One of my pet peeves are “worst cars of all time” lists, partly because they are so predictable (Edsel, Pinto, Vega, Gremlin, Subaru 360 etc. etc.), but also because they usually include cars whose makers could point to some level of success, either as innovators or because they sold lots of them. Cars become punchlines and get stigmatized with urban legends. I’m not saying that Chevy Vegas didn’t start rusting before they left the Lordstown factory, but if you’re going to mock it as a failure, at least mock it as an interesting failure. After all, there are people who collect and restore Vegas and if you are a car enthusiast they are worthy of as much of your respect as folks who own and treasure Duesenbergs.
Now I happen to be attracted to the unusual and the obscure, which has almost necessarily led me to have an interest in failed car companies. My lottery list includes a 1956 Packard Patrician and a 1937 Pierce Arrow so it’s easy to understand that Ypsilanti’s Orphan Car Show is on my calendar every year. Since the Orphan Car Show was founded by the Hudson enthusiasts who earlier established the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum in the world’s last surviving Hudson dealership, it always has large contingents of cars representing Hudson, Nash and American Motors. There are always at least a couple of AMC Pacers, one of the usual suspects on worst cars of all time lists.
No doubt the Pacer was an odd looking car, with its short hood and fishbowl of a passenger compartment, but the design was well executed and it looks that way for a reason. The Pacer was originally designed to be powered by a rotary engine that AMC was going to build itself, licensed by Curtiss-Wright which owned the rights in the United States. When building such a novel engine themselves proved to be too costly, AMC decided to buy the Wankel rotary that General Motors was itself developing.
While they generally made their own engines, AMC was used to buying transmissions and other major components from the Big 3 or their tier one suppliers, so the arrangement was not that unusual, and GM was spending real money putting their version of the Wankel into production. The compact, powerful twin rotor engine that GM was developing would have fit with space to spare in the engine compartment of the Pacer.
Unfortunately for AMC, GM decided that it would be a struggle to get their new rotary engine to meet the increasingly stringent emission standards enacted in the 1970s, and after spending about $200 million, they killed the project.
AMC had already spent most of their development budget on the new car and they had no choice but to put it into production by shoehorning their venerable inline six into the Pacer. The heavier engine affected the Pacer’s road manners and also meant the finished product didn’t get great gas mileage, which became a bigger and bigger factor as the 1970s went on. Though it sold well in its first year, 1975, Pacer sales tailed off. Since so much of their budget was devoted to the new car, the rest of AMC’s lineup aged and was no longer competitive, leading first to Renault’s investment and finally to Chrysler’s acquisition of AMC, mostly to get the Jeep brand which AMC had bought from Kaiser in 1970.
Joseph Ligo is a senior at Westiminster College, majoring in Broadcast and Digital Communications. Some time ago he contacted me to get permission to use some photographs that I had taken of the ready-for-production GM rotary engine that coincidentally is on display at the Ypsilanti museum (the GM Wankel was developed at GM’s Hydramatic facility in Ypsilanti). Joe was putting together a documentary about the Pacer and since the GM rotary is an important part of the story, I was glad to provide clearances for his use of my photos and offer him help getting media access to AMC club events.
When I asked him “why the Pacer?”, Ligo told me,
I chose the Pacer because there are already plenty of books and movies about Mustangs, Corvettes, and other popular cars. The Pacer is a car most people know of but don’t know about. It’s unique but not obscure. My goal was to show a truly different side of the car, going beyond all the Wayne’s World jokes and “Top Ten Worst Car” lists. A lot of my inspiration came from the great books by Patrick R. Foster on American Motors Corporation.I’ve had a passion for cars since I was young, but I’ve always loved cars that were just a little different. My fascination with AMC started when I learned there was a 4th U.S. automaker who tried to compete with the big three. The fact that there was a choice other than GM, Ford, or Chrysler was something I found really cool.
I love telling stories through video. I think automotive stories are very interesting ones to tell, because they go so much deeper than just the car itself. They are stories of companies, people, politics, art, science, and passion.
A few weeks ago Joe emailed me to tell me that the final product, The Unfortunate History of the AMC Pacer, had its premiere and that the documentary is now available for viewing on YouTube. It’s embedded at the top of this post.
I’m impressed with the film. Ligo not only gives a fairly comprehensive look at the history of the Pacer itself, he also does a good job putting the Pacer into the context of AMC’s overall history. When large operations with considerable budgets like The History Channel or National Geographic make sloppy historical mistakes about automobiles, it’s nice to see the consistent high quality of Ligo’s work. I’m a quibbler by nature but as far as I can tell, he got the AMC Pacer’s story down correctly.
Though you can watch it for free online, and though it was originally produced as a school project, Mr. Ligo has professional ambitions and the film is made to professional standards. That professionalism includes getting all the necessary clearances so that Ligo can sell the video commercially and should he do so, I’m sure that it will be popular with AMC and Pacer enthusiasts. There’s already word that it may show up on one of the automotive related cable networks.
You can see more of Joseph Ligo’s work at his website: http://josephmligo.weebly.com/
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS