High, Wide, and Handsome: The AMC Pacer

Even when the compact Gremlin bowed in 1970, AMC knew it would not be enough to stem the tide of imported subcompact cars. By the beginning of 1971, the company was already at work on a follow-up. When it finally appeared in 1975, it was hailed as a revolution. When it died four and a half years later, it was already becoming the butt of jokes. We’re referring, of course, to the unmistakable 1975-1980 AMC Pacer.

197 AMC Pacer badge

PROJECT AMIGO

When AMC’s futuristic Pacer debuted in early 1975, Motor Trend‘s introductory headline proclaimed, “Suddenly it’s 1980,” recalling the memorable advertising tagline of Plymouth’s groundbreaking 1957 “Forward Look” cars. Enthusiastic American critics called the Pacer the most revolutionary American car in 15 years.

Certainly, the Pacer looked like nothing else. Stubby but wide with massive glass area, asymmetric doors, and compound curves, it more resembled a shuttle craft from Star Trek than any contemporary American automobile. But the Pacer was designed for a future that never came and the failure of the real world to match up with the vision of its original design proved the Pacer’s undoing.

The Pacer was conceived in early 1971 by Gerald (Gerry) Meyers, then AMC’s VP of product development. It was not originally a production project, but rather a speculative venture, assigned to AMC’s Advanced Styling director, Chuck Mashigan. The goal of the project was to take a hard look at the future of the automobile — which in 1971 was very much an open question — and decide what kinds of vehicles that future would demand. It was perhaps the most far-reaching development program the company had undertaken since Meade Moore conceived the original Rambler back in the forties.

This car of the future was based on several basic parameters. One was mounting federal safety regulations, the latest proposals for which presented standards for 1980 and beyond so draconian that some Detroit automakers insisted they were simply impossible to meet, including 50 mph (80 km/h) frontal impact protection and stringent new rollover, roof crush, and side impact requirements. There were also ever-stiffer emissions standards to consider.

Another factor was the changing nature of traffic conditions. Gridlock was already a way of life in major metropolitan areas and promised to get worse as populations increased and urban dwellers retreated farther into the suburbs. In that environment, Meyers concluded, traditional notions of handling and performance were largely obsolete. More important were wieldy outside dimensions, good visibility, and tight-quarters maneuverability — not having to pass up a parking space because you couldn’t get into it or your car didn’t fit.

The goal of AMC’s future car, which was eventually codified as Project Amigo, was to meet these challenges while still providing the accommodation, utility, and comfort to which American buyers were accustomed. Many of these issues were international ones and automakers in other markets had concocted their own solutions, but these were built to fit tax categories and narrow roads and streets that didn’t really exist in the U.S., resulting in cars that were too light, too cramped, or too underpowered to suit American conditions. Project Amigo was to be basically an urban car, but it needed to be a car for American cities, American roads, and American regulations.

FUTURE SHOCK

With all this in mind, the peculiar design of the Pacer becomes easier to understand. Designed for crowded urban freeways, it was only 171.5 inches (4,356 mm) long, 4.5 inches (114 mm) shorter than the original 1950 Nash Rambler on an identical 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase, and less than an inch (about 18mm) longer than a mid-seventies Ford Pinto. However, the Pacer’s overall width was a whopping 77 inches (1,956 mm), greater than any imported compact and actually about an inch (26 mm) wider than GM’s downsized 1977 B-body full-size cars. AMC officials showed off the Pacer’s width by parking Chevrolet Vega inside a specially prepared Pacer model.

Overall proportions were only one of the Pacer’s distinguishing characteristics. It had a very low beltline and massive windows for better visibility, abetted by 39 square feet (3.6 square meters) of glass area, about 50% more than the typical compact car of that era. The gently sloping curves served to reduce aerodynamic drag, giving a claimed drag coefficient of 0.32, a reasonably credible figure even today and night and day better than most of the Pacer’s contemporaries could boast. Unlike the existing AMC Gremlin, which made do with a flip-up rear window, the Pacer was a proper three-door hatchback with fold-down rear seats to expand its luggage capacity. AMC claimed a maximum of 29.6 cu. ft. (838 liters) of cargo space with the seat down as well as passenger space rivaling some intermediates of the time. A further novelty was asymmetrical doors; the passenger door was longer than the driver’s door to facility entry and exit of rear-seat occupants.

The results were inevitably odd-looking, although exterior design chief Bob Nixon, who led Project Amigo’s development from concept to production car, said the early design studies were far less roly-poly than the final product was. However, Gerry Meyers and product planning director Dale Dawkins insisted on increasing overall width, both for more passenger space and to accommodate the side and roof bracing that would be necessary to meet the proposed 1980 roof crush standards. Those much higher standards never actually materialized, but the fact that the structure was designed to accommodate them made the car bulkier (and dumpier) than it would otherwise have been. (Had the Pacer’s width been less exaggerated, it probably would have looked more like the later Mitsubishi Colt sold in the U.S. by Dodge dealers.)

Considering the emphasis on packaging, it would have been logical for the “Urban Concept,” as Project Amigo was later called internally, to have front-wheel-drive like the latest European small cars. Meyers and Dawkins said they considered that possibility, but rejected it because marketing research found that buyers would either be indifferent to FWD or consider it too new or risky. That may have been true — the Mini had never been a big seller in the U.S. and the Volkswagen Golf was still in the future when the AMC Pacer was conceived — but we suspect the real reason AMC rejected FWD was that they didn’t have the money for it. Even without front-wheel drive, the Pacer project cost AMC about $60 million, a lot of money for a cash-strapped company.

As a result, the Urban Concept had a conventional RWD layout with double wishbones and coil springs in front and Hotchkiss drive — a live axle (borrowed from the intermediate Matador) suspended on and located by semi-elliptical springs — in back. The main novelties were the use of rack and pinion steering rather than the Detroit-customary recirculating ball and the fact that AMC had finally abandoned the high-mounted front coil springs the company had used since the original Rambler. The otherwise familiar hardware saved money, but the driveshaft tunnel and differential hump cut into rear seat room and comfort and added to the car’s already ponderous mass.

1975 AMC Pacer X front 3q © 2006 Gremmie (used with permission)
The owners of this 1975 AMC Pacer X have dubbed it the “Mirth Mobile.” This car’s front vent windows were an extra-cost option; the standard Pacer had no quarterlights. The Pacer X package is mostly trim, although it does include bucket seats (instead of a bench) and a floor shifter. A handling package, which included a front anti-roll bar, was a useful extra. (Photo: “1975 AMC Pacer” © 2006 Gremmie; used with permission)

THE WANKEL THAT WASN’T

As planned, the Pacer was intended to have at least one headline-worthy technical feature: The car was planned not around a conventional reciprocating engine, but rather a Wankel rotary engine.

