By on June 30, 2009

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based on (and partly borrowed) from a C&D test.

Was a car ever born with the odds so stacked against it? Its name is defined as “a small gnome held to be responsible for malfunction of equipment.” Its design was penned on an air-sickness bag during a (bumpy?) flight. It carries almost sixty percent of its weight over the front wheels despite being RWD. Its steering has six turns lock to lock. And it looks exactly like what it is: a perfectly normal-looking sedan that had its rear end amputated by a cleaver. The Gremlin would have had to create a pretty major malfunction in my PC (and C&D‘s typewriters) for it not to end dead last.

The little gnome was born out of desperate expediency. AMC knew that GM and Ford had all-new small cars (Vega and Pinto) due in 1971. There was no way they could afford one themselves. But their new Hornet compact sedan was due to arrive in 1970. Necessity being the mother of malfunction, AMC chief designer Dick Teague penned a solution in the oxygen-thin air of an airliner. Shorten the Hornet’s wheelbase from 108″ to 96″ and cut everything off behind the rear wheels in a dramatic Kammback. The result looks so nose heavy that you are advised not to casually plop yourself on the front half of the hood, lest the whole car tip up.

At least AMC’s sense of humor was intact: the Gremlin was introduced on April Fool’s Day 1970, six months ahead of the upcoming Pinto and Vega. AMC explained the name with a vain attempt to re-write Webster’s: “a pal to its friends and an ogre to its enemies.”

An ogre to anyone other than the front seat passengers too. In a bow to reality (and cost cutting), the back seat is optional; seriously. The base Gremlin comes with a front bench seat only, and not a comfortable one at that. And that optional back seat is strictly for children. It does fold down to increase the otherwise tiny cargo space, which is accessible from the outside only if you order the optional fold-up hatch window. The desire to have a base list price ($1879) competitive with the VW involved some serious compromises: the Gremlin effectively was a two-seater station wagon (with the optional hatch). Or an update on the “business coupe,” without the business.

Well, the Gremlin certainly offset its cramped back end with the front end. Under that long nose sits AMC’s 232 cubic inch (3.8-liter) inline six. It’s a solid and reliable performer, and brings torque and power levels unheard of to the small car arena. As per C&D: “compared to the others, the Gremlin feels like a fuel-burning Hemi on the dragstrip, almost a full second and 4 mph faster then . . . the second quickest car.” Well, everything is highly relative, if a 0-60 time of 10.5 seconds and the quarter mile in 17.8 sec. @ 78 mph feels like a Hemi. But then we’re comparing it to some cars with less than one-third the engine size. C&D‘s observed consumption of 19.3 mpg results in the pregnant question “what kind of economy car is this?”

At least with all that torque, shifting is as optional as the back seat. Good thing, what with the Gremlin’s three-speed stick being unsynchronized in low gear, and balky in the other two. The bigger problem is putting all that power to the road, with that lightly loaded rear end. Not recommended for snow-country folks. But it comes highly recommended for lovers of burning rubber, especially with the V8 that became optional in 1972.

One of my favorite car movie scenes from that era is from Robert Altman’s 1971 release Brewster McCloud. Sally Kellerman drives a candy-apple red Gremlin shod with Cragar S/S’s that just can’t seem to stop its rear wheels from going up in smoke, while successfully eluding, and eventually causing the demise of a beautiful new 1970.5 LT-1 powered Camaro Z-28. Gremlin strike!

With its “incredibly heavy clutch” and super-slow unassisted steering (6.25 turns lock-to-lock), the Gremlin is utterly devoid of the typical small car nimble feeling. “Its handling is ponderous, and in braking, the weight transfers to the front wheels to such a degree that the rears lock up and the car yaws sideways.”

The Gremlin does have one virtue: it will cruise effortlessly at 70 mph on the freeway with good directional stability. Just don’t try to change direction or stop suddenly. But as we well know, Americans like to cruise their freeways at seventy. And, as we’ll find out, a number of the competing small cars of 1971 don’t.

That probably explains why the Gremlin sold reasonably well enough, in AMC’s scale of things anyway. 671,000 of the little gnomes/pals went out the door at Kenosha until 1978, and in 1979 it reappeared with some new sheet metal and a new name: the AMC Spirit. But it was still an ogre to anyone trying to sit in the back, or enjoy driving from the front.

