By on June 29, 2016

1971 American Motors Gremlin in Colorado junkyard, LH front view - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Once American Motors was absorbed by Chrysler in 1987, after lingering on the ropes for a few years during a series of early-1980s bailouts by Renault (i.e., the French government), random strands of its Kenosha/Boulogne-Billancourt DNA appeared here and there in various Chrysler products over the following decades. You’ll still find plenty of examples of full-on AMC products in North American junkyards today, in the form of the XJ Cherokee and AMC Eagle (the case could be made that the Chrysler LH is an AMC design, via the Renault 21/25-based Eagle Premier), but full-strength AMC models from the company’s heyday of the George Romney era and into the early 1970s are very rare sights today.

Here’s a pre-Malaise Gremlin, in glorious brown, that I spotted in a Denver yard last week.

1971 American Motors Gremlin in Colorado junkyard, Weather Eye - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

The Weather Eye, invented for use in the 1939 Nash and continued down through the years until Nash evolved into American Motors, was the AMC name for a car heater with adjustable temperature control. I can’t recall ever seeing the Weather Eye name on an AMC vehicle newer than this one, so 1971 might be its final year.

1971 American Motors Gremlin in Colorado junkyard, speedometer - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Another sign that the Nash influence wasn’t completely over by 1971 is the look of this Gremlin’s speedometer, which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a ’51 Airflyte.

1971 American Motors Gremlin in Colorado junkyard, 232 engine - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Under the hood, the reliable AMC straight-six, which lived on (as the Jeep 4.0) into the 21st century. If this is the one installed by the factory, it’s a 232.

1971 American Motors Gremlin in Colorado junkyard, rosary - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

This rosary couldn’t save the Gremlin from its fate, but this car outlived most of its contemporaries.

The Gremlin was, at heart, a shortened hatchback version of the Hornet. They were cheap, reasonably reliable, and sold well enough that they were once seen everywhere on North American roads. Unfortunately for AMC, they were thirsty, heavy, and cramped when compared to the front-wheel-drive imports that flooded the country during the 1970s (or even with the Detroit-produced Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega), and sales dropped off as the decade wore on.

Inspired by the opening scene from “Patton” (which was released in 1970), this ad emphasized the American part of the car company’s name.

[Images: © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars]

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70 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1971 AMC Gremlin...”


  • avatar
    Hydromatic

    Hmmm…no A/C and an AM-only radio. If it wasn’t for the automatic transmission (which seems to be missing its shift quadrant indicator), I’d assume it was a hairshirt model.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    Is rather have a Hornet. Love the I-6 though!

    • 0 avatar
      Geekcarlover

      My first car was a Hornet. But it had AC and the radio was AM AND FM, such luxury. I’ve had it and a CJ5 with the straight 6, nothing exciting, but they lived up to their unkillable reputation.

  • avatar
    Joe Btfsplk

    Vacuum windshield wipers were standard. This car is well optioned with electric wipers and a roof rack. It is the “Buick” of Gremlins.

  • avatar
    VoGo

    I had Gerry Myers, the CEO of AMC at the time, as a professor in B-school. He described how he was on a plane with his chief engineer, talking about the need for a compact car. The engineer whipped out a pad and started to draw what would soon be developed as the Gremlin, essentially a Hornet with the trunk chopped off.

    • 0 avatar

      I seem to remember the legend, which may be different from the reality, was the designer drew the original sketch on an air-sickness bag. According to the same legend, the sketch was pretty much 80% accurate to the production model. AMC was all heart.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Poor old thing ;
    .
    It looks pretty used up .
    .
    Gremlins are by design , hair shirt vehicles .
    .
    Sturdy but…..
    .
    -Nate

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    Of course the gas cap is gone. I wonder how many the original owner went through before giving up an just buying a generic one?

  • avatar
    Joss

    Gotta luv that 70’s shade of metallic green in the first ad…

  • avatar
    65corvair

    My sister had a 72. It was priced like a used car, so she got the Gremlin. Gas milage wasn’t as good as the class, but the power and smoothness of the six made up for it. Had she bough a Vega, which cost more, she would have been buying a new car in four years, not 12 that she had it. I was a relievable car. Spending a little extra for a Hornet would have been a wise choice. I loved the Sportabouts.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    I did drivers ed in one of these. True to the stereotype, my instructor was a PE coach, and all we did was drive between their offices moving movies. At that point I’d been riding my Honda CL 175 (somewhat illegally) on the street for nine months, so I don’t suppose I needed much instruction. There was really nothing unremarkable about it, at least from the front seats forward, it drove like pretty much any other American car of the time.