The rotary engine was a cause célèbre in the late sixties and early seventies, when it briefly seemed like it would eventually replace the Otto-cycle (four-stroke, spark-fired) engine. Named for Dr. Felix Wankel, who had been developing the concept since the 1920s, the rotary engine uses roughly triangular-shaped pistons spinning in a fixed housing. The rotation of the piston completes the same cycle (intake, compression, ignition, and exhaust) as an Otto-cycle engine. A Wankel engine is lighter and more compact than a piston engine of the same output with fewer parts and smoother operation. [Author’s note: You can read more about the background and function of rotary engines in the articles on the NSU Ro 80 and Mazda’s early rotary cars.]

Unfortunately, the surface area and shape of the Wankel’s combustion chambers are inherently thermally inefficient, making a rotary engine thirstier than a comparable piston engine. Worse, although the rotary engine produces fewer oxides of nitrogen than a reciprocating engine, its hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions are higher. Moreover, the rotor seals take a real pounding in high-mileage operation and finding sealing materials both durable enough and cheap enough for passenger-car use was a problem. All of these factors eventually limited the rotary’s real-world automotive application, although that wasn’t yet obvious in the early seventies.

AMC did not really have the money to develop a rotary engine of its own, but as most of Detroit was well aware, in November 1970, General Motors president Ed Cole had negotiated a five-year license of Wankel GmbH’s rotary engine patents for the harrowing sum of $50 million. GM then set to work developing its own rotary, known as the General Motors Rotary Combustion Engine or GMRCE. A two-rotor version of that engine, the RC2-206, with a nominal displacement of 206 cu. in. (3,380 cc, although actual geometric displacement was precisely half that), was to be produced by the Hydra-Matic Division for use in the 1975 H-body cars (the Chevrolet Monza and its Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac siblings).

Early on, American Motors negotiated an agreement with GM to purchase the RC2-206, when it was ready, for use in AMC’s own cars. The GM rotary promised to be a lightweight, compact engine with power comparable to AMC’s smaller V8 and the ability to pass future emissions standards, all of which sounded great for the Urban Concept. AMC also spent about $1.5 million licensing the rights to eventually manufacture its own rotary engines and began discussions with fellow licensees Curtiss-Wright and Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) about the finer points of rotary engine design, an area in which GM was less than forthcoming.

In retrospect, GM would have been wiser to share information with other licensees, some of whom had already found solutions to the many problems that beset the GMRCE program. As it was, the GM rotary engine’s development was alternately fast-tracked and delayed, leaving AMC increasingly uneasy about when — or if — it would be available. Recognizing that there was a good chance the RC2-206 wouldn’t be ready in time for the Pacer’s launch, AMC went shopping for rotary alternatives, talking with Audi-NSU, Toyo Kogyo, and Comotor (a joint venture founded in 1967 by NSU and Citroën). AMC engineers built a few test mules with various non-GM rotary engines, but was unable to find one that was both suitable and affordable.

1977 AMC Pacer interior
The AMC Pacer D/L and Limited models had relatively lavish interiors with plush vinyl or cloth/vinyl bucket seats. The center console was optional. There was also a Levi’s designer package with blue denim, brass rivets, and Levi’s trademark red stitching. (author photo)

By the fall of 1974, the troubled GMRCE program had been postponed indefinitely (meaning it was effectively dead, except perhaps as a research project) and it was clear the Pacer would have to launch with a conventional piston engine, although Gerry Meyers still hoped — in vain, as things turned out — that it would be possible to add a rotary engine later.

In the meantime, AMC had to substitute its well-tried inline six, which dated back to mid-1964. Despite Meyers’ insistence that the Pacer had always had provision for AMC’s existing engines, the six was not an easy fit. Not only did it weigh at least 70 lb (32 kg) more than the stillborn RC2-206, the six was significantly taller and significantly longer than the rotary. The firewall had to be modified to make room and the two rear cylinders were buried so far back that the engine looked at a glance like an inline four.

THE AMC PACER

Although the Urban Concept’s initial styling was done by early 1972, consumer clinics were held through 1972 and 1973, and road testing began around the beginning of the 1974 model year, the delays in the engine department meant that full production didn’t begin until January 1975. Along the way, the project acquired an official name: AMC Pacer.

The first Pacer went on sale on February 28, 1975. The base model’s list prices started at $3,299, $149 more than AMC’s early projections, $200 more than a 1975 Ford Maverick, and a substantial $500 more than a Ford Pinto. There were also two plusher trim packages: the D/L ($289 more than the base car), which added wheel covers, upgraded trim, woodgrain trim, and individual front seats; and the sporty X ($339 above the base car), which added bucket seats, a sport steering wheel, a floor shifter, and different trim and badges.

None of these packages gave you front disc brakes, a front anti-roll bar, radial tires, vented windows, or tinted windows, all of which cost extra. (Considering the enormous glass area, the latter two options were particularly worthwhile, especially if you couldn’t spare another $400 for air conditioning.) Adding those options plus power steering, automatic transmission, a radio, and other minor accessories would quickly push the tab above $4,000, as much as a typical intermediate of the time. A fully loaded example might top $5,500, in the same realm as some contemporary full-size cars.

The Pacer’s standard engine was AMC’s familiar 232 cu. in. (3,801 cc) six, initially rated at 100 net horsepower (75 kW) and 185 lb-ft (250 N-m) of torque. The optional 258 cu. in. (4,235 cc) six initially had the same horsepower rating with 195 lb-ft (263 N-m), but shortly after introduction, AMC re-rated both engines at 90 hp (67 kW) and 95 hp (71 kW) respectively. No four-speed manual transmission was available, so your choices were a three-speed stick or Torque Command automatic (actually a Chrysler TorqueFlite). Manually shifted cars could also have a Laycock de Normanville overdrive, usable only in top gear, an unusual option for a seventies American car.

1977 AMC Pacer dash
The AMC Pacer’s 90-mph (145-km/h) speedometer is realistic; few Pacers were fast. Woodgrain trim was part of the D/L package. Note the unusual fuel gauge — with a vertical needle that moves horizontally across the gauge face — and the tiny little tachometer, which at this size is more of a novelty item than a useful instrument; in D/Ls, this space is normally filled by a clock. The owner has also added the X’s gauge cluster, which is down at the base of the dash, where it is in no danger of distracting the driver. (author photo)

Early reviews had many nice things to say about the Pacer’s conceptual novelty, ample room for four adults, and airy ambiance. The Pacer also rode reasonably well, although at highway speeds, the engines reminded you of their proximity to the firewall, providing more reason to investigate the optional sound insulation package. Considered in any dynamic aspect, the verdict was less cheerful. The Pacer’s principal problem was weight; despite AMC’s talk of curb weights under 3,000 lb (1,360 kg), a well-equipped Pacer with air conditioning (presumably the heaviest single option) was more than 3,400 lb (1,550 kg), of which about 55% was on the nose.