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63 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1971 Small Cars Comparison: Number 6—AMC Gremlin...”

  • avatar

    What do you expect from the designers that created the Pacer as well. This car could best be described as an American Yugo.

  • avatar

    And people wonder why I hated the 70s…

    I didn’t realize until now that it had no rear liftgate. Unbelievable.

    Good thing the buyer of this vehicle opted for the ‘Vomit’ colour, otherwise it would really have sucked.

    Well, at least I now know never to see Brewster McCloud. Too sad.

    Oddly enough, there was (and maybe still is) a dedicated group of people stuffing V8s into these things. A co-worker ended up in prison courtesy of one of those V8 transplants. But that’s a story for another day.

    • 0 avatar

      The pics in this article are of a ’75 o6 ’76 Gremlin. 99.9% of all Gremlins came with back seat and liftgate rear glass. It’s true in 1970 you could buy a Gremlin w/o the rear seat and liftgate, but you’d be hard pressed to find one.

      In an era when the 1971 MT Car of the Year (Chevy Vega) would wear out an engine in 25k miles, and it’s front fenders would rust through in 2 years, I think AMC Gremlins matched up pretty well!

  • avatar

    At least this example wasn’t AMC’s ubiquitous pea green color.

    6.25 turns lock to lock? Insanity. Was there a power steering option on this little bugger?

  • avatar

    My employer had some of these in the fleet in the late 70’s. I had the misfortune of driving them on dusty rural gravel roads. Can you spell “leaky door seals”? After a day on the road a shower was mandatory.

  • avatar

    You have to remember that AMC had to bend over backwards to use the available resources in making new cars. I think that they did as best as they could.

    On the Gremlin, what compromises the design is that blocky Hornet front end, which works on a larger car, but not a small design like the Gremlin. They could have used the front clip from the Javelin, a solution that could actually be doable.

    I remember seeing an incredibly good looking concept on an AMC lifestyle station wagon, a Hornet Sportabout with the Javelin front clip. They could have used that solution for the Gremlin.

  • avatar

    A co-worked ended up in prison courtesy of one of those V8 transplants. But that’s a story for another day

    Robert: give this man a byline. This I just gotta hear…

  • avatar

    Gremlin effectively was a two-seater station wagon (with the optional hatch)

    So, there were models without any kind of opening at the back?

  • avatar

    I learned to drive on a 1973 Gremlin. It had the 258 I-6 and automatic with a floor shifter. The car was the most unreliable one my family had ever owned…it was literally shot at 96,000 miles. And the journey to that destination was anything but smooth!

  • avatar

    Yea, I think I remember this C/D test.

    IIRC, the BMW 128i ends up winning.

  • avatar

    More than six turns lock to lock? Wow. I’ve driven medium-duty trucks with less.

  • avatar

    How could AMC get it so wrong with the Gremlin, while Volvo got is so right with the ES 1800?


  • avatar

    @Twotone: Because the 1800ES conversion was made by an Italian? Coggiola did the consulting, if I remember correctly. What is a wonder in that design, was the limitation in the use of as much of the original sheetmetal as possible, and connect the new back to the body hard points. Considering that, it is a wonderul design.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    salhany, power steering, opening hatch, back seat, all available at extra cost. I’m sure the steering ratio was faster with the PS too.

    Ingvar, the Javelin front clip would probably be an easy fit to the Gremlin, since the Javelin sat on the Hornet platform. It wouldn’t have made it look any less front-end heavy though.

    ajla, good; but remember this was 1971; it would have been the 2002!

  • avatar

    Best TTAC car review evah!

    I learned to drive on a 1970 Maverick and can’t wait to see your review of that.

  • avatar

    I believe that there were initially two versions of the Gremlin.

    The el-strippo base version came without a back seat or opening rear window. This was the version featured in the advertising that emphasized the car’s low sticker price. The deluxe version did have a back seat and opening rear window as standard equipment.

    AMC eliminated the base version of the Gremlin for 1972. It also offered the 304 V-8 as optional equipment that year. The final year for the V-8 version was 1976, when less than 1,000 were produced, according to the figures that I’ve seen.

