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Car Lust--AMC Gremlin X

Gremlin1 It's hard to be a fan of the AMC Gremlin. Not only was it an awful car, but it was so famous for being awful that even when you think you've found another beleaguered Gremlin addict, they invariably turn the knife by smirking, winking, and saying, "Sure, I think the Gremlin is awesome!"

You know a car is terrible when the only people to profess to like it are really only claiming it to enhance their own ironic slumming hipness. I can't really judge them; I've hidden behind the faux-irony defense many times when my buddies start to sneer at my ridiculously poor taste in cars.

I really do like the Gremlin, though--and to examine why is to delve into my bad-car pathology.

Gremlin2 For one thing, the Gremlin is the ultimate underdog--and it was built by AMC, the ultimate underdog automaker. For another, I actually quite like the styling. And, perhaps most compelling, the Gremlin never gets any credit for being one of the first primitive spores that would eventually evolve into the advanced life form now known as hot hatchbacks.

Let's start with the styling. The Gremlin looks like a big 1970s AMC sedan--big grille, large front overhang, high stance--that had an unfortunate buttocks amputation. That first impression is an accurate one. The Gremlin fundamentally is a big 1970s AMC sedan transformed into an ersatz economy car by the simple expedient of chopping off the trunk and rear doors in the most un-subtle way possible. The interesting footnote here is that the Kamm-back quasi-hatchback rear end was actually considered a very sporty look in the 1970s; that is, until the Gremlin adopted it and ruined it for everybody.

Gremlin3 The thing is, the Gremlin actually looks pretty good to me. In Gremlin X trim, with nicer wheels and stripes, and often white-letter tires, the its big-car grille and funky profile make it look a bit like an ersatz muscle car with a receding hairline and a posture problems. It's a weird-looking car, to be sure, but endearing in how daring and honest it is.

I imagine there's still some consternation about me calling the Gremlin an early hot hatchback. I realize how ridiculous that sounds in 2008, but please, let me explain.

In the early 1970s, as the gas shortages began to hit, every domestic automaker was scrambled for its own high-economy small car that could go head-to-head with Volkswagen, Renault, and the Japanese. AMC's answer was the Gremlin. As an abbreviated big car, the Gremlin included a big-car engine--AMC's ancient but torquey straight-six. This combination gave the Gremlin ridiculously poor mileage in the teens, making it an abject failure as an economy car. But the upside was that in comparison with its peers, the Gremlin had a mountain of torque and was a spunky little performer--one of the first times in history that a supposed economy car made by a mainstream company could make that claim. Of course, this is all relative; by today's standards, the Gremlin is miserably slow.

Gremlin4 AMC would later introduce a V-8, which was even faster and thirstier, as well as a four-cylinder sourced from Porsche/Audi--fundamentally, the same engine used in the Porsche 924. Despite this seemingly exotic lineage, the four-cylinder was primarily a tool for improved fuel economy and offered nothing in the way of performance.

One of the most appealing strengths of the Gremlin is its chutzpah. The Gremlin was available with all of the sticker-and-paint packages common to other poseur muscle cars of the time, as well as the now-legendary Levi's interior package. The Levi's package swathed the interior of the car in a fabric that looked and felt like Levi's denim, which seemed like a cool idea until you brushed up against a white-hot rivet while wearing shorts, or when found you couldn't throw your dirty jeans interior into the washing machine.

Go ahead and judge me - I like this car a lot in a very non-ironic way.

These photos come from, oddly enough, a user's page at the University of Michigan. Also worth checking out is Gremlin X.com, specifically their photo center, which includes both member's rides and some fantastic original press photos and brochures, as well as the original Gremlin press release.

I love these two commercials--both the significance attached to a $250 price drop and the quote: "I took my car in just to see if it was so. And it's so!"

--Chris H.

Comments

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No argument from me there, I really like Gremlins, largely because it's just a chopped-off version of my beloved Hornet. I had a 1975 Hornet and loved the thing to death. It was a fabulous utility car, had the aforementioned straight 6 -- not too bad of a performer and incredibly easy to work on -- and was just wicked practical. It had a rust problem -- what car from that era didn't -- and in Wisconsin that's a problem.