The first ramification of that mass was the steering. Without power assistance, keeping steering effort to a manageable level meant almost six turns lock to lock, enough to make parallel parking an involved process. The optional power steering was much quicker, but added an additional $139 and more weight on the front wheels. A second problem was braking. Even with radial tires and front discs, forward weight transfer and the soft, rubber-isolated rear springs made panic stops a handful, marked by nose dive, axle hop, and abrupt rear wheel lockup. As for handling, cornering in the traditional pre-gridlock sense had never really been an AMC strong point, but nothing about the Pacer encouraged the sort of con brio hustling at which the better European small cars were adept.

Predictably, the hefty curb weight also took its toll on the Pacer’s straight-line performance. With the big six and automatic, probably the most common and sensible combination, the 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint — if one could call it that — took around 16 seconds and top speed was in the 84–88 mph (135–140 km/h) range. Fuel economy ran to around 16 mpg (14.7 L/100 km), which was typical for six-cylinder American sedans in the era of 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers and early emissions controls, but a disheartening result for anyone expecting that a small car should also be an economical one.

1975 AMC Pacer X rear 3q © 2006 Gremmie (used with permission)
The other side of the Mirth Mobile. The AMC Pacer’s passenger door is 3.5 inches (89 mm) longer than the driver’s door, to make it easier for rear-seat passengers to get in and out. (Photo: “1975 AMC Pacer” © 2006 Gremmie; used with permission)

Despite its drawbacks, the Pacer’s novelty made for good initial sales: about 72,000 for the first partial model year and more than 117,000 for 1976. As with the Gremlin before it, the Pacer’s unusual appearance probably helped it more than it hurt. However, AMC lost more Gremlin and Hornet sales than they gained in Pacer business and ended both fiscal years with sizeable net losses.

ONWARD AND DOWNWARD

For 1976, AMC addressed at least one of the Pacer’s problems by adding a new version of the 258 cu. in. (4,235 cc) six, this one using a two-barrel carburetor and offering 120 hp (90 kW) and 200 lb-ft (270 N-m) of torque. The more powerful engine did nothing for fuel economy, but cut about 2 seconds from the Pacer’s 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times and in a lightly optioned car could almost qualify as sprightly.

Nonetheless, by then, the bloom was off the rose so far as the critics were concerned. This is a customary phenomenon among the automotive press — the further reviewers get from perfectly tuned preview cars on a smooth test track (and the memory of the associated wining and dining), the more sharply a model’s foibles come into focus. In this case, however, there were quite a few flaws to note. Once you got used to the Pacer’s outside-the-box conception and quirky appearance, you were left with small but rather portly car that was neither particularly cheap nor very economical and wasn’t much fun to drive, particularly on a hot summer day without air conditioning or front vent windows.

The public’s enthusiasm seemed to be cooling at a similar rate, but AMC had one more trick up its sleeve: a new wagon body style (an estate, for our British readers), added for 1977. The wagon was 3.5 inches (89 mm) longer than the standard Pacer and had a reshaped roof and tail. It was only a little heavier than the three-door sedan, so performance was similar, but the wagon had a more useful cargo area and more conventional proportions. Buyers evidently found the wagon more palatable than the sedan, if only for its looks; wagons accounted for about 65% of Pacer sales in 1977 and 1978.

1977 AMC Pacer wagon front3q
Compared to the standard hatchback sedan, the AMC Pacer wagon looks fractionally more normal and was certainly more practical. AMC sold almost 38,000 Pacer wagons in 1977 compared to about 20,000 sedans. Woodgrain trim was included with the D/L package. (author photo)

The Pacer got a facelift for 1978, featuring a genuinely hideous eggcrate grille. The sporty Pacer X package was dropped, the D/L trim package became standard, and the six-cylinder engines were supplemented by an optional V8. This was AMC’s familiar 304 cu. in. (4,977 cc) engine, with 130 net horsepower (97 kW) in 1978 and 125 hp (93 kW) for 1979. The V8 gave peppier performance than did the sixes, but added even more weight, the last thing the Pacer needed, and dragged fuel economy down even further. Unsurprisingly, V8s accounted for only about 10% of Pacer sales. (This was not the first time a V8 had been seen under Pacer hoods: Carl Green Enterprises built a number of V8 Pacer X models throughout the model run, usually using the 401 cu. in. (6,573 cc) AMC V8 also found in the Javelin and Matador. Like the V8 Gremlin, these V8 Pacers were real sleepers.)

Despite the wagon and the V8, Pacer sales dropped sharply after 1976 and never recovered. By 1979, it was down to around 10,000 units, more than 70% of which were wagons. Only 1,746 Pacers were sold in the final 1980 run, with production ending in December 1979. AMC had had tentative plans for a 1981 Pacer, but considering its precipitous sales decline in its final years, there didn’t seem much point. Total U.S. production was 280,858; AMC also sold an unknown number of Pacers in Mexico through Vehículos Automotores Mexicanos between 1976 to 1979, some of them with a 282 cu. in. (4,621 cc) version of the six, rated at 174 hp (130 kW).

1978 AMC Pacer DL wagon front 3q © 2011 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz PD
A 1978 AMC Pacer D/L wagon shows off its revised nose and unfortunate-looking eggcrate grille. Sales for the facelifted model were dismal, totaling only 33,192 in three model years. (Photo: “1978 AMC Pacer DL station wagon beige with woodgrain MD-rf” © 2011 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

ALTERNATE FUTURES

However futuristic the AMC Pacer may have looked when it first appeared, its thunder was stolen by the arrival of the real car of the future: the Mk 1 Volkswagen Golf, known in America as the Rabbit. The Rabbit was a lightweight, monocoque hatchback with fashionably angular styling penned by Italy’s Giorgetto Giugiaro. With MacPherson strut front suspension, a transverse four-cylinder engine, and front-wheel drive, the Golf was vastly more space efficient than the Pacer, offering nearly as much useful interior room in a car 16 inches (406 mm) shorter and fully 1,200 pounds (545 kg) lighter. Despite having a much smaller engine than the Pacer, the Rabbit’s lighter weight gave it superior performance and significantly better fuel economy. The Volkswagen was also nimble and fun to drive in a way the clumsy AMC simply couldn’t be. The Pacer was quieter and rode better, but at a similar price — only about $30 cheaper than the Rabbit in 1975 — it came across as a poor second choice. AMC’s dilemma was made worse the following year with the debut of the Honda Accord, which matched the Rabbit for packaging efficiency and economy and would soon surpass it for build quality.