    The horrifying thing to contemplate is that, in the long run, the AMC Gremlin was probably the best of the original American subcompacts – Gremlin, Pinto and Vega.

  • avatar

    A co-worked ended up in prison courtesy of one of those V8 transplants. But that’s a story for another day

    Robert: give this man a byline. This I just gotta hear…

    I second that

  • avatar

    The Hornet was on an all new chassis, not on the Javelin platform. The Javelin was a much larger car and using it as a base for a two seater “small ” car would have given AMC the AMX. Which it did. The only thing they shared in design was the wheel base. AMC cut the wb. on the Javelin to create the AMX.

    Using those Javelin front fenders on the Gremlin would have made the design even more unbalanced as they are far longer and built for a much bigger car.

    The Hornet platform was designed to be used as the launch point of several new cars from AMC: Sportabout,Gremlin, the 2 dr hatchback Hornet and spawned several show cars on it’s own. The Spirit/Eagle SX4 were “Kammback” [original Gremlin without the hockey stick window styling ] and a liftback/fastback, 2 more versions that had appeared as show cars along the way.

    The first show cars that featured the station wagon and Gremlin styling were based on the Javelin and were displayed in the late 60s.

    The problem with using the 1974 example as representative is that the cars had to be refreshed to accomodate the Federal bumper standards.

    The original [70 1/2-72], even the 73 with the initial Fed bumpers is much more balanced and cohesive than the 74 and up models. A lot of cars offered in the 70s that adapted to the bumper standards looked awkward, especially when they hadn’t been designed for them from the beginning.

  • avatar

    The AMX GT show car mated the AMX/Javelin front clip with a passenger compartment and “chopped” rear that predicted the styling used on the production Gremlin.

    The Hornet Sportabout was predicted by a Javelin-based show car from that same time period (1968-69). It featured four doors and a very slick roofline.

    AMC styling in the 1960s and early 1970s was actually quite good. The original Javelin and AMX were very attractive cars, and the Hornet was very clean and more modern looking than the other domestic compacts – particularly the very sleek and well-proportioned hatchback and Sportabout wagon. The Ambassadors from those years were also quite attractive, while offering full-size room and comfort in a more reasonably sized package than a contemporary Impala, Galaxie or Fury.

    Even the much-maligned Gremlin was a clever and effective answer to the expected Vega and Pinto. For much less money than Ford and GM invested in their respective subcompacts, AMC had a competitor that didn’t do nearly the damage to its reputation that the Vega and Pinto did to their parent companies. Even the funky styling was an advantage at this time. Plus, the original version (1970-73) was better balanced, as it didn’t have the bulky battering rams hung on each end. Take a look at a 1974 Pinto or Vega to grasp the stylistic challenges presented by the 5-mph bumper standards. The Pinto, in particular, makes the Gremlin look attactive.

    The problem was that AMC’s precarious financial state (it almost went bankrupt in early 1967) meant that it had to cut corners with its cars. The drivetrains were actually quite good, but the rest of the car suffered. The dashboards on early 1970s Hornets and Gremlins, for example, look as though they were fabricated and assembled by high-school body shop classes.

  • avatar

    For much less money than Ford and GM invested in their respective subcompacts, AMC had a competitor that didn’t do nearly the damage to its reputation that the Vega and Pinto did to their parent companies.

    I’d be very interested to read some commentary from some of the engineers who worked on these cars. There has to be some older GM/Ford retirees reading this who could offer some insight into what went wrong.

  • avatar

    I bought a new 1974 Gremlin. While it was a bad car, I thought that it was better than either the Vega or the Pinto. It was roomier and was much faster. I had the 258 six in it with a three on the floor manual tranny. I think AMC’s automatics were bought from Chrysler, so those were pretty good. It had a huge gas tank. I think it was 21 gallons! With such a huge tank, I had a shock filling it up when gas went up to over a $1 a gallon! I ended up trading it in on a Chevette. Boy I sure know how to pick em!

  • avatar

    The long hood is needed for that I6 engine. AMC designers may have sloped it a bit in the end to reduce the perception of the bulk.

    But that would have cost money… which they didn’t have.

    I wouldn’t bash them, after all, the designer of this car is the same that did the XJ Cherokee.

