Vicarious Pleasures: 1976 AMC Pacer

This one got me thinking.

1976 AMC Pacer
1976 AMC Pacer with a 1978 grille

The 1975 AMC Pacer is one of those famously unsuccessful cars to list with the Pontiac Aztek, Chevrolet Corvair, DeLorean DMC-12 and perhaps the Tucker Torpedo. As a resident of that list, it’s also routinely jeered at due to its appearance. I’d like to take a different tack with this and reflect on what is right with the car and also to consider the possibility of taking enjoyment in other people’s enjoyment of a car.

1976 AMC Pacer, rear lamps.
1976 AMC Pacer, rear lamps.

I spent about an hour and half among a collection of classic and youngtimers this Saturday in Silkeborg and it was the owner of this car who’s pleasure struck me as the most apparent, heartwarmingly so. Some of the other attendants almost seemed to find interest in their cars unwelcome or puzzling – maybe that is an aspect of Danish modesty turned sour. In this case, I took a close look at the Pacer and found it an entertaining piece of industrial design. In order to understand it, if not like it, you need to know that the designers conceived it as a response to changes in driving conditions in the late 60s: more cars, more traffic and expected higher fuel costs.

1976 AMC Pacer
1976 AMC Pacer.

AMC, as a smaller firm, lacked the resources to execute what was an ambitious re-imagining of the American car. They wanted a new engine, something avant garde. Instead of a rotary engine, the car received a 3.8 litre straight six, due to a mass of difficulties with obtaining a source. That required a hasty change to the front architecture: the six ended up quite far back relative to the front axle and weighed much more than the intended rotary engine.

The suspension borrowed from AMC’s existing stock. The front suspension design had a separate sub-frame with rubber bushings, with consequences unwelcome for handling. While Europeans were, by 1975, accustomed to FWD, for Americans it had either no meaning or could be seen as a problem. As it stood, AMC’s production lines handled RWD cars and adding a FWD vehicle would have meant costly extra investment. With RWD came a bulky transmission tunnel that ate into rear passenger space.

1976 AMC Pacer driver's ashtray, closed.
1976 AMC Pacer driver’s ashtray, closed.

From our vantage point, the car’s appearance is decidedly strange. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners. That winner in this race has to be the formula manifested by the FWD VW Golf. For an American designer in 1971, when the Pacer’s development began, that formula must not have been obvious, which we must remember.

In fact, the start point lay in the norms of American car design and also in the realities of AMC’s own products. That meant lopping off length from the B-pillar back and using conventional arrangements up front. That lends the car the unusual proportions it has. Next is the width: the car is as wide as an American medium-sized car of the time because Richard Teague, the designer, realised that customers might accept a shorter car but not less space from side to side. The praiseworthy wish to have a bright and airy cabin led to the glass area being well above average. Thus the glass house dominates the car’s proportions.

1976 AMC Pacer driver's ashtray, open
1976 AMC Pacer driver’s ashtray, open.  Nice and wide.

Car designers try to pre-empt the future and that’s always a tricky business. Teague hoped that customers would get the design, understand its purpose. In some cases such hopes are rewarded, if the concept brings with it palpable advantages. Alas, AMC’s tricky financial situation and the lack of accepted norms for small American cars meant Teague’s eventual design lay beyond the realms of what customers felt acceptable. As this excellent article notes, the disappointing fuel economy, poor performance and relatively high price made the car’s appearance harder to deal with. Modern examples of this problem include the Fiat Multipla and the Renault VelSatis. As Raymond Loewy said, you need to go no further than the customer can accept.

1976 AMC Pacer dashboard
1976 AMC Pacer dashboard

Putting those matters to one side, if we look at the car afresh we find a fascinating mix of modern and traditional details. The Pacer is a manifestation of the American car industry struggling to translate the big car ideal onto the small car ideal. Some aspects such as the generally smooth forms are quite advanced and you can see a flavour of the Porsche 928 but draped over less satisfactory proportions. The brightwork is very Detroit: the car has lots and lots of it. UnDetroit is the aerodynamic flush door frames, something Detroit would not get around to for nearly another decade (the 1983 Mercury Cougar had them – was there an earlier mainstream car with this feature?). The windscreen wipers sit under the trailing edge of the bonnet. Citroen didn’t manage this on the CX of 1974 nor Mercedes with the justly lionised W-124 of 1985.


