T hough Challengers, Chargers, Mustangs and similar stable mates still dominated the streets of America in the spring of 1970, a new wind was beginning to blow across the land. Governmental regulations and restrictions were gradually transforming the entire automotive industry, and the lowly Volkswagen “Bug,” a car that was enjoying increasing popularity for several years because of its price and economy, was about to be challenged by cars produced by American auto makers.
There was little in the new car line-up of 1969 to indicate that the American auto industry was adapting to a new trend, as “big” and “fast” still dominated the showrooms. In the styling studios and engineering departments, however, it was another matter entirely.
Specifically, General Motors and Ford were well on their way to introducing small, fuel-efficient passenger cars in the fall of 1970 for the 1971 model year. However, in the swashbuckling tradition of Crosley, Hudson, Studebaker and Hupmobile, America’s last independent, American Motors Corp., with ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking, beat the big boys to the punch by months.
The independent manufacturers had often survived and prospered in deft displays of illusion, and the Gremlin, introduced on April Fools’ Day of 1970, was the latest manifestation of that tradition. Utilizing the existing Hornet chassis, AMC Vice-President of Styling Dick Teague shaved 12 inches from the wheelbase and designed a unique rear section with a hatchback that made it impossible to confuse AMC’s new car with anything else on the road.
If one wanted a hot-looking Gremlin, the Gremlin X was the answer.
With a base price of $1,879 for the two-passenger model with fixed rear window and no back seat, the car was an instant hit. Buyers swamped dealerships, and orders inundated the factories. As a result, first-year sales greatly exceeded corporate projections.
Early advertising brochures showed a Gremlin and Volkswagen side-by-side, leaving little doubt as to the market AMC was shooting for. Text in the brochures continued the comparison by noting the Gremlin was 7 inches lower, 10 inches wider and had a turning radius 3 feet less than the VW.
In an effort to ride the wave of success with maximum profit, AMC chose package options and mechanical improvement rather than extensive modifications for the next several model years. For 1971, the Gremlin X, with its unique trim appearance, became a popular addition.
In 1972, the formerly optional electric windshield wiper motor became standard equipment, replacing the antiquated vacuum system. Additionally, electric windshield washers also became standard equipment. The front suspension was improved, and the old-fashioned, maintenance-heavy optional Borg-Warner automatic transmission was replaced with the Chrysler TorqueFlite unit.
A wide array of options enabled buyers to personalize the Gremlin. Disc brakes, inside hood release and sunroof proved to be a few of the more popular items to have. However, the most exciting had to be the 304-cid V-8 rated at 150 hp; that boosted the price by a mere $154 over the standard six-cylinder engine.
Early advertising showed an AMC Gremlin and Volkswagen side by side, leaving little doubt as to the market AMC was shooting for.
The theme of offering unique packages and options continued for the 1973 model year. Perhaps the most intriguing feature came under license from Levi Strauss; it was an interior group that included seat covers of spun nylon that simulated denim, complete with the Levi’s tag, orange stitching and copper rivets. The door panels, covered in the same material, continued the theme on the map pockets.
The following year, the Gremlin received a mild face lift that was most noticeable in the bumpers and grille. Mechanically, there was little change, and the 304-cid V-8 engine was still optional.
For the 1975 model year, AMC introduced the flip side to the truncated, sharp-edged Gremlin ‘ the rounded bubble of the Pacer. Even though it quickly became fodder for late-night television comics, the Pacer, unlike the Gremlin, was designed as the car of the future as envisioned by the company’s “philosophy of difference.”
Though it initially sold well, the Pacer was everything the Gremlin was not. Even worse, it was perceived as a small car, though its fuel economy ‘ 16 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway ‘ was little better than larger luxury cars of the time. As the car was far heavier than the Gremlin, but utilized the same engine, performance was barely adequate, at least until 1978, when the 304-cid V-8 became an option.
After its initial sales peak in mid 1976, the Pacer began its slide into oblivion and derision, with the last model produced in December of 1979. The Gremlin, however, continued to enjoy relatively steady sales.
For the 1977 model year, the Gremlin was given the first major redesign since its introduction. Even though the body retained the same configuration as the original, four full inches were removed from the front sheet metal. Other body changes included a new grille and bumpers.
Mechanically, the most-heralded change was the replacement of the V-8 engine option with a four-cylinder engine option; the six-cylinder was the standard engine. The highly advanced fuel-frugal four-cylinder was built by VW/Audi and was rated at 80 hp.
Following on the heels of the 1977 redesign, Gremlin received an interior update for 1978, its final year. Color-keyed carpet, custom sport steering wheel and AM radio were now standard.
Today, the Gremlin has almost vanished from the streets of America. However, as it has come to represent a generation, it is just quirky enough in design to attract those who march to a different drummer, plus the car is relatively fuel efficient. Those that have survived are rapidly becoming cherished icons.