    Another nice “small” car story is the one of the creation of the Duster. You can go to allpar and see it.

  • avatar

    In the late 70s when I was 17, I owned a 67 Galaxie 500 convertible with a 390 and a Cruis O Matic. One day I found myself stopped at a downtown traffic light. I was in the right lane, and needed into the left. I looked to my left and figured that the blue Gremlin sitting next to me shouldn’t be a problem.
    Green light, a stiff push on the gas and I figured to jump out then get over to the left. I had missed the little “304” badge on the fender.

    At the next light, I am still in the right lane and planned to let loose with my big block V8 against this pretender in the Gremlin. By the time the light turned green and I mashed the go-pedal to the floor, I could see that the guy in the Gremlin (only slightly older than me) had the same idea. When it was time to hit the brakes at the next red light, I remained in the right lane.

    By now, I had some respect for that Gremlin, but figured that my lightning reflexes could overcome my 2:70 axle and catch him before the next light. I was wrong.

    That Gremlin and I went at it for about 6 or 7 blocks before I (even at 17) decided that I was likely to get arrested before I beat that Gremlin. And that, gentlemen, is why I, to this day, harbor a secret desire to own a 304 Gremlin with which to stun and amaze some guy who is all too proud of his moderately fast car.

  • avatar

    Boy do I have some memories of that car. Mid-70’s, Presque Isle Region SCCA autocross. There was a guy running a 304 V-8 in his Gremlin (factory option, not a home built job) with a four speed. He usually smoked all comers in the A Sedan class.

  • avatar

    The Chevette Scooter also came without a back seat.
    Geeber: thanks for clarifying and adding more detail.

    Nothing “went wrong” with the Gremlin design. It was exactly what it was: a chopped down Hornet with all the compromises that meant: no 4 cyl [until the Audi 4 later in the decade which design rights AMC bought to build on their own], compromised rear seat, weight imbalance, etc.]. What went wrong was assembly and quality control.One rag mentioned that the Gremlin was so popular when it came out that they “slapped together” as many as they could as quickly as they could and “shoved them out the door”.

    And there are articles from the period from all three major rags: MT, C/D, R/T and another called Road Test. that describe how the car was conceived. Motor Trend’s report included an interview with Dick Teague.

    My parents had a 71 Gremlin and a 72 Ambassador. On paper they give a good account of themselves. In reality: don’t believe that Kenosha made better cars than the “Big Three”. AMC was right down there quality-wise where Chrysler is considered today. Don’t let the partisans rewrite history and say otherwise.

    Even the rags were noticing by 1971.In a comparison test conducted at the time Motor Trend answered one of AMC’s ad lines “If You Had To Compete With GM Ford An Chrysler, What Would YOU Do?” with:”Kick some butts on the assembly line and get the workers to finish their work.” They went on to describe the ill fit plastic and panels and trim, the leaks and rattles, etc.

    Consumer Reports said the same thing and their charts backed it up. They chose the Gremlin over other small cars one year, but only if it was equipped with power steering and disc brakes.

    Don’t get me wrong. I loved those cars and probably influenced my parent’s decision to buy them.I learned to drive on them [and a 66 Mercury Montclair]. They are fondly remembered.

    In truth, though, they were not on the same level as GM and Ford or even Chrysler.

  • avatar

    I agree with earlier posts, this mid-70’s version is very awkward looking compared to the earlier Gremilins with the thinner bumpers. I actually think the early versions are kind of cool, in a weird, surreal kind of way…

    Anyway, Richard Teague was responsible for some beautiful production and showcar designs in his day. And I still consider the original 2-seat 1968-1970 AMX to be one of the most beautiful and desirable American cars of all time. Considering the lack of resources at AMC, Teague really had to do more with less. Granted, his portfolio is mixed (Pacer) but when he succeeded, he was brilliant.

  • avatar

    One of my all time favorite cars. But I’m perplexed at the pejorative Pacer prattle.

  • avatar

    Don’t laugh, but my grandparents actually owned one… EXACTLY like the one in the pictures… even the same horrible color.

  • avatar

    My uncle had a 1971 Sportabout, “Baby Poop” yellow with the fake wood grain sides.