Elsewhere here I have mentioned how one can express the meaning of a form by accentuating a detail. AMC wanted the Pacer to meet and exceed projected roll-over standards and planned a stout roll-bar over the glass house. The thick B-pillar and the transverse rib in the roof probably existed to articulate this important feature. Alas, the regulation didn’t come into force but the Pacer still had that vacant feature. And this is where we can refer to Gestalt theory again. The strong vertical band of the B-pillar, related to the roll-bar, interferes with the front-to-back flow that usually looks better on a car. It also seems to accentuate the car’s shortness and disrupts the unity of the car: you read the front and back as being less of a whole than one would prefer them to be.

With that in mind, I hope it’s not too cognitively dissonant to consider the car favourably anyway. I admire the designers’ wish to experiment and try new solutions, to re-invent the future. Especially considering the sometimes leaden conservatism of Detroit, such a car is admirably brave. It also serves to makes us more alert to the significance of the formula we take for granted: a front-drive, four-cylinder, two-volume car of 1000 kg. I’d also like to salute the people who have affection for cars like the Pacer because absent their ability to see beauty where the rest of us can’t we’d not have the opportunity to enjoy looking at alternate futures and to question the norms we take for granted.

[The V8 engines weren’t available on the Pacer until 1978. This car has a retro-fitted V8, hence the registration plate.]

Read more on the AMC Pacer here.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

25 thoughts on “Vicarious Pleasures: 1976 AMC Pacer”

  1. My favourite anecdote about the Pacer (indeed my only anecdote) is that the doors were so wide and heavy that apparently if you opened them whilst parked on an incline you had no chance of getting them shut again from inside the car!

  2. Any idea where this car fitted in the AMC range in relation to the Gremlin?

    1. The Pacer came later and seems to have been a bit bigger. A comparison of stats shows similar dimensions. The Gremlin was more evidently a cut-down car (based on the Hornet). The Pacer may have been a refinement of the idea. I didn’t realise they were on sale concurrently.

    2. ‘3. Weighs more than other small cars.’

      Wow. What a thing to brag about!

    3. “Weighs more than other small cars”, that’s a good sales claim. Is it intended to promise more safety?

    4. ” “Weighs more than other small cars”, that’s a good sales claim. Is it intended to promise more safety?”

      More than likely considering the high level of suspicion towards ‘small’ cars and hatchbacks in the US until very recently (and still now in remote areas).

  3. Dick Teague was the sneaky b-movie director among the more respected manufacturers’ big-budget designers. To put further strain on the analogy, the Pacer is to the Porsche 928 what Joe Dante’s ‘Piranha’ is to Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’.

  4. The Pacer was indeed panned and mocked. It is something akin to the US Allegro in that respect.

    Thanks for this fresh look at it, Richard. You are right, of course – the fact that someone cares is to be applauded. And I had no idea it could be ordered with a V8… that does seem quite appealing.

    As for the design, the passenger doors are wrong in almost every respect. Quite incredible. If they weren’t so hideous, the car would have looked better and might have fared better.

  5. The sad thing about the Pacer is that you can see that it was a very viable concept. The early drawings, the fitment of a Wankel engine, etc would have made everyone at AMC justifiably enthusiastic. It would have been a worthy piece of design. However, compromise was ladled onto compromise yet no-one had the sense to either pull the plug or re-think it radically.

  6. With my view from afar, I find the Pacer likeable. As Richard points out, it has many details that put it ahead of the dross Detroit was pumping out at the time. The single aspect that really lets the styling down is the front treatment. The headlights are way too large, lending the car a bulbous, froggy look. The second generation Camaro got away with a similar treatment by virtue of its size; the smaller, tapered Pacer needed slimmer units, or pop ups.

  7. Another fun fact regarding the Pacer was that the doors were apparently of different lengths. The passenger door was four inches longer than that of the driver’s to make egress easier for rear seat passengers.

    The Pacer ended up being a bit of a joke, partly I would suggest because of the macho mentality that pervaded at the time. This wasn’t a ‘man’s’ car. Yet it became something of a cult car – aided perhaps by its starring role in the ‘Waynes World’movie.

    I like the Pacer. It’s such a cheerful looking thing. It spoke of optimism, yet it was (unfairly?) associated with downsizing and malaise.

  8. Chris: it´s not hard to imagine a cost cutter insisting on a standard lamp unit. In many ways the Pacer was a nice idea ruined on the altar of product maturation: carry over parts, existing production process and plain old timidity. For all its faults I rather like it though I would not aspire to owning one. I like it that people want to hang on to these fascinating vehicles and I think they are probably good fun to own.

    1. From what I can gather AMC was not in a strong position financially, so the watering down of the Pacer may not have been timidity, but more a case of expediency. The big round headlamps did scream ‘cost-cutting’ but could also be read another way – they gave the Pacer an honest look, akin to that of a Beetle or similar.

