Junkyard Tour: The Jeep, Eagle, and 4WD Vehicles That Staved Off AMC's Death
Some of these models have faded into obscurity, but that doesn't mean they're not significant.
Steve Magnante is a hot rod historian, author, and lover of all things cars. On Roadkill's Junkyard Gold, he travels the country uncovering the forgotten and hidden gems of the automotive world. Subscribe to the MotorTrend app for $1 per month to start binge-watching today!
Steve Magnante, host of Roadkill's Junkyard Gold, is outside Rambler Ranch in Elizabeth, Colorado, looking for four-wheel-drive vehicles from AMC (American Motors Corporation). When most people familiar with the history of the American automotive industry think of AMC and 4x4s, the legendary Jeep CJ-5 is the first vehicle that comes to mind. But Steve prefers more obscure vehicles, and so none of the cool Jeeps he's checking out at Rambler Ranch are CJ-5s. He's also going to look at Eagle, the brand AMC created to bring affordable 4WD to the masses—and, along with Jeep, gave them the traction (pun absolutely intended) the automaker needed to survive. Wait, survive? Didn't AMC die out?
It did, but not until the 1980s. In 1970, with the fading of the muscle car era, AMC—which later would be absorbed into Chrysler—needed something new to boost its sales numbers and keep a grip on its already small market share in the U.S. AMC acquired the Jeep brand from failing Kaiser Jeep for $70 million, a move that helped bolster AMC's sales and further build on the reputation of the legendary off-road vehicles. The Jeep brand came with lucrative government contracts for postal and military vehicles, as well as an international sales network that would help keep AMC alive through the 1970s before fading out the following decade. So, join us (and Steve) for a visual junkyard tour of the Jeep and Eagle vehicles that (briefly) saved AMC:
1978 Jeep DJ-5 Dispatcher
The ubiquitous postal van many of us are familiar with is not a simple make-over of a CJ-5. The DJ was not 4WD, a trait the Jeep brand is famously synonymous with, though the DJ-5 retained its off-road brother's leaf-spring front suspension. (To reduce manufacturing costs a non-driven tube axle held the tires in place.) AMC did keep the limited-slip Dana 35 out back; the Post Office needed that extra traction for those "rain and sleet" occasions mentioned in their unofficial motto. DJ-5 postal vans also were right-hand drive, shortening the distance postal workers had to cover between mailboxes and their vehicles, and included integral steel roofs—Jeep CJs and subsequent Wranglers are famous for their removable fabric or fiberglass tops. Other differences between the DJ and CJ include the five-slat grille in place of civilian Jeeps' seven-slat grille, and the two Jeeps' shared bodywork is actually limited only to their hoods and front fenders.
Where the CJ is a traditional body-on-frame vehicle, the DJ-5 has a unitized chassis and body with light-duty frame rails welded to the bottom of the steel body. Early DJs were powered by AMC's 258-cubic-inch straight-six engine, but to reduce cost and increase fuel efficiency, that engine was replaced by an Audi-sourced carbureted 2.0-liter four-cylinder. By the late 1970s, AMC spun off its government contracts into another brand, AM General, which continued building postal vans and, later, the venerable M998 HMMWV, aka Humvee.
1973 Jeep J4000 Pickup
Jeep didn't only make the CJ-5. In the Willys-Overland and Kaiser Jeep days, they made SUVs, pickup trucks, vans, and even a roadster (dubbed the Jeepster). AMC wanted to capitalize on Jeep's pickup-truck and SUV prowess, and the first job was renaming the Gladiator series of pickups the J-series. Yes, that original name is where FCA got the (sorta) Wrangler pickup's Gladiator nameplate used today. Unlike their counterparts from the Big 3, all Jeep J-series trucks were four-wheel-drive. The truck pictured being a 3/4-ton model, out back it was equipped with the awesome Dana 60 rear-axle—made famous on Hemi 'Cudas and Road Runners in the late 1970s. This '73 also had old-school manually locking front hubs, meaning it predates Quadratrac—the first full-time all-wheel-drive system available in America and only found on AMC vehicles. Drivers used to have to get out of their vehicles and turn the knobs on manual locking hubs to engage the front tires.
