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Project AMC--AMC Hornet and AMC Eagle

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

1976 AMC Hornet--2009 Subaru Impreza
1976 AMC Hornet Turbo--2009 Subaru Impreza WRX
1976 AMC Hornet Turbo X--2009 Subaru Impreza WRX STi

1976 AMC Eagle--2008 Subaru Forester
1976 AMC Eagle X--2008 Subaru Forester XT

The following is an excerpt from a diary kept by Motoring Magazine Road Test Editor Tom Kelly, dated Feb. 2, 1976--the date on which the revitalized American Motors Corporation released its second-generation Hornet and first-generation Eagle to the press for evaluation:

8 a.m.
Hornet Turbo 1It turns out that my diary from the AMC Gremlin press launch was a hit--it needed only minimal modification to serve as my preview piece in the latest issue of Motoring Magazine, and reader mail seems to indicate that they liked that sort of spontaneous perpsective. I'm going to try to do the same this time, but I'll take a more organized approach this time and document my thoughts in real time--writing a live journal, if you will.

AMC unveiled the Gremlin almost exactly a month ago, and the shock that I felt last month has now reverberated through TV, newspapers, and magazines to the rest of America. Gremlins are just now beginning to reach AMC dealerships throughout the country, and America is hip deep in Gremlin Fever. Not all of the reaction is positive, of course--the car's styling in particular has proven to be a shock to the system for a populace addicted to vinyl roofs and opera windows--but everybody is fascinated by the novelty of a car that performs like a supercar while sipping fuel like a Datsun. 

AMC dealers are awash with customers who are willing to pay full price and wait for a new Gremlin, which has to be a a pretty new and exciting experience for them. The Big Three are keeping publicly mum about the new Gremlin, but my sources indicate that those mammoth corporations are in a state of near pandemonium trying to understand how AMC pulled off this coup.

Ur-1976 AMC Hornet Wagon Probably the most exciting thing about the Gremlin is the much-needed sense of optimism it has given us. It has been a tough decade for America, with the OPEC embargo, the fall of Saigon, stagflation, and a steadily growing misery index--and it's fair to say that underneath our showy disco culture lay a steadily eroding foundation of self-confidence. But now, with the Gremlin, we Americans can point to a car that not only represents a painless way out of the gas and pollution crises, but a technical miracle that was designed and built right here in America. This amazing car wasn't built by the Soviet Union, West Germany, or even Japan--it was designed and built right here in the United States, by American Motors, no less.

 I still have questions about how AMC pulled this off, and I intend to keep digging into those questions until I get some answers. But for today, I'll content myself with wondering just how AMC's new Hornet compact sedan can possibly top the Gremlin. Since the Hornet is one notch higher on the AMC food chain, I'm assuming it will be a similar car, likely built on the same platform, only a bit larger and with perhaps a bit more power and luxury trim. The Gremlin's one fault is that it's a typical subcompact--small, light, and a bit tinny--so I can imagine the Hornet addressing that and moving slightly upmarket.

Eagle X 1Well, it's time to head over to our meeting point at Seattle Center. Seattle seems like an odd, out-of-the-way place for a new-car launch, but after AMC introduced the Gremlin at a race track I've learned not to be surprised by anything.

9:15 a.m.
 Disregard that last part, because despite myself I'm surprised again. The journalistic corps is much larger this time, with journalists in attendance from such non-automotive publications as Time and the Washington Post, and again we were asked to drive ourselves to a different location in competitive cars (this time, these were Chevy Novas, Dodge Aspens, and Ford Mavericks). That wasn't surprising; what was surprising was that we were told to drive from Seattle to a fairly extensive network of logging roads just outside Aberdeen, Wash. This is so strange. I'm guessing we'll see the Matador launch on an offshore oil drilling platform, the Ambassador at the top of a tall mountain, and the Javelin on the moon.

Ur-AMC EagleI've already driven all of the competitive cars, including the new Aspen, so what I'd really like to do is ride along with an AMC employee who can answer some of my big-picture questions. Once again, I'm struck by how disloyal AMC's leaders are to their own products. Anthony Cagle and David Colborne again drove in Cagle's personal Ford Mustang II, and CEO Chris Hafner and chief designer Rob Podell jumped into Hafner's Saab 99 EMS--which is especially perplexing since the Saab could be considered a more expensive but otherwise reasonably direct competitor to the new Hornet.

