By on January 11, 2014

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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.

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1975 American Motors Pacer. Full gallery here.

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.

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1976 AMC Pacer. Full gallery here.

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.

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General Motors Rotary engine. Full gallery here.

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.

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1977 Pacer ‘woodie’ station wagon. Full gallery here.

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.

1983 Spirit GT. AMC put so much of their limited development budget into the Pacer that the rest of their lineup stagnated. This Spirit is pretty much the same car... (Full gallery here)

1983 Spirit GT. AMC put so much of their limited development budget into the Pacer that the rest of their lineup stagnated. This 1983 Spirit … (Full gallery here)

 

... was the same basic car as this 1970 Hornet, itself based on an early '60s Rambler. Full gallery here.

… was a variant of this 1970 Hornet, itself mechanically based on an early ’60s Rambler. The last Hornet based AMC car was the ahead-of-its-time Eagle 4X4, which went out of production in 1988. Full gallery here.

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.

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The Pacer X was offered from 1975 through 1977. Mostly a trim package, it did come with a sway bar and a floor shifter. Full gallery here.

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.

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This 1980 Pacer wagon features the restyled Pacer’s more formal grille, which make it look even odder. Full gallery here.

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. 

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A Pacer racer. This Pacer raced in IMSA. Surprisingly, though the Pacer was eventually offered with a V8, this race car features AMC’s tried and true inline six. Full gallery here.

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.

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This 1976 Pacer features a two tone exterior…

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.

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… and a wild 1970s style interior. Full gallery here.

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

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90 Comments on “Movie Review: Joseph Ligo’s The Unfortunate History of the AMC Pacer...”


  • avatar
    Syke

    I’ve got a lot of wheel time in a ’75 Pacer as a woman I was dating back then bought one of the first one’s on the market. Six cylinder with a three-speed manual, floor shift.

    They’re unfairly slagged as a failure as a small car. The Pacer wasn’t a small car. It was a full-sized car without the overhangs. Think an Ambassador with the hood shortened and the trunk cut off. For what it was, it was a decent car. Unfortunately, it had all the weight and soft handling of a ’75 era full-sized car.

    A wonderful example of why I miss the old American Motors. Probably the last interesting American car manufacturer.

    • 0 avatar
      993cc

      “It was a full-sized car without the overhangs.” And then they went and squeezed the back seat between the back wheel wells, taking a foot off of each side.

      There was so much to like in the concept. In execution? So disappointing.

      • 0 avatar
        3Deuce27

        The Fiat ‘Multipla’ addressed the Pacer packaging issues.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiat_Multipla

        • 0 avatar
          993cc

          I never thought of the parallels, but you’re right. No wonder I like both designs.

          I Know Fiat had an earlier Multipla based on the rear engined 600. Was Fiat building a Multipla in ’75?

          • 0 avatar
            3Deuce27

            Reg; ” Was Fiat building a Multipla in ’75?

            No, but I recall that the design staff had the Pacer in mind when they designed the 98′ Multipla.

            The Multipla-2 is still built in China as the Langyue.

            The Multipla, is another good car on the worst lists.

            I pay no attention to those lists, most people are petty in their prejudices and have no clue as to good design. As mentioned here, the mid fifties Studebakers, are a prime example. Beautiful, advanced, modern design, and few were bought.

        • 0 avatar
          Beerboy12

          Yes, because it is wide.

      • 0 avatar
        Monty

        My mother owned a ’75 Pacer, on which I put probably 30K miles (as long as I was willing to drop her off and pick her up from her job and keep it filled with gas, I got the car with no questions asked).

        That car, even though possessing underwhelming acceleration, was one of the best highway cruisers I’ve ever driven. With the 258 I6 and 3 spd auto, it could be best described as plodding, but once up to speed, it was smooth, stable and cornered well.

        Gas mileage was not great, we had to re-pin the driver’s door more than once, and reseat the side windows multiple times, but other than that, it was a paragon of reliability. By the time she traded it in for a Fiat 128 Spider, she’d had owned it 4 or 5 years and it had more than 100K miles of use. My Mom’s only regret about that car was buying a used one with the auto. She now wishes that she had pulled the trigger on a new one and ordered it with a stick.