    A very cool car, but he worked on it a bit too much. While replacing the convoluted valve cover gasket on that 232, he swore so much (he usually did not) I was stunned, but not as much as the F-Bomb he dropped when it started leaking again after a few months.

    And you have to love the Pacer, which got rid of the front overhang by installing the 232 so far back that the last two cylinders were under the windshield. This brought the bell housing back past the gas pedal. The transmission hump was so wide that it necessitated widening the car just to give the front occupants some elbow room; trouble is, the track seemed to be about the same as the Gremlin.

    My cousin owned a Pacer (for a short time – she bought it because it was “cute”). She let me drive it – “Fishbowl on Roller Skates” was the best description of the driving dynamics.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I believe the electronics were Chrysler-sourced as well….I remember in college driving around in my Hornet hatchback thinking I was just the shit. With my spare balast resistor and voltage regulator in the ‘way back’.

    Play that funky music, white boy. Crank up BOTH speakers hooked up to the Blaupunkt radio….

  • avatar

    Ah memories…my family’s finances were up and down in the 70’s along with the economy, and I remember as a kid, my mother losing her almost new silver and black ’73 Grand Prix, and having to settle for a used turd-brown Gremlin due to tight money…

    She hated that car so much that she constantly threatened to drive it into a tree (without the kids in the car, of course) until my dad found a good deal on a decent condition used Lincoln… much more to her liking, and he said worth every penny, just to keep her quiet.

  • avatar
    new caledonia

    Please don’t spoil the outcome, if you know it (the suspense has been building for over 30 years.)

    Actually, I do remember that article.

    I won’t reveal the winner, but good luck finding a Curbside Classic for the second-place car — it was rare even then!

  • avatar
    new caledonia

    I borrowed a manual-steering Gremlin in the mid-seventies and had to make a U-turn with it. I’d never cranked a steering wheel so much in my life.

  • avatar

    The AMC inline 6 cyl is one of the most reliable engines ever built. It stayed in production in the XJ Cherokee for a long time (with a redesigned head) and the engine is almost impossible to kill. Hornets & Gremlins may have rusted apart, but the drivetrains were bulletproof.

    Dick Teague’s styling on the Pacer was dictated by the fact that the car was intended to use a Wankel engine that GM was going to produce. After investing over $100 million, GM killed the project, and AMC had to shoehorn the 6 into an engine compartment designed for the compact rotary engine. That explains the short nose. The wide body was an attempt to give a smaller car more interior space. I’d say the least successful aspect of the Pacer’s design is the large amount of glass, which makes the car a greenhouse in sunlight.

    AMC was a cool company. They predated both the SUV craze with the Cherokee and the widespread use of 4WD/AWD in passenger vehicles with the 4X4 Eagles.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    new caledonia, yup!

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    I had a 304, 4 speed Gremlin. Being an ardent fan of “bigger is better”, I replaced the 304 with a 390 out of a 1969 AMX. This transplant would have worked much better in a different car. Even relocating the battery to the trunk and a set of Mickey Thompsons did absolutely nothing for traction. A little bleach though made for some spectacular burnouts. ;)

  • avatar

    Hey, nothing wrong with AMC pea green. When I had to get my Bianchi resprayed and couldn’t get the correct Celeste green, it worked OK. Not enough blue in it though.

  • avatar

    I won’t reveal the winner, but good luck finding a Curbside Classic for the second-place car — it was rare even then!…

    This was before my time but I think I recall reading some seriously old magazines over 20 years ago…a manufacturer that once used 2 strokes?

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Oh yeah, one other point…speaking of barebones

    you see that lip/change/small shit holder running across the bottom of the dash on the interior shot? Optional.

    You see the thinness of the seatback? Excrutiating. And non-adjustable.

  • avatar


    I’m not sure that Bianchi has used a consistent color on their “Celeste” green bikes. The high end Reparto Corse, race shop, bikes have pearl finishes. In any case, Celeste is a very cool color and I’m surprised that it’s not used on any cars. I think it’d look good on roadsters.

    I’m surprised that the paint supply couldn’t match the Bianchi color. With modern color matching gizmos, they should be able to mix something to match a color chip.

