By the 1970s, independent automaker American Motors Corp. was slipping into design senility, which took some effort during this era of malaise cars and questionable quality.
While the big three — Ford, GM and Chrysler — had the funding to attract new talent and turn out popular vehicles able to feed the car-buying public’s appetite, AMC was like crazy Uncle Charlie who showed up at the family gatherings but never sat at the adult table. When he told a story, everyone cringed except the kids, who laughed at Uncle Charlie’s inappropriate comments. But in this case, Charlie was designing cars instead of spinning yarns.
I mean, who else would produce America’s first subcompact car and call it a Gremlin — which by definition means an imaginary mischievous sprite regarded as responsible for an unexplained problem or fault, especially a mechanical or electronic one? And if naming a car after a mysterious mechanical malady isn’t bad enough, they then went and introduced it on April Fool’s Day 1970. That’s either remarkable self-deprecating foresight or a sublime sense of humor.
But Uncle Charlie wasn’t done. For his next trick, he took a Gremlin, overinflated it and called it a Pacer. Well, maybe not literally, but it sure looks like that might be how the Pacer came about.
With 16 percent more glass than anything else on the road, it’s no wonder the Pacer became known as the fishbowl. Proportionally, it was nearly half as wide as it was long, and the passenger door was 4 inches longer than the driver’s door, to give Aunt Betty more room to climb in and out of the backseat. Unfortunately, with the same feature on models sold in Great Britain, the right-hand door was now the driver’s door and it was so long that it would frequently get caught on the curb when the oversize door was swung open.
Continuing the odd theme, AMC's engine of choice was a Wankel rotary, made popular in early Mazda vehicles. They were supposed to be smooth and powerful but in practicality, they were inefficient and problematic, and AMC eventually went with their overweight and underpowered straight six-cylinder engine. Tying the interior all together was, appropriately, loud plaid upholstery.
AMC did make a nod towards handling with standard rack and pinion steering and an optional sway bar even offering an “X” package with bucket seats, floor shifter, fancy trim, and eventually, an optional 5.0L V-8. With a base price of $3,299, the rotund Pacer cost nearly a dollar a pound. Options were plentiful and ranged from air-conditioning and fake wood sides to an AM/FM/eight-track stereo.
Safety items were also prominent in the new Pacer and AMC was trying to get ahead of the game and beat new regulations to production figuring this would give them a leg up on the competition. Built-in features like a roll bar and side-strengthening beams were incorporated but all that steel added unnecessary weight. In the end, many of the perceived regulations were subdued by lobbying efforts, anyway.
The automotive press loved the new Pacer, kind of like your friends liked wacky Uncle Charlie, but popular opinion was less than kind.
Early Pacer advertising campaigns claimed, “When you buy any other car, all you end up with is today’s car. When you get a Pacer, you get a piece of tomorrow.”
I can imagine a few critics replacing the word “tomorrow” in the ad line with something less flattering.
In four short years, the Pacer was deflated but AMC wasn’t done making quirky cars. Some, like the four-wheel drive Eagle series, showed foresight while the mid-1970s Matador coupe looked like it took its styling cues from a deep water fish.
The Pacer, like the DeLorean, lives on in memory and film when a robin's-egg blue Pacer was featured prominently in the 1992 movie “Wayne’s World” (Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody," anyone?).
The final Pacer rolled out of AMC’s plant in Kenosha, Wisc., on Dec. 3, 1979, and less than a decade later, AMC itself would be gone.
So long, Uncle Charlie — we need you back to liven up this world of gray SUVs.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 26 Portland St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies. For more, email email@example.com.