The automotive world is full of wheeled punchlines, from the Ford Pinto to the Pontiac Aztek. And you have to think Hyundai hates it when, every time they roll out a new car, some Canadian autowriter feels the need to mention the entirely disposable Pony. But, on April 1, be it determined that there has never been a bigger April Fool’s joke than the AMC Gremlin.
We’re speaking literally here. That chunky little doorstop of a car was launched on April 1, 1970. Looking backwards, it’s hard not to laugh, just as we do at all the various bad fashion decisions of the 1970s. Was AMC joking? It’d styled a car that looked like a shoe, and named it after a mythical creature associated with disastrous mechanical failure. Considering this was just three years after the so-called “Summer of Love,” clearly, somebody had been smoking something.
But the Gremlin was—good? By today’s standards, it’s as dorky as bell-bottoms and shirt lapels wide enough to land a Boeing 747 on, but AMC sold over half-a-million of these things. The Gremlin outlasted the Pinto, gained a reputation as being something of a performance bargain, and was popular among young buyers. Or at least affordable among young buyers, which amounts to the same thing.
Not bad for a car designed on a barf bag (more on that later). Considering what passes today for an April Fool’s joke from automakers – remember that whole stupid Voltswagen thing? – the Gremlin was at the very least a successful prank. It took a dose of humour and some shoestring budget engineering and created a lasting cultural impact.
To understand the Gremlin story better, we first have to take a look at the American Motors Corporation, better known as simply “AMC.” In the domestic market, there were the Big Three of Chrysler, Ford, and Chevrolet, and then there were these guys. Formed out of a mashup between Nash-Kelvinator (a combination car-and-refrigerator company) and Hudson (you might remember Doc Hudson from the Cars movies) AMC set about establishing itself as a plucky underdog. By 1966, it was losing twelve million dollars a year. Oops.
But salvation was at hand in the form of designers Dick Teague and Bob Nixon. Teague had cut his teeth styling cars at Packard, and was used to working on a budget that amounted to pocket lint. Nixon was the size of an NBA player, so being in charge of AMC’s small-car design section was a slight irony.
On a flight in the fall of 1966, Teague found himself pitching a new subcompact to then-AMC Vice President Gerry Meyers. Having neither Nixon’s concept sketches nor any other paper readily to hand, he sketched out a rough mockup on the back of an air-sickness bag. The key, he knew, was AMC building the sort of car that the bigger, more conservative automakers wouldn’t dare.
If you think this approach wouldn’t work today, then let me remind you about a certain battery-electric automaker that equipped a bunch of its cars with “fart mode.” AMC’s idea was at least less juvenile, and it was also intended to be very inexpensive. Cost-cutting couldn’t quite match the Volkswagen Beetle, but the Gremlin was within a hundred bucks of Germany’s best-seller.
Critics, which included many a bystander at a gas station, liked to point out that the Gremlin resembled an AMC Hornet with the back unceremoniously chopped off. They had a point, but AMC’s work done to shorten the Gremlin to a 2.4-metre (94.5-inch) wheelbase and four-metre (157.5-inch) overall length made it a genuine subcompact rival to the Beetle. And you got a heck of a lot more power out of a Gremlin than you did in any Volkswagen.
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The same long hood that made the Gremlin look so wonky housed one of a number of straight-six powerplants. At first these made the kind of power numbers you’d expect from the 1970s, with the 3.3L base engine pushing out just 128 hp. A couple of years into the run, a 304 c.i. (5.0L) V8 was made available. It wasn’t all that fast, but made the right sounds and spun the rear tires easily.
Further, the V8 Gremlin gave rise to a dealership-swapped version with an absolutely shocking 6.6L V8. Basically the Gremlin version of a Yenko Camaro, these handful of cars pitted 255 hp and 345 lb-ft of torque against about 1,200 kg of short-wheelbase vague-steering homely AMC hunchback subcompact. Sounds terrifying. And also fun!
The key was AMC building the sort of car that the bigger, more conservative automakers wouldn’t dare
But never mind the Gremlin’s performance aspirations, because where the car really came through was in cheap fun, a long option list, and pretty decent fuel economy from the lazy straight-sixes. This is a car that eventually came in a Levi’s special edition, complete with denim covered seats, orange stitching, and copper buttons. It seems ridiculous now, but in the 1970s it was just the sort of lighthearted treatment that got consumers’ attentions.
For a time, Gremlins were everywhere. There was a prototype hydrogen-powered one, and an experimental electric car fitted with a 15-kW electric motor and lead-acid batteries. The inventor of the Jaws of Life offered a Gremlin packed with rescue gear and branded as the Hurst Rescue System 1 as a quick-response emergency vehicle at racetracks. U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush both drove Gremlins in their youth. So did comedian Jon Stewart. At the AMC assembly plant in Brampton, Ontario, Gremlin production peaked at just under 40,000 for the 1974 model year.
Production wound down in 1978, and by the 1990s the Gremlin was popular culture shorthand for dorkiness. It got run off the road on The Simpsons and was a perennial favourite on any Top Ten Worst Cars list.
To be blunt, the Gremlin deserved some of the kicking it got. It was oddly styled, unapologetically steeped in the 1970s, cursed with a name only slightly better than calling it The AMC Lemon, and built on the cheap. Taken out of the context of its time, it’s certainly a weird little car.
But in an age when every successive generation of car seems to boast of either aggression or luxury, the attitude of the Gremlin seems like a lost art. Yes, it was launched on a day best associated with jokes and pranks. Sure, you can laugh, but it’s hard to mock something that seems to have been in on the joke the whole time. Don’t laugh at the AMC Gremlin. Laugh with it.