Convergent Visions

Pacer begets Porsche – Porsche begets Pacer. Which is it?

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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[1], 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.

vehicledynamicsinternational

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.

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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.

1977 Porsche 928. Rennlist

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.

Porsche’s 1973 FLA concept. Jalopnik

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[2] 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[3], 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.

Believed to date from 1973, a 928 styling prototype. Via Pinterest

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.

consumer guide auto

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.

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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.

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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.

[1] 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. 

[2] The Weissach technical centre was inaugurated in 1971.

[3] 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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

28 thoughts on “Convergent Visions”

  1. Harris Mann’s sketches for Austin’s abortive AD074 at the turn of the 1970s looked very much like the FLA / Pacer, plus the three door Chevette: http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/concepts/concepts-and-prototypes/supermini-projects-ado74/

    Like any type of design, car styling does not exist in a vacuum. The design world is incestuous, with personnel jumping ship left, right and centre, regurgitating ad nauseam titbits they have seen on draughtsman’s tables and pinned on studio walls. This would also account for cases of simultaneous invention, such as the mark 1 Toyota RAV 4 and Landrover Freelander, two cars from entirely dissociated companies that appeared at the same time and in very similar forms.

    1. Whoa, that’s quite some sagging window lines in your link…

      Thanks for reminding us of two cars I like a lot. One of them I can see whenever I go down to our garage – but unfortunately it’s my neighbour’s, not mine.

    2. It´s not such a surprise the RAV4 and Freelander appeared at the same time as the market research might have led to the same conclusion. What is more curious is stark visual similarities. Incidentally, I didn´t realise the RAV4 was the same kind of thing as the Freelander (it looks so different!).

    3. I don’t know about the CR-V, but I know for a fact that the first-generation HR-V originally was a Freelander proposal (by Don Wyatt) that was handed over to Honda as part of the divorce settlement.

    4. Just a thought: nowadays the automobile, like in 1973, is facing a crossroad. Porsche´s answer was the FLA, a car designed for long life, low ownership costs and easy maintenance. That can´t be bad for the environment, I suppose, no matter what we can think about the FLA´s styling (and I read somewhere that it wasn´t too well received).

      Today´s answer are electric cars with a suspect long term battery life and desgined to be leased-replaced 3 years later-flogged to a hapless second owner- discarded 7 or 8 years later when the cost of battery replacement is bigger that its residual value. I´m not very sure what´s the most adequate solution if we really care about environmental sustainability…

  2. Anatole Lapine has admitted that his design of the 928 was influenced by the Pacer. “Influenced” leaves many possibilities open. It could have been by acquaintance with Teague or Nixon. He may have seen early drawings of the concept. He may have looked at the production model and thought it was a brilliant concept, poorly executed, and corrected the errors.

    1. Where did you find such a statement? I’d be genuinely intrigued to know the source.

      Unless Teague and Lapine were best chums that would share sketches very early on in the design process (which would’ve been unlikely to please their respective employers), there’s no way for the Pacer to have had an influence on the 928’s design. The 928’s exterior was approved in 1973, two years before the Pacer was introduced.

      Both the Pacer and the 928 are more likely to owe certain stylistic ideas to Giugiaro’s Testudo, I’d argue.
      http://www.classicdriver.com/sites/default/files/styles/article_full/public/article_images/chevrolet_corvair_testudo_5.jpg?itok=MYcFrKog

  3. What a shame AMC didn’t have the resources to realise the Pacer concept properly. I lighter, more efficient engine (but not a Wankel) might have transformed its chances, especially against the execrable Chevrolet Vega and indifferent Ford Pinto.

    Here’s a nice photo of the Pacer:

    Imagine it for a moment with properly integrated bumpers, instead of the “free-standing for maximum protection” boasted about in the annotated image in the piece.

    The facelift front end was, however, unspeakably awful:

  4. The Sketch Monkey has produced the following update on the Pacer, which is rather nice:

    1. It’s the ‘C’ pillar that kills it for me – the way the rear quarter windows wrap way too far around the tail.
      (and the asymmetrical doors, of course….)

