with 171,128 sold. Along the way, there were a number of minor styling revisions and some jazzy trim packages, notably the X package (side stripes, slotted wheels, and some other trim) and the Levi’s Edition, which gave the seats upholstery that looked like blue denim, complete with Levi’s brass studs, yellow-orange stitching, and tags.
In 1977, the Gremlin received a new engine option: a Volkswagen-designed 121 cu. in. (1,984 cc) four. This was a derivative of the Volkswagen-Audi EA831 engine, also found in the Porsche 924, albeit with a two-throat Holley-Weber carburetor rather than the Porsche’s Bosch K-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection. AMC paid $60 million for license rights and tooling to build the engine itself in a plant in Richmond, Indiana.
The four had only 80 hp (60 kW), but it reduced the Gremlin’s weight by nearly 200 lb (90 kg), so performance was not quite as dire as you might expect. In May 1977, Car and Driver clocked a four-speed 1977 AMC Gremlin X with the four-cylinder engine from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 15.3 seconds, reaching a top speed of 91 mph (146 km/h); subjectively, they also found the four more pleasant than the Gremlin’s big six. Buyers were evidently not convinced and the four accounted for fewer than one in three Gremlin sales.
Gremlin sales had dropped steadily since 1974, a reflection of its dated styling, mediocre packaging, and a host of more sophisticated competitors, like the Volkswagen Rabbit (nee Golf), Honda Accord, and Ford Fiesta. In 1978, the Gremlin’s final year, sales were only 22,104. Nonetheless, AMC recycled the Gremlin’s mechanical package in 1979 for the slightly more conventional-looking AMC Spirit, which lingered through 1983. Total Gremlin sales were 674,492, plus 191,785 Spirits. That wasn’t much by GM standards, but it was respectable for a manufacturer with American’s limited resources.
The AMC Gremlin’s looks and bargain-basement engineering have often been derided, but we think its real problem was simply that it came to market two or three years too late. If it had appeared in 1967 or 1968, it would’ve been an interesting counterpart to the Javelin and AMX, more firmly establishing a new, younger image for AMC. If the Gremlin had had immediate V8 availability, perhaps with the Javelin/AMX’s new 280 hp (209 kW) 343 cu. in. (5,624 cc) engine, it would also have been a formidable competitor for the Plymouth Road Runner in the budget muscle sweepstakes. By the standards of 1967, the Gremlin’s fuel economy was respectable enough and buyers would have appreciated its performance. By 1970, though, the performance market was dying on the vine and buyers were starting to demand greater fuel economy and utility from their small cars.
What the Gremlin never would have done in any case was seriously compete with the Beetle. For all the domestic industry’s fear of the Volkswagen, none of the U.S. automakers really understood why people were buying them. It wasn’t that the Beetle was a particularly good car — for all of VW’s continual evolution, it was hopelessly obsolete, and its performance was abysmal. The excellent assembly quality and strong dealer service certainly helped, but the main reason people bought Volkswagens was not what they were, but what they were not. VWs were not real cars by Detroit standards. The Beetle was impossible to really take seriously; in the parlance of the day, it was a put-on. Buying a VW was a minor act of protest, a thumbing of the nose at the whole Alfred P. Sloan automotive class system. It was about being different.
In that respect, the AMC Gremlin was a smarter response to the Beetle than most people usually give it credit for. It wasn’t sexy, but it was certainly unique, with an impish character far removed from the dowdy Pinto. Furthermore, for all the derision the Gremlin received for its parts-bin engineering, it cost far less to develop than either the Ford Pinto or Chevrolet Vega, it had very few of those cars’ well-publicized faults. The Gremlin’s own deficiencies were not unlivable, or, compared to other cars of the time, particularly egregious. Compared to its domestic contemporaries, the worst that can be said of it is that it was a little weird-looking. Dick Teague’s cut-down compact emerges as an honorable effort and a decent success — no small feat for a car engineered on a shoestring and sketched on an air-sickness bag.
Special note: The blue Gremlin X pictured here (and the matching Pacer we’ll see in part two) is owned by Charlie and Debbie from the Northeast (‘Gremmie‘), who’ve been kind enough to let us use their photos. We’ll talk more about these specific cars in our next installment.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included “A Small World to Conquer: Six-Car Comparison Text: AM Gremlin, Chevrolet Vega 2300, Ford Pinto, Simca 1204, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Super Beetle, Car and Driver Vol. 16, No. 7 (January 1971), pp. 20-29; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Drew Beck, “The Gremlin: AMC’s Successful Compact,” Allpar.com, 1992, 2006, www.allpar. com/ amc/gremlin.html, accessed 13 October 2007; Eric Dahlquist, “1970 Gremlin,” Motor Trend Vol. 22 No. 3 (March 1970), pp. 70-72, 106, and “Declutching the BUG,” Motor Trend Vol. 20, No. 7 (July 1968), pp. 70-73; Patrick Foster, “Bob Nixon: AMC’s Master of Design,” Hemmings Classic Car April 2009, pp. 48-51; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Alfred Koos, “A Brief History of the Gremlin,” GremlinX.com, n.d., www.gremlinx. com/ Gremlin-history.htm, accessed 13 October 2007; Don Sherman, “Road Test: AMC Gremlin X: They think 80 hp and 2600 pounds is funny? Tell ‘em it’s a Porsche,” Car and Driver Vol. 22, No. 11 (May 1977), pp. 103-106); and Todd Ruel’s 29 July 2006 interview with Bob Nixon (Torq-o.com, 6 October 2007, www.torq-o.com/Podcasts/podcasts.html, accessed 7 December 2009), which was the source of Bob Nixon’s description of the Gremlin as a “short-sheeted” Javelin.
This article’s title, inevitably, was suggested by the film Gremlins (produced by Mike Fennell and Steven Spielberg, directed by Joe Dante, written by Chris Columbus, United States, Warner Bros., 1985).