  • avatar

    Lest we forget…. the Levis trim option

    “Gremlins also received the option of a Levi’s interior trim package, which included spun nylon upholstery made to look like denim (fire safety regulations prohibited the use of real cotton denim). Details included removable map pockets, burnished copper denim rivets, and red Levi’s logo tabs.”

  • avatar

    I remember the purple Gremlin as the color used to “brand” the car. They had a buzz about them, and also appealed to women. I remember reading someone from AMC commenting on how well the Gremlin sold that “the little purple devil saved the company”.

    I also recall that one of these Hornet-type cars was proposed to use the same fenders on the front and back, to save costs. Seems to me that didn’t get to production.

    I’ll second Ronnie Shreiber’s post that the Pacer was themed around a rotary engine from GM, who stiffed them after AMC was locked into producing the Pacer, forcing AMC to cram a larger conventional engine into it. The very low hood was to complement the small rotary, and the rounded body was to evoke the “rotary” idea. It was supposed to be somewhat revolutionary. So much for that. Later Pacers added a hood bulge to accommodate a larger engine. The Pacer’s two doors were different sizes.

    AMC’s Eagle was the original sport/utility wagon, and it cheeses me off whenever I recall Subaru making that claim for the Outback. The Eagle was a raised Hornet sedan or wagon, and used three limited-slip differentials. Which made it extremely capable. There seem to still be a few of the wagons around.

  • avatar
    new caledonia

    @golden2husky —

    I won’t step on Paul’s toes, but the second-place car in the C/D comparo wasn’t a two-stroke.

    Those old Saabs were weird though, weren’t they? In an endearing sort of way…

  • avatar

    geeber: “AMC eliminated the base version of the Gremlin for 1972.”Introduced the same year as the base, no backseat or opening hatch Gremlin, the AMC Hornet had an MSRP of $1994.

    IOW, for a measly extra $115 over the price of that über-stripped Gremlin, you could get a real car (with a real trunk and rear seat).

  • avatar

    Those vinyl and striped cloth seats REALLY need to make a comeback! If you stare at them long enough, especially on a rough road, the “Enter the Monolith” scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey will be recreated in your mind.

    I also can’t be the only one that sees the same dash layout in a 71 Gremlin copied over to a late-80’s, early 90’s Dodge Daytona and Chysler Le Baron. If the driver was under 5’5″, how many phonebooks did it take to see over the dash???

    AMC Gremlin: “The best design that heavy duty LSD users could dream up!”

    …and we must be able to read the Gremlin to prison story and soon!!!

  • avatar

    I’ll never forget driving South Bend, IN to Chicago in my friend LT’s early production Gremlin. In 1985. The floor was completely rusted through, and we were driving in upper Midwest salted snow slush at night.

    It was terrifying.

  • avatar

    The side profile must cause shivers of embarrassment to run up the spines of Nissan Murano drivers everywhere.

  • avatar

    The Beetle had a Levi-edition around the same time.. Wonder how many cars did back then?

    The Gremlin, the Pintos, and so forth were the reasons the kids I grew up with in the 80s swore off Detroit products. None wanted to be seen in them. By the time I was driving those early 70s cars were about 10-12 years old and we were “lusting” after Celicas, Volvo, Accords, GTIs, Nissans/Datsuns and so on. Our parents were driving the Citations, Tempos, K-cars, Buick Slylark FWD cars, and the Chevettes. Those weren’t very appealing either.

    Detroit’s older small cars couldn’t really compete on style and features with the imports. Oh – and horsepower per liter. The mid-80s Rabbit had 90 horses in it’s 1.8L 4 banger. My ’81 Mustang had 90 horses from it’s 3.3L six cylinder and no where nearly as fun to rev. The Rabbit ‘vert was faster AND got better fuel mileage than my six cylinder Mustang. I went on to chance buy a mid-80s Rabbit ‘vert later. Alot more fun to drive than the Mustang.

    Did spend a summer driving an AMC Concorde wagon – the federal fleet surplus version. Had a/c, power steering and a slushbox. No backseat. No radio. No ashtray. Did it’s job very well and was reliable but the mileage was poor, style was nil, and fun to drive was no where in sight. I was glad to go back to my Mustang.

  • avatar

    C&D’s observed consumption of 19.3 mpg results in the pregnant question “what kind of economy car is this?”