  5. PhotoShopped Pacer with integrated bumpers:

    And bodyside bump-strips removed for a cleaner look:

    1. Well done, Daniel. I like the Sketch Monkey’s effort too, apart from the wheels. I remember the Pacer from my childhood days, not that there were many around, but they were so different and distinctive from other cars that even then I had a soft spot for them. The interior was quite conservative to my young eyes.

    2. Agreed, Freerk. Would that AMC followed the influences Daniel offered in his Photoshopped renderings and not the standard “tack more on” influences that resulted in the bechromed, fake-wooded, hood-ornamented version they offered later Pacer customers.

      I remember reading early articles about the Pacer that implied its brief was to give American car buyers everything they enjoyed about being in the front seat of their favorite full-sized car without the need to haul around a little-used back seat and many feet (and pounds) of bodywork. In that respect, I think the Pacer was a successful design. Unfortunately, loss of the much smaller Wankel engine and an inability to substitute an engine that could even suggest V8-in-a-full-sized-car performance dinged some of the svelte lines and fuel economy AMC would have welcomed in the early 70s American automobile market. It’s a shame they chose to revert to their usual styling form, making the car an even less attractive proposition.

    3. Pretty effective, the Pacer in better circumstances could have benefited from being produced in place of the AMC Gremlin as well as reconceived as a lighter more practical cost-effective yet less ambitious 3/5-door Kammback rear derivative of the AMC Hornet/Concord with the same width and reduced glass area.

  6. Neat work, Daniel. Your last attempt has revealed some hidden beauty to the forlorn Pacer. This new version should sit nicely today; bright, airy, left field, unaggressive. Have to agree with you on the factory update, too. That grille is hideous, an over bearing portcullis that puts even the Allegro van den plas to shame.

    Here’s one up for grabs, Stateside: https://classics.autotrader.com/classic-cars/1977/amc/pacer/101457918

    And as a fascinated outsider desperately peering in – the car industry using skullduggery tactics? People talk and make mistakes. Modern electric devices just make things easier and faster. There’s a Yorkshire phrase about this by having an egg under your cap. Otherwise known as red faces, sheepish or foolish expressions. And clearing the mess up is a ghastly business.

    And up to press, had no clue as to the FLA. Once again, DTW leads the educational route.

  7. I’m really enjoying this extended jaunt through America’s back catalogue of motoring. Two Pacer thoughts;

    Don’t ideas emerge simultaneously when the time is right? It would seem to me that the impetus for the Pacer and Porsche glazing probaly lies with Zagato’s wierd Lancia Flavia coupe and the following years Jenson FF/ Interceptor. The Zagato is the earliest car I’m aware of with curved side glass, whilst the Jenson’s standout feature was it’s one piece glazed fastback tail. Both cars would have done the rounds of the motorshows at about the same time and I can envisage AMC and Porsche staff seeing these and thinking “We can use these but not like that”.

    The Pacer was a bit of a third way car, no? I’m under the impression that the 1970’s motoring landscape in the US was cleaved in two. There were traditional big country cars for long straight roads and hostile climate where fuel economy played second fiddle to the knowledge that you could limp across the desert to safety and get the car repaired without any fuss in the nearest village. Whilst there were import supermini’s like the Civic and I suppose Beetle that appealed to metropolitan people on limited incomes who needed to complete a regular urban commute. Driving from Denver to Austin in July- or December- was never going to be an issue for them and they chose their steeds accordingly. The Pacer was an arrempt to do both; short wheelbase, lots of elbow room, (More acceptable) fuel economy and a known quantity destressed engine and drive train. AMC probably hoped there were 2.8m people who needed a car like that. There probably was when they started designing but wasn’t this the era when Southwest Airlines started the low cost flight revolution? By the time the Pacer was launched you could leave your little car at home and fly instead. Perhaps this explains only 280,000 finding homes.

