Car Lust--AMC Gremlin X
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.
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.
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.
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!"