Blogs at Amazon

« Jan. 17 Weekly Open Thread | Main | Jan. 24 Weekly Open Thread »

Project AMC--AMC Gremlin

Project AMC--The Introduction
Project AMC--AMC Gremlin
Project AMC--AMC Hornet and AMC Eagle
Project AMC--AMC Pacer

1976 AMC Gremlin--1997 Acura Integra GS-R
1976 AMC Gremlin X--1997 Acura Integra Type R

Gremlin1 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:

5 a.m.
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.

Oldgremlin 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.

10 a.m.
Gremlin2 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?

10:30 a.m.
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.

Gremlin3 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.

Noon
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.

Gremlin6 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.

5 p.m.
Gremlin5 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.

Gremlin4 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.

--Chris H.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00e54ed05fc288330147e1abf06c970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Project AMC--AMC Gremlin:

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

This is great stuff - a real reminder of how much things have changed since then.. a la Top Gear's race between a modern Accord, and a late '60s E-Type & Aston Martin. The Accord won handily, of course.

Let's just hope that cars keep getting better and better, and that Detroit starts making them, instead of putting up billboards of what they built 50 years ago.

This time-travel thing is turning out to be a lot of fun.

@Walter: I'd been thinking a while back along the same lines. What's the cheapskate-ist, most pathetic, most underwhelming modern car you can think of? Base-model Chevy Aveo or Dodge Caliber (for me anyway). Back in 1978, those of us cursed with Detroit iron would've sold our grandmothers to the Aztecs to be sacrificed to get a car half as competent and reliable as either one of those.

Interesting. When you first brought it up, I was thinking of something like the 4.0 liter HO with a five speed in the 79*80 Spirit AMX. With the addition of four wheel disc brakes and all wheel drive lifted from the Eagle, composite body panels and other tricks to lighten it up, it would have been extremely competitive and reliable without breaking too many of the rules.

"What I found even stranger was that Colborne rode to the track with new AMC CFO Anthony Cagle in a Ford Mustang II."

HAHAHAHA! Nice reference for all the regular readers out here.

Neat - I have a cameo! Expect many obscure battle-related references in AMC's new PR literature. The new Gremlin shall be our Battle of Suomussalmi!

With that out of the way, if I was going to pick an Integra to call a Gremlin, I would've gone with the first generation one. It still would've outperformed most of the cars of the era, the shape was more angular and Gremlin-like, and it was vastly more proletarian than the mid-'90s Integra. Plus, you wouldn't have to deal with training AMC mechanics on how to properly service a VTEC - fuel injection would've been more than enough to confuse and baffle back then.

I'll also note that the transmission options in either Integra would've blown the period automotive journalist's mind. We're talking about an economy car with either a four-speed auto (Overdrive? In a base model?!) or a five-speed manual and standard A/C. Even if it did 0-60 in 15 seconds (should've just brought a late '80s Festiva - they're cheaper anyway), those features would've blown the B210s, Vegas and Pintos out of the water.

Were the Gremlins really that popular back in the day? I would love to see a modernized but still manly Road Runner or Monte Carlo. I miss the muscle cars of the 70's, these days most cars look girlie unless you get a full-sized pickup. It would be great to have a car with a little more attitude without needing to spend a fortune on the top of the line sportscar, especially now that Hummers are gone. Bring back the MUSCLE, a manly car that looks tough and will get you noticed - of course these days it would be much more fuel efficient and have to be aerodynamic but the speakers better thump!

Automotive Management Services are the leading provider of Fleet Management Services and Training Solutions to organizations and companies operating in developing and post-conflict countries.

The 84 Civic hatch would have made a great Gremlin. It's got the chopped off rear end, but weighs about half as much, was just as quick or quicker and got substantially better fuel economy. A '92 Civic Si might have been an even better (faster) choice. Neither has the drama of a "Gremlin" outpeforming exotics, of course!

Tony: You're right! That Civic does look like a Gremlin!: http://www.skierpage.com/civic/images/1500s_with_bear_wheels.jpg

I too had the Civic/Gremlin thought, but those mid-80's Civics were pretty small in size.