1977 AMC Pacer wagon rear3q
This 1977 AMC Pacer D/L wagon’s color, Sun Orange, is an authentic AMC color. It was the seventies; what can we say? (author photo)

If the Pacer had followed its original plan, would it have done better? If AMC had been able to buy the aborted GM Wankel, the Pacer would have been lighter, certainly, but probably no more economical. Given the GMRCE program’s many development problems, a production version of the engine would likely have been troublesome; the AMC six may have been heavy and relatively anemic, but it was at least reasonably dependable. Moreover, even with the Wankel engine and the thinner, lighter glass styling VP Dick Teague had hoped to use, the Pacer would still have been nearly 800 pounds (360 kg) heavier and far clumsier than the Rabbit or Accord.

In a sense, all car designers are futurists, since they’re working on vehicles that will not see the light of day until at least two or three years after the fact. Styling and design a delicate balancing act: your designs must be advanced enough that they don’t quickly look dated, but not so radical as to scare away the public. Radically styled and engineered cars can sometimes succeed, but they have to work well; it’s not enough to be merely good enough. The Pacer was good enough in some areas, sadly deficient in others, and superb in none; that proved its undoing.

The same could be said of American Motors. Throughout its history, AMC had tried again and again to offer clever niche products to enable it to survive against the Big Three, but those products had also produced niche-market revenues, dooming each subsequent offering to be a little less than it promised. As Pacer production wound down, American Motors was embarking on an ill-starred relationship with the French automaker Renault, which ultimately did neither company any favors. Renault eventually sold AMC to Chrysler in 1987 at a considerable loss. Chrysler undoubtedly benefited from AMC’s engineering talent and some AMC-designed products (like the ZJ Grand Cherokee) proved to be very successful, but by the late 1990s, little remained of American Motors except the Jeep brand.

THE UNLIKELY ICON

American Motors still has a lot of fans, as does the AMC Pacer. Charlie and Debbie, the owners of the blue cars in the photos, are two such enthusiasts. Charlie has owned the Pastel Blue Gremlin since it was new. He told us, “This Gremlin was my first new car, purchased it at the age of 21 in 1975. I had gone to the local dealer to buy a Javelin, but was told that 74 was the last year they were made … On my way out, I saw this Gremlin on the show room floor and it was an immediate ‘had to have.'”

A few year ago, while scouring eBay for Gremlin parts, he discovered the Pastel Blue Pacer for sale. Debbie had wanted a Pacer for years, he said, and the fact that it was the same color as his Gremlin (and the same color as the Pacer in the movie Wayne’s World) was perfect. “The guy selling it lived less than two hours away from me,” he said. “He had bought it to restore, but was injured at work and was placed on disability. I got the sense the wife made him sell it. I figured if we were ever going to buy a Pacer, that would be the one! Well, we won the bid and my wife got her Pacer for Christmas. (I loved watching the expression on people’s faces when my wife told them what she got for Christmas.)”

Not a lot of Pacers survive intact, and unlike more popular cars like the Ford Mustang, no reproduction parts are available (although mechanical parts for its engine and driveline are easier to come by). The AMC Pacer has flirted with collectible status for years, but it remains decidedly a special-interest car, a symbol of a future that — perhaps fortunately — passed us by.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included “AMC gambles $60-million on a new compact,” Business Week 20 January 1975, pp. 76-78; “AMC Pacer Station Wagon is a Styling Coup!” Popular Mechanics Vol. 146, No. 4 (October 1976), pp. 96-97, 176-178; “AMC Pacer Wagon: Kenosha’s Small Car Grows Up,” Road & Track Vol. 28, No. 6 (February 1977), pp. 46-47; American Motors Corporation, “Pacer… The First Wide Small Car (Special Auto Show Edition)” [brochure], 1975; “American Motors Pacer: The world’s biggest small car?” Road & Track Vol. 26, No. 8 (April 1975), pp. 35-39; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); “Business: AMC’s Charge,” TIME 19 November 1979, www.time. com, accessed 7 December 2009; “Bye-Bye, Rotary Vega — Hello, V-8,” Motor Trend Vol. 26, No. 4 (April 1974), p. 24; Rich Ceppos, “AMC for ’78 — a V8 for the Pacer, and now there’s the Concord,” Popular Science Vol. 211, No. 4 (October 1977), p. 78; “Corporations: American Flits Ahead,” TIME 29 November 1971, www.time. com, accessed 7 December 2009; Marc Cranswick, The Cars of American Motors: An Illustrated History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2011); Jim Dunne, “Chevy’s new Vega-size, Wankel-powered car,” Popular Science Vol. 204, No. 4 (April 1974), p. 84-86, 172; “Detroit Report,” Popular Science Vol. 202, No. 4 (April 1973), p. 32; and “Detroit Report,” Popular Science Vol. 203, No. 3 (September 1973), p. 44; Barnaby J. Feder, “A.M.C.’s Long, Hard Struggle, The New York Times 10 March 1987, www.nytimes. com, accessed 9 December 2009; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Patrick R. Foster, “American Motors’ Pacer: A Piece of Tomorrow,” Hemmings Classic Car #6 (March 2005), pp. 64-67; “Bob Nixon: AMC’s Master of Design,” Hemmings Classic Car #55 (April 2009), pp. 48-51; The Story of Jeep (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1998); and “Vince Geraci: Living in Style,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 22, No. 2 (August 2005), pp. 66–75; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Bill Hartford and Robert Lund, “Half-pints for higher mpg,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 143, No. 1 (January 1975), pp. 58–61, 129; John B. 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Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1979 (Pelham, New York: Herald Books, 1979); Karl Ludvigsen, “GM’s Wankel: The $700 Million Miscalculation,” Motor Trend Vol. 27, No. 3 (March 1975), p. 53, “How Big Are Wankel Engines?” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #32 (April 2008), and “Suddenly it’s 1980: American Motors’ new Pacer is the freshest, most creative, most people-oriented auto to be born in the U.S. in 15 years,” Motor Trend Vol. 27, No. 2 (February 1975), pp. 35-39, 97; Robert Lund, “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 139, No. 5 (May 1973), p. 26; “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 140, No. 2 (August 1973), pp. 32–34; “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 141, No. 5 (May 1974), pp. 52–54; and “Detroit Listening Post,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 142, No. 6 (December 1974), pp. 27–28; John Matras, Mazda RX-7 (Sports Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1994); Wolfgang A. Mederle, “AMC Pacer History,” 1998, www.american-motors. de/ en/pacer/history/, accessed 11 October 2007; Jeni Panhorst’s The Pacer Page (May 2000, www.amcpacer. com, last accessed 6 August 2015; Todd Ruel’s interviews with former AMC marketing VP Bill McNealy (“Torq-O Podcast #7: Interview with Bill McNealy,” 20 July 2008, Torq-O: The Cog Blog, www.torq-o. com (audio recording), accessed 1 February 2010) and product planning VP Gerald Meyers (“Torque-O Podcast #9: Interview with Gerald Meyers,” 12 October 2008, Torq-O: The Cog Blog, www.torq-o. com (audio recording), accessed 7 December 2009); Don Sherman, “AMC Pacer,” Car and Driver Vol. 20, No. 8 (February 1975), pp. 22-25, 81, and “VW Rabbit, 1976-Style,” Car and Driver Vol. 21, No. 8 (February 1976): 34–35; ; Ron Wakefield, “American Motors PACER: Surprising new car from the smallest of the Big Four,” Road & Track Vol. 26, No. 6 (February 1975), pp. 39-44; “Two New Small Cars,” Consumer Reports June 1975, pp. 406-409; Bill Vance, “AMC Pacer,” Canadian Driver, 13 January 2004, autos. ca/ articles/ bv/ amc-pacer.htm, accessed 10 October 2007; Stephen Wilkinson, “Double Barrel Pacer: AMC finds more firepower,” Car and Driver Vol. 21, No. 11 (May 1976), pp. 72-74; and Wally Wyss, “Vega Rotary: Ford’s New Mustang II forces GM to debut its Wankel a year early,” Motor Trend Vol. 25, No. 7 (July 1973), pp. 50–52, 123.

