Rare Rides: A Pristine AMC Pacer Wagon From 1978

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rare rides a pristine amc pacer wagon from 1978

Our most recent late-Seventies Rare Ride from AMC was a delightfully brougham Matador Barcelona from 1978. Today’s Rare Ride shared showroom space with the Matador that very same year, but had its eye on a slightly different customer. It’s a base model Pacer DL, complete with wood paneling.

AMC set out to design an all-new type of compact car in the early Seventies. Calling upon designer Richard Teague for its new car, the automaker kicked off design work in 1971. Hoping to avoid a typical three-box design, AMC’s design team paired aerodynamic metal with a large greenhouse for better visibility. Though a compact, AMC chose to make the Pacer the same width as a full-size car. Prevailing wisdom at HQ was that demand for more efficient compact cars would increase throughout the Seventies, but that large-car-driving Americans would be more comfortable in a car of traditional width. The extensive use of glass also made the interior seem brighter and more spacious.

As always, AMC was keen on saving as much money as possible, but it did pull out a few stops for the new compact. The Pacer got modern rack-and-pinion steering, a new feature on American cars at the time. The engine and suspension were isolated from the passenger area for a quieter ride. And though it debuted in 1975, AMC made the Pacer compliant with 1980 crash testing standards, including energy-absorbing bumper mountings, and what the company called “full-circle body protection.” There was also a roll bar built into the roof, visible via a bump in the sheet metal. Wiper blades hid under the hood when not in use. Roof gutters were also eliminated in the name of aerodynamics, and doors blended smoothly into the roof (causing leaks). The whole car was designed with ease of service in mind, using fewer screws to allow better access to the dash, instruments, and bulbs. The passenger-side door was also longer than the driver’s to improve access to the rear seat.

The Pacer was supposed to feature a radical new Wankel engine that AMC intended to purchase from GM. Like everyone ever, General Motors saw the multitude of inevitable issues with Wankel engines and cancelled its rotary project in 1974. AMC was left high and dry and short on time. This meant that, although engineers previously explored the idea of front-drive and mid-engine layouts, a more traditional combustion engine and rear-drive arrangement was chosen for production.

Pacer went on sale in 1975 with a selection of inline-six engines or one 5.0-liter V8. Power went to the rear wheels via a three- or four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic. Customers could choose from a 171.8-inch coupe version or the longer 176.8-inch wagon shown here.

Pacer sold well, experiencing little competition from American manufacturers floored by the OPEC crisis of 1973. The chink in the Pacer’s armor ended up being newer, lighter, more efficient compact offerings from Japan. By the late Seventies, the Pacer’s 22 mpg wasn’t attractive against foreign competition. AMC’s answer was to rely more heavily on the Renault Le Car and phase out the Pacer during the 1980 model year. Le boo.

Today’s green-and-wood wagon is for sale with 27,000 miles on the clock in the rural seaside community of Laguna Beach. It asks $14,500.

[Images: seller]

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  • Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out on Sep 07, 2019

    I like this car. It is wide, spacious and has a lot of cargo space and at the same time is not station wagon and it is 2 door hatchback! Thats the car I would consider next time (given that it is BEV). But why V6 and RWD? Why not I4 FWD? Did Japanese competitor and VW had V6 engines too? Seriously - why compact car needs V6? 2.0L I4 would be more than enough.

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Sep 08, 2019

    New working theory (developed just now): --> The curse of ever-rising beltlines is a direct backlash from this design. This makes me dislike the Pacer even more. You know those plastic "working" model engine kits everyone had as a kid? My parents were weird, so my plastic engine model was a Wankel.

  • Art Vandelay Best? PCH from Ventura to somewhere near Lompoc. Most Famous? Route Irish
  • GT Ross The black wheel fad cannot die soon enough for me.
  • Brett Woods My 4-Runner had a manual with the 4-cylinder. It was acceptable but not really fun. I have thought before that auto with a six cylinder would have been smoother, more comfortable, and need less maintenance. Ditto my 4 banger manual Japanese pick-up. Nowhere near as nice as a GM with auto and six cylinders that I tried a bit later. Drove with a U.S. buddy who got one of the first C8s. He said he didn't even consider a manual. There was an article about how fewer than ten percent of buyers optioned a manual in the U.S. when they were available. Visited my English cousin who lived in a hilly suburb and she had a manual Range Rover and said she never even considered an automatic. That's culture for you.  Miata, Boxster, Mustang, Corvette and Camaro; I only want manual but I can see both sides of the argument for a Mustang, Camaro or Challenger. Once you get past a certain size and weight, cruising with automatic is a better dynamic. A dual clutch automatic is smoother, faster, probably more reliable, and still allows you to select and hold a gear. When you get these vehicles with a high performance envelope, dual-clutch automatic is what brings home the numbers. 
  • ToolGuy 2019 had better comments than 2023 😉
  • Inside Looking Out In June 1973, Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Washington for his second summit meeting with President Richard Nixon. Knowing of the Soviet leader’s fondness for luxury automobiles, Nixon gave him a shiny Lincoln Continental. Brezhnev was delighted with the present and insisted on taking a spin around Camp David, speeding through turns while the president nervously asked him to slow down. https://academic.oup.com/dh/article-abstract/42/4/548/5063004