    At the time this car was built, there wasn’t much in the way of front drive competition, the Fiat 128 is the only one that comes to mind. VW still was soldiering on with the Beetle, the Corolla was rear drive as were the Datsun 510 and 1200, and of course Ford and Chevy’s offerings were rear drive as well. Honda was nowhere to be seen. VW switched over to front drive with the Dasher and Rabbit mid decade, though to be fair the Dasher was upmarket from the Gremlin. Most of the Japanese makers didn’t go to front drive until the very early 80’s.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Yep, my Driver’s Ed teacher was a coach too. And I do believe that man was stoned off his ass during the summer semester when I took the course.

      • 0 avatar
        Russycle

        My driver’s ed teacher was a coach too. Don’t think he was stoned, but the two surfer punks who were assigned to the same car often were. Our ride was an AMC Matador, the ultimate Malaise-mobile.

        • 0 avatar
          FormerFF

          Somebody traded a red Matador in at the dealership where I worked. It was promptly dubbed the “the Tomatador”.

        • 0 avatar
          Balto

          Mine was one of the Bus drivers as well as a former math teacher in the 70’s. We had a rare (apparently, seemed normal at the time) manual drivers ed car (as of the mid 2000’s), so the free drivers ed through school taught everyone how to drive stick. Probably impossible to find a program like that now.

        • 0 avatar
          golden2husky

          Ugh, we had a 74 Matador. Yeah, Malaise Mobile indeed. Ours was reasonably reliable but a POS rattletrap. By 140K it was just about done. 304 engine and automatic were still good, but that’s about it. We spent a weekend driving it my friend’s field until we ripped the exhaust system out on a low stump. Since we were going to junk it, I drove it down a steep road at about 40, put it in neutral, floored it and slammed it into reverse. Car ground to a halt and began to go up the hill backward, all in a cloud of tire smoke. Did this a few times and the trans still worked!

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @FormerFF is correct. No real FWD compact vehicles to compete with the Gremlin when it first came out. Toyota & Datsun still RWD. VW marketing Beetles as well as the Type III vehicles which were RWD.

      At least in Canada, Honda not yet available.

      Only really the Mini as a mainstream FWD competitor and by then it was viewed as tired and totally unreliable.

      My eyes mist whenever I see a Gremlin. One of my closest friends in high school had a purple one. It was not unheard of for us to cram 7 people into it (pre-seat belt laws). Cramped and noisy but despite the abuse it was put through it never let us down. Often we would leave on Friday after school and drive it all weekend, exploring Ontario and New York State. The owner passed away far too young, wish that we had the opportunity to go for one last road trip.

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        @Arthur, I was in Florida in the first half of the 70’s, and I don’t recall seeing Civics either. I did see the occasional Honda 600, but they were basically kei cars and were never going to be popular in the US.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      Chrysler-Plymouth dealers were selling Simca 1204s in 1971, Subaru had two FWD models for under $2K, Saab had the 96, 99, and Sonett III, the Citroen Mehari was cheap, Austin America was still claiming the odd victim, Audi’s Super 90 competed with Valiants on price, I just met someone who had an official US import Peugeot 304, and the Renault 16 was imported that year. There were FWD cars outside of the luxury car ranks of Cadillac and Oldsmobile, it’s just that none of them were reliable ways to get to work so they’ve been forgotten.

      The Gremlin has always struck me of a car that was small for no other reason than to be small. It isn’t packaged any better than a typical compact domestic of the day. It’s just had most of its usefulness trimmed away while leaving a heavy car with poor weight distribution behind. It’s like the first US-market 1-series BMWs. The only difference is that the Gremlin was an immensely successful racing car.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Another thing about Gremlins you should know. In the early days of IMSA, they sanctioned a series for small sedans and coupes called the Radial Challenge, and Gremlins were very competitive. Amos Johnson ran an operation known as Team Highball with Levi’s as the sponsor, and he and Dennis Shaw were more than competitive in that series.

    http://gremlinx.com/gremlin-included-in-the-international-motorsports-hall-of-fame/

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That’s a beautiful engine.

    The choke looks suspiciously like a Ford unit. Under the hood, AMCs were often a hodgepodge of other mfr’s parts, due to AMC’s small development budget.