This article’s title was suggested by the popular expression “high, wide, and handsome.” We weren’t able to uncover the origins of this phrase, but it dates back to at least the late 19th century. It was notably featured (but did not originate) in Ned Jordan’s 1923 ad for the Jordan Playboy, “Somewhere West of Laramie,” which is one of the most famous (and most influential) pieces of copy in advertising history.


43 Comments

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  1. The photo captions have some inaccuracies. One says the windows only roll down half-way. Must have been a defective window regulator. A working Pacer window goes down almost all of the way, until the top of the glass is level with the top of the raised plastic inside door panel (which also serves as a hidden inside door handle — a point not mentioned by many articles).
    Another photo caption erroneously describes the fuel gauge as a rolling gauge. Not exactly (not like the rolling mechanism on some older Lincoln gauges). It is a needle gauge, although the needle does not pivot like most, the needle moves across the gauge always remaining perfectly vertical.
    Finally, regarding the weight of the 304 v8 versus the 500 pound straight six, I haven’t seen the specs, but I believe that the 304 actually weighed less than the dinosaur, yet dependable 258ci.
    Love the car. I’ve owned mine for 25 years.

    1. Thanks for the notes. I’ve fixed the notes about the windows and the gauge (I appreciate the clarification on the fuel gauge — I was staring at it when I took that photo, wondering exactly how it worked).

      On the engine front, the 304 is heavier than the 258, although the margin is not vast. The “Torque Command” wasn’t that much older in design than the V8; it was introduced in 1964. When it was introduced, AMC quoted the dry weight of the 232 at 415 lb without flywheel. From that, I would guess that 500 lb is a good ballpark for the 258 with flywheel. When the first 290 was introduced in mid-’66, AMC quoted a dry weight (with flywheel and all accessories) of 540 lb. I don’t have any figures for the post-’71 tall-deck engine, but I would guess it’s at least 20 lb heavier, so maybe 560 lb.

      The dry weight of the engine is only part of the story, though. Once you start adding up a bigger radiator and other components that have to be beefed up to support the extra weight (and extra torque), the increase is inevitably more. AMC quoted a 233-pound difference between the weight of six-cylinder and eight-cylinder Pacers, most of it on the nose.

  2. First off, great write up, just like all the other ones on the site.

    I just wanted to let you know that I spotted a small typo, in the section above the heading “Suddenly Its 1980” it states that “AMC was forced to substitute its well-tried inline-six, which dated back to 1995.” I’m guessing that the date is incorrect as it makes no sense.

    1. You’re absolutely right — that should be 1964. Fixed!

  3. PLEASE
    I AM ITALIAN
    WHERE I CAN BUY A AMC PACER X…WHICH WEBSITE OR I DON’T KNOW DO YOU HAVE A IDEA PLEASE?
    THANX
    GIO

    1. I’m sorry, I can’t offer buying tips or recommendations. There are a number of AMC Pacer clubs; they might be able to help you.

    2. hello GIO ciao,
      im adam.i have a AMC PACER DL USA 1978 original condition color electra blue with white interior.manual.
      i garaged that vehicle in TN USA.
      as im located overseas on a business trip,my friend doctor is looking after it.ok??
      NOw i know there are ONLY few of them in USA in that top condition.tell me what you wish to spend.?
      then we’ll see ok.write to me,,
      ADAM
      ah@america.hm

  4. Is there a short in the wiring from the fuel tank. Has any one found a common location for a short in the wiring. I have tested for fuel gauge deflection, which tells me that the sending unit may be ok yet there is a break in return wire.

    1. Sorry, I’m not able (or qualified!) to provide technical or repair advice.

  5. I visited Mexico for a month’s holiday from the UK in 1980 and was surprised to find so many AMC cars on the road. The local distributor appeared to be quite competitive. However, I never recall seeing any Pacers and definitely no saloons which I assume would have been a bit hot in the Yucatan.

    AMC did launch the Pacer in the UK. AMC had been the best selling US car there for many years until the oil crisis so it was the last throw the dice. Unsurprisingly it didn’t sell. In may ways it shared a similar fate to the NSU Ro80 and the Wankel link seems fitting.

    1. This might be due to the fact that there was a government controlled Mexican automaker by the name of Vehículos Automotores Mexicanos. AMC held a minority interest in it. VAM imported AMC cars to Mexico and produced several models under license. (They also built the Pacer under license.)

  6. I read this article with great interest and hope to contribute a bit of information about the Pacer in United Kingdom and elsewhere in the right-hand-drive market.

    Pacer was designed as the left-hand-drive with no provision for the right-hand-drive system in mind. The British importer converted the Pacer to right-hand-drive by bisecting the steering column, moving the upper portion and steering wheel to the right, and connecting the bisected columns by the bicycle chain! This gave the sedate steering response. The brake pedal was also moved to the right while the master cylinder remained in the left-hand side. Both are connected by long bar which had the tendency to torsonially flex under heavy braking.

    To make the matter worse, the motorist’s door is suddenly longer than the passenger’s door, exasperating the ingress and exgress for the motorist and passengers.

    Its motor displacement was in the “stratospheric” level for the “compact” family saloon where many of family saloons in the United Kingdom were fitted with smaller motors such as 1.5 litre. The smaller cars that are categorised as “European compact” have motor displacement about 1 litre or so.

    The final nail in the coffin was its prodigious turning circle, a feature that worked against the Pacer on the narrow streets.

    The British media had a field day about the Pacer’s shortcomings. The British importer trimmed the Pacer from its order catalogue shortly thereafter.

    1. That’s fascinating — I can well imagine that the idea of a 4.2-liter economy car went over poorly in the UK, but bicycle chain drive steering was a new one to me!