  8. It’s got ‘Husky drum brakes’ – I’ll take one, then. It’s got a 22 gallon tank, too; mind you, it’d need one if it did 14 – 16 mpg (US) / 15 litres per 100 km.

    Here’s a brief contemporary review. I must say I like these, but the one thing I really value in the UK / Europe is slimmer cars in old towns and cities. Less of a problem in the US, though.

    1. Charles: Porsche’s Pasha (Pascha), or checkerboard (Schachbrett) upholstery is credited to Scotsman, Dawson Sellar, who worked alongside Möbius on the 928’s interior. It’s marvellous, isn’t it?

    2. I think the Pasha looks much better when the front headrests and full rear seats are thusly upholstered. I don’t know why there would be a “half” version as shown above, which is not as I recall. I am pleased to offer the following correction:

    3. It is – a literal work of art. Dawson Sellar sounds very interesting.

    4. The 928 upholstery is, of course, a classic, but the Pacer’s is really rather jolly. It rather reminds me of Native American fabric patterns. I like it!

    5. Apologies upfront for acting as the party pooper on this occasion, but I do wonder why Dawson Sellar’s role, with all due respect, seems to be so exaggerated by posterity.

      Having talked with those members of the 928 design team still with us over the past few years, I must stress that the 928’s cabin wasn’t Sellar’s design, as is widely reported, but the work of Hans Braun, who’d become BMW head of interior design under Claus Luthe in the ’80s.

      Similarly, the Pascha pattern was created by visual artist, Erich Strenger, and adopted as an interior fabric at the behest of Tony Lapine himself, against considerable opposition. What, if any role Dawson Sellar played in this I don’t know – but it certainly wasn’t of much significance.

  9. Ah, Dawson Sellar. I wish I’d had the nerve to track him down when he was still with us. Contemporary of Peter Stevens at the RCA, did work for Ford before his German career:

    https://www.britishpathe.com/video/new-city-car

    At Porsche from 1970, his 924 proposal was rejected in favour of Harm Lagaay’s. Moved to BMW in ’77 working on motorcycles, then gave it all up and returned to Scotland setting up a small industrial design studio in Dundrennan, near Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. Unlike the Callums, he wasn’t a D&G native, having grown up in Edinburgh.

    Died far too early in 2015, at the age of around 70.

  10. Another Pacer/Porsche similarity that occurred to me when viewing the pictures here: the rear lights and front indicators of the Pacer, slightly reminiscing those of the 911. It even becomes a bit more obvious in Sketch Monkey’s proposal. This time, the timeline is a bit clearer…

    By the way, I really love the crazy interior trims presented here. I couldn’t help but look up Pacers in Autoscout after reading the article, and I found a nice blue estate in Switzerland, with what must then be “Blueberry Basketry Print”, i.e. the same as above, but in blue instead of red.

  11. Bonjour les amis

    Cette Pacer est vraiment spéciale, il faut la voir en vrai pour apprécier sa … gentille laideur.
    Beaucoup trop large, le hayon descend trop bas, les roues sont trop rentrées dans la carrosserie …
    A Paris, un importateur branché en a vendu (peut-etre ?) environ 200/400 !
    La pub avec Brigitte Bardot :

    Sinon, moi elle m’a également rappelée les esquisses de la Renault 5 , qui date de 1967 :

    Chose amusante, regardez également en haut à droite l’autre dessin, l’arrière fait penser à la Gremlin AMC, non ?

    Et AMC a été vendu à Renault … la boucle est bouclée

    Google translate:
    Hello friends 😀

    This Pacer is really special, you have to see it for real to appreciate its … sweet ugliness.
    Much too wide, the tailgate goes down too low, the wheels are too deep in the body …
    In Paris, a trendy importer has sold (maybe?) Around 200!
    The ad with Brigitte Bardot:

    Otherwise, she also reminded me of the sketches of the Renault 5, which dates from 1967:

    Funny thing, also look at the top right the other drawing, the back looks like the Gremlin AMC, right?

    And AMC was sold to Renault … the circle has come full circle

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