Project AMC--AMC Gremlin
1976 AMC Gremlin--1997 Acura Integra GS-R
1976 AMC Gremlin X--1997 Acura Integra Type R
The following is an excerpt from a diary kept by Motoring Magazine Road Test Editor Tom Kelly, dated Jan. 5, 1976--the date on which the revitalized American Motors Corporation released its second-generation Gremlin to the press for evaluation:
I flew in to Los Angeles last night to cover the press launch of the new AMC Gremlin, and of course my body clock woke me up way too early as it always does when I fly to the West Coast. I don't need to be at the Hilton until 9 a.m., so I may as well pass the time writing.
I have to admit I'm not particularly excited about today's launch. I'm tired of complaining about how smog equipment and baroque decoration are choking the spirit out of new cars, and these press launches are getting more and more painful. I guess the launch of the new Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare a few months ago was encouraging in a way--it's nice to see Detroit finally paying some attention to downsizing--but I had to work so hard to force a smile that my face was sore for weeks. It's tough to whip up too much excitement for yet another smog-crippled, workhorse sedan. I'm sure it'll be a fine car, and it might even revitalize Chrysler--but after the fun we had in the 1960s and with the interesting cars being released in Europe, I'll be damned if I can work up any excitement for another dull sedan with a low-compression V-8.
Normally, the only thing duller than the Aspen/Volare would be the release of a new economy car from staid old, withering-on-the-vine American Motors. My only glimmer of hope is that I may be able to learn something about the mystery surrounding AMC over the last few months. When I first heard the news that AMC had been sold, several plants had been shuttered, and the company was canceling production of its current lineup, we all figured the leaning tower was beginning its final collapse a good decade before anybody expected.
Dealerships have been screaming bloody murder for being left without inventory for so long, but at least factory workers are happy--they're being paid full wages to stay home. Nobody has been able to figure out why they haven't just been laid off, or who will be actually be building the new AMCs. I'll have to make a note to ask AMC's PR staff about that when I see them today. At the very least I might get a new evasive answer out of them.
The initial specification sheet that AMC PR mailed over looks mildly interesting but curiously short on detail. The new Gremlin will be available as either a two-door with a hatchback or as a four-door sedan, which is a minor surprise as the old Gremlin was available with two doors only.
Apparently the new Gremlin won't feature the old straight six or V-8 as the old one did; it will feature what is apparently a new 1.8-liter inline four. The pre-release sheet didn't specify power output or any additional detail, so I'd assume it's a conventional low-output pushrod affair in the AMC tradition, fed by either a one- or two-barrel carburetor. It's hard to generate enthusiasm about yet another car shedding horsepower, but at least AMC's small car will finally be the least bit fuel-efficient.
There is a big surprise, though, and that is that the new Gremlin will apparently feature a Issigonis-style transverse engine and front-wheel drive just like the revolutionary new Volkswagen Rabbit. This is clearly the direction in which economy cars are going in the future, but I wouldn't have expected AMC to beat all of the Big Three to the punch on this. We'll see how well it's done--I can't imagine AMC could put together something even remotely as slick as the Rabbit with their shoestring budget.
But as I said, I'd expect the new Gremlin to finally be a bit more efficient than the old one. Gas prices haven't really dropped that much in the 18 months since OPEC dropped their embargo.It's a shame, though--the old Gremlin was fun despite its many flaws. How long will the new Gremlin take to get from 0-60? 15 seconds? 20? It's all part of our brave new future, I guess.
Well, I've successfully burned an hour and may as well find a diner for some breakfast. I'll pick this back up later.
It has been an hour since we met at the Hilton and I still don't know anything about the new Gremlin. It was the weirdest thing. We met new AMC PR chief David Colborne at the Hilton, but rather than usher us into a meeting room as I'd expected, he directed the press to a lineup of competitive subcompact cars and told us to drive them over to Riverside Raceway. I had already driven the Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto, and Toyota Corolla. I was hoping for another chance to drive the Volkswagen, but since it was taken I settled for a Datsun B210.