Sucker would just keep going and going and going, too. A college buddy had an earlier model and his just kept going despite the abuse of using it as his "ski hill" car.

My parents sold "mine" and last I heard it was someone's ice fishing car; floorboards rotting out, but still puttering along.

I like the way it looks when sported up a bit. I've seen several that people had re-modded and they look great. Probably easy to do, too.

Discard the irony, Chris! Just admit you like it!

Anthony Cagle: "Discard the irony, Chris! Just admit you like it!"

I do!

"Go ahead and judge me - I like this car a lot in a very non-ironic way. "

Not that I would necessarily own one, but I have no quarrel with the Gremlin in any of its configurations. However, liking the Gremlin in a non-ironic way calls for a look at the irony involved in its creation. AMC's predecessor companies were champions of the small, economical car in the decade following the war, even if it got them nowhere. Not too many years later, the tide had turned, and AMC found itself without a small car, and without a suitable platform on which to build one. With limited resources AMC couldn't build a small car, and had to settle for a short one.

David Drucker: "With limited resources couldn't build a small car, and had to settle for a short one. "

That's the way description of describing the Gremlin and the circumstances of its creation that I've heard.

[With limited resources couldn't build a small car, and had to settle for a short one.]

I wish there was a way to edit comments! Please insert "AMC" between "resources" and "couldn't."

David Drucker: "I wish there was a way to edit comments! Please insert "AMC" between "resources" and "couldn't.""

Done!

0-60 in 15.3 seconds. Dang. I think my Scion xA does that in about 9 sec. (at least, that's what Motor Trend tells me), and the Consumer Reports tells me my car is slow.

Steaming Pile: "0-60 in 15.3 seconds. Dang."

I might have to dig out my old Car & Drivers now, but I believe some Gremlins did it closer to 10 seconds, which was quick for the time.

I've seen references to under-nine-second 0-60 runs with the 304ci V8 in its original (i.e., pre-1976) incarnation.

And are you sure about the gas mileage for the six? I'm only asking because I had that engine in a gigantic 1980 Jeep Cherokee Chief, and even with always-on 4WD it never dropped below 20mpg.

I have to agree. I still find the look of the Gremlin appealing - in an odd, funky sort of way.

And the Hornet Mr. Cagle talks about above - boy, do I have memories. When I was in college my father "gave" me a used 1970 Hornet SST. The SST was the upgrade version of the base Hornet with a 304 V-8 and a vinyl top and some other stuff that I can't remember. Dad and I just couldn't leave well enough alone. We bought a totaled AMX and dropped its 390 cid engine into the Hornet. Perfect fit. We then fit dual exhaust and a set of those radical Michelin radials that were just beginning to catch on. What a sleeper! I can promise you I surprised some Ford Mavericks with that baby. We probably should have changed out the rear end but we didn't. The car topped out at about 105 mph, but it got there in a hurry. And the speedo would be pegged indicating about 140. When I finally sold the car I never mentioned the engine swap. Somewhere, someone still talks about the ungodly power of that old AMC 304 engine.

David Drucker: "And are you sure about the gas mileage for the six?"

I was confident with my memory when writing this, but if that's your experience, I could be wrong. I'll have to see if I'm thinking of the V-8 setup.

My parents had a '70 with a six, and I thought it was a great car. My sister bought one with a V-8, and I never liked it as much. I saw one parked in Modesto in 1984 that was lifted and had a piece of lumber with a chain wrapped around it for a front bumper; now that's ironic.

@Chris - AMC quoted the 15.3 second 0-60 time in their advertising. Perhaps the V8 model was faster.

AMC also said the effective range of the straight-6 Gremlin was 500 miles on a 21 gallon tank. That would make 23.8 MPG, which would be incredible for a 70s American-made car if it were actually true. My guess is, that's mostly puffery.