      1. Re the “bicycle chain” steering. There were more than a few American cars converted that way here in Australia, in the 1960s.

        It survived until the late 90s- I saw a C3 Corvette with such a set up. In defense, the chain was enclosed with tensioners in a “box”

        Since we can now drive 20 year old LHD cars legally here, most LHD cars are left unmolested. Like my Skylark.

        Saw a Pacer once in Brisbane,must have been in the 1980s, it was RHD. Only one I’ve ever seen
        here or the USA.

        Another informative article. Thanks again

      2. Yes – bearing in mind that most people’s idea of an “actual” economy vehicle at the time would be something like a Mini (0.8L to 1.3L), Morris Minor (0.9 to 1.1L), the aforementioned Polo (0.9 to 1.3L), Renault 4 (0.8 to 1.1L), Citroen 2CV/Dyane/Visa (0.4 to 0.7L!) or a small Fiat (0.5 to 1.0L), and maybe half the weight.

        The capacity and dimensions of this thing would have been far more better pitched as an exotic, moderately luxurious mid-size family/utility car in the UK. Probably with a different engine and transmission in place (say, a high compression* Ford or GM 2-litre 4-pot and one of their 4-speed manuals) and a ruthless approach taken to finding ways to lighten it. Even a modern executive saloon doesn’t often tip the scales at more than 1500kg… I think the heaviest euro car I’ve ever seen that was still a car (rather than a truck, van, bus, limousine, off-roader etc) was about 1800!

        * Part of the problem is most likely that the US was still getting used to Unleaded fuel at this point, and the rather drastic consequences of such for effective octane rating and thus the achievable compression ratios, ignition advance timings and therefore specific output even of big engines. Heck, I thought I’d seen something bad with the 80s “Iron Duke” pulling a whole 90hp out of 2.9L, but I think 100hp from 3.8L (or indeed, 95hp from 4.3L) really takes the cake. And even though it wouldn’t have been generating a great deal of power, those cylinders still need to be emptied of combustion products and refilled with air, and the pistons have to go up and down, and the whole weighty lump needs to be dragged around with the rest of the car, so you end up consuming a hell of a lot more fuel in order to make the same useful power.

        Needless to say, this isn’t a problem that the UK faced at the time, or even during our own great de-leading, because the available fuel formulations had improved immensely by then, and most manufacturers were able to switch over with hardly any effect on BHP (in fact, the few percent loss to the then swiftly added catalytic converters was more contentious), merely needing to harden up the valve seats somewhat. Thus, a relatively much more harder tuned engine could have been fitted without much fuss, giving almost as much power from a much smaller capacity, and reducing the weight (and transmission losses) at the same time, making up the last bit of shortfall.

        But as per my other post on the “early automatic transmissions” article, it’s very easy to criticise like this with the benefit of hindsight… and the infinite funds and resources available to one’s imagination ;)

        Maybe I could package up a bunch of 1.4L common-rail direct-injection variable-turbine-blade 16-valve turbodiesels (easily capable of 100-110bhp DIN, at lower RPM, and providing stronger torque, through a smooth shifting 5- or 6-speed manual box more than capable of taking the strain and fitting under the existing hood such to allow very easy conversion to FWD so long as someone fits suitable front wheel hubs, suspension mounts and fabs up driveshafts to fit), with fine-mesh, auto-evaporating, high-capacity, easily reached and drained fuel filters (to deal with the terrible, literally watery excuse for paraffin that came out of diesel pumps in 1970s America), and put them in a time machine for AMC to try fitting into the Pacers instead?

        Still don’t think it’d go quicker than my 86hp/1100kg one (12s 0-100k), or match its economy, but it’d still end up with much better, more acceptable performance, lighter weight, and radically improved fuel mileage…
        (Now how’s THAT for a future that could have been?)

        1. It’s pretty clear that export was not foremost on AMC designers’ minds during the development of the Pacer; to be honest, I was rather surprised that it was exported beyond North America. The Pacer was for better or worse a car designed for the U.S. and for Americans’ sometimes very peculiar ideas about cars in general and small cars specifically.

          It was also a prime example of the difficulty in trying to do something quite advanced and futuristic without actually having the money for a clean sheet of paper. For what the Pacer was supposed to be, a lighter monocoque with front-wheel drive would have made a good deal more sense, but while that was certainly within the technological capabilities of the time, AMC didn’t have that kind of money. (The U.S.-based companies that got into FWD in that era spent a really blinding amount of money on it, in part because it required big investments in plants and manufacturing equipment.)

          I think the switch to unleaded fuel actually had a much more modest impact on the dismal specific outputs (and specific fuel consumption) of American cars of the ’70s than one might think. The actual power losses, which were in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 percent in most cases, were obscured by the switch from gross to net ratings and exaggerated by a lot of generally alarmist rhetoric. The fuels of the time weren’t well-suited to high-strung high-performance engines, but for your average cooking six or V-8 were not really the issue.

          The bigger problem was that automakers were trying to meet continually escalating emissions and safety standards in a nip, tuck, and add-on fashion. It was not unlike attempting to lower the alcohol content of wine and strengthen the bottle without making new wine or a new bottle.

          Also, I feel obliged to point out that whatever one may say about their specific output, the AMC sixes were not unduly large or heavy for their displacement — they weighed less than even the “lightened” BMC C-series six used in the MGC and Austin 3-Litre, for instance. They also subscribed to the philosophy that torque is more important than peak horsepower; the torque output of both engines was considerably stouter than the advertised horsepower would indicate and the torque peak was only 1,600 rpm. A comparison to diesel engines would not be inappropriate.

          1. The Pacer’s gas mileage was hurt by the fact that the early models did not have a catalytic converter. The emissions control was all done in the tuning of the engine, apparently. The only advantage of this was that leaded gas could be put in the car in an emergency, because there was no catalytic converter to poison.

            Of course, by 1990 or so, no one was selling leaded gas anymore, so that is no selling point at this stage of the game.

            Rust proofing on Pacers was dismal, prior to the 1980 model year. Since only a few 1980 models were even made, the number of Pacers around is going to dwindle rapidly. Since it supposedly was a cheap, affordable car, people who bought it had affordable housing — that is housing with no garage. A Pacer left outside anywhere might as well be parked on the docks.

          2. Relatively few emissions-controlled vehicles had catalytic converters until the late ’70s. They were adopted earlier on cars bound for California due to that state’s more stringent standards, but it was a while before they were anything like universal. Most emissions-controlled vehicles until that point relied on thermal reactors, exhaust gas recirculation, and a juggling of spark advance and carburetor mixture. All of those things did indeed tend to have a deleterious effect on both performance and fuel economy, although that was by no means solely a Pacer or an AMC issue. Early three-way catalytic converters weren’t necessarily a great improvement. They caused quite a bit of back pressure, which hurt power; they tended to get very hot, sometimes to the point of melting or posing a fire hazard to brush under a parked car (I’ve seen ’70s catalyzed cars where the cat would glow red after a couple of hours at highway speeds); and they were fairly expensive, since they require rare earths. Ultimately, it was not so much catalytic converters themselves, but catalysts combined with modern electronic fuel injection and ignition control that really made a difference.