Colborne explained that this represented a chance to re-familiarize ourselves with the new Gremlin's competition, which would make sense if these cars weren't so likely to completely overshadow it. What I found even stranger was that Colborne rode to the track with new AMC CFO Anthony Cagle in a Ford Mustang II.
The Datsun B210 was just as I remember it from the last time I drove it--satisfactory but dull and wildly overstyled. The Japanese have no doubt made strides engineering their small cars, but for their own sake I hope they learn to start toning their designs down a bit.
Anyway, we just arrived at Riverside--but who in their right mind demonstrates an econo-miser at a race track?
Well, we just caught our first glimpse of the new Gremlin X sitting out on the race track, and ... well, I'm not sure what to say. It looks nothing like any AMC or economy car I've ever seen. In fact, it looks more like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey than a car.
In size it's slightly larger than a Pinto or Vega--in fact it looks almost exactly the same size as a Mustang II or a Chevy Monza. But the shape--the new Gremlin is radically smooth and aerodynamic like a jet fighter, an impression reinforced by a rear wing that reminds me of Niki Lauda's Formula 1 Ferrari. The door handles sit flush inside the doors, there's no grille, and I didn't see any rain gutters. In fact, there's no chrome or ornamentation of any kind aside from the round AMC badges on the nose and tail and the usual bright green Gremlin paint with a white character stripe.
The wheels are pushed all the way out to the corners and it makes the old Gremlin look as if it were teetering on stilts. It's also missing any semblance of big chrome bumpers--I'm assuming the new Gremlin has to meet government standards, so its bumpers must feature some version of the Enudra plastic that Pontiac used on its 1968 GTO and on its 1973 Grand Am.
Once you get past the oddity of the design, it's pretty exciting. Its lack of ornamentation, wide tires, quad headlights, and low, feral stance make it look like a bit like a Renault Gordini, a BMW 3.0CS, or a Ferrari Daytona. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was a foreign car.
As I say, after the momentary shock I'm coming around to the looks, but many of my fellow journos are chuckling and joking that any new owner will have to wash rotten tomatoes off after every drive. I do have to wonder exactly how America will welcome a car without a chrome grille.
Colborne just announced that our first demonstration will be a race between the new Gremlin X and its "full range of competition" on the Riverside road course. Great--a race between four-cylinder small cars, it should be riveting.
It's only a little over one hour later, but I can safely say that in that time almost all of what I have written here turned out to be wrong. It would be a huge understatement to say that the race went nothing like I expected, beginning with the cars the Gremlin X raced against. As it turns out, the new Gremlin X raced not just against the Rabbit, the B210, the Vega, the Corolla, and the Pinto, but also--shockingly--against a Corvette, a 455-cubic-inch Trans Am, a 350 Camaro, a Ferrari 308, and even a Euro-spec Lamborghini Countach. We all hushed, wondering what exactly AMC had in store for us.
It was a two-lap race around Riverside, beginning with a drag race down the main straight. To our shock, the Gremlin X and the Countach accelerated down the straightaway almost in lock step, with the 308, Trans Am, Camaro and Corvette slightly behind and the economy cars slowly oozing off the line. The Gremlin X took a clear lead under braking into the first corner and just pulled away from there.
Ultimately the race just wasn't that close--the Lamborghini may have had a bit of top-end speed on the Gremlin, but the Gremlin carried its speed further into the corners, didn't lock its brakes, and came out of the corners more quickly. After two laps, the Lamborghini trailed the Gremlin X by about four seconds, the rest of the sports cars trailed a little behind, and the economy cars droned past the finish line nearly a minute later, completely forgotten.
We were all completely speechless. I don't envy the man who tells Enzo Ferrari that one of his cars was beaten around a road course by an AMC Gremlin.
Shortly afterwards, Colborne's staff began handing out the full specification sheet, and it was only a little less dramatic than the race. The Gremlin's little four-cylinder wasn't a pushrod affair like I had guessed--it was an all-aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve affair like the Cosworth Vega's, but with electronic fuel injection and half again as much horsepower. The Gremlin X put out 195 horsepower out of its 1.8-liter four (forget one horsepower per cubic inch, that's more than one horsepower per cc), and even the regular Gremlin made 170--exactly twice what was in the B210, 60 more horespower than the Cosworth Vega, and about what the V-8s in the American cars made.