I was ultimately given a choice between riding along with internal communications chief David Drucker in his decade-old Imperial or AMC's new legal head in his ancient Studebaker Lark station wagon. Neither internal communications nor legal seemed likely candidates for spilling information, but ultimately I chose to ride with AMC's chief attorney.

When I shook his hand and asked his name, he simply chuckled and pointed to his dog, which was sprawled drowsily in the back of his station wagon. "That's Cookie," he said, "and I'm her owner. That's all you really need to know." I had hoped that the dog and the old car indicated a casual approach to confidentiality, but this certainly isn't a good start.

12:30
The drive lasted two hours, but I turned up nothing of substance about AMC's product development, engineering staff, manufacturing facilities, plans for future product expansion, or even the purpose of holding the press launch of a compact sedan out in the middle of the forest.The only information I was able to glean from AMC's chief lawyer was his first name (Mike), Cookie's breed (mixed), and a lot of legitimately interesting but not completely relevant information about old Studebakers.

1976 AMC Hornet Turbo XWe just arrived to our destination--a series of tents set up in the forest just off the state highway, at the entrance to the network of logging roads. This setting, the chilly rainy conditions, and our catered lunch of hot dogs and burgers visibly discomfited the national media, but Colborne headed off an incipient press revolt by distracting us with the spec sheets for the new AMC Hornet and its big brother, the AMC Eagle. The new Hornet is available both as a compact four-door sedan and as a four-door mini-wagon. The Eagle is a new nameplate for AMC, and according to the spec sheet it's a larger car based on the Hornet. It's apparently meant to be a utility wagon, a bit like a mini-Jeep Wagoneer.

 Judging by the specifications, the Hornet and Eagle share surprisingly little with the Gremlin. Like the Gremlin, the Hornet/Eagle are powered by four-cylinder engines, but rather than the Gremlin's high-strung inline four, the engine that powers the Hornet and Eagle is a Porsche- or Volkswagen-style boxer four. That's a highly unusual configuration for a domestic car; the only other American-made boxer engine I can remember was the Chevy Corvair's flat six.

Things only got more interesting from there, as all but the most basic Hornets and Eagles come fortified with a turbocharger. Porsche turbocharged its 930 Turbo last year, which means that Porsche and AMC are now the only two automakers with production turbo engines--though we know Buick and Saab are both close to releasing turbocharged cars. Not only is AMC right on the cusp of what will likely be the turbo revolution, but it has paired its turbo with an intercooler, which cools the incoming air for even more power production.

1976 AMC Hornet Turbo EngineThe result is 224 horsepower for the Eagle X, 265 horsepower for the Hornet Turbo, and a stunning 305 horsepower for the Hornet Turbo X. These are SAE net horsepower figures, remember, which means that the Turbo X generates more horsepower than the exotic 265-horsepower Euro-spec Porsche 930 Turbo and roughly the same as the Pontiac 400 Ram Air back in the glory days of the '60s. The AMC engine, of course, puts out that power in a much smaller and lighter car, with vastly improved fuel mileage, and while polluting much less. Last month we were astounded that the Gremlin could come to market with 170 and 195 horsepower for the standard Gremlin and Gremlin X, respectively. After the OPEC embargo, I never thought I'd see a 300-horsepower figure from a domestic car.

Strangely, both the Hornet and the Eagle are 4X4s. I can understand the nod to AMC's Jeep brand, but I'm not sure why the car-buying public would be taking these cars off road. Apparently it's a very sophisticated 4WD system, as it is permanently engaged and doesn't require hubs to be locked--which apparently makes it a further evolution of Jeep's remarkable Quadra-Trac system.

Now that I think of it, the Jensen Interceptor FF was a performance coupe with an on-road 4WD system until it was discontinued back in 1971, and the Leone Wagon from perky upstart Subaru has a part-time 4WD system. I suppose a road car with full-time 4WD isn't completely unprecedented.

Ur-1974 AMC Hornet

My goodness. I just reached the performance section of the spec page, and apparently the combination of power and traction appears to give the turbo Hornet and Eagle otherworldly accelerative capability. Clearly James Bond could have jumped much farther had he been driving this Hornet in The Man With the Golden Gun.

