Pacer begets Porsche – Porsche begets Pacer. Which is it?
Editor’s note: This is an expanded and amended version of an article first published on DTW on 28 January 2016.
The 1975 AMC Pacer is a car that seems to have become a four wheeled punchline to some joke or other for almost half a century. Derided and satirised in both print and in celluloid, it’s been a staple in every worst and ugliest-car-ever list. After all, it’s easy to kick an underdog.
The cash-strapped American Motors Corporation was attempting something really rather daring in 1975 – to create a wholly new type of American car. The antithesis of the lower-longer-wider ideal, the Pacer was compact in length but as wide as a full-size sedan. Moreover, it illustrated a wholly fresh, more product design approach to US car design at a time when the big three domestic makers were ladling their cars with luxury fittings and baroque detail. Of course whether this was really the best or wisest course of action for a business amid serious financial embarrassment is one worth considering, but it’s at times of crisis that creative minds are truly harnessed.
What began in 1971 as an outline sketch of a mid-engined and radically shaped monospace; a response to the question posed as to the nature of the future motor car in a changed American landscape, where safety, emissions and size would be of paramount importance, the theme would ultimately evolve into that of a compact urban car, dubbed internally as Amigo. A 1972 full sized see-through styling study received an overwhelmingly positive reaction when shown at a style clinic, lending the programme serious impetus.
While no technical trendsetter, Amigo was intended to employ a bought-in rotary Wankel engine from GM; the engine bay allegedly being designed for this power unit alone. Unlike other AMC products, it would also use a front subframe for improved isolation and rack and pinion steering. However, late in the model’s development, GM put its rotary engine programme into abeyance, leaving AMC engineers to cobble together a quick and expedient solution.
The venerable in-line AMC 3.8 litre in-line six was successfully shoehorned in, but proved a tight squeeze. It also ladled weight onto the nose of the car – the rotary being of course both compact and light – weight it really didn’t need at all, since the Pacer body was already on the plump side; partly a function of its widespread use of passive safety features, like the built-in roll-hoop and side-impact bars.
But fundamentally, the Pacer was a statement design, and it’s clear that AMC’s CEO, Roy Chapin Jr was won over by the arguments, from Vice President of Styling, Richard (Dick) Teague and his exterior design chief, and project leader, Bob Nixon. A resolutely modernist, and in ways prescient design with its four-square stance, asymmetric doors, tall glassy canopy and friendly, unthreatening demeanour. In this sense it could be read as a latterday domestic riposte to VW’s Beetle. One can perhaps also observe faint reflections of its friendly style in Renault’s 1992 Twingo, although the eminent Patrick le Quément might beg to differ there.
Some forty years on, one is struck by how its appearance reflects the sense of open-minded optimism which still permeated the industry in those short years before the correction of October 1973. However, views on its appearance tended to extremes – then and now – Car and Driver’s sobriquet of “the flying fishbowl” coming across a little snide. Mind you, eminent design critic and writer, Stephen Bayley more recently observed that the Pacer “does not look like a car at all.” A statement which could be read in a number of ways.
For some time now, elements of the car community have favoured the view that the rear three quarters of the 1977 Porsche 928 were a direct copy of the Pacer, based it would seem on a suggestion that a Porsche designer was once said to have spoken in complimentary terms about the Pacer’s design. In this, the individual concerned may simply have been polite, or indeed, might have considered it an interesting piece of automotive styling – which of course it is.
But considering the matter further, the waters muddy a little when one also recalls the existence of Porsche’s Forschungsprojekt Langzeit Auto concept (FLA) concept, or Long Life Car Research Project, first shown at the 1973 Frankfurt motor show. A reaction to a growing sense that cars were becoming increasingly profligate, Porsche’s engineers at the newly opened Weissach research centre in Stuttgart investigated a more sustainable ideal of motoring – a car which could potentially outlast its owner.
Using what appears to have been a modified 911 platform and running gear, its 2.5 litre flat six engine was optimised for longevity. Developing an unstressed 75 bhp and redlined at 3,500 rpm, it was mated with a three speed semi automatic transmission and a torque converter for both economy and resistance to wear. FLA’s use of complex, multi-segment wiring looms (for ease of replacement), extra-durable switchgear and rare metal-plated electrical connections underlined its long-life remit.
Much like AMC’s design team, FLA reflected Porsche’s anxieties over future legislation, the implications of extended ownership, the sustainability of the motor car in the longer term and the ability of the vehicle to be recycled once its useful life was over. All of these were perhaps driven by an existential as well as ecological concerns, but there was also a more commercially-focussed imperative to the concept.
Porsche’s newly opened Weissach research centre was not simply to be home to its own projects, but would also become a hotbed of research and development consultancy for other motor manufacturers. FLA therefore was also a useful showcase for Porsche’s technical skills and future thinking – much of which would filter into Porsche’s own production cars over the following years.
