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Awfully glorious? The AMC Gremlin turns 50

Awfully glorious or gloriously awful? We’re still not quite sure of our verdict on the AMC Gremlin

© FCA

By Richard Bremner, Autocar


So here’s what a gremlin is, according to the Collins’ English dictionary:

“1. An imaginary imp jokingly said to be responsible for mechanical troubles in aircraft, especially in World War II. 2. Any mischievous troublemaker.”

If you were going to give a car a name, and you were a manufacturer of cheap cars fashioned on some of the tightest budgets in the car industry, ‘Gremlin’ might not quite make it to the top of your find-a-new-name list.

But that’s what American Motors Corporation did, with an all-new car launched 50 years ago today – on April Fool’s Day, perhaps appropriately. Let’s explore this most curious of American cars.


Beating the Big Three

© FCA

AMC launched the car to a not entirely unstunned nation in 1970. American Motors startled its colleagues at GM, Ford and Chrysler too.

For this struggling minnow of a car maker, inelegantly battened together from the remains of former greats such as Packard and Studebaker and Nash, had beaten them to the showroom floor with a shiny new sub-compact to battle the Volkswagen Beetle.


Beating the Beetle

© FCA

The Beetle was selling faster than Big Macs with free fries in ’60s America, giving Detroit’s Big Three – and AMC – lots to worry about.  Previous attempts to fend VW off with the Ford Falcon and Chevrolet Corvair had sold well, but the Beetle’s popularity swelled unabated because these compacts weren’t compact enough.


The plan

© FCA

So while the Big Three worked on new designs to take on the Germans, legendarily cash-starved American Motors, surviving only by selling cars niche enough that its rivals wouldn’t bother counter-attacking, had a plan.

Or, to be more accurate, its slick-spoken designer, Richard Teague (1923-1991), (who apparently chirped “We’re spending money like we have it”) hatched a plan on a Detroit-bound flight in 1966.


AMX GT

© FCA

To make a smaller car, he reasoned, why not take a slice through the rear end of a bigger one? Reaching for the nearest piece of paper to hand – a sick bag – he started sketching, and the Gremlin was born.

Though not quite that quickly; Teague’s thoughts appeared first as the 1968 AMX GT concept (pictured), a stylish Kamm-tailed coupé based on the new Javelin coupé that didn’t make production. Undaunted, Teague applied his idea to AMC’s new Hornet saloon.


Back-sliced

© FCA

The results were just as dramatic, although there was a slight shortfall in X-factor appeal. The Gremlin’s rear end appeared to have been brutally amputated by guillotine – an angled and totally unwavering slice cut from roof to bumper – and its startling truncation was only partly rescued by huge, pyramid-like rear pillars.

This abruptly cut tail was capped with a bold casting of a big-eared, goblin-like character, so that every time you opened the glass hatch you’d confront a gremlin on your Gremlin, a handy reminder that you’d bought something very, very weird.


Understeer

© FCA

The standard motor was an in-line six – the economy variant – and AMC soon couldn’t resist stuffing in a V8, earning the sawn-off shopper Gremlin X decals (pictured) and a wonderfully misleading ad sign-off suggesting that “if you want it any racier, paint a number on the door”.

Motor Trend thought otherwise: “The Gremlin with the V8 in it lays absolute claims to America’s understeer crown.” 


Dreams

© FCA

These days the Gremlin’s glorious awfulness is outpointed by its Pacer sister, another Teague inspiration that got distorted in the cash-strapped mix. But squint – or take a look at the AMX GT – and you can see what he was dreaming of.

Total Gremlin sales of 641,475 over eight years sounds reasonable, until you remember the Beetle shifted that many in a single year in the 60s. It remains an interesting AMC innovation, but still not enough to stop the rot and the company lost its independence to first Renault (in 1983) and then passed to Chrysler, in 1987.

See more at: Autocar

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Autos Magazine: Awfully glorious? The AMC Gremlin turns 50
Awfully glorious? The AMC Gremlin turns 50
Awfully glorious or gloriously awful? We’re still not quite sure of our verdict on the AMC Gremlin
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