How One of History's Dorkiest Cars—the AMC Gremlin—Became a Sales Success
Funny-looking and developed on the cheap, the Gremlin was pure corporate brilliance.
Few cars have more ignoble roots than the AMC Gremlin. It was named for the mythical creatures said to be responsible for crashing airplanes and breaking machinery. It was introduced to the public on April Fool's Day. And as for the styling, AMC design chief Dick Teague made his first sketch of the car on the back of a Northwest Orient Airlines barf bag.
And yet for all that, the Gremlin was arguably AMC's smartest car: It was inexpensive to develop and its timing was perfect.
The Gremlin was part of an uncoordinated response to the onslaught of the imports. GM and Ford were developing their first-ever subcompact cars, the Vega and the Pinto, but AMC didn't have that kind of cash. It was already shoulder-deep in the development of the 1970 Hornet compact, and it had just spent $70 million to buy Kaiser Motors' money-losing Jeep division. Whatever they developed had to be done on the cheap, and cutting down the Hornet seemed the most cost-effective method. The best way for the car to distinguish itself was through styling.
Teague was realistic about the way the car looked. He was surprisingly candid a 1970 interview with our sister publication MotorTrend: "I don't think the Gremlin's going to win any styling awards," he said. "But at least the car has personality and character and it has a different-looking little image. It isn't just another little funny-looking sedan. It's a cute little wagon that looks like it'll do the job that we intend for it to do."
Teague went on to explain the development of the Gremlin's profile. "We did two runs on two different cars—one, strangely enough, called the Wasp, which is nothing more than an absolute chop of the Hornet, a 12-inch section out of the wheelbase. We could have used the Hornet decklids and hoods and a lot of other things. But it was just a little sedan, a little two-door sedan with minimal room in the back and not really very good looking. If you're going to do a mini anything, it ought to be a mini wagon."
From a mechanical standpoint, the Gremlin was as ordinary as its styling was extraordinary—in fact, one of the most stunning things about the Gremlin is its complete lack of technical innovation. GM was developing new materials, manufacturing processes, and shipping methods (vertical packing!) for the Vega. Contrast that to the Hornet, which looked thoroughly modern but was using chassis and driveline components from the Rambler American it was meant to replace. The Hornet's hand-me-downs were handed down to the Gremlin: Cam-in-block straight-six engines, four-wheel drum brakes, and a three-speed manual transmission that lacked a synchronized first gear. The compacted rear suspension was one place where innovation might have been called for, but AMC simply shortened the Hornet's longitudinal leaf springs, making the Gremlin's back end prone to skipping sideways while cornering.
In fact, the Gremlin's one advantage—its super-stiff body shell and resulting rattle-free ride—was the result of more cost-cutting, as the Gremlin had no trunklid. The back window was hinged on four-seat models, but on low-end Gremlins, which lacked a back seat, luggage had to come in through the doors. When MT asked about the lack of a tailgate, Teague explained, "Several reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that we felt that being within 1½-inch of a Pontiac trunk liftover was more than enough. It also gives us a much more rugged little car. As a matter of fact, I was talking to the guys that are putting them together, and they say it's the most rugged car we've ever built. The thing is like an integrated, welded-up steel box. If we had a tailgate across there, where the gas tank filler is and the taillights are located, it would be a weaker car."
You might expect buyers to have seen through the Gremlin's cheaply developed façade, but its simple engineering may well have given the Gremlin an edge. Eric Dahlquest, writing up MT's first drive of the Gremlin, summarized the zeitgeist of the time: "The mood of the country is different, too, almost totally dissimilar from a decade ago. Pollution, explosive population, urban decay, inflation, war—somehow the familiar, ponderous, tinseled automobile is no longer relevant, except as a curio of a past we can hardly remember. We seem to have looked into the abyss of capitalistic excess—asked what it really got us except the brink of destroying the nation—and began to turn back to functionalism."
And the Gremlin certainly was functional. For one thing, it was the first modern American car that was truly as small as the Beetle, being within a couple of inches of the VW in length and wheelbase. (For comparison, the Ford Maverick was nearly two feet longer.) It was several inches wider, which made it feel like a bigger car—because from the A-pillar forward, it literally was a bigger car. Of course it weighed more than the VW by 760 pounds, nearly half again as much, but it was a hell of a lot quicker, nearly as fuel-efficient, and its American-size 21-gallon gas tank took it significantly farther on fill-ups. It even had a tighter turning circle than the Beetle.
And it was cheap: The cheapest 1970 Gremlin, with the smaller of two sixes, a three-speed column-shift manual, no back seat, and no hatch lid, listed for $1,879, right in the same neighborhood as the Volkswagen. To put that in perspective, a bare-bones 1970 Chevrolet Nova started at $2,335, and the Vega would debut in September with a $2,090 price tag.
Buyers took an immediate liking to the Gremlin. It was more powerful than the Beetle and other imports, and felt like a more substantial car. Its simple machinery made it quite reliable by contemporary standards. And people actually seemed to like its dorky looks, enough to ignore the choppy ride, tiny back seat, and negligible luggage space.
In 1971, AMC introduced the Gremlin X, presaging what would become a trend later in the 1970s: the "all show, no go" pseudo performance package. The X package added fancy wheels, big tape stripes, and a jazzed-up interior, but no performance improvements over other Gremlins. AMC added a V-8 option in 1972, because America, and the faux-denim-upholstered Levis Edition appeared in 1973. But the Gremlin's best sales tool may have been OPEC: Thanks largely to the fuel crisis, 1974 was the Gremlin's best sales year. Production continued through 1978, after which the Gremlin was reborn as the AMC Spirit.
Today the Gremlin is idolized as a piece of 1970s kitsch, and deservedly so. And while it's easy to be cynical about the Gremlin's humble, hurried roots, history has proven that AMC's move was the right one. Think about it: The Vega is remembered today for its rapidly rusting body and self-destructing engine. The Pinto is known for self-immolation. Only the Gremlin was a true success story. AMC built 671,475 Gremlins between 1970 and 1978. That's a drop in the bucket compared to other automakers—Chevrolet built more full-size cars in 1970 alone—but it was enough to make the Gremlin the second-bestselling car in AMC's history.
Happily, appreciation for the Gremlin started fairly early; by the early 1990s they had already started to attract a following. Gremlins are mechanically robust and not much more rust-prone than other cars of the era, and as they've been all but ignored by serious collectors, it's not hard to find a nice example for a reasonable price. The bright-red Gremlin X you see in the provided photos is a 1977 model auctioned on Bring a Trailer with 57,000 miles, fresh paint, reupholstered front seats, and a rebuilt engine. It sold in 2018 for less than 10 grand; it's on the block again and last we checked was on track for perhaps another four-figure sale. At that price, it'd be worth buying this Gremlin as a sensible daily driver—just like when it was new.