Making a little go that bit further.
Throughout the 1960s, US carmakers enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, with a buoyant domestic market, cheap, plentiful fuel and a customer base who had wholeheartedly bought into the concept of plenty – at a superficial level at least. Because beneath the giddy headline figures, sales of imported cars were giving the movers and shakers of Detroit serious pause.
The encroach of smaller, more fuel-efficient models, notably Volkswagen’s cult-car Beetle, prompted American carmakers to consider building subcompact offerings of their own. During the early part of the Sixties therefore, a number of compact car programmes were enacted, (Ford’s Cardinal for example) but with the exception of the Corvair (itself hardly a particularly small car), Detroit ended up producing what appeared to be stripped-down versions of their lower-medium sized models.
However, by the latter end of the decade, as Japanese carmakers began to make serious inroads into the lower strata of the auto market, Detroit decided to act – Ford preparing its 1971 Pinto, while GM brought the Chevrolet Vega – neither model particularly bolstering their creator’s reputations, unless unbridled cynicism was the operative criteria.
Meanwhile, not all US carmakers were making hay. The underdog AMC corporation, having tried and failed to compete head-on with the big three carmakers, were having to box clever, lacking the resources to develop new models on anything apart from pre-existing platforms.
In 1969 AMC introduced the Hornet, a compact saloon which supplanted the long-running Rambler model. It featured an all-new bodyshell, although some technical carry-over was retained from both its predecessor and the larger AMC Rebel and Ambassador models. It would prove to be a well-regarded, moderately popular choice amongst the more budget-conscious motorist, if still somewhat larger than the European and Japanese imports that had become such a growing concern.
A smaller car was clearly required, but there was little in the kitty to develop one. But adversity is often the handmaiden to ingenious solutions, and in Richard Teague, AMC had one of the more creative thinkers in the US auto industry at the time. A master of making a little go a very long way, AMC’s design chief is believed to have dreamed up the concept for a subcompact based on the Hornet during a Northwest Airlines domestic flight. Using whatever came to hand, (in this case, so the story goes, an inflight sick-bag) the basic outline was roughly sketched out. A mere 18 months later, the Gremlin made its debut.
A clever (or expedient) melding of the Hornet (the bodyshell was identical from the B-pillar forward) with aft styling elements of the 1966 AMX concept car, the Gremlin was a distinctively American form of subcompact – short, but wide. Although the coupésque styling fell squarely into the love it or hate it category, it was undeniably stylish, even if the rather upright Hornet nose seemed a little out of keeping with the rear three quarters’ more rakish appearance.
Given its basis, the Gremlin’s mechanical layout was unsurprisingly Detroit-by-numbers. An in-line 3.3 litre six developing 128 hp, or a larger 3.8 litre version, with 145 ponies at its disposal. Both engines dated from the early part of the decade and were reliable, under-stressed and by domestic standards at least, economical. Both could be had with either a manual or automatic transmission, both of which offered three forward speeds.
The Gremlin was within inches of the benchmark Beetle in length, but not only was it usefully wider, its vastly more powerful engines meant it could also hold its own on the US Freeways, and certainly the AMC outperformed its European and Far Eastern rivals, to say nothing of the upcoming homegrown duo. However, owing to its nose-heavy weight bias, short wheelbase and power output, its dynamics were not exactly from the top drawer.
Early Gremlins could be purchased in two forms, the first of which lived up to its bargain basement price by eschewing either a rear seat or opening rear window – both being available for further outlay. The two-seater was short-lived, ceasing production the following year, with few takers. Austerity clearly had limits, despite the rear cabin of the ‘four-seater’ being a rather purgatorial experience for anyone who were themselves not of subcompact dimensions.
However, most Gremlins were purchased as commuter cars, or by impecunious students, so the lack of rear space proved less of a hindrance – not that many of its domestic or foreign rivals were vastly better in this regard anyway. What mattered was that the front cabin was spacious and comfortable, and that the car felt substantial. More power arrived in 1972 with the advent of a 5.0 litre V8 power unit, which gave the Gremlin the acceleration to match its name – at least until 1976, when it was phased out in a post oil-shock rationalisation.
1977 saw the Gremlin’s only major facelift and for what would prove to be such a late stage in the model’s lifespan, it was both comprehensive, and visually successful. Four inches was lost from the nose, reducing the front overhang – the new visage looking far better integrated than of yore. At the rear, the glassback was considerably enlarged and the tail lamps redesigned. However, under the skin, more significant changes took place.
It’s clear that owing to AMC’s rather precarious financial position, coupled with the relative failure of models like the unusual 1975 Pacer, the resources to update the Gremlin simply weren’t forthcoming in a timely fashion, since the facelifted car would probably have made a bigger splash had it reached the market sooner. Similarly, AMC lacked a four cylinder power unit of more modest displacement to offer, putting them at a disadvantage over Japanese rivals, who by then were very much in the ascendant.
This led to a deal with Volkswagen, (whose dominance in this class had faded with the advent of the Rabbit) where a detuned, carburetted version of Audi’s EA831 power unit (as fitted to Porsche’s 924 model) was built at Kenosha for both export to Germany and for use by AMC in Gremlin, and latterly, Concord and Spirit models. Developing 95 hp, it was no powerhouse, but since it was notably lighter than the AMC six, it made for a better balanced and considerably more economical car. However, it too arrived rather late in the day and few were sold. 1978 saw the final year of production, with over 670,000 built over an eight year period.
The Gremlin wasn’t entirely without influence, since a cogent argument can be made to suggest that the 1977 Chrysler Sunbeam owed it a notable debt in both concept and execution; essentially a foreshortened version of the larger Avenger model, with a reduced wheelbase and similar glassback rear.
The Gremlin latterly came to be viewed as a bit of a joke, a majority of US motorists finding the idea of small cars a somewhat risible one. There is perhaps also a hint of insecurity around such attitudes, for while such vehicles are not suited to everyone’s lifestyle, need or location, the bigger is better mantra can sometimes appear, to these Eurocentric eyes at least, a little forced.
However, one doesn’t need to be a genius to make a big car, although some very clever people have done so from time to time. A small car, even one as contrived as this however, is a different matter. And for all its flaws, the AMC Gremlin was smart, well-conceived and yes, clever. Perhaps more a triumph of style over genuine innovation, but it nevertheless demonstrates in an undeniable fashion that necessity doesn’t half focus the mind.