AMCs in that period actually weren't bad looking cars. Except for the Ambassador/Matador 4-door, they were mostly free of the disco-era brightwork gewgaws and silly hood ornaments. The Hornet had nice clean lines, the Pacer and Matador coupe had that car-of-the-future-is-here-today vibe going for them. (The Gremlin had the Hornet's nice clean lines, they just swept an eraser over the trunk area.) Sure, the color combinations and striping packages were often garish, but garishness was what all the cool kids were doing back then. (Look at any 1970s high school yearbook or clothing catalog if you don't believe me.)

When I was a kid I really liked the Gremlin and the Pacer. These cars get bashed a lot but I really thought they were cool. The styling references for me worked really well. To my little kid's eyes they looked fast and hot, how could then not be? Regarding 0-60 times... my Squareback was rated in the factory manual as having a time of 16.2 sec and a maximum speed of 85mph. With that I could still beat a lot of cars of cars. What was that quote about slow cars being a lot of fun to drive?

When I was in high school, I had a neighbor who took one of those, raised it about two feet, threw off-road tires and KC lights on it, then stripped the paint and put on a dull layer of primer.

It was still the coolest car I've ever seen.

In the thirty years of marriage we have bought thirty-five cars. One of them in the mid '80s was a '72 Gremlin with a six cylinder and stick shift (longer throws than some garbage trucks I used to drive)along with a '65 Plymouth Sport Furyfroma dealer. For winter travel we put on the Gremlin all season radials and a couple hundred pounds of sand in the back. We were amazed on how much improvement in ride and handling that made and never took the sand out. It was a sad day when the wife pulled out in front of a Mustang on an extremely foggy morning and the front end was wiped out.

The Houston (TX) police department used Gremlins as patrol cars in the mid-to-late 1970's. They were painted standard HPD sky blue (all over, no white anywhere) and had dual gumball machine/single siren packages on a lightbar on the roof. They were primarily used as parking enforcement and downtown patrol cars, and replaced Harley-Davidson three-wheel cycles that had been used for the same purpose.

AMC Gremlin X Levi Edition!!!!

Is that one of the top 10 American cars, or what??

Steve: "Is that one of the top 10 American cars, or what??"

Hmm ... are you being ironic, or sincere, Steve? It's sad, but us Gremlin true-believers have to be sure.

I think the front end of those has aged pretty well, at least the model years shown in the 2nd and 4th photos above. I think it's nicely proportioned, though the back really does make it looked like a chopped-off sedan.

Too bad more of them aren't around.

I have a little bit of an issue with the references to the Gremlin being a "big" car chopped off, etc. It was derived from the Hornet, which was in the day a "compact" car. The Ambassador was BIG.

Someone also mentioned the irony of AMC not having a small car or being able to build one. Again, the Hornet and Gremlin were not that large. The 232-cid six cylinder used in Gremlins came out in 1964. Granted, there was a 199.5-cid before - and lighter Ramblers with that engine and no smog equipment did get mileage in the low-to-mid 20s, esp. with overdrive manual transmissions. AMC simply couldn't afford to build an another all-new car in 1970.

I also don't get that the Kamm back look was cool in the 70s until the Gremlin came out and ruined it. Well, the Gremlin arrived as a 1970 1/2 model. So I think it preceded most of the 70s. I don't know what Kamm back cars are being referred to - the only one I recall literally using Kammback as a name was the Vega "wagon" - now there is a car hard to love.

My uncle was an AMC salesman and came to dinner one night when I was 16 and newly licensed driving a new '73 Gremlin X. He tossed me the keys and I drove around desperately seeking anyone to see me in a new car - any new car.

Cool! And thanks for the zing, Chris. Now I've got to see a drag race of a 4-banger vs. a 6-cylinder version.

thats Eastern Michigan University not the University of Michigan.

We had one of these for a short time when I was a kid. I loved it, thought it was really cool. It was too bad that it repeatedly refused to start when it was time for Dad to go to work.

Best looking car my father has owned in my lifetime. He traded it in for a Volare and continued downhill from there, aesthetically speaking.

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