Project AMC--AMC Pacer
The following is an excerpt from a diary kept by Motoring Magazine Road Test Editor Tom Kelly, dated March 1, 1976--the date on which the revitalized American Motors Corporation released its second-generation Pacer to the press for evaluation:
For whatever reason, readers seem to enjoy my live-journaling of AMC launches, so I'm going to keep doing it--this time from Chicago for the relaunch of the AMC Pacer. Launching the new Pacer in a major city promises a more conventional debut than what AMC has given us for the Gremlin and Hornet/Eagle, which took place at Riverside Raceway and on Western Washington gravel roadways, respectively.
Looking back, it's interesting to note how blase I was for the last two launches. With the Gremlin launch, I was expecting something more along the lines of a death rattle from the reconstituted AMC. For the Hornet and Eagle launch, I was skeptical that AMC could possibly top the Gremlin. This time, I'd like to think I'm ready for any surprise AMC springs on me.
The first such surprise is that AMC is replacing the Pacer at all. The Gremlin and Hornet, yes, I understand--they badly needed replacement. But the Pacer first hit showrooms only about 12 months ago, and its styling, visibility, and space-efficiency were all considered radically futuristic. It certainly looks less radical next to the new AMC models, but it's easy to see bits of the Pacer in those aerodynamic and space-efficient cars as well. The Pacer has also been a sales success, selling about 150,000 units in its first year.
So why replace a car that is already notably futuristic and debuted only a year ago? I guess I'll find out soon.
Well, I just arrived at the convention center and received our immediate agenda. Unlike other launches, we're not driving off to some remote location. Instead, we'll be driving the new Pacer 90 miles from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee. There always seems to be a twist, though, and the twist this time is that we'll be making the drive on only two gallons of gas.
The idea that a passenger car could average at least 45 mpg would seem totally laughable were it not for AMC's recent track record with technological innovation--and by recent, I mean the last 60 days. But even still ... the brand new subcompact Gremlin only gets around 30 mpg with that advanced AMC technology, and it's hard to imagine a larger car improving that figure by a full 15 mpg.
If AMC has figured this out, it could be huge news. With the OPEC embargo and fuel crisis, Americans have been clamoring for high-mileage cars. AMC's new line of cars has earned accolades at least in part because they provide supercar performance with economy-car mileage, but if AMC is giving Americans a car that completely redefines what people can expect for fuel economy it could be a game-changer. That's the possibility that has the press corps buzzing.
On the other hand, if AMC doesn't have this figured out, I'm guessing we'll have that same press corps stranded on the side of I-94 in their new-age Pacers.
The Gremlin and Hornet are interesting cars to look at in their weirdly streamlined, non-traditional way, but they have--at best--only a slight resemblance to the cars they replaced. But the new Pacer ... well, let's just say that when I first clapped eyes on it, I knew it couldn't be anything other than a Pacer. Yes, it's taller and more slab-sided than last year's wide-body, but I'd recognize that glassy, hunchbacked profile, cheerfully vacant smile, and gawky stance anywhere.
According to AMC PR chief David Colborne, the new Pacer continues the mission of the old one--combining innovative powertrain technology with surprising people-carrying ability. The new Pacer comes only in four-door hatchback form, seats five easily, and can swallow surprising amounts of cargo. The innovative powertrain, though, is the real shocker.
Rather than the GM rotary upon which AMC pinned its hopes for the first-generation Pacer, the new one is going electric. But the Pacer isn't a dismal little penalty box like the Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar--it's bigger, more powerful, more useful, and, weirdly, more conventional. It's also not strictly electric, following instead in the footsteps of the rotary/electric hybrid Buick Skylark that Victor Wouk built and has been shopping around to the EPA for the last few years.
Like Wouk's Skylark, the new Pacer pairs a conventional gasoline engine with additional power from an electric motor. The major difference is that the Pacer can actually perform--it can do the 0-60 sprint in the 9-second range and can almost hit 120 mph. That's obviously not in the league of the more performance-oriented AMCs we've marveled over for the last two months, but it qualifies as genuinely quick compared to the more conventional offerings on the market. For context, this is quicker and faster than a Saab 99 EMS sports coupe, but compared to the Saab, the Pacer is larger, can carry more people, and gets dramatically better fuel economy.
The key appears to be increased efficiency from an enhanced AMC-tech four-cylinder engine--completely different than the four-cylinders we've seen in other new AMC cars--and some exotic new batteries that AMC is refusing to discuss in detail. The batteries seem to me to be the key to the whole thing. I'd be surprised if a car could achieve this kind of performance with conventional lead-acid batteries, and anything more advanced than those would be big news for a variety of industries, perhaps even the military. Perhaps AMC has ambitions outside the automotive industry?
I continue to have larger questions about AMC as well, such as how they're developing advanced technology on this scale, and how they are producing cars while paying their factory staff to stay home. Hornets and Eagles are just now beginning to pop up in showrooms, but I'm already beginning to see Gremlins on the roads in real numbers--how can they do that without staff or raw materials?
In an effort to make sense of all this, I proposed to Colborne that we take a mere 10-mile detour from our route to AMC's headquarters in Kenosha so that we could meet the designers, engineers, and workers responsible for the new Pacer. He shot me an odd look, forced a smile, and explained that there wouldn't be time in the schedule for that particular detour.
He did, however, have an apparent brainstorm. He called over an oddly gloomy Chief Designer Rob Podell and explained that Podell would be riding along with me. "The new Pacer is Rob's favorite car," chuckled Colborne, giving the stony-faced designer an inscrutable smile and a hearty slap on the back. "He could not be more excited about hybrid technology."
As a matter of fact, Podell seemed singularly unenthusiastic, but at least he helped me carry the two gallon jugs of gasoline out to our Pacer.
Rob didn't exactly cheer up during the course of the trip. When I marveled about the Pacer's airy cockpit, its advanced computerized displays, and the fuel gauge's stubborn reluctance to drop all the way down to the empty line, Podell grunted and gave me monosyballic replies--though he did mutter for a while about battery disposal and something about a Honda being a prelude to something or other.
As far as I was concerned, it was a fantastic drive. When we were pouring in the fuel, the two gallons of gasoline seemed an impossibly tiny amount to power a car for any real distance. But as we inched our way out of downtown Chicago through rush-hour traffic, the Pacer's engine hardly even ran. The constant stop-and-go helped recharge the batteries, and we were under silent and surprisingly powerful electric power much of the time.
When we hit the freeway, the Pacer's gasoline engine ran constantly. It certainly wasn't as powerful as the other AMC four-cylinders I've felt over the past few months, but compared to non-AMCs, it was just fine, comparable in power to the AMC straight six or a smogged-up, low-compression GM V-8.
We made it to downtown Milwaukee with fuel to spare, so I'd guess that we beat the 45-mpg target with ease, with no obvious compromise for the fantastic mileage, particularly compared to non-AMC cars. Compared with the new AMCs, the Pacer is much less viscerally exciting, but it's still quick and astonishingly efficient.
I spent the drive trying to come to grips with the implications of the Pacer for a post-OPEC Embargo world, and I'm still not quite sure I've explored all the ramifications for fuel savings and energy independence. But at the very least, the new Pacer appears to have fully satisfied the original Pacer's mission--to transport a family of the 1970s with performance and fuel economy right out of the bright future of the 1980s.
One thing is safe to say--I have no idea what to expect when AMC launches the new Matador in April.
--Tom K. (via Chris H.)