Under the hood, we find the stout 360-cubic-inch V-8 with a 2-barrel carburetor on top. This truck was one year short of getting AMC's awesome 401-ci V-8 with a 4-barrel. If Steve took this Jeep home, he would return it to its factory original glory—freshen up the avocado-green paint, keep the Dana 60 and manual transfer case and remind people that AMC Jeeps weren't just CJs and Grand Wagoneers.
Eagle Brought 4WD Vehicles to the Masses
By 1980, AMC was struggling once again, and was in desperate need of something fresh. The success of the Jeep brand wasn't enough to make up for the floundering sales of its outdated passenger cars, so AMC decided that 4WD was the way to go and created the Eagle brand. The ultimate exercise in badge-engineering and parts-binning—Eagle took five of AMC's existing rear-wheel-drive passenger vehicles, jacked up their ride heights by 4.0 inches and crammed four-wheel-powered drivetrains underneath them in a move that helped keep AMC solvent until Chrysler bought the company in 1987.
AMC didn't need to do much to build their passenger-vehicle 4WD systems. No matter the model, subcompact through full-size, all Eagle vehicles had the same rear suspension and driveline components as the Jeep CJ-5. The front was slightly different. It used the same Dana 30 differential as the CJ-5, albeit combined with stub-axles and CV joints that allowed for better-riding independent front suspension. To create the necessary space for the 4WD systems, AMC went the easy route and simply attached all the driveline and suspension components 4.0 inches lower on the chassis—a $0 investment in development. To cover the huge gaps left between the fender lips and tires and fill some of the space under the body, AMC attached fender flares and runner panels made of Kraton. The Kraton bodywork was lightweight, flexible, and wasn't prone to cracking in cold weather like fiberglass was. This worked out well for AMC as most Eagles were destined for wintery roads.
1981 Eagle Kammback Coupe
Priced at $5,995, the Eagle Kammback Coupe was the bottom of the barrel in the Eagle line. Based on the AMC Gremlin, the Kammback Coupe didn't have much going for it, at least visually. Interior upholstery was all vinyl, the base engine was an 88-hp 2.5L inline-four, and upgrade options were minimal. This yielded very low sales numbers. Only 5,603 total cars built. But the Kammback Coupe was successful at bringing customers into dealerships with its low starting price, helping salespeople pull the ol' bait-'n'-switch and convince them to buy a more premium model, like the Spirit or Wagon. If Steve wanted to restore this Kammback, he would recall the spirit of the 1971 Gremlin X with its 300-hp 304-ci V-8. Between that and the Selectrac AWD all Eagles come with, this Kammback would embarrass the heck out of a classic Audi Quattro.
1981 Eagle Wagon
The top of the Eagle line was the Wagon. Coming standard with cloth-insert seats, a tilt steering column, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, plush 18-ounce carpet flooring, and the Eagle-ubiquitous Selectrac 4WD—the $9,500 Wagon was a great deal compared to similarly sized vehicles from Chrysler, Ford and GM. It was more stylish, too. Because of the 4WD system, the EPA classified Eagles as light trucks, exempting them from the ugly 5-mph bumpers required on all passenger vehicles in the 1980s. Under the hood of this dilapidated example sits the optional 258-ci inline-six. This Wagon was not fast, but with its 3,600-pound curb weight and 4WD, it had plenty of traction in the snow and ice—which was the whole point. If Steve wanted this wagon to live in his driveway, he would give it the power it always deserved, a 401-ci V8 with a shot of nitrous to light up all four tires when ever he wanted. Or he could go a different route, still with a 401 but mild, doubling the stock power and capability of this go-anywhere/do-anything family hauler.
While AMC struggled throughout its history to remain relevant and keep hold of its share of American car sales, it is responsible for developing some of the most innovative and ground-breaking vehicles of the 1970s and 1980s. Selectrac made 4WD available those who didn't want a truck or SUV and was affordable to boot. Quadratrac was the first full-time 4WD system where drivers didn't have to get out the vehicle to engage drive on the front tires. If it weren't for AMC, the Jeep brand might have disappeared with Kaiser Motors into obscurity and we can lay the popularity (or blame?) of small, affordable 4WD family cars squarely at their feet. Instead, Chrysler swooped in and nabbed Jeep—and the brand is doing its part (along with Ram Trucks) today to keep Fiat Chrysler moving, just as it helped AMC.