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Terrible Cars That Weren’t Terrible: The AMC Gremlin

Dorky? Yes. Cheap? Definitely. Terrible? Not the Gremlin!

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographerBring a TrailerPhotographer

The AMC Gremlin seems to pop up on a lot of lists of terrible cars—but was the Gremlin really as terrible as some might have us believe? We say no. Look back at the car's history, and you'll see that the Gremlin was a winner.

To be fair, it's easy to see why the Gremlin has attracted history's ire. The Gremlin was a response to the imported cars that were invading America's shores—small cars that were light, efficient, easy to park and of notably better quality than the domestics. Though American Motors had always specialized in compact cars, the sudden need for a subcompact could not have come at a worse time for AMC. It was the smallest of what was then called the Big Four, and cash was in short supply, as it was developing the all-new Hornet and had just spent $70 million to buy Jeep from Kaiser-Fraiser.

AMC Gremlin Design & Production

In retrospect, AMC's design for an import fighter seems an unlikely recipe for success. The Gremlin was derived from the Hornet, which was itself a fairly conventional car. The Gremlin's design details included existing cam-in-block straight-six engines and a live rear axle suspended by leaf springs. By comparison, General Motors was pouring money into the new Chevrolet Vega, developing not only a new four-cylinder engine and coil-spring rear suspension, but new technologies for rustproofing and transportation. Even Ford's new Pinto, a somewhat conventional design, had a four-cylinder overhead-camshaft engine, albeit a hand-me-down from Ford's European division. In order to keep the price down, AMC fitted the Gremlin with four-wheel drum brakes and a three-speed transmission that lacked a synchronizer for first gear. Even the back seat was optional.

AMC was aware that build quality was an issue for the domestics, so in order to keep the body shell stiff, it decided not to fit a hatchback or a trunk lid. Instead, what little cargo space the Gremlin had was accessed by lifting the rear window—on four-seat Gremlins, that is. On two-seat "commuter" Gremlins, the rear window was fixed in place.

And then there was the styling. The Gremlin was meant to be a subcompact car, but it was made from mechanical bits intended for larger vehicles. There was little opportunity to shrink the front end, as GM had done with the Chevy Vega and Ford with the Pinto—so AMC simply lopped off the back end.

So, yes, when you look at the Gremlin's design and gestation, it would appear to be a pretty terrible car.

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AMC Gremlin Sales Success: Buyer Preferences, Price

But the Gremlin wasn't terrible—at least buyers of the time didn't think so. Introduced on April Fool's Day, 1970, AMC sold 25,300 Gremlins in that abbreviated first year. The Gremlin's first full year of sales was 1971, but by then it was facing competition from the Vega and Pinto—and yet still sales doubled. GM might well scoff at that number; after all, it sold 278,000 Vegas in 1971 and nearly 400,000 in 1972. But by AMC's standards, the Gremlin was a strong seller. By 1979—the year it morphed into the Spirit—AMC had sold 671,475 Gremlins, making it the second-best-selling car in AMC's history behind the Hornet.

So why did buyers like the Gremlin, when in hindsight it looks like such a heap?

For one thing, the mindset of car buyers was different in the early 1970s. Domestic cars ruled the market, and while Volkswagens were selling strongly—albeit with its aficionados often derided as long-haired weirdos—Japanese cars were still a novelty, and "Made in Japan" had the same cachet as "Made in China" does today. Weight and gravity-induced stability were held in high regard, and the Gremlin had the same familiar heavy-on-the-road feel as a traditional Detroit land yacht.

And yet this was also a time when buyer attitudes were shifting. Car magazines of the time lamented the ballooning dimensions of "standard-sized" American cars, and the idea of protecting our ecology was just starting to go mainstream. To that end, the Gremlin's short length—nearly as small as the Volkswagen Beetle—came as a welcome relief. And while the base engine, a 3.3-liter cam-in-block cast-iron straight-six, would hardly strike the modern driver as an economy engine, it was a lot more frugal than the big-block V-8s of the era. It also made the Gremlin significantly quicker than the Beetle and the Pinto, even with an automatic transmission. It also offered an optional 3.8-liter six, and drivers found the extra power comforting. Even the dorky shape was seen as a positive, a welcome departure from traditional cars, and recognition that society was changing rapidly.

But the Gremlin's best attribute may have been its price. AMC put the bare-bones two-seat Gremlin on the market for $1,879 (about $12,500 in 2020 dollars), while the four-seat model listed for $1,959 ($12,950). For comparison, a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle listed for $1,839 ($12,150), while the Pinto listed for $1,919 ($12,680) and the Vega started at $2,090 ($13,800).

AMC Gremlin and the OPEC Oil Embargo

Though the Gremlin got a strong start, its best days were still ahead. On October 19, 1973, the 12 OPEC countries stopped exporting oil to the United States. Fuel prices soared, gasoline was rationed, and long lines formed at gas stations. By this time, it had become obvious that Chevy's Vega was plagued by quality and design problems. Ford's Pinto was faring better, though complaints about its tendency to burst into flames when rear-ended were just starting to trickle in. The Gremlin, built with proven, low-tech machinery, was about as close to bulletproof as an American-built subcompact was going to get. Sales exploded, totaling 122,844 for 1973 and 171,128 for 1974—monster numbers for little AMC.

Sales cooled as a recession hit the economy in 1975, but remained steady through the late 1970s, buoyed by some nifty special editions and the addition of a Volkswagen-sourced four-cylinder base engine in 1977. In 1979, AMC revamped the Gremlin and renamed it Spirit, adding a longer two-door body option with a conventional hatchback. The Spirit looked modern, and its old-tech mechanical bits were seen as "proven"—a positive attribute as America plunged head-first into the computer age. AMC would go so far as to add four-wheel-drive to create the AMC Eagle Kammback. You could say that the Gremlin lived on in Spirit (heh), serving AMC well until it was replaced with the Renault-designed Encore.

AMC Gremlin: Not a Terrible Car

While it's easy to dismiss the Gremlin as a bad car, history tells us otherwise. Cheap and simple as its design may have been, the Gremlin was the right car for a changing market, and it served both American Motors Corporation and its buyers very, very well.

1970 AMC Gremlin specifications
ENGINE: 3.3L DOHC 12-valve I-6/128 hp @ 4,400 rpm, 182 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 3-speed automatic
LAYOUT: 2-door, 2-4 passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
L x W x H: 161.3 x 70.6 x 51.8 in
WHEELBASE: 96.0 in
WEIGHT: 2,497 lb
0-60 MPH: 15.8 sec
TOP SPEED 95 mph