    • 0 avatar
      69firebird

      Love the pacer in the last 2 pictures.Definitely not Toyota beige.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    For all those folks who complain about chopped tops on new cars and their poor greenhouse visibility, check it out, here is what you want.

    • 0 avatar

      +1

      There’s nothing I hate more about modern cars than the slit windows.

      The Pacer is certainly an unusual car, but I think it’s a great piece of styling. Most of today’s cars are ugly in a rather bland way. The Pacer is neither ugly nor bland.

      The Subaru Impreza wagons of the late ’90s look like toned down Pacers.

      Finally, lists (such as the 10 worst cars) are click bait. They’re designed to get views, and not to transmit valuable information.

      • 0 avatar
        nrd515

        There is a point where too much greenhouse/too deep glass makes any vehicle, not matter how good the rest of the design is, look bad. The Pacer is way beyond that point. It wasn’t that bad a car, mechanically, but like the awful looking AMC Matador 2 door, it’s considered quite ugly by most people. There’s nothing I hate on cars made in the past as windows/greenhouses that are too big. I don’t see how having windows that allow me to see the bottom of a car next to me do anything but make the car/truck I’m driving really ugly. Give me high beltlines forever!

    • 0 avatar
      James2

      More glass area here than 2 or 3 of today’s cars combined.

    • 0 avatar
      dtremit

      Eh, sorta, but not quite. The styling choices on the Pacer really emphasize the dimensions. The weird glass, low beltline, low hood, and pronounced side contouring all contribute heavily toward the look without really adding any functionality.

      I don’t think you’d actually lose any visibility if you blocked off the bottom three inches of the Pacer’s front and side glass.

  • avatar

    That was an enjoyable film. I think Mr. Ligo has a bright future as a documentary film maker ahead. I wish the History channel still showed things like this.

  • avatar
    old5.0

    I’ve lusted after a 71 Hornet SC/360 since childhood. Sometimes it was actually AMC who had the better idea.

    • 0 avatar
      NMGOM

      Yeah. And some other small car makers that got unfairly maligned.

      I am thinking of Studebaker, which was leaps-and-bounds more advanced than the “Big Three” at the time, and just couldn’t make it in sales volume.
      Yes, it looked a little funny, with its 1950′s rocket-ship design, but what a car! That design induced snarly remarks like “Why don’t you go out and stabbed by a Studebaker!”

      Oh well. See Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studebaker

      —————–

      • 0 avatar

        My father was stationed in the Soviet Union during WWII. At the time, there were loads of studebaker trucks in USSR, from the Lend Lease program. They did incredibly well there, under terrible conditions–extremely cold winters, bad roads, etc. The Studebakers actually helped break the ice between the GIs and the local people. A Studebaker would go by, and the Russian would say, “Studebaker haroshe” (Studeaker is excellent, or something to that effect).

        My father, who became an expert on the Soviet economy, once calculated that the Studebakers probably took a couple of months off of the war. (I do’nt remember the details, and he checked out a decade ago.)

      • 0 avatar
        old5.0

        The 53 Studebakers, particularly in Starlite and Starliner coupe form, were light years ahead of the Big 3 in terms of design. Compare a 53 Stude to a 53 Ford/Chevy/Plymouth, and it’s almost like you’re looking at cars from two different decades.

      • 0 avatar
        Aleister Crowley

        1953-54 Studebaker Starliner was so far ahead of its time style wise it’s just incredible. That was a beautiful car. It speak volumes about the public’s taste in cars that it wasn’t more successful. I always liked the Pacer as well. My dad had one as a company car and we would get smiles and waves where ever we went. It was a good design but as the author pointed out fate intervened and it was not to be.
        For more on the Studebaker Starliner http://www.automobilemag.com/features/news/25_most_beautiful_cars/0609_studebaker_starliner/

  • avatar
    mkirk

    I’m not a goat fan of swapping engines from other makes into a car, but given the history of this I think the world needs a Renesis powered Pacer.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      There is a great alternate history in that notion. AMC makes the radical decision to cozy up to Mazda after GM stiffs them on the Wankel. The Pacer does debut with the intended engine.