  • avatar
    Irvingklaws

    As a kid I always kinda liked these. The way they looked anyway. Spent a good deal of my childhood in a beat up green Hornet. 3-speed on the column, non-power brakes and steering, bench seat. The vacuum operated windshield wipers could barely make it across the windshield and back. My dad tied a piece of string to one wiper and ran it through the window. In the snow he’d have to continually pull on it to clear the windshield. It took 4 studded snow tires to keep it under control in snow and ice.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    My mom had a Gremlin as the first car she ever bought for herself. Easter egg blue with a gold pinstripe, it was. It was replacing her first ever car, which was a Dodge Monaco she bought from her father.

    She has fond memories of neither.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Also, I don’t understand the climate control. The answer to “TEMP” would not seem to be “OFF or ON.”

    “Hey what temperature is it outside?”
    “On!”

    • 0 avatar
      gearhead77

      This helps me understand why so many folks, especially over 60, either turn on their vehicles HVAC system or turn it off, rather than adjusting the settings or temperature.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        I had an older woman as my French teacher in high school (she had also taught my mom decades before) who drove around with the AC on max all the time. In cooler weather, she would simply just add heat to it.

        Good thing GM puts sturdy AC components in their big vans.

      • 0 avatar
        hglaber

        Before Nash introduced WeatherEye, that is how most automotive heaters worked. It was off, or it was on. All it was in most cases was a fan that recirculated air in the car over a heater core. The only adjustment was changing the speed of the fan. WeatherEye introduced a thermostatic control so you could change the temp, as well as using outside air instead of recirculated. That also let them pressurize the cabin to some extent, which helped keep out drafts and dust that would come in through the poorly-sealed cars of the time. Then, in the fifties they added the first lightweight, front mounted, inexpensive air conditioner to WeatherEye. Pretty much every modern automotive HVAC system is based on the WeatherEye design.

        And yes, my 70 year old father just moved the temp lever from full hot to full cold with no time for that monkey business in between. Although surprisingly, once he moved to auto climate control, he did not do the thing a lot of people do and run the temp all the way up or down (then complain about how much harder it was with the buttons instead of the lever). He set that thing at about 72 and rarely touched it regardless of season.

    • 0 avatar
      Opus

      It’s not Off/On, it’s Off/High (heat only, remember) and could be positioned anywhere in-between. A/C equipped models would be Cold/Hot.

  • avatar
    clkimmel

    I love the bailing wire hose clamp on the fuel line!

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      One whole barrel. Wooooo!

      Bonus points for stringing the fuel line over the valve cover, the garden hoses to the heater core, and the plumbing valve for no reason at all.

      • 0 avatar
        lon888

        Yeah, stringing the fuel line over the valve cover – a great way to induce vapor lock.

      • 0 avatar
        CobraJet

        I think the so-called “weather eye” system had failed at some point and allowed full heat into the car all the time. Hence the need for the plumbing valve. In the summer just close the valve and keep hot water out of the heater core.

        • 0 avatar
          -Nate

          “I think the so-called “weather eye” system had failed at some point and allowed full heat into the car all the time. Hence the need for the plumbing valve. In the summer just close the valve and keep hot water out of the heater core.”
          .
          Just so .
          .
          The heart of the fantastic Weather Eye system was the Ranco hot water valve , when it’s rubber diaphragm dies , it begins to drip coolant and few know this part is available @ NAPA Parthaus’ , fewer still know how to install it .
          .
          Even GM products of the late 1950’s used this hot water valve .
          .
          -Nate

  • avatar
    Firestorm 500

    Prestone jug for coolant overflow bottle.

  • avatar

    In the early ’70s I dated a girl in high school who had a Gremlin X – burnt orange with white hockey stick stripes. She had rigged up curtains on the rear side windows, which confused me. Well, at first anyway.

  • avatar
    Big Wheel

    Sigh. Too bad Crabspirits hung up his keyboard. This car is ripe for a story from him.

    • 0 avatar
      Balto

      Came here to say the same thing, the person who kept this thing going for so long was amazingly spendthrift, with a healthy portion of “found this in the shed” ingenuity. I’ll bet they’re still washing their paper towels from 1998.

      • 0 avatar
        kolonelpanik

        spend•thrift (spĕndˈthrĭftˌ)►

        n.
        One who spends money recklessly or wastefully.
        adj.
        Wasteful or extravagant: spendthrift bureaucrats.
        Is that what you meant?