    Almost the same as a Pinto or a Vega and not much worse than a 25mpg Beetle?

    IE, pretty good for 1971.

  • avatar

    The AMC inline 6 cyl is one of the most reliable engines ever built. It stayed in production in the XJ Cherokee for a long time (with a redesigned head) and the engine is almost impossible to kill. Hornets & Gremlins may have rusted apart, but the drivetrains were bulletproof.

    I’ve had two vehicles with that engine, a 2000 XJ and a 2006 TJ Unlimited. With the Aisin Trans, it’s a bulletproof Drivetrain.

    You still see tons of Gremlins (and other AMCs) running in Mexico City. Here, they were badged as ‘Americans’.

  • avatar

    I just have to quote Dave Barry here, that the Chevy Vega, the Ford Pinto, and the AMC Gremlin were cars that “were designed to break down before they left the drawing board.”

  • avatar

    The Gremlin was a good deal more reliable than the Vega or the Pinto, though, even if it was not particularly well built.

  • avatar

    The Gremlin benefited from engines developed in the early 1960s, when AMC was enjoying record sales and strong profits.

    After 1966, AMC couldn’t afford to spend much on new drivetrains. But the ones it had were quite good. They got even better when AMC began using Chrysler’s excellent Torqueflite automatic transmission in 1972.

    Contrast this to GM, which brought Ed Cole’s all-new four cylinder to production for the Vega. The engine turned out to be a disaster, gave the Vega a permanent black mark, and seriously hurt Chevrolet’s reputation.

    The problem with the Gremlin was build quality, the quality of interior components (particularly on the base model) and cost-cutting on non-drivetrain parts. But then, the Vega was hardly a shining example of quality control, either, and its interior was equally spartan. If anything, it was probably worse than the Gremlin in this regard. At least the Gremlin had decent bucket seats available as an option, and the Levi’s option DID go a long way toward making the interior a much more attractive place.

    argentla – I liked your write-up of the Gremlin on your site.

  • avatar

    AMC did not beat Subaru to the 4WD passenger car race. The ’75 Subaru Wagon DL was offered with 4wd as an option in the U.S. (even earlier in Japan and elsewhere). It was not as sophisticated, however, as the later Eagle driveline.

  • avatar
    allegro con moto-car

    What purpose does it serve to have a car with two doors of different sizes? The Gremlin is a finalist at Forbes’ annual ten worst turkeys survey, for this and other reasons. If this thing finished last in 6th place in this comparo, that means the Vega finished ahead of it???

    Also, the 6 turns lock to lock is not all that unusual for this vintage vehicle. The movies of that era showed drivers turning the wheel round n round n round to make a turn, and then they would lift their hand of the wheel to allow the positive caster angle to turn the steering wheel round n round n round back to center. (I always look for this when I watch movies of the late 60’s early 70’s.)

    I actually got in my car (2001 Honda) just now to drive around the block to measure the wheel lock to lock. I would estimate it at 1.6 to 1.6, and with one full turn you get a fairly tight turning radius.

    The 70’s. What a weird decade for cars (and everything else).


  • avatar

    allegro con moto-car: “What purpose does it serve to have a car with two doors of different sizes? The Gremlin is a finalist at Forbes’ annual ten worst turkeys survey, for this and other reasons.”That would be the Pacer, not the Gremlin, and the purpose was to aid access to the rear seat. The idea would be resurrected (successfully) many years later in a different form on the Saturn coupe when a single, small, reverse-opening door was added behind the driver’s door, similiar to the by-then common doors on extended cab pick-ups except, in the case of the Saturn (like the Pacer’s longer passenger door), it was only on one side.

    As to the six turns lock-to-lock steering, this was a product of the era of ‘base means base’, as in most cars had none of the things we take for granted now (like power steering). It was still possible (even common) to have truly huge full-size cars without power steering. In those cases, you really needed six turns of the wheel to drive at low speed, like when trying to muscle one of those behemoths into a parallel parking space.

    Since Detroit viewed small cars as nothing more than downsized large cars (a major ideological error which took decades to correct), the steering of any domestic car, large or small, was of the same, traditional, recirculating ball type, as opposed to rack-and-pinion used on the foreign marques.