      Would it have been any more successful?

      • 0 avatar

        The gas mileage probably would have been even worse, but the driving dynamics a lot better.

        Anyone who wants to see my analysis of the Wankel, send me your email to HolzmanDC (at) outlookdotcom and as soon as I scan it, I’ll send it.

      • 0 avatar

        Basically, the configuration of the Wankel combustion chamber is the worst for gas mileage. The ideal would be spherical; the Wankel is flat, leading to heat loss.

        There are a bunch of other details though that aggravate the situation.

      • 0 avatar
        mkirk

        It is difficult to imagine hearing that engine note in a Pacer. But it would be awesome. However the Mazda wankels of the Pacer era were even more gutless torque wise than the modern ones. Anyway I would imagine the experience would be like running my old EX250 Ninja down the highway at 90 MPH with the motor spinning at 13 grand which is to say awesome in its own way, but not likely something I’d have wanted to do daily.

      • 0 avatar
        Beerboy12

        No. The Mazda rotary is very heavy on gas and not that reliable. Oil leaks + burning oil and high revving, low torque dynamics are OK in the RX sports cars but not in your daily driver.

  • avatar
    Doc

    I was thinking about the seemingly endless worst car lists that have been done after watching the Top Gear (UK) special that they did about this. The special was funny but certainly did not address truly bad cars.

    Every one of these lists seems to include certain vehicles that are not bad but have become punchlines like you say.

    These include, in addition to the Pacer: the Pontiac Aztek, Delorean DMC12, Hummer H2,H3 etc, Plymouth Prowler, Chevy SSR, Edsel (Usually just listed as Edsel with no specific vehicle mentioned). The Briklin SV-1 seems to be on a lot of these lists also.

    Speaking of the Delorean and Briklin, if being made by a start-up company that failed relatively quickly qualifies the vehicle for the worst car list, then how come I never see the Tucker 48 on any of these lists?

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      The problem with these worst car lists is, there is no specific definition of what makes a car bad. Inevitably these lists include cars that fall into a variety of categories.
      1. Cars that were under-engineered or poorly built.
      2. Cars that were market failures.
      3. Cars that were considered weird or ugly.
      4. Cars that were the wrong designs for their time.
      5. Cars that were last ditch efforts by dying companies.
      6. Cars made by failed start-ups.
      7. Cars featuring engineering concepts which were ahead of the current manufacturing technology.

      • 0 avatar
        rudiger

        One of my favorites that sometimes makes the really long worst car lists is the ’69-’70 Mustang Boss 302. Yet, it can occasionally be found on other ‘best’ car lists, too!

        The problem is that the Boss 302 engine, like other detuned race engines (i.e., 426 Hemi) was a high-strung, race-oriented engine, ill-suited for street use. But they were great on the track, so it’s the one car that gets listed on both worst and best car lists.

        Personally, I think the ’70-’71 Hemi-Cuda should be in the same category. It was an absolutely horrendous, expensive, high-maintenance, poor-driving, slow-selling car when new that now enjoys one of the highest values of any domestic car on the auction block.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    He did a great job on the documentary! Many folks don’t remember that the Pacer helped bring rack and pinion steering to the common man. They should have made the deep window tinting standard.

    My college neighbor’s dad sold AMC…I believe there was talk about cost constraints and AMC mulling over having the Pacer offered only in package levels, much like the Japanese were doing at the time. Strippo, custom, deluxe, luxury or something like that.

    I had a Hornet hatchback at the time – I loved that car. It was a pretty base model with the 232 and automatic, PB, PS…but it was great for hauling my college stuff back and forth and got decent mileage. It was always a crap shoot as to which supplier AMC cozied up to for components. IIRC my Hornet had a Ford starter, Chrysler alternator and regulator, GM heating system, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      agent534

      .

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Even down to the GM ignition switch and keys (though I remember stuff like Hydra-Matic transmissions from GM being used in AMC products–even though I was 8 years-old, my Grandmother had brought me a Motor Trend subscription)!