The Hornet Turbo and Turbo X accelerates from 0-60 in 4.7 seconds. For perspective, Ford's performance-oriented compact sedan, the Maverick Grabber, has a much less efficient 302-cubic-inch V-8 and takes 9.5 seconds to reach 60. Chevy's hottest Nova hits the mark in 8.7 seconds--at the expense of 13-MPG fuel economy. The Hornet Turbo X can accelerate more quickly than all of the big-block muscle cars from the 1960s; in fact, the only car that comes to mind that might be able to accelerate with AMC's new compact sedan is the immortal Shelby Cobra 427 S/C. Even the Eagle X utility wagon can perform the sprint in 5.3 seconds.

This morning I was wondering how AMC would top the Gremlin, with its 7-second 0-60 time; that opinion seems distinctly quaint now, as the Hornet Turbo X is as quick off the line as any street car we've ever seen. Remember, this is a compact sedan that somehow ekes out 25 MPG. I have seen the future, and the future is good.

But now, when will we actually see the cars?

4 p.m.
Well, I have now seen and driven the cars, and I'm not sure where to begin. I'm astounded by their capabilities, yet ... there's something odd here that I can't quite figure out.

Let me start from the beginning. My mixed emotions began when I saw the two cars. The new Hornet casts a smaller shadow than its predecessor and its competitors--in fact, it looks as if it's only a little larger and bulkier than the Gremlin sedan. The Eagle is clearly larger and sits farther off the ground. The look is a bit gawky, like the child of a union between a Jeep Wagoneer and a traditional station wagon, but I suppose it's appropriate for a utility wagon.

Both cars share some of the streamlined details of the Gremlin, but their profiles are blockier and more traditional--for one thing both, cars actually have front grilles. But unlike the Gremlin, the Hornet had some odd detailing that made it look a bit ... well, angry. I suppose some might like that aggressive look, but it's certainly not as clean as the Gremlin. In fact, these cars look so different from the Gremlin that if they didn't wear round AMC badges and look so otherworldly, I'd have difficulty believing they're even part of the same product family.

The blockier profiles allow for more interior space than the Gremlin offers, and the Hornet is surprisingly close in interior space to its larger domestic competition. The Hornet wagon offers a great deal of cargo space as well, with the benefit of folding rear seats that expands the wagon area.

1976 AMC Hornet Turbo Interior The Eagle is definitely the better vehicle for the larger family, with more rear-seat space and cargo area--not quite what you'd get in a domestic full-size wagon, but certainly respectable given the diminuitive exterior dimensions. With its wagon space, folding seats, and the promise of 4X4 traction, I can imagine the Eagle revolutionizing family transportation. Given its ability to carry cargo over rough terrain, I can also imagine the Eagle capturing a strong customer base in colder climes and with sportsmen.

The interiors were, if anything, even more futuristic than the Gremlin's, with backlighting, warning lights, and climate control options galore. The entire construction felt solid and well-built; which was a nice change from the Gremlin's tinny construction.

Colborne directed us to take the turbocharged Hornets and Eagles out for a spirited drive on the logging roads, which again discomfited the national media--but I jumped at the chance and claimed a Hornet Turbo X.

I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from a four-cylinder with that much power, but what I didn't expect was that it would be completely free from a high-output V-8's aggressive lope. Just like the Gremlin, the Hornet started and idled smoothly, and it was perfectly happy being eased along without the histrionics of most high-horsepower cars I've driven. The turbo advertised its presence with a quiet whistle at full throttle, but otherwise I would have never known that the Hornet was turbocharged. It certainly didn't display any of the mammoth turbo lag that bedevils the Porsche 930.

1976 AMC Hornet Turbo in silver And oh, that power. The Hornet's turbo flat-four didn't have quite the sledgehammer torque wallop of a big block V-8, but it pulled for its redline with an ever-increasing fury that today's big, lazy, carbureted V-8s just can't match. And when launched aggressively, the turbo power and 4X4 traction rockets the Hornet off the line with the impact of a donkey kick to the chest. If this is the future of four-cylinder engines, I'll happily give up on V-8s.

I drove the Hornet Turbo X on gravel and dirt first, and the experience was a revelation. My experience in driving gymkhanas came in handy; I quickly discovered that the Hornet's amazing traction allowed me to toss it into corners carrying more speed than I could have imagined. I could control it perfectly with the throttle, and accelerate rapidly out. The Hornet's uncanny ability to grip and accelerate with total aplomb in all circumstances quickly had me feeling like the next Sandro Munari. In fact, the Hornet Turbo X was so quick and so easy to drive that I would feel comfortable placing money on a competent driver in this street-legal AMC in a head-to-head rally against Munari and his factory Lancia Stratos rally-racer.

On the pavement, the Hornet Turbo and Eagle X displayed a prodigious performance envelope; they redefine what cars are capable of and put the Gremlin neatly in its place as AMC's economy car. Or at least they should ... and the revelation that they didn't revived my earlier mixed feelings.

The hottest Hornet Turbo X is incredibly fast in a straight line, it's composed and exciting on gravel and dirt, and it has an uncanny way of sticking to the pavement. But when pushed hard on asphalt, and compared with the Gremlin, there's something missing.

It feels a bit odd to say this about a subcompact economy car with unorthodox styling, but there's something quite lovely about the Gremlin. It's streamlined for efficiency, it handles beautifully, it screams happily, and it feels like a lithe and happy car that enjoys being pushed to its limits.

1976 AMC Eagle X That doesn't seem quite as true with the Hornet and the Eagle--they look a bit more traditional to my eyes, and they don't seem quite as happy in their work as does the Gremlin. The Hornet Turbo X is faster in every way, but its undeniably more powerful engine doesn't sound as sweet, its gearbox feels slightly blockier and more labored, and instead of the Gremlin's delightfully neutral attitude, the Hornet has determined understeer at the limit. The Hornet Turbo X is so capable that it's exciting to drive, but it's not as much fun as the Gremlin. It's just not quite as harmonious.

I realize that this sounds crazy--and the Gremlin's astounding launch last month has probably just jaded me. I'm sure that had I encountered the Hornet back in December, I would have had no grounds for confusion whatsoever.

I still can't shake the sense that something just doesn't fit, though. The Hornet and Eagle are very clearly related to each other, but they seem oddly different from the Gremlin--a car only slightly different in size and released only one month earlier. The Gremlin appears to share nothing with these cars--drivetrain, engine, interior pieces, even the philosophy behind their design and construction. Why would this be? And how in the world can AMC offer a technological powerhouse like the new Hornet for $3,200?

As of yet, I have no answers to these questions, but what I do know is that I'm excited to see what AMC has in store once it moves past its entry-level sedans and begins to unveil its line of sports cars.

--Tom K. (via Chris H.)

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I love it! If AMC had a quarter of GM's development budget, I wonder what they could have done. But I'm sure their desperate financial situation had a lot to do with the quirky cars they turned out.

Ahhh yes, Subarus...It had to be Subaru for the Eagle, the only question was which one, the Outback/Legacy or the Forester. The Forester is almost certainly the more direct spiritual successor to the Eagle, although the Outback Sedan (especially the early 2000's generation) is uncanny in its resemblance to the Eagle SX/4.

The bonus kicker to this is that I actually had a 2008 Forester as described here, complete with alloy pedals, leather wrapping on the wheel, shifter, and handbrake, special 10-spoke wheels and a limited edition WRC Blue paint job...and the non-turbo engine and a 4 speed automatic transmission that would make baby Jesus weep with frustration. All show, no go indeed. Same damn transmission that dogs my current 2001 Outback and makes me want to dig some spurs into its flanks to coax a few more ponies into going a little faster, especially from a stop. My 2006 Legacy had a glorious 5 speed manual and could roar like a big V6 when the hammer dropped, even if it didn't really go all that fast.

If I ever have a bunch of disposable income available, a manual tranny Eagle wagon is on my short list of cars to get ASAP.

I'll second Tommy's Dad on this one - it's almost mandatory to choose a Subaru as an Eagle at this point. Question is, what happens when we get to the Jeep side of the line?

Yep - subbing in the Forester as the Eagle was the easiest decision of the whole series. Since the Ur-Eagle was based on the Concord, which itself was just an evolved Hornet, the decision to pull in the Impreza/Forester siblings was a pretty easy decision as well.