The FLA was shown with a transparent body, but was intended to employ aluminium panelwork over steel frame construction, with an emphasis on safety, rust-resistance and longevity. The bodyshape (one assumes the work of Porsche’s stylists under the supervision of Anatole Lapine) appeared strictly rationalist; its upright three-door bodystyle however the antithesis of what anyone would have expected from Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen.
Vague similarities to AMC’s Pacer nevertheless are fairly obvious, but what is equally apparent is that it was also to prove something of a dry run for the 928. Looking at the FLA’s cabin area and the design of its canopy, B-pillar and window openings, one can clearly observe a nascent foreshadowing of the 1977 Car of the Year. Not only that, but the 928, while on the surface a fairly profligate and heavyweight GT aimed squarely at the US market, would also benefit from FLA in terms of passenger safety, sustainability and longevity.
But can we be certain as to who influenced who? The timelines ought to be instructive, but of course can only tell a partial story. Given that the Pacer’s styling was finalised around 1972 and FLA was first shown publicly in 1973, it’s most unlikely that Dick Teague or his designers could have knowledge of what Anatole Lapine’s designers were up to simultaneously at Zuffenhausen. Likewise, given that the Pacer made its public debut in 1975, Porsche’s designers were unlikely to be aware of its existence when fashioning FLA. But can we be certain?
Prior to his move to Germany, Lapine spent his formative years working, first under Harley Earl and later Bill Mitchell at GM’s secret Studio X in the US. While it’s likely that as senior designers, (albeit for rival firms), both Lapine and Teague were acquainted – the design community being a small, closely entwined one, both then and now – whether this led to any intelligence being passed on can only be speculated about. Let us simply suggest that while a possibility, it’s not a very likely one.
The Porsche 928 was initiated in 1972, and by 1973 it’s known that the essential styling was in place. The styling was probably frozen for production no later than 1974. It’s therefore more plausible that Möbius and his cohorts employed ideas pioneered closer to home, and given that 928 was designed virtually in parallel with FLA, the chronology simply doesn’t bear out the widely received wisdom upon its influences.
Meanwhile, life for the AMC Pacer began promisingly, initial sales outstripping projections, as it briefly became something of a minor sensation. However, while unlike their better funded rivals who were fielding distinctly flawed compacts, the Pacer proved relatively trouble-free to own, yet its appeal quickly faded with the buying public who soon discovered that it was a somewhat flawed gem.
Nowhere near as spacious as its broad hips suggested, it had limited accommodation in the rear, its boot space was meagre, it was heavy, hence sluggish and its fuel mileage was therefore unimpressive. Furthermore, the perception of its styling (which was the whole point of the exercise) quickly went from must-have to not-in-your-life-buddy with neck-breaking speed.
An estate version (which wasn’t particularly more commodious, but more popular) entered the market in 1977, while the following year, a larger V8 engine lent it a good deal more poke. However, one highly unfortunate by-product of this change was the taller bonnet, which necessitated a curious and unattractive stepped grille arrangement, further undermining the Pacer’s visual appeal. Sales limped on until the model was phased out in 1980. Over five years, around 280,000 were built – a not disgraceful number, but in the context of the world’s largest car market and a $60 million development bill it can only be read as deeply disappointing.
The Pacer crucially lacked the ability to cash the cheques its appealing styling wrote, but this was largely a consequence of AMC’s cash-strapped coffers an element of project drift and an ever-shifting domestic regulatory environment. It also fell foul to the rising tide of Japanese compact imports which did the job of commuter car a good deal more capably, with less profligacy. Was the Pacer then the wrong idea or just poorly executed? One could reasonably argue both.
Unarguable however is the fact that the Pacer was in visual terms at least a good deal ahead of the curve. A brave piece of modernist automotive design (the most progressive American shape of its era?) undermined by AMC’s inability to do it justice. The Pacer deserves better than the grudging acceptance it has latterly received.
But to return to the central question of influence, any similarity to the 928 really must rationally be put to bed as convergent thinking. Porsche, then as now, ran very much at their own pace.
 GM’s rotary programme was allegedly beset with technical problems, and in light of the earlier Vega engine debacle, it was probably a mercy it never came to pass. Furthermore, it’s believed that GM, (alongside its fellow big-three rivals) were lobbying the Federal government to water-down upcoming emissions regulations in their favour. In this they were believed to have been successful.
 The Weissach technical centre was inaugurated in 1971.
 Originally from Latvia, Anatole Lapine’s family moved to Germany during the war years, before emigrating to the US in the 1950s, where he began his career with GM.
Sources: indieauto.org/ Old Cars Canada/ Ate Up With Motor/ Auto Didakt/ The Road Rat.