      From a product planning perspective, offering two compact looking hatchbacks concurrently doesn’t appear especially clever, but I suspect the Pacer was originally intended to be a more upmarket model than the obviously cheaper looking Gremlin.

      I have to add, the later more ornate grille treatment – as shown above – did the Pacer no visual favours whatsoever.

  9. I too love meeting and talking to people that are passionate about anything. Despite this and the nice piece I still can’t really muster any enthusiasm for this car. It’s footprint is just too square and whatever the reason for those headlamps they look almost cartoon like to me. Eoin, I also read somewhere that one door was longer than the other. By the way Richard, when you mentioned Silkeborg I couldn’t think where I’d heard that name before but I think it’s the town the jackal claimed to come from when he was masquerading as a Danish pastor in the day of the jackal.

    1. I would certainly think so. Not sure why the name stuck in my mind but yesterday was only the second time I ever heard of it.

    2. I was once told that I’m resembling a young Edward Fox to some extent (albeit my teeth are quite straight). Does that make me a Silkeborg, as well?

    3. Without the murderous tendencies one hopes. Mind you, it might explain a few things…

  10. The Pacer also had rack and pinion steering, an oddity on American products of the era, this at least provided a modicum of “feed back” as to what was happening between the tyres and road surface.

  11. Probably down to parts commonality since AMC had ties to European models in their basic imported Renault models.

  12. As the regional manager for an electric utility equipment manufacturer, it was my job to visit the far-flung outposts of my little empire way back in 1975. The agent for our products in one city, the closest to Europe in North America in fact, met me at the airport in his brand new Pacer the first time I met him. A patrician man in his early thirties from the local old money set, prone to wearing tweed suits with waistcoat, thin and tall, he turned out to be a lively chap with twinkly eyes, the only other Canadian I’d met who knew what a decent single malt Scotch was.

    My trips were at roughly three month intervals, and the Pacer performed perfectly well even in the snow, surprisingly, as we made our rounds to important customers. The engine, which later was given proper electronic fuel injection and powered the Jeep Cherokee from the late 1980s with a fair bit of snort, was very mildly tuned. In 1975 it had about 115 bhp and 1550 kg to lug around, complicated by emission regulations, unleaded fuel, a single choke carb and the same Borg Warner 45 automatic Archie Vicar didn’t like much, dubbed Flash-O-Matic by the marketing dweebs at AMC in about 1956. That original engine, as most inline sixes are, was incredibly smooth, though. Compared to the Pinto or Vega, both of which had agricultural 4 cylinder engines (the Vega worse) or even the engine in my own Audi 100LS, all were all rough as cobs compared to that Pacer engine. The car tootled about with a grace you wouldn’t find in the European cars I was familiar with at the time, having returned recently from the UK. At the expense of mpg, of course, but it had a heater that really poured out the BTUs, none of this just about adequate Euro stuff from people who don’t really know or cannot even imagine what actual cold is like, Volvo excepted.

    Yes, despite having looks which made both he and I laugh, and the funny extra long passenger door, it was indeed cheery in a daft sort of way. I rather liked it. He let me pedal it several times, and there was very little power, just creamy smoothness. It put a twinkle in his eye when people did a double take at it, but as a member of the old money set in town, he really didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. Years later, I assumed Renault had become interested in buying AMC using Gallic logic of this variety: Different length doors? Ah Hah, our cars have different length wheelbases side-to-side (Renault 4 and 16). Magnifique! Not all Americans eat only hamburgers and pizza!

    My second trip (they were a week long), having deemed me not an idiot come-from-away, my agent took me to his home for lunch one day, and announced a sightseeing trip around the area for the afternoon. Then he went to his garage and pulled out his real car, a 1962 Jag Mk II 3.4.

    Ah yes. Not a man given to boasting, he had hidden his secret from me up till then. It turned out he was in a state of constantly restoring it, the ravages of the North Atlantic sea air and our winters meaning he had to keep on top of things. Well, that old Jag could certainly get a move on. Same colour as Inspector Morse’s, and perfectly preserved inside and out. No sagging doors or used up stained wood on that one, and real red leather. Plus of course, Laycock-de-Normanville Overdrive. Very nice indeed.

    He basically loved pulling everyone’s leg with the Pacer, but it was perfect for conveying him around his business duties in comfort. After five years or so, he left the company he worked for, drawn by old money and the promise of further capital for investment into running and rebuilding a biscuit factory. He was a mechanical engineer, same as myself, so what we both had been doing in the heavy electrical trade was a laugh for both of us. His new factory, Purity Biscuits, was at that time the only maker of genuine hardtack biscuit left anywhere in the world, which biscuit, hollowed out by worms and stored in barrels, powered the seaman of the Empire of yore along with grog to sail round the world while offering secondhand shiny buttons to the natives in return for food, a treaty and a pledge of loyalty to whatever King George was on the throne at the time.