        • 0 avatar
          shaker

          An easy mistake — English will throw you curves like that.

          Think “thrifty spender”, and you’d be correct.

          Balto probably meant “penny pincher”.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      “Si, si. Okay Misa West.”

      The chunky, middle-aged arm gave a light wave, sterling and turquoise bracelets clanked back and forth. But he was already done paying attention. Clicking the small glowing panel on the wall, the belt-driven garage door whirred to life. The tall rear lights of the white Escalade Platinum disappeared from view. By the time the weather strip met the heated drive, Yolanda was out to the back of the bronze beauty she’d left at the street early in the morning. A worn rear hatch swung up, and bottles of Windex and Clorox Wipes were deposited. Over top a white apron was carefully folded. A very warm afternoon, she wiped her brow with a semi-clean rag before tossing it in the little pile with the others.

      The hatch slammed closed once.

      Twice.

      “Ay santo!”

      Third time was the charm. Two fingers found the AMC-generic latch handle, and an ample rear was lowered onto a tired, hot seat cover. To an outside observer, it looked like a large woman had just flattened a Labradoodle. The weathered face behind the wheel smiled, and touched a plastic cross gently to lips before turning the key. The ancient hodgepodge engine wheezed into life, and in a few moments coughed onto the freeway, all while coating the cars behind in rich exhaust. A sweet, syrupy cloud followed the sad bronze egg wherever it went.

      “Okay, vamanos… come on.” Yolanda gave her slipper-covered foot a bit more pressure, and cleaning products rattled two and fro in the back as the little Gremlin really struggled to get up to sixty-two miles per hour. The windows were already down and the fan was on max. A hand idly touched the old metal stalks, making sure both were in the correct summertime positioning. “Ah, caliente!” And that hand mopped between the two folds at the back of her neck, wiping the salty mixture casually on the passenger seat. The tired tin box was not at ease today.

      Forty minutes later there was the final coast down the slightly slanted street in Highland, as the two-bedroom house came into view. She saw the Camry CE parked up a little past the house – dark tints and those lace Konig 15’s. Francisco was home already. He could help.

      Applying the mushy brake pedal, the egg slowed. The weathered brown wood pillar was a beacon for the end to the pilgrimage home. A quick jerk of the wheel to the right, and the right front tire was up on the curb. She eased the misshapen wedge to rest in the usual place against the telephone pole. The grille rattled loosely within the front jaws; the chugging had grown a bit severe by that time.

      “Francisco! Ven aqui hijo!”

      “Yea mami.”

      A few moments later, Francisco was filled in on the details of the drive home. Some más problemas were apparent from the sweet smell lingering on the rundown street – a different sort of smell than usual. Francisco adjusted his Ecko snapback and popped the trunk on the Camry to get his tools. Stopping short of the destination, a white sneaker came to rest in a puddle of shiny green. The trail had gathered together an unusual congregation of bits of metal and broken glass, along with supporting pieces of twigs and grass clippings.

      “Maldita sea!”

  • avatar
    e30gator

    I’m surprised the Gremlin emblem is still on the car. At the self-service yards around here, I seldom find one present and intact on a car that’s sat for longer than 20 min.

  • avatar
    eliandi

    I had one. It was a 72 that I started driving in about 84 as my first car. It had ~150k on the odometer, and was not reliable! Good thing it had a 6 because at least one of the plugs was fouled at all times despite my best efforts. However with all 6 running it could beat my friends late-70s era 4cyl Mustang in a drag (to my great amusement and my friends dismay) . At one point got a short in the headlight circuit so I could only use them for a few minutes at a time. Got that fixed, then it backfired badly up through the carb and caused a small engine fire. My entire time with the car was like this!

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    If only they’d put the Buick Fireball/Dauntless V6 in when they had the chance. That and a stick would have been an awesome handling combination.

  • avatar
    nicktcfcsb

    Kinda a shame here, probably had a lot better parts before the junkyard grunts had their way with it draining fluids.

  • avatar
    RHD

    When these came out, I was an elementary school kid. Even then I could see that these were just a normal car with the back end cut off, and that was a phone-it-in cheap design. Most likely everyone thought that about the “half a car”.

