By on November 28, 2010

Some might say that the AMC Gremlin, being one of the crudest simplest cars ever built, should be as reliable a tool as the stick used by chimps to extract tasty ants from anthills. It wasn’t quite like that for Substandard Racing and their Gremlin, as we saw at the Laissez Les Crapheaps Roulez 24 Hours of LeMons last weekend.
Our first sighting of the Substandard Racing AMC came at the 2010 Gator-O-Rama LeMons, back in February. As the second-ever AMC product (after the Hornet that races in the West Coast events, and if you don’t count the Renault Alliance and/or Eagle Premier as AMC products), the Gremlin’s presence made everyone at LeMons HQ very happy… until its flank ended up serving as the perfect launching ramp for an Escort ZX2:

After that, things went downhill fast for the Gremlin; first, the four-wheel-drum brakes kept catching on fire, thanks to the never-anticipated-by-Kenosha-engineers duty cycle of a high-speed endurance race (yes, you could still buy a car with full drums as late as 1974). Then the allegedly reliable AMC 258 six-banger blew up. Total laps finished, in a race in which the winner got 328? Twelve glorious laps for the AMC!
For the Laissez Les Crapheaps Roulez race, Substandard Racing came prepared! Not only did they hang a couple of Black Ice Little Trees from the rear-view, they’d installed front disc brakes and a beefy 4.2-liter Jeep engine out of a 1990 Wrangler. For good measure, they even threw a rings-and-bearings rebuild at the venerable AMC-Jeep-Chrysler six-cylinder powerplant. Checkered flag, here we come!
As their secret weapon, the Substandards brought along a complete parts car with running engine: this frighteningly hacked-up AMC Eagle! The plan was to let the LeMons Supreme Court use the Eagle as the Judgemobile, which would have ranked it right up there with the Greatest Judgemobiles of All Freakin’ Time, because the new engine would be utterly bulletproof! Right?
Well, not exactly. For some reason, the “bulletproof” engine wasn’t getting any oil to the top end. Actually, the horrible bearing scream sounded like no oil was getting anywhere. Kibitzers from other teams kicked around some theories: The main bearings are in backwards! The lifters are in wrong! The oil pump is bad! The oil pump has an air bubble! The pushrods are clogged! Anyway, the green flag waved at 3:00 PM and at 9:00 PM the team was still thrashing on the engine, trying to figure out the problem.
I’d been recommending that they just give up on the 4.2 and swap in the Eagle’s 258 since about 3:05 PM, because years of LeMons experience has taught me that a simple engine swap is always simpler than a complicated engine repair. However, this wasn’t quite as simple a swap as you might think; much had changed on the AMC Six between 1974 and 1990, including headache-inducing stuff like throttle linkage and exhaust manifolds, plus the Eagle’s primitive AWD drivetrain made for a totally hellish somewhat challenging engine removal. Still, Substandard Racing didn’t give up!
Helping the Substandards for about 36 hours straight was John of Hoonatic Racing (shown here posing with Judge Anna aka Bikini Racer). John won the Heroic Fix and I Got Screwed trophies at the 2010 Yeehaw It’s Texas race in September for the all-weekend, one-total-lap madness he performed on his Integra after his whole team bailed. He figured, what the hell, the Gremlin should be easy after that nightmare!
As it turned out, nothing about the man-versus-Gremlin struggle was easy. When the sun came up on Sunday morning, the Eagle’s engine had finally been dropped into the Gremlin and most of the fasteners had been more or less installed.
The engine ran, sort of, but the Gremlin wasn’t quite ready to hit the track. Their junkyard transmission was a computer-controlled automatic, only they didn’t have the computer. No problem! Just use buttons zip-tied to the roll bar to control the second- and third-gear shifts! Then it turned out that they didn’t have enough transmission fluid. Then Western civilization collapsed and all of Louisiana reverted to savagery, making transmission fluid impossible to obtain. Anyway, the hurdles kept appearing in front of Substandard Racing, and Substandard Racing kept staggering over, under, and around them.
Eventually, with a couple of hours left to go in the straight-through 24-hour event, the Substandards managed to drive the AMC over to HQ for a tech inspection. Aside from the bad alternator wiring, the car was just about ready to race!
Oh, wait… is that a radiator leak? Meanwhile, an asteroid with a diameter of three kilometers smashed into the Gulf of Mexico, engulfing No Problem Raceway in boiling seawater and destroying all life in the Northern Hemisphere.
Still, Substandard Racing soldiered on, this time setting up shop in the LeMons Supreme Court’s Penalty Box.
Good thing they had the shop manual! In this case, they had the Chilton’s for every motor vehicle made from 1972 through 1979.
Finally, the car was ready! We all rushed over to the grandstands to watch its glorious Laissez Les Crapheaps debut.
It wasn’t exactly fast, but it went around the track. 37 times it circled the No Problem Raceway aka The Circuit At Grand Bayou course, more than tripling nearly matching its previous lap record!
The car pitted a couple times for driver changes and repairs, and each visit was a cause for celebration.
The Substandard Racing entry overheated repeatedly, but the team held it together long enough to take the checkered flag. The crowd gave the Gremlin a standing ovation when it clattered off the track at 3:01 PM. At the postrace awards ceremony, there was no doubt about which team most deserved the Heroic Fix trophy. Add Substandard Racing to the Heroic Fix Honor Roll!
Thanks to Nick Pon and Scott Carr for photographic help!