    2. It’s very interesting in fact to compare it not only against the Golf, which was one of Germany’s take on a similar idea (effecting crumple zones, seatbelts and nimble handling etc for safety instead of whole-body strengthening), but also the Polo, their smallest and most pointedly “city car” offering, which attacked the same concerns from a very different direction … like comparing a 250cc sport-utility (ie commuter) bike to a low-tune Harley, almost.

      The most base-model offering clocked in at a little under 700kg, or 1540lbs – yes, it weighed as much in pounds as the Pacer did in kilos, and in fact slightly less. The relative mass was probably about 2.25x, for something meant to do about the same job.

      Its smallest engine produced about 39bhp (DIN, not SAE) from a 4-pot displacing just 895cc – less than a quarter the size of the Pacer’s “232” (in fact, equivalent to 1.4 of its cylinders), but still nearly 2/5ths the output. With this under the hood, the car did take a rather yawning 20ish seconds to reach 60mph (extrapolated from 21.2s to 100km/h), but could manage a reasonably healthy-for-the-time 82mph. This is also in the mid 70s, mark you.

      The next engine up from that weighed but a kilo or two more and put out approximately 50bhp from 1093cc. Still smaller than two Pacer cylinders (1/3.5x the size in fact), but sticking out half as much power… and able to keep pace with it. 0-60 time in the mid to high teens, top speed a DeLorean-chasing 88mph.

      The top one was almost exactly 1/3rd the size of the Pacer lump, at 1272cc, but made a good 60bhp (and again, this is DIN Pferdstarke – 44kW if you like – rather than whatever SAE rating was cooked up for the 232), and could do the sprint in 12 seconds, going on to nudge 95mph on the redline. It could have flirted with 100mph, but those old 70s and early 80s VWs were drastically under-geared until they started experimenting with the 3+E gearboxes and other “Formula E” economy measures, and so it just ran out of powerband. My own later, better-geared 1043 (with just 45hp) managed a solid 90mph whilst almost dead-centre on peak power rpms…

      That’s one-third the engine, roughly one-half the power, but about the same or better performance. And the economy was much better as well; the worst rated consumption was still in the high 30s MPG Imperial (low 30s US), which I think was the 60hp model on a city cycle, and the best was around 60 Imp (50 US) – for that same 60hp running at a steady 56mph (and about 44/37 at 75mph). The less powerful ones improved city economy thanks to lower displacement and having a generally wider throttle at low speed (an idling engine is a dreadfully inefficient thing), at the expense of being slightly thirstier on the open road thanks to lower gearing and thus higher revs (…as is a stressed one …. hence, turbodiesels!)

      OK, they weren’t quite as comfortable, and you certainly couldn’t cram six people in without it being a hell of a squash, but it was a perfectly good alternative if you wanted to ride around Wayne’s World style. And they actually handled quite nicely… in fact, there’s still a thriving “scene” based around rescuing/restoring/preserving and, of course, suping-up and “pimping” these old WC VW classics and their (as-yet-unbroken-chain-of) descendants … much like there is for the one-shot Pacer.

      However, I think the 1984 Polo – originally a 1.043L, 45hp job itself – I saw tell of earlier today which had a turbocharged 1.4 dropped into it with about 190bhp on tap probably shifts a hell of a lot faster, corners better, and uses radically less juice than an AMC would with even a nice 380hp Mopar under the hood… ;)

      Oh, and whilst I’m rabidly evangelising (which wasn’t the original intent!) it’s still much easier to park, and VW still make parts :D

      (Still FWD though, so the Pacer would definitely win on the burnout/drift front ;) … and the Polo may be many things, but you could hardly call it a “shaggin’ wagon” – just trying to sleep in the front passenger seat is enough of a challenge)

      1. To some extent, this once again gets into the different viewpoint toward smaller cars in the U.S. and Europe. In Europe, B-segment cars like the Polo were, to a significant extent, aimed at people and markets who really couldn’t afford even something like a Golf or a Kadett, particularly in markets like Italy and eventually Spain. (The B cars did of course sell in Germany and the U.K. as well, but those markets didn’t have as pressing a need for the smaller models.) In the U.S., anything smaller than, say, a Granada was considered a little car and even during the worst parts of the ’70s, the boundaries of what was considered “small” or “fuel efficient” were a good deal broader than they were in other countries.

        U.S. automakers designing smaller cars for the domestic market were therefore in the difficult position of not simply developing a competent small(ish) car that would meet the continually evolving and escalating regulations, but also of trying to figure out how best to manage the expectations of buyers accustomed to — and in many cases still perfectly able to buy — traditional American big cars. In hindsight, the Pacer wasn’t the answer, but for AMC to have built a Polo or a Fiesta (even presuming they’d had the money to do so) would have been seen as similarly or even more risky. It’s a tough position to be in.

        1. You are right about the “small” car. In the 1990’s, a colleague of mine had a full size Lexus that he had parked outside at work. A customer in the shopping center parked next to him in a 1975 Chevy Nova “compact.” The Nova was wider and longer than the Lexus, and had a longer wheelbase.

          1. It’s funny how most American “compact” cars have traditionally been large quasi-luxury cars by the standards of the rest of the world, while other markets’ medium-size family cars are considered little subcompacts here. Such are the results of cheap fuel, wide roads, and a general lack of size-based cost constraints…

  7. I found your article about AMC Pacer by accident.It’s very well written and full of details.The way you wrote about Pacer is full of kindness to both the car and its manufacturer .I love the car with its appearance.
    I only found the car once in Thailand.
    Thank you for your kind attention.
    Best regards,
    S.Udom

  8. Great write-up! My daughter’s Purple Pacer gets 27 MPG @ 70 MPH with the A/C on and 3 adults and luggage, but the fuel-injected engine is from a 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee with a 258 crank and rods, making it a torquey 4.5L powerplant and has a GM 700R4 behind it. With the factory 3.08 gears, it cruises at 2000 RPM at 75 MPH. See it at http://www.mopacer.com.