    They were heavy, crude and slow, and I remember my cousin’s Gremlin had really, really bad shocks – it was maintained with as much generosity as the brown example in the pictures above. “What the hell, it runs!”, and he was making less than 3 Canadian dollars an hour at Mcdonalds on a “training wage”, which was a subminimum wage used to exploit inexperienced teenagers. Such lousy jobs and crummy cars could only motivate you to try to get ahead and enjoy a better life, or give up and accept such mediocrity forever.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    I learned how to drive on one of these. My folks had a 71, white with red stripe, auto radio and luggage rack.Vinyl seats and rubber flooring.

    This one seems well equipped: auto, radio, cloth seats, carpeting and pop out rear side windows.

    Many times when I went out on errands to build my driving skills I’d stop off at the AMC dealer and check out the inventory. No end of Gremlins with NOTHING on them. No radio, zero options, just the list price, transportation and the total.

    • 0 avatar
      gearhead77

      My father in law bought AMC’s in the day due to his frugal nature. These cars had that kind of appeal I suppose? Were they that much cheaper than The Big Three?

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    I’m just impressed that the word “junk” survived on the trunk all these decades.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    It’s an auto with a push button radio and what looks like cloth seats. Therefore certainly not a base (‘stripped’) model.

    But nowhere a luxe as a Levis Special Edition.

  • avatar
    DevilsRotary86

    “after lingering on the ropes for a few years during a series of early-1980s bailouts by Renault (i.e., the French government)”

    Which was itself interesting and worthy of discussion in its own right. Renault and the CEO of Renault Georges Besse were genuinely interested in bailing out AMC. Not out of the goodness of their hearts of course, but to give Renault access to the US market and eventually to provide a cheaper alternative to expensive French labor. All was fine until Mr Besse was assassinated by a French communist terrorist group called Action Directe. According to them, they did it to “protect French workers from Capitalist pigs like Mr Besse”.

    I personally believe that had Mr Besse not been murdered, the course of the automotive industry would have been radically different. I suspect that AMC would not have been sold to Chrysler, and AMC would have persevered as Renault’s US subsidiary.

  • avatar
    scottcom36

    Weather Eye was still there in the ’75 Hornet, and the Torque Command automatic transmission shifter, too!

    • 0 avatar
      JustPassinThru

      I don’t know when the Weather Eye trademark was abandoned. I had a 1972 Gremlin, no A/C, and IIRC it didn’t have it. And I would have remembered it, because my parents had a 1962 Classic with it. I was just learning to read, and that seemed such a curious thing to print on the dash – it wasn’t an eye; it didn’t light up, it didn’t tell anyone anything.

      I had the 1972 in 1987 – of course I was much older, but I would have remembered it as a link to my childhood and auto-training.

      Torque-Command IIRC was out of AMC cars by 1972. They had gradually been shifting over to TorqueFlite – first the SJ Jeep models got it immediately, 1971, when Jeep switched over from Buick V8s and THC, to the AMC V8s and Chrysler trannies.

      The Hornet and Gremlin got it in 1972.

      LAST to get it was the AM General-branded DJ Postal jeeps – they used Borg-Warner automatics until 1977. My guess is they either were under contract or had a warehouse to use up. Post Office mechanics called the transmission the Mickey-Mouse – and as the owner of several Postals, I can attest.

      But although my Gremlin was much more reliable than the postals (even though they shared an engine) I did, with transmission issues, become an expert of what was used when and how in that era.

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    The side windows seem to be the design study for the D-pillars of a goodly chunk of the CUVs produced in the last seven or so years, especially Kia Soul and Nissan Juke, and to a lesser extent, any hatchback Ford of the past few years, the new Chrysler Pacifica, Nissan Rogue, and I’m sure a bunch more I’m forgetting.

    Simply far and away the ugliest thing to have ever rolled on four wheels, IMHO! That C-pillar is the fugliest thing ever!

    IIRC, AMC came out with a design of this which didn’t have the ugly C-pillar, either as a Gremlin in its final couple years of production, or as a Spirit/Eagle variant.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Both my ’73 Hornets had the WeatherEye! Beware!

    Actually I really liked my Hornets – I got my first one in college and the price was right for a 3 year old Hornet hatchback; a few years later it was totaled and I found a ’73 in good shape that I ran for a couple of years before giving it to my brother.

    They were a hodgepodge of common components…alternator by Ford, voltage regulator by Chrysler, etc.

  • avatar
    Higheriq

    This particular Gremlin looks suspiciously similar to one that my brother wrapped around a tree in the late 70’s. It was a tough, economical car, albeit quite crude even by 70’s standards.


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