Curbside Classic: 1971 Small Cars Comparison: Number 6-AMC Gremlin

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
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curbside classic 1971 small cars comparison number 6 amc gremlin

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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Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Al Williams Al Williams on Oct 24, 2010

    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.

  • Linda Linda on Jun 27, 2023

    I owned a used 1974 Gremlin during my college years. It was white with an orange stripe and Levi fabric interior, automatic, great radio. I adored it, especially driving on the freeway. Yes, it could be labored driving with passengers in the back, but I wish I still had it mainly because it was so quirky looking. It suited me perfectly, even with it’s imperfections.

  • MaintenanceCosts So there is no Sonata trim without some type of Theta engine.It seems like they've been doing a bit better when attached to a hybrid system, so that's probably the one to get, but they're going to have to go several years without further engine troubles before I'd trust a H/K ICE product again.
  • Lou_BC Full sized sort of autonomous RC's. Cute.
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  • John Not everyone pays that much for power. Mine is 10 cents per kw…..