As astonished as I was by the idea of a Gremlin with Formula 1 engine technology, I was even more astonished by the measured specifications. The normal Gremlin turned 0-60 in 7 seconds flat ... while returning nearly 30 MPG in real-world driving. That's a 0-60 time more than a second faster than the Ferrari's, with mileage just as good as the B210's. The Gremlin X did 0-60 in 6.2 seconds, just as quick as the Euro Countach.
The new Gremlin might have proportions somewhat like the Mustang II and the Monza, but it demolishes both cars in every conceivable way. In our last test, the Mustang II V-8 did 0-60 in just over 10 seconds and returned 12 MPG. The Monza was much slower and only marginally more efficient. The Gremlin, on the other hand, performs like a Countach but is as efficient as a B210. And according to AMC, the new Gremlin pollutes dramatically less than any other car.
The spec sheet held some other big surprises--apparently the Gremlin's braking system has computer circuitry that allows the brakes to brake as hard as possible, right on the verge of locking up. It also has airbags, which purportedly blow an explosive cushion in front of your face in a crash to cushion the impact. I'm not so sure I like the sound of that.
What I do like is that we'll be given a chance to drive the new Gremlins after lunch.
It's not that I expected the new Gremlin to drive anything like the old one, but it's even more different than I had expected. The seats are firm, yet somehow more comfortable than the pillowy cushions in the Lincoln Mk. IV I tested last year.
Despite the space-age technology, the instrumentation is refreshingly conventional, with a big tachometer and a big speedometer. The dashboard is odd but pleasing, with a big sweep of soft plastic that feels like rubber. The most remarkable thing about the interior is the visibility--the driver is surrounded by glass and has a fantastic view of the road.
The engine feels fairly strong off the line, but it almost explodes with sound and fury once it crosses 3,000 RPM and screams like a banshee all the way up to its amazing 8000-RPM redline. I feel guilty revving it that high, but unlike most engines it sounds eager, not labored at that speed. Unlike most high-strung engines, the Gremlin's is tractable, quiet and relaxed around town.
That melodious engine is connected to the sweetest, shortest-shifting gearbox and clutch combination I have ever experienced, and the handling is incredibly direct. It sounds strange, but it feels like I'm on top of other cars whereas I'm in this car. All of its responses--brakes, gearshift, handling--are almost telepathic. More than anything, it feels completely unlike an economy car.
I'm looking forward to spending more time with the Gremlin, but it's hard to keep from thinking about the bigger picture. Why would anybody want to buy a Vega or a Corvette when you can have a car that combines the strong points of both? How in the world did poor little AMC, perennially a poor fourth in a three-horse race, put together so quickly such a harmonious car with so much advanced technology? And what does this mean for the rest of AMC's upcoming lineup?
Setting aside those questions, it's also nice to have some hope that we won't all be driving soulless pod cars a decade from now. If AMC can produce a car that pollutes less and consumes less fuel while providing more excitement than we had during the muscle car era, perhaps our automotive future doesn't look so bleak after all.
Okay, I've dropped the fake journalist bit. I know that with this very first choice I've already violated a few of my own rules--most notably, the rule that the replacement car has to be in the same class as the original AMC. Even the base Integra wasn't truly a subcompact economy car, and here I am passing off VTEC Integras as Gremlins.
The Integra gets grandfathered in, though, because it was the car that kicked off this whole weird, time-traveling fantasy. Back when I was driving a '94 Integra GS-R sedan, I found myself reading an old Car and Driver comparison test comparing the Mustang II and the Monza and marveling at how lifeless they were in comparison with modern cars. That in turn led to me inventing this whole ridiculous scenario and comprehensively overthinking it. My other choices will be much more contemporary and in line with the original car classes, but I couldn't turn my back on the Integra-as-Gremlin idea.