    Unfortunately, the hardtack machinery was worn out after a century or so powering fishermen on the Grand Banks. It needed to make dough in layers so thin that apple strudel wafers are thick and unwieldy by comparison. He resuscitated that huge machine with the help of engineering students on summer jobs, had them make the first actual mechanical drawings (!) of its amazing machinery and also got down to some serious water cracker and biscuit making, most of the latter being jam filled with fruit gathered and processed locally. Google “Purity Factories” and you’ll see their simple web site of today along with their products. They flog a lot of this stuff all over Canada to lost souls from the oldest Dominion spread to the four winds of the mainland. And it’s not bad stuff at all, although I personally cannot recommend the hard tack, which requires overnight soaking in water to swell up and become eatable (edible is not the right word). It is the only true dehydrated food I’ve ever met face to face, and dry could be used as a replacement hammer head. Teeth are no match for the stuff! A bag of hardtack, a bathtub with 20 gallons of water, 24 hours of drumming your fingers, and then you see where the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand legend came from. It does swell up a bit.

    Our career paths diverged and I haven’t seen him for over 30 years. But I learned one thing as a car enthusiast, never judge by first appearances. You never know what other car they might have hidden away in the garage that the wife never gets to drive. And even the weird cars can be lovable in their own way.

    1. Did you know the Pacer has a Laycock de Normanville overdrive too? I read that somewhere recently. Archie Vicar liked those.
      That was a good story: it shows up the US conception about small cars; they were not small at all in spirit. The smooth but gutless engine (six cylinders and more than three litres), width, weight and that overstuffed interior. Fun, indeed.
      I’ll Google the biscuits.

  13. Richard, one does have to be mindful of the fact that by 1975 in the US and Canada, only unleaded 87 octane petrol was available along with drastic emission controls on all engines including catalytic converters and EGR, some 18 years before the technocrats in the EU finally realized you lot were poisoning yourselves with lead. Since 1989 the same 6 cylinder engine the Pacer came with, by dint of three way catalyst control and electronic fuel injection put out 190 bhp net, and moved the Jeep Cherokee along at a fair rate of knots, too much for the suspension really. That’s more net bhp than the Jag 3.4 had.

    I find that a lot of the scorn heaped on ’70s and ’80s US iron by Europeans completely forgets that while you lot ferried yourselves about on 4 star leaded, emission controls ruined the output of engines over here. My 1982 5 cylinder Audi Coupe had a roaring 100 bhp on “premium” 91 octane and couldn’t even crawl up the modest hills here in Nova Scotia at 110 kph in 5th. Good Lord, it was no quicker than my old Volvo PV544 had been 15 years earlier, 0 to 60 being about 12 seconds. The original quattro I tried to buy several years later had 162 bhp, and a power delivery roughly akin to someone learning how to engage a clutch properly, all surges and dips. Not fun being at least 40 hp short of the Euro model with no refinement. I passed and got a 1987 4000S quattro, sporting an incredible 115 hp.

    “it shows up the US conception about small cars”. Really? I think it shows up what AMC did at the time 40 years ago, and they sold very few units. Ford gave us the Pinto, which was the same size as a 1969 Escort, although smaller inside and with a worse ride and handling due to recyling old bits from bigger cars. Chevrolet gave us the Vega, an absolute nightmare again about the same size, and which Cosworth eventually managed to extract 122 bhp from a DOHC version when it worked. The Americans tried to make small cars nasty so as to sell big ones, and that’s when the Japanese pounced. The engines were pretty useless except for Hondas, but the cars were properly designed and assembled. By the early 1980s we were putting around in Chev Cavaliers and Escorts much the same as what you lot got, so the US “conception” died pretty rapidly.

    Emission controls wreaked havoc on engines. Now, if I could just wave a magic wand and give you a ride in a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda 340S, as unclouded by emission controls as a 1985 Sierra pinking away on 4 star after a grueling motorway honk, you’d soon realize what a car with BMW 335i performance from almost 50 years ago was like. Damn nice. And nothing really beats idling up the hills of the Laurentians at 1400 rpm behind some truck, when a kickdown to first and a rev limit of 6000 vaulted the car past the obstruction with a wonderful V8 beat. The years from 1972 to 1988 or so are referred to as the Malaise era for good reason over here . And poor old Bristol bought the cheap version of the Chrysler 340 engine, the 360, for reasons that escaped me, relegating themselves to a panel van engine with very modest tune. has the details.

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