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14 Comments on “Endurance Racing a Gremlin: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Then the allegedly reliable AMC 258 six-banger blew up.
    And immediately I thought, what about the Jeep 6?  More powerful, small tweaks for durability!  Then I kept reading… dang.
    For some reason my favorite LeMons teams are the ones who race brands that don’t exist anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      4.2L = 258ci. The Wrangler soldiered on with the old carbureted 4.2L/258 until 1990, and then finally switched over to the larger bore/shorter stroke 4.0L FI engine (first seen in the 1987 Cherokee) in 1991.

      If you are going to build a 258/4.2L, the older (1980 or prior) crankshafts would probably make a better choice for durability and bearing life because they have 12 counterweights vs. 4 in the 1981-1990 engines. They’re getting quite scarce these days since they are popular for 4.0L stroker builds. The 4.0L engines have 8 counterweights (if memory serves) and would probably be a more durable choice than a late 258/4.2L crank.

      Since fuel injected 4.0Ls are so plentiful, to me the choice would have been to scavenge a 4.0L complete with wiring/computer from a Cherokee and drop it in. 

    • 0 avatar

      I’m with you, man. it just IS American to root for the underdog…

  • avatar

    I wish I had known about the joyful pasttime of Escort-bumping long ago!

  • avatar

    Strict dollar limits involved.
    Can’t a used old Vega engine be adapted to function?
    Is there ANY left?

  • avatar

    You’d think it’d be easier and cheaper to put in a SBC. Probably run better too.

    • 0 avatar

      SBCs are actually notoriously unreliable in this series, and are also well known by officials to be the engine of choice for cheating bastards. As such, they’re subject to NAUSEATINGLY tough inspection involving boroscopes, looking up casting numbers and worst of all – pulling bits off to look underneath. Penalties abound.

  • avatar

    As the former owner of a star-crossed orange ’76 Gremlin, I loved every word of this. And the pictures a thousand times more so. The shot of the Chilton’s lying on the ground dejectedly was an LOL’er.As this post implies, I have unfortunately found that AMC products are better in concept than in reality.

  • avatar

    Say what you will about the Gremlin, it helped keep AMC in business and beat the other “subcompacts” like the Pinto and Vega to market. As others have alluded to, the AMC inline six was close to indestructible in normal service. The rest of the car would be falling apart but the drivetrain was hard to break.
    They’re somewhat popular with the drag racing set. You never see Hornets or Concords at the strip but there are plenty of Gremlins, though fewer Gremlins than Vegas. With a wheelbase 12″ shorter than the Hornet and no trunk, Gremlins were pretty light. A Gremlin doing an 1/8 mile wheelie is something to behold.
    Being RWD and having engine bays that could fit a small block V8 means an evergreen life at the 1/4 mile strip. You could order the Gremlin from the factory with a 304 and since the AMC V8 was sort of in between a small block and a big block, it could displace as much as 409 ci from the factory. I don’t think the Vega ever came from the factory with an 8, but the Monza did, and under the exterior sheet metal, the front clip on the Monza is a Vega.

    NP: Easy by Big Walter Horton (tone so greasy you could lube your car with it)

  • avatar

    ha HA!  We win!  In hindsight, all that work was a blast, but at 2 AM sunday morning it suuuuucked.   Couple small details:  It’s a ’73 Gremlin with a ’76 grill and a 74 bumper.  Also, the engine we showed up with wasn’t a Wrangler engine, it was the ORIGINAL 1973 engine with some Jeepy mods. Also also, we did show up at Yee Haw 2009 too, but did nothing as interesting as following races and only 20 laps.  We just threw a roll cage in a sorta running Gremlin and showed up to get some experience.  The Gremlin will return!  Look for us at the next Dallas race!

  • avatar

    Reading post like this makes me proud of our record in the Billy Beer car with an equally crappy six. 4 races entered, 2 races finished, 2 races in which we at least ran for a few hours before the motor broke.

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