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Project AMC--AMC Pacer

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

Neo-1976 AMC Pacer 1976 AMC Pacer--2010 Toyota Prius

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:

8 a.m.
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.

Ur-1976 AMC Pacer 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.

10 a.m.
Neo-1976 AMC Pacer 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.

11 a.m.
Ur-1976 AMC Pacer 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.

1:30 p.m.
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.)


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Y'know... now that you mention it, yeah, that hatch does kind of resemble a Pacer.

Wow, a 4-door Pacer! Now that's moving ahead with technology. I can't wait to see what Podell draws next.

I Guess That Means Theres No Pacer Wagon Then...


I hear that a recent indiscretion on the ski slopes has altered Project AMC to stand for 'Autograph My Cast'. True?


Talk about timing!!

Chris, I was about to send you this as yet another CarLust post hopeful:

Here's the same one but with zoom, but black-and-white:

Sadly true, UJ - sadly true.

Despite the coolness of this current post, I am left wondering what would have happened if the original Pacer had, in fact, gotten that rotary engine that it was designed around.

Ummmmmmmmmm... I'm with you guys on this whole thing but, SERIOUSLY? The other cars were technological leaps but "hybrid synergy drive" is Star Trek compared to the other stuff.

Is your gripe that the Prius is just so advanced that it wouldn't be servicable in 1976? I wouldn't disagree with that - I have no expectation that anybody would be able to service any of these cars. In fact, I'm planning on the whole technological shock-and-awe program falling apart by the end of 1976 when everybody figures out that once these cars break (or even need maintenance) they pretty much stay broken.

But if the goal was to a) mirror the original car's purpose but in a modern way and b) shock the bejeezus out of 1976 automotive journalists, I think the Prius is a *perfect* neo-Pacer.

"In fact, I'm planning on the whole technological shock-and-awe program falling apart by the end of 1976 when everybody figures out that once these cars break (or even need maintenance) they pretty much stay broken."

Any more hints on how the endgame will play out? What will happen if/when The New AMC's secret hits the networks? I have a mental image of the public having a mass existential panic ("TIME-TRAVELLERS IN OUR MIDST!!!! KNOWLEDGE MANKIND WAS NOT YET MEANT TO HAVE!!!! THE VERY FABRIC OF TIME AND SPACE IS IN PERIL!!!!"), and angry mobs marching on AMC dealerships with pitchforks and torches. Or maybe the mobs are angry because the timing belts snapped on their Gremlins and their fancy twin-cam engines got trashed...

On the other hand, it's fun while it lasts, and since Chris keeps leaving the keys in the time machine....I got the '63 Lark Wagonaire mentioned in the last installment straight off the showroom floor at Altman Studebaker in South Bend. Went back the next day for an R3 Avanti in stunning pastel turquoise. It's surprisingly easy to build up a collection of mint-condition low-mileage classics when you have the luxury of paying pre-inflation prices with post-inflation dollars.

It's also doing wonders for my early retirement ambitions. I mean, do you have any idea what an unrestored mint-condition '53 Packard Caribbean with less than 1,000 miles on the clock goes for at Barrett-Jackson? The arbitrage, the return on investment--as the kids say, it's epic. :-)

Chris, no disrespect, I simply see it as a "bridge too far."

How bout the Nissan Versa? It's huge inside, small on the outside, many people think is supremely ugly (I'm not one of them, but hey), it gets good fuel economy... the hatch version sounds like a successor to the Pacer to me. Six speed manual or optional CVT and then the butt kicker of the fact that you'd be stealing a French Renault design from Nissan to attempt to save AMC which (of course) hooked up with Renault in a desperate attempt to soldier on in the early 1980s.

In some ways, the modern descendant of the Pacer just might be the Honda Fit. Yes, it's a lot smaller, but like the Pacer it was designed from the inside out to maximize the use of space. Like the Pacer, it looks weird to some, great to others. I know it wouldn't fit the 'shock and awe' goal of the story as well as the Prius, but people would still be shocked with a odd-looking small car with the space, performance and fuel economy of a Fit back in 1976.

I wonder what'll replace the Matador coupe? An old Chrysler Intrepid? Passat CC? Honda Accord Coupe? Looking forward to finding out!

This is a great idea, but instead of importing (err-timeporting?) cars from today to the 1970's, just send the engines and transmissions (and maybe the fancier bits of the braking system) into the past. Send the Tech, not the toys.

Use existing technology to build the frames and bodies (but have them designed and tested up here); that should keep you in budget.

Sell the Dealers the 'black-box' diagnostic tech for cheap, but insist that the modules they replace be sent back to the factory (Immediately!) for repair.

While you're at it, have a deep talk with Chrysler about cross-licensing their turbine - it'd be fantastic hooked to a modern alternator as power for a hybrid! - or in a stationary Genset for remote locations!

You know...I've been following this thread and it is all kinds of awesome. However, I think that one of the things that would really stand out to a mid 70s reviewer would be the stereo system in these cars. In the late 70s, the first thing you did if you liked music was pull the factory radio and stick in a Pioneer Super Tuner, amp, and some 6x9 3 way speakers. If you were a real adiophile you added a graphic equalizer. The stereos these days are just light years ahead of those and FM would sound as good in 1976 as it does now if listened to on a modern stereo. I know I am spoiled by the quality of factory sound systems now. Just my $.02

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