The 1970s were a decade of unusual challenge and change for the United States auto industry. When the decade began, the most popular cars coming out of Detroit were still getting larger every year. The majority of American car buyers were still following the mantra that “bigger means better.”
Yet by 1975, fuel shortages and the first Arab oil embargo had made big cars less appealing. Thus was born the 1975-’80 American Motors Pacer, the most unusual new small car of the decade that somehow missed the target and eventually failed in the marketplace.
By 1975, buyers wanted smaller, more economical cars to combat the run-up in fuel costs resulting from the first energy crisis. AMC had long championed smaller automobiles starting with the Nash Rambler in the ’50s. The 1950 Rambler was the first successful U.S. small car in the post-World War II era. After Nash became part of the newly formed American Motors in 1954, the Rambler went on to become the main product of AMC. During the ’60s, many other car companies moved into AMC’s small-car territory. By the ’70s, even though AMC liked to believe it was the small car leader, there was a lot of competition.
American Motors did have a new small car in the pipeline when the energy crisis first hit in 1973 and 1974, but the Pacer had been conceived with design objectives that no longer applied by 1975. General Motors had been developing a radical new type of automobile engine for several years — the Wankel rotary engine. AMC had a tentative agreement with GM to buy rotary engines for a new line of compact cars AMC was designing. The Pacer was designed to be powered by the Wankel engine and, as a result, had a very short, sloping hood.
The basic design objective for the Pacer apparently was to build a truly compact small car in terms of overall length for better maneuverability, but at the same time, make it wider so that it would have a passenger cabin that was as roomy as larger cars. The result was marketed as “the first wide small car.” AMC wasn’t kidding: the front seat had the width and room of a mid-size Ford Torino or a Chevrolet Chevelle, yet the overall length compared to a Chevrolet Vega. A tiny Vega was 176 inches long while the Pacer was only 170 inches in length. Yet, inside the Pacer, seating accommodations for four people were roomy. That was because the Pacer was almost a full foot wider than the Vega. Glass was everywhere with huge, tall windows in all directions. The door windows were so tall that there was not sufficient room inside the doors to allow the windows to roll down all the way. The protruding glass was protected by a built-up window sill. The abbreviated overall length was obtained by minimal overhang front and rear.
After GM cancelled the Wankel rotary engine project because it couldn’t get good fuel mileage out of rotary engines, AMC had to squeeze its own 232-cid OHV inline six-cylinder engines under the short Pacer hood by pushing the engine back into the firewall. The larger-displacement AMC 258-cid engine was a Pacer option. Both of these engines had the same outside dimensions.
The Pacer was a two-door coupe with a hatchback rear. There were more innovations: the passenger door was four inches longer than the driver’s door to provide easier entrance for back seat riders entering from the curb side. Upholstery and interior trim were downright sumptuous.
It was one of the first American cars to provide rack-and-pinion steering. The purpose of this unique combination of design attributes, claimed AMC, was to provide nimble handling, because of the rack and pinion steering and short length, yet superior stability and interior room, due to the width of the car and the wide tread.
But some features didn’t come out so well. The Pacer weighed more than 3,100 lbs. — heavier than the original design objectives. As AMC’s chief designer Dick Teague told me several years later, too many people got involved adding things to the design that weren’t necessary, and the car became bloated. The AMC six-cylinder engines used in the Pacer were designed to power larger cars, so they did not deliver the top fuel mileage buyers were now seeking. After two years of production, V-8 engines were made optional to provide better performance, but that increased the curb weight to more than 3,400 lbs. and only made the mileage worse.
The Pacer was introduced March 1, 1975, in the middle of the 1975 model year. Sales got off to a good start with 96,769 built in 1975. The following year, the brisk sales pace continued with 117,244 cars built. AMC thought it had a winner on its hands, but then sales slowed dramatically. For 1977, a station wagon version was added. It looked very similar to the coupe and sold 37,999 copies, considerably better than the coupe, which found only 20,265 buyers for the 1977 model year.
Then things went from bad to worse. Total production for the 1978 model year, both coupes and wagons, only reached 21,231 units, in spite of the addition of a V-8 engine option. Production for 1979 dropped by half again, with only 10,215 Pacers built. By December 1979, after only 1,746 1980 model Pacers had been built, production ended.
It was an embarrassingly early death for the Pacer. AMC had spent millions of dollars in the early ’70s to design and tool up the Pacer and another new model — the Matador fastback. These two cars were costly to develop, because they shared few body components, and both were marketplace failures.
The Pacer turned out to be the last new car that AMC designed and brought to market before the company was bought by Chrysler in 1987.
The Pacer failed because of its mediocre fuel mileage, and probably its primary marketing gimmick, its width. It’s “fish bowl” styling didn’t win over enough car buyers, and it was never the nimble performer that a small car of the era needed to be.
For a “small car,” the Pacer was simply too big, and too heavy.