      IMHO, all of the AMC designs were a little oddball-looking, especially the last Matador coupes. Don’t get me started on the C-pillar of the earliest and most recognizable Gremlin, which seems to be the inspiration for the Nissan Juke, Kia Soul, and a host of others in the late 2000s and 2010s. (Yuck!) The Hornet and derivatives were OK, and eventually, that odd C-pillar was changed; not sure if that was for the Spirit/Eagle only, or if there was a year or two of Gremlin with the more conventional look.

      Documentary itself was fantastic quality! This is an UNDERGRAD production, right? (Better than some professional stuff on the cable channels!)

  • avatar
    bfisch81

    Great flick! There are so few oddball-ish cars on the market today. I drive one, a FIAT 500. I think Subaru is an oddball carmaker that has gone mainstream but AMC was really unique, they did so much with so little and were real innovators, something that the big 3 rarely can say about themselves.

    It’s interesting to note that AMC execs and management largely replaced or took over departments in Chrysler after the merger. The 4.0L I6 only went out of production in 2006 for Jeep and the Grand Cherokee was AMC’s hail mary pass that eventually saved Chrysler.

    AMC is still sort of with us – they’re just owned by the Italians now. Chrysler is now somewhat like what AMC was, an underdog that has got to innovate if it wants to survive.

  • avatar
    3Deuce27

    Great write-up, Ronnie. As a huge fan of the Pacer, appreciated.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Excellent video – thanks for sharing that, and for another fascinating story.

    I’ve always had an affinity for Pacers because I owned Pintos.

    My favorite Pacer ad was the long sandwich ad:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05ZIzPlUuEo (poor quality video here)

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    I just realized my son’s Cozy Coupe looks sort of like a Pacer.

  • avatar
    Toad

    Great Stuff Ronnie. I always enjoy my Saturday TTAC history lesson.

  • avatar

    Great documentary!

  • avatar
    gforce2002

    Thank you so much for this article, and Mr. Ligo did an excellent job on the video. It does my heart good to see so many examples of the car still in such good shape or restored so beautifully. Those are some nice cars! The Pacer was probably my favourite car when I was a kid, and even to this day think it was quite ahead of its time.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    This blog entry and Marcelo’s post a few days ago expressing bewilderment at the hate for the Cadillac Cimmaron are eye-openers to me. I recall the Pacer as having an absurd turning radius, but otherwise it was an inoffensive car. As Marcelo pointed out, the Cimarron was a respectable looking, comfortable car reasonably targeted for its customers.

    How much of this “worst cars” business is simply the result of playground bullying basically, by the automotive press at the time? Some little oddity is picked up on and used for a continuous hate campaign.

  • avatar
    Loser

    Very interesting. Thank you for sharing this with us. The first movie that comes to my mind with a Pacer is ” Oh, God”, John Denver’s car with it raining inside.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Yes! Cop pulls him over after seeing a trail of water coming from the Pacer. Denver’s character’s excuse: “I drove through the car wash with my window down!”

      Opens the door a smidge as the cop walks away, and a tsunami comes out!

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Apart from offcourse lacking funds and proper drivetrains, a lot of the ‘last’ AMC’s were 30-40 years ahead of their time, especially the Eagle 4×4′s ( I’d love an SX/4) and the Pacer.
    And, if you put the Pacer on one of the 4×4 chassis’ you would have a modern CUV :)

    • 0 avatar
      3Deuce27

      Interestingly that combo exists in Oregon. Several years back, I saw a Pacer with a Jeep Cherokee drive train at the Oregon Dunes. It had an 85′ Cherokee drive train and suspension with a Chevy 4.3 V-6.

      It was a huge project with all of the framing and connections to support the Cherokee parts. Guy got a big tip of the hat from me for his first class efforts. Got me thinking of doing the same thing with a first generation Corvair coupe or wagon.

      • 0 avatar
        Wheeljack

        Years ago (like mid/late 1980′s) I saw a “black jade” (beatiful smoky metallic green color used on late 60′s Fords) Pinto body mounted atop a ’66-’77 Bronco chassis. It was so well done and so factory correct looking (badging, etc) that it looked like it had rolled out of a Ford assembly plant that way. Odd, yet unique and cool at the same time.