  • avatar

    I own a 74 6 cylinder automatic very soon to be a 401. I hated them until Chevys became so unaffordable to buy for resto modding. Got mine complete and driveable for $1700, less than half(no pun intended) the cost of a rusty Chevy with no drivetrain or interior.

    They can be easily upgraded to four wheel disc brakes, quick ratio power steering and front coil-overs. At about 2850lbs and 300+ horsepower you have a inexpensive little beast-gremmie capable of decent handling and 12 second range 1/4 mile times to have fun with.

    I like ’em now =)

  • avatar

    Dave M. AMC”S did not use a ballast resistor, nor did they use any chrysler electronics. Up through 74 they used motorola alternators and voltage regulators. The V8’s used a gm style distributor, 6 cylinder used prestolite distributor.
    In 75 they started using gm alternators, and all engines switched to prestolite electronic ignition.
    My sister bought a brand new gremlin with a 304 in 74 with automatic, power steering and brakes. Gremlins with power steering used gm’s saginaw steering box, which was a good piece.

  • avatar
    remember it well

    OK, have a listen.
    I am (maybe one of the few) former Gremlin owner with GOOD memories.
    Feel free to challenge me Paul, but despite having only 1 or 2 photos, I think my memory will be very good on this one.

    I had a ’74 Gremlin “X” with a 304 3 speed auto. It didn’t have those big bumpers and exaggerated headlamps that came in ’75. It was white with a deep blue factory stripe that was a bit like the Starsky and Hutch stripe. It had factory A/C (incl. factory tinted glass), the Levi’s blue jean interior and a console. It also had quite nice blue carpet.

    I added…
    – 60 series BF Goodrich T/A’s (blackwalls out of course) lowering the car (rare in 1976)
    – Monroe HD shocks (model??) – very strong but forgiving
    – dual exhaust with low restriction mufflers and turndowns ahead of the rear axle.
    – 4 Barrel (Carter ???) Carb
    – great 4 speaker stereo (rare in those days).
    – S.E.V. Marshall Halogen headlights
    I blacked out the grill and added 3 navy blue body strips on the roof (I don’t know where that idea came from but it really worked).

    That car was excellent to me. My only repair was a timing chain which I fixed myself.
    My brother often raced me through curves, hills and straights with my mother’s 1978 Trans Am T/A 6.6L and could never lose me.

    Believe it or not, with the wide tires lowering the car 1″, the blacked out grille, and those headlights giving it a kind of husky dog eyes look, many folks thought it wasn’t a Gremlin.

    I don’t recall the 6 turn problem in the steering – perhaps the 70 Series tires helped. My big gripe however was the front drum brakes. Everytime you drove through a puddle they pulled (usually right) until they dried.
    I do recall it was one of the first (maybe the first) car with hydraulic piston assisted hatchback window…what a great feature for the day.

    Say what you want about the sniped back end,but damn that car was easy to parallel park…LOL.

    At that time I often had the opportunity to drive a ’76 AMX 360 4 Barrel. It was a considerably bigger and less nimble car.

    • 0 avatar

      Good memories! Just a couple of details: The ’74 Gremlins (all ’74’s by law) had the big 5 mph bumpers. Maybe yours was a ’73?
      And the reference to a ’76 AMX must be a typo, as there was no such car. Perhaps you meant a ’70 AMX 360 4 barrel?

  • avatar

    This car along with the equally craptastic Hornet should have been candidates for Deadly Sins as this very basic forever lasing bodystyle is what led to AMC’s demise.

  • avatar

    We bought one of those in April of ’70.  I had just been drafted, we needed a car for the wife that was more trustworthy than the ’54 Chevy, and a car with a warranty seemed like a good idea should I be sent to Viet Nam.  White with red stripe, back seat, opening rear window, roof rack, air, power steering (not six turns), 3-on-the-floor.  And cheap.  The 35 assembly tasks that I had to complete on the car took two full notebook pages to write down.  It was reliable enough.  I only remember that a weld on the support for the a/c belt pulley broke, and the exhaust manifold broke.  The brakes were frightening, with the rear wheels so eager to lock.  Ride and handling were interesting with the front weight bias, front springs like mush and rear springs like rocks.  But it was good motivation to start learning about sway bars and chassis design.

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