  9. I own a 1976 AMC Pacer Sedan, the basic model plus wheel’s covers with a steering column lever automatic transmission. The handling of the car gave initially a floating sensation, but once you get the wheel alignment properly tuned, it not only gives a good handling feeling, but is funny and precise to drive in roads with many curves, it just takes some time to find somebody doing the job right, it was among the first USA cars in having a rack and pinion steering, and the ads of AMC offering a handling comparable to imported cars as BMWs were not a lie. It’s a good car, just a little bit thirsty in town use, you can easily use 18 lit / 100 km, but fuel economy in city use would be better expressed as fuel per hour; on the highway at speeds within allowed range, you may get figures of around 9 lit / 100 km; as for all cars, a right tune-up of engine and a good condition of plugs and so on is essential. There are kits for sale for the Chrysler Torqueflite automatic transmission it has that are intended to improve some minor nuisances of transmission on reverse, and other improvements. A family car, not a sports car.

  10. I have owned 2 Pacers. My first was a 1976, which was actually a bit of a hot rod. I had to leave it when I moved from NY to IN. It was pushing 200,000 miles. I currently drive a 1978 D/L model with just over 14,000 miles. It runs great and everyone comments on the ride. I think the comments on seating capability are a little unfair. You can fit 5 full size (not oversized)adults in the car comfortably. At 5′ 5″ i can sleep comfortably in the back seat. “Earl” has won 2 trophies in shows, mostly for the aw factor. Middle age ladies such as myself generally have fond memories of this car. Thanks for a nice article.

  11. A friend of mine has a 79 Pacer dl 6 cyl with some parts missing on the motor. It looks like it could be a bracket that holds the AC, the PS and something else. Does any one have a picture of what the part may look like? Or maybe some specs.

  12. So, the Pacer took “more than 16 seconds to reach 60 mph…top speed of only 84 mph… fuel economy 17 mpg”

    Plus, it handled poorly, didn’t stop well, and was assembled with complete indifference, if not contempt. Then there’s the looks. We’ve got a winner!

    1. At the end of the day, the Pacer was still a 3,400-pound car with a pushrod six of about twice the displacement of a Ford Pinto engine. In that light, the Pacer’s performance was no worse (if also no better) than that of the average six-cylinder domestic compact and it provided similar utility in a smaller package. If you think of it that way, it seems reasonable if not impressive. If you think about it as a rival for an actual C-segment subcompact, that’s where it really falls down, which is more or less what happened.

      I can’t say I’m particularly enamored of the Pacer’s looks, but I do understand AMC styling VP Dick Teague’s philosophy with regards to both the Pacer and the Gremlin. Given the mechanical constraints and packaging requirements, neither was going to be particularly sexy, but if they were bland, they were going to disappear without a trace in the marketplace. So, I don’t necessarily argue the rationale even if I don’t love the results.

      1. Is it really true that “the average six-cylinder domestic compact” of that era matched those performance stats? If so, it’s news to me, and I’m somewhat shocked. 84mph!

        1. More or less, yeah. Obviously, there were some cars that could do better (and a few that were probably worse), but even if you go back to the pre-smog, pre-safety bumper era, those are pretty typical test numbers.

          It should be said that the fuel consumption figures typically reflect the whole test period, including performance testing, and as such tend to be somewhat thirstier than the average owner would get. Except for tests that were specifically conceived as fuel economy challenges, it was pretty rare for vintage road tests of six-cylinder cars to crack 20 mpg, whereas owners with well-broken-in engines could often get into the low 20s on the highway.

          It’s easy to get a skewed idea of the performance of cars of earlier eras because road testers often tend to focus on the more powerful iterations, which manufacturers eventually learned to load up with performance goodies the average buyer doesn’t necessarily order and in some cases might almost never encounter. (For instance, in the main, road tests of manually shifted cars are vastly more numerous than of cars with automatic even though automatic transmissions are vastly more common in the real world, at least in the U.S.)

        2. A lot of the Pacer’s less-than-muscle car acceleration and top speed, other than width and weight, are from the non-performance nature of the exhaust,right from the utilitarian manifold to the kink in the tailpipe,to help alleviate the chance of axle tramp wiping out the tailpipe. My first Pacer,a yellow ’76 X with all the cool stuff including aluminum rims and gauge pack,had Hooker headers and duals,and ran very strong compared to stock. I had it 3 years from new. My current project is a ’77 D/L coupe from Alberta. I’m about to get a nice ’79 Limited wagon soon.

          1. Tim did you see the pacer with a in dash tachometer real cool i never had a chance to see one with a tach

  13. Yes, Mike, my yellow ’76 Pacer X that I special-ordered new had the factory gauge pack and the tach in the instrument module. So does my current project silver and black ’77Pacer D/L,which also has the lockable centre console,lockable rear luggage cover[rare!],factory aluminum rims and sport steering wheel.

  14. I remember a print ad from around the time the Pacer was launched, billing it as “the first wide small car.”

    Changing the rearmost two spark plugs doesn’t sound easy.

    1. Probably not, although ease of plug access wasn’t a strong point of a fair number of American cars of the era. (Big block Mustangs were particularly notorious in that regard.)

  15. “Mirth Mobile” comes from the 1992 movie, Wayne’s World. I can’t be entirely sure that this is where the owners of the above pictured car got the term, but it seems likely.

    1. Yes — the owners said that when they found the car, which was the same color as the one in the movie, they couldn’t resist.

  16. The “Suddenly it’s 1980” was originally a 1957 Buick slogan (“Suddenly It’s 1960”). The Motor Trend editors were probably referencing that.

    1. It was a 1957 Plymouth slogan, rather than Buick, but that was definitely what the editors were alluding to. I thought the allusion was particularly useful because aside from being a cute historical reference, it really did speak to the Pacer’s design rationale — in some ways it was really an extrapolation of a concept car for a particular vision of the automotive future.

  17. Fantastic article. Someone mentioned this site in a post on Jalopnik and I had to wander over for a look.

    I’ve got a soft spot for the Pacer, and I come by it honestly: my mom took delivery of a ’76 and it became the car I learned to drive in.

    It was, indeed, a wide, comfortable, airy interior. Visibility was fantastic, and for a “compact” hatchback even the back seat was decently comfortable. The interior packaging was really good; the cargo area in the hatchback wasn’t extremely deep or tall, but it was plenty wide enough to be useful.

    It’s really too bad that the GMRCE project fell through, since that would have been an outstanding engine and really would have made the Pacer the “car of the future”, but auto history is littered with many such “what might have been” stories.

    1. I’m not as sanguine about the prospects of the GM rotary engine. Even if it hadn’t ended up with Vega-like reliability problems, it would likely have been even thirstier than the AMC sixes and more expensive to boot, which were qualities the Pacer definitely didn’t need. It would have made the Pacer better-balanced, admittedly, and probably at least as quick as the AMC 304, but given sales of the V-8, people don’t seem to have been crying out for a faster and more fuelish Pacer in the mid- to late seventies. It would certainly have added to the fascination of the Pacer story, but probably not its success.

  18. I really enjoyed this article. Good work! I’m writing a short one having seen a Pacer in Denmark. I’ll include a link so readers can find out more.

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