    • 0 avatar
      mikeg216

      I imagine that if amc could have held out on their own until the Cherokee and grand Cherokee were done, they would have bought Chrysler. Yep read that again. Look at the trends of the last 30 years except for the minivan and was decades aheah

      First suv willy’s cj

      First luxury suv grand wagoneer

      First 4 door suv wagoneer

      First cuv amc eagle

      Best suv wrangler

      First Wtf amc Eagle kammback sunrider convertible

      The amc straight six was in production longer than the Chevy small block. Just think of what could have been.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    Anyone that includes this car on a worst car list has never driven one. Preferably a 304 station wagon Limited from 1979. If you had a company credit card, and comfort your only criteria, this is a hard to beat cruiser. After helping to liquidate an 80 year old dealership that had carried AMC in 1981, just such a vehicle was located in the last room of the last building to be inspected. It had 5k miles and was dusty, but started right up. Since it was Friday, my girl du jour and I took it to the beach “for evaluation”. It was truly an eye-opener. Very precise steering that felt stable and reasonably balanced. I purposely went as fast as it would allow (it buried the 85mph speedo), and drove it into corners attempting to induce push and bite. Just as the lamented Fiero was finally gotten right on the year of its demise, the Pacer – through no fault of its own – suffered from the true malady of being sired by a thin-pocketed company.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      I suspect the width of the car’s back seat made for a comfy bed if one had to spend the night in the car, or if there was an opportunity for “other activities!” ;-)

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I didn’t ‘ get ‘ and still don’t like , the way Pacers look but there’s no doubt that like most AMC products they were very good cars and in many ways far ahead of their time .

    Having the passenger side door longer than the driver’s side door for easier rear seat egress , was brilliant but also a risky move , no body but those who bought Pacers , liked that feature ~ too funny looking .

    A buddy of mine who lives in Jamaica Plain , loved Pacers from new and always had two running into the 1990′s , no small feat for a decidedly non Car Guy who only had street parking in salt loving Boston .

    Thanx for the video link , the next time SWMBO goes shopping , I’ll watch it .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    LeeK

    I remember when the Pacer first came out that it was such a departure from the norm that it was actually quite futuristic in appearance, ala the Jetson’s flying car. My friend’s family owned one and I spent some time in it, surprised that such a bubble shape on the outside didn’t translate to huge amounts of interior space.

    I think an argument could be made that the Pacer was influential in the development of car-based CUVs. How much different in concept is this from today’s Venza or Crosstour? I agree that this car is unfairly singled out as one of the worst cars ever made. My vote would be the US spec Yugo.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Thank you very much; thank you very, very, very, very much!

  • avatar

    I enjoyed the video. My biggest regret about the Pacer came 4 years ago when I was covering a collector car auction and one of these 4-wheeled fish bowls sold for 800 bucks. I was not a bidder at that auction and I never thought a running Pacer in very good condition was sell for such a minimal amount of cash. Not a lot of love in that room for the Pacer.

  • avatar

    Was “going to” sell. Sin of omission in my last post.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    One of the more aspects of the Pacer story is what’s really behind the usage of GM’s Wankel engine. I mean, AMC spent $60 million of development cash they simply couldn’t afford to lose, then GM backs out at the last minute? Something very odd about that one.

    FWIW, I do remember that the GM Wankel engine was intended to be used in a new Corvette. Could that have played a part? Maybe GM didn’t much like the idea of the same Corvette engine being installed in an AMC ‘economy’ car and just dropped the whole thing because of it.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      The engine just didn’t work. It could not meet new emissions requirements and fuel economy goals. Not everything in R&D works out; that’s why we never got the Chrysler Turbine powered cars, Mercedes Diesel Wankel, or a newer Cadillac V16 (all efforts that were scrapped after a lot of money was invested).