I gotta add that the late 90s Teggies really hit the styling queues just right. The RSX replacement is not half-as nice. Too bad most of the 'tegs have been beaten to death by now.

Ironically, I owned an '84 Civic and had a girlfriend with a mid-70s Gremlin. I'd guess that the Civic actually had more overall room; the Gremlin's back seat was pretty small and there wasn't a ton of room behind the rear seats when they were up. That said, the Gremlin, with the 258 six and a three-speed manual, had a lot of grunt and handled reasonably well. But, I still wish I could get that '84 Civic back!

You'll have to forgive me, as a frequent Car and Driver reader I'm laughing thinking about David E. Davis at this press intro. (Not that Davis was writing for C&D at that time, but he is now.)

The high lead and sulfur content of fuel in the late 70's to mid-80's will foul and possibly plug the 3-way catalyst of a modern car.

The funny thing is that this practically happened on May 7, 1976. The first Honda Accord showed up on the US market, and it made all the US attempts at building a compact sedan look just as backwards and pathetic as they seemed in this fictional account. It came 'loaded' with standard equipment like cloth bucket seats, intermitent wipers, flow through ventilation, a 5-speed transmission, an engine that met emissions requirements without compromising driveability or needing unleaded gas, delivered twice the fuel economy of comparably sporty Mustang IIs and Monzas, and had something approximating handling. It wasn't Ferrari and Corvette fast, but it was packaged about as well as the Integra and about as big a sensation as a mainstream sedan can be.

"While the industry at home is plagued by strikes and quality issues, the giants of the American auto industry are lining up to catch a glimpse of a revolution. Earlier today AMC, the American Motor Corporation, announced the launch of its new Gremlin. While the previous Gremlin model was based on an existing AMC vehicle, this all new model shares no parts with its predecessor - or anything else in the current AMC range. The new Gremlin is something of a revolution in car design, from its low and smooth styling to its underlying engineering - there is nothing like it on the road today. Members of the automotive press were invited the the models launch to test it out, and I was lucky enough to get a chance to try this fascinating new car out around the track. In many ways it reminds me of a Mini, its front engined and front wheel drive - though follows the pattern of the Volkswagen Golf rather than the little Leyland. It's handling can only be described as sublime, nothing outside of a true race car has this level of grip and feel. As I said, the closest experience I can think of is the Mini, though it would need to be a Mini with almost two hundred horse power. With multiple advances in computerised control of the engine, and racing engine technology, the 1.8 litre engine in the new Gremlin is decades ahead of anything the big US companies, or anybody else for that matter, can produce. Some questions have been raised about the shear amount of computerisation in this vehicle, at least one of my fellow journalists described it as "A Supercomputer on wheels", and a few of my colleagues questioned weather AMC can really produce economy cars with this level of advanced technology? However questions as to the effectiveness of this technology were quickly dispelled when our hosts demonstrated the new Gremlins giant-killing power and handling in a race against numerous supercars. Shockingly, the American economy car blitzed the track faster than a Lamborghini Countash and a Ferrari 308, yet has a reported thirty miles to the US gallon fuel economy. For now AMC has no plans to sell the car outside of the United States, much to the relief of European and our own producers, but if AMC can really build this car for economy car prices - expect to see Gremlins on every street. From Los Angeles, I'm Alan Wakefeild."

Heh, its fun writing that kind of stuff.

How about a scenario where you just bring back these modern cars and present them to AMC's existing engineering department? I quite like the idea of modern technology built inside a hybrid between modern styling and Dick Teague's AMC quirkiness.

This article made me miss the Integra and its RSX successor. I know that the Civic Si is supposed to be the replacement for the Integra/RSX, but for me, it's not the same.

Yes, a Civic is a Civic, thought they are good cars in their own right... but an RSX was truly unique. Perhaps a future classic?

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.

Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

Powered by Rollyo

Car Lust™ Contributors

July 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31