I'm actually not going to tackle Jeep - like I mentioned in the intro, Jeep was already a successful and profitable brand, so unlike AMC's slowly crumbling car brand it didn't really need to be rescued. I'd also argue that those Jeeps were tougher and more basic than today's cars and thus more in tune with the needs of the 1976 truck buyer. Plus, it wouldn't be as simple as time-importing today's Jeeps--they have far too much Chrysler content which might be somehow recognizable in 1976.

Cookie the Dog's Owner made a great suggestion off-blog that we import a minivan and thus break open a whole new market segment. It's a great idea that I hadn't considered, but I could see importing something like an early 4WD Mazda MPV as a 1976 Jeepster.

AMC chief designer Dick Teague worked up a design for a small "AmVan" in the early 70s, so an AMC minivan is not all that far out an idea.

http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2009/10/29/amvan-still-lives-too/

Yeah, a minivan as the Pacer replacement! Some of the same ideas, no? Low, wide, lots of glass and visibility. Would have been a powertrain novelty as well had they been able to get the rotary engine, which the FWD minivan kind of echoed.

I was totally looking into an Eagle Wagon when I was in the market for a field vehicle. Perfect: car-based, but high enough ground clearance and 4WD and lots of room. Besides, I had a Hornet so I would have felt right at home.

CTDO: That AmVan is totally drool-worthy. I'd love to roll down the road in a functional version of that thing.

Anthony: Oh, I have other things in mind for the Pacer ...

An AMC minivan would be a great idea, though. I might have to work it in somehow.

That AmVan has some sweet lines! I'd much prefer that over the Jukes and Scion xB (judging by wheelbase these would be the logical competitor in the modern market)

Chris M., what is Nissan thinking with that Joke... er, I mean Juke! It's hideous!!! But wait till Chevy's Spark comes out... barf bags should be supplied in every Chevy dealer showroom for those unprepared to see that grotesque thing!

Oh, and it's ugly, too!

Thanks, jjd241. I think that Vega belongs in a museum.

Okay Chris, I love fast cars as much as anybody; but you're fantasy is losing credibility with each installment. You yourself said you were pushing it when you substituted the Acura Integra for the Gremlin; I could let that one go because you were so hot for the Integra. But for the Hornet (remember, a compact to mid-size family car) you substitute a 4WD, boxer turbo four Subaru that's hardly any bigger than the Integra????

I know you're trying to "push the technical envelope" a couple decades, but let's be a little more realistic with your premise. Not everything has to be a fire-breathing dragon. What are you planning for your Javelin/AMX replacement; a Lexus LFA?

I think that for a midsize family sedan a more appropriate choice (if you aren't a boy-racer, anyway) would be something like an Accord or Camry V6, maybe with the 4-cyl. as a base model. Think what a splash a modern CamCord would've made back in 1976!!!!

By the way, the modern minivan as a Pacer replacement sounds like a GREAT idea -- an Odyssey or a Sienna back then would ROCK the auto world!

Great comment, Bob, and you make some good points. But if I may, I'd like to rebut:
1. It IS a fantasy - and if I'm honest, the primary goal is to freak out contemporary automotive journalists. :-)

2. Please note - the base Hornet and the base Eagle are the normal, naturally aspirated Subarus of today - nothing particularly exotic, but still revolutionary in their own quiet way. Our excitable period auto journalist does have a tendency to focus on the flashier high-performance cars, though, I'll give you that.

3. The Hornet was a compact sedan - I'd argue that the Impreza is absolutely in the same class and serves the same purpose today. Same with the Forester - it's as close to the ideal of a latter-day Eagle as you can get.

4. Sure, the WRX is a fire-snorting beast compared with what was available in the 1970s - but I'm actually pretty comfortable with this choice staying in class (much more so than the Integra which, you're right, was a stretch). The WRX is a sporty small sedan/wagon that's available in the mid-$20K range - I'd say it matches up well with the Hornet X, which was trying to be a pocket muscle car on a budget. It's today's car in that class, slotted into that class in 1976.

5. The Accord/Camry/Altima family is more of a mid-size car, and I'd view them more in the Matador class. I totally agree with you about the splash they'd make, but I think we're mis-aligned by one class.

6. I totally agree on the minivan piece - I hadn't originally thought of it, but it's a great idea. It won't be a Pacer, though - I have other plans for that.

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