      AMC bet on a technology that didn’t pan out; no conspiracy theory needed.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m not so sure that GM ever planned to put the V16 from the Sixteen concept car into production. The project wasn’t that expensive. In terms of architecture, it’s essentially two LS V8s joined together. If I recall correctly, GM did have blocks and heads custom cast for the project, so they do look production ready, no heliarc welding like you’d see on a prototype engine from the ’70s or ’80s, and they weren’t cheap to build but the Sixteen’s V16′s cost was nowhere near the relative cost of that $200 million in early 1970s money that GM spent on their rotary.

        The LS architecture is pretty flexible. Motus Motorcycles uses a V4 designed and built by Katech that’s essentially half a LS V8.

      • 0 avatar
        mikeg216

        If gm had put the rotary into production it would have killed killed amc faster. The rotary was and is far too delicate.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      GM was developing a two-rotor Wankel engine for use in the 1974 Vega and the 1975 Monza. This is probably the engine they were going to sell to AMC. The Corvette would have used a larger, four-rotor engine.

      • 0 avatar
        rudiger

        Yeah, on second thought, AMC designing the Pacer specifically for the much shorter GM Wankel makes a certain amount of sense. Doing so should have encouraged GM to proceed with Wankel production since it would mean captive sales of the engine.

        Unfortunately, AMC’s gamble that GM would go ahead with the Wankel didn’t pay off. A Wankel-powered Pacer would have been very interesting, indeed (as would have been a Vega or Monza with the same engine).

        One can’t help but wonder what might have been if AMC had spent the Pacer development money on their other, core products. It seems like the Pacer was the final straw which would send AMC on its journey to Renault and Chrysler (which, ironically, eventually went to Daimler and is now in the hands of Fiat).

  • avatar
    Tim_Turbo

    That 83 Spirit GT is enough of an oddball that I like it. I could be wrong but I think by then you could only get the iron duke 2.5 in it, which is too bad. This car was well before my time though, I was 7 in 1983.

    The guys at work used to call my 07 Impreza wagon I used to have the modern day pacer because of how the rear glass looked.

  • avatar
    April

    People do not remember most cars from the 1970′s were horrid.

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      What are you talking about? Have you ever even driven a Pacer? My brother has owned one since the 1980s. With the wheels pushed out to the corners, rack and pinion steering, and excellent visibility, it drove far better than most other 1970s cars did.

      Our family had two 1941 Chevrolet sedans into the early 1990s. If you think the 1970s cars were bad, you should try driving one from the 1940s!

      Modern cars are far from perfect as well. As far as visibility from the driver’s seat, we have regressed by over two decades, and it’s almost as bad as cars from the late 1940s. I remember while growing up that even in heavy traffic, all cars had light-tinted or clear glass and the windows were about at the same level – you could see through the windows of several cars ahead of you. FAR safer than staring at the tailgate of the SUV in front of you these days . . .

      • 0 avatar
        Toad

        April is right; most cars from the ’70′s were terrible by any objective standard. New pollution control systems made engines unreliable, thirsty, and gutless; build quality from the big three was atrocious; safety systems were almost nonexistent; interiors were decontented and ugly (the Brougham era)…the list goes on.

        Most car buffs miss the 1970′s like they miss disco, Jimmy Carter, and leisure suits.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    Wasn’t the Pacer accepted as an influence on the styling of the Porsche 928? Couldn’t have been that bad.

    • 0 avatar

      Tony Lapine mentioned the 1963 Corvair Testudo by Giugiaro/Bertone as an influence on the 928. The Testudo undoubtedly influenced the Pacer as well. Lapine did acknowledge a similarity between the Pacer and the 928, but as Aaron Severson at Ate Up With Motor points out, if you look at the timing of the Pacer and 928′s development, it’s not likely that the Pacer directly inspired the 928. It was more like drawing on common influences.

      http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/the-most-influential-corvair-never-built-giugiaros-chevrolet-testudo/

  • avatar
    dusterdude

    As Bill Clinton might say: “It took a lot of brass” ..to build the Pacer” AMC knew it was a weird car, but they went for it anyway– so for that reason they should be commended for introducing it..

  • avatar
    geo

    My friend’s mom drove one of these. I seem to remember the back seat being pretty cramped; not much better than the Rabbit my dad drove. The older teenagers laughed at these, and my brother cited a story he had heard of a door falling off one during a road test. I liked them, and I still wonder if this had been an import, would it be remembered as classically quirky, ahead of its time, and superior to the domestic options?

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    My one Pacer memory was a college friend’s mother’s Pacer that I occasionally rode in . This was an early production model and one thing I remember was the door hardware breaking and the inner passenger door panel splitting in half , this on a car that wasn’t even a year old .Personally I think a GM built rotary would have been a disaster . In the early seventies I sometimes worked at a Mercedes/Volvo/Mazda dealership a roommate’s father managed . At the time the Mazda rotary cars were having their fifteen minutes of fame . Then everybody found out that their gas mileage was more like a GM midsizer with the 350 , and this in a subcompact . And the engine sucked ; there were constant breakdowns and warranty complaints , followed by the engines needing new rotary seals after a couple of years . All this after a fairly long development time for the Wankel .The usual half-assed efforts that GM was prone to making on new engine technologies- the Vega comes to mind- would probably resulted in an even less successful Pacer and possibly the end of the Corvette too .One Pacer Hollywood memory was Keith Carradine driving one in a seventies movie, ” Welcome to L.A. “

  • avatar
    Johnster

    I remember people commenting how the 1979 Plymouth Champ and redesigned 1979 front-wheel drive Dodge Colts looked like “small” AMC Pacers.

    While the proportions of the Pacer were a big odd, the original design was really quite clean and attractive. The unfortunate redesign for 1978 (with the raised hood to accommodate AMC’s V-8 engine) ruined the lines and really was quite ugly.

    As a teen, I remember our family took a vacation in the summer of 1975 in our 1969 Chevy wagon (without air-conditioning) and it seemed like Interstate 90 was full new AMC Pacers and VW Rabbits while AM radio all across the mid-west and west played the Captain & Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” over and over and over.

    Lastly, I remember the ridiculous article that accompanied the introduction of the Pacer that, I believe, appeared in “Road & Track.” As I recall, the story told of how the Pacer’s target buyer was a 35-year old married woman with children and that conventional demographics would suggest that, perhaps, she would be an ideal prospective customer for an AMC Matador wagon.

    But, instead of relying on conventional demographics, AMC used more detail-intense “psycho-graphics” which revealed such interesting tid bits as that their target buyer took belly-dancing classes, occasionally smoked weed and that she and her husband were into swinging. Psycho-graphics would suggest that she was more predisposed to buying an import, rather than an AMC Matador wagon. In the AMC Pacer, the article suggested, the target customer had a viable import alternative.

  • avatar
    Joss

    I can only relate to seeing one back in the 70′s, parked in a housing subdivision in England. It looked way out of place and was. Really unusual looking . It looked like a bloated, cheap crass Jensen Interceptor that had taken a visit to the glass factory and been heated and blown up on a pole. It must have sucked petrol which was far more expensive over there. I’d hazard some American doing service took it over or passed it on. The smaller overhangs would have made it better suited to narrow English roads. But the parts/fuel penalty?

    I like slits & cameras. I like privacy & anominity. So long Pacer, head over to the Spiro Agnew Wish Foundation and resign.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    While the Pacer is rightfully blamed for sucking up development money I wonder how much money in comparison was blown on the “unique ” Matador coupe that was restyled for the 1974 model year .

    • 0 avatar

      My brother and sister-in-law got a ’75 Matador hand-me-down from her parents some time in the ’80s. I used to call it The Frog, a name that stuck, probably because of the big eyes. That was a POS, a V8 with no power, but it’s quite possible it just badly needed a tuneup.

    • 0 avatar
      Johnster

      In retrospect the styling of the Matador coupe doesn’t seem that bad. It was very clean and seems like a decent response to the mid-sized coupe market at that time, especially compared to cars of the time like the new-for-’73 Chevelle. AMC guessed wrong about demand for a mid-sized fastback coupe, though. More formal notchback coupes seemed to be what the public wanted then.

      For several years after the coupe came out, various car magazine were full of illustrations showing the front-end clips from the ’74+ Matador coupe mated to restyled 4-Door Sedan and Station Wagon bodies with titles like “the new 1975 Matador Sedan.” Such a move would seem logical, though it would make the coupe’s styling a little less unique. The styling could have been adopted to a redesigned Ambassador, too.

      • 0 avatar
        Monty

        There are some examples of the Matador coupe with the overly large ’73 spec bumpers removed. The effect on the appearance is literally astounding. It’s amazing how much better the car looks; removing the bumpers minimizes the “frog eye” look and smoothes out the profile. To me, it appears as though the bumpers were an add-on late in the design cycle.

        Turns out it’s a rather handsome coupe, and as pointed out would have made for a rather attractive sedan and wagon, but only with smaller integrated front and rear bumpers.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      The money spent on developing the Matador coupe versus the Pacer isn’t quite the same. For starters, both the Ambassador and, more importantly, Javelin were being dropped. Without any kind of ‘sporty’ 2-door, the Matador coupe was essentially taking the place of the Javelin.

      The Pacer didn’t taking the place of anything. I’ve often wondered what kind of cars were being traded in on the Pacer.

      • 0 avatar
        CobraJet

        We bought a new 2 dr Gran Torino in 74. The next year the Pacer came out. It caused quite a stir down at the tiny local AMC dealer. I remember the wife and I going down on a Saturday to have a look. We test drove a yellow Pacer X. The Gran Torino was huge on the outside compared to the Pacer, yet the Pacer had probably more room on the inside and handled much better. We seriously considered making a trade, but didn’t think we could make the financing work out. Truthfully, had we waited until 75 to purchase a new car, it would have likely been a Pacer.

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    Nice story. Nice video. Party on Garth! As a former owner of a bubble Pacer for a short time, I can attest that older good examples could be OK daily drivers. By 1987 the well preserved ’76 models were dirt cheap, and my pal had one he wanted to sell. The AMC six was like the old Chevvy Stovebolt, it hunted like an old time hound dog. Can you imagine the experience that a Wanker(sic) engine of any design or manufacture would have offered in similar circumstance?

    After six months of faithful service, I passed my green and white Pacer on to my oldest boy who was in college at the time. At the end of the semester on a visit, I noticed that his pals and his girl friends had scrawled “Bubble Boy” using some kind of white stuff on its overly ample exposed glass.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Wife had a yellow ’77 Pacer woody station wagon. She put over 100,000 miles on it in ten years and loved every minute. It was reliable, solid and stable, much safer than a tiny Honda Civic that sold for roughly the same money. Sure it went through more gasoline but I’ll trade MPG for the wife and kids’ safety any day of the week.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Wasn’t the Pacer’s passenger side door longer than the driver’s door?

    Good to see recognition of “the ahead-of-its-time Eagle 4X4″. It always bothered me when I saw Paul Hogan’s Subaru ads for the first Outback calling it “the world’s first sport utility wagon”.

  • avatar
    bg

    Besides poor emissions and anemic torque, according to Wikipedia, despite it’s small size the GM Wankel weighed approx 2/3 the amount an inline six of similar horse power did. I too, believe Rotary Pacer would have been a complete disaster.

  • avatar
    stuart

    The documentary is very, very good; balanced and doesn’t sugar-coat the unhappy parts. Ligo, I hope you make more of these.

    Well done!

  • avatar
    davew833

    My first car in 1984 was a ’76 Pacer D/L. I got it for $200, I think. It was silver with blue interior and chrome Appliance mag wheels and had about 70k miles, IIRC. The engine was indestructible, but the rest of it fell apart around it, partly due to my lack of knowledge and experience as a 16-year-old driver. Power steering rack, shifter linkage, (it was a 4-speed stick) exhaust, inside door handles and panels, clutch, motor mounts, all failed in the two years I drove it. I loved it though, and the “Pregnant Fishbowl” was great at swallowing cargo. My friends and I soon found out it would start without a key, and the doors didn’t lock, so it was a frequent target of school parking lot relocations.


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