By on September 5, 2019

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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42 Comments on “Rare Rides: A Pristine AMC Pacer Wagon From 1978...”


  • avatar
    FreedMike

    God, where to start with all the wrong stuff here? I suppose I could start with the woodgrain. But you know what? I don’t care. It’s awesome.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    “Roof gutters were also eliminated in the name of aerodynamics, and doors blended smoothly into the roof (causing leaks).” Corey thanks for that information. I think that whether or not the vehicle has gutters should be a standard comment in all future Rare Rides. Just as on the CBC radio program, As It Happens, whenever mentioning a location in England they reveal how many miles it is from the town of Reading.

    Is it an urban legend that the passenger side door length was actually a mistake, that AMC tried to turn into a marketing positive?

    My experience with Pacers is going to the USA to conduct surveillance and being presented at the rental counter with their only remaining vehicle, a Pacer. Very hard to not be observed or remain incognito when sitting in a vehicle with that greenhouse.

    Looking back, the styling is not as offensive as we judged it to be in the 1970s. And reading your article has left a positive impression of AMC’s design/engineering efforts.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Quite a radical design from a small company. But going radical means either a love it or hate it attitude, no middle camp allowed.

    Although I particularly liked it, I still remember some of the nasty jokes surrounding it:

    Q- Why does the Pacer have such large windows?
    A- So you can clearly see the stupid person who bought it.

    Unfortunately for AMC, it was a product already too late, and it did not have the financial prowess of the Big 3 to weather the Japanese onslaught.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    The 304 wasn’t available at first, just the 232 and the 258, with the three-speed or auto, both available on the floor or column, depending on bench or bucket seats. The 304 first became an option for 1978, the reason for the taller hood and grille. The four-speed became an option for ’77.

  • avatar

    I had a Beige one for a demo. rode great!

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    I imagine it was a heroic effort to squeeze the inline six into a compartment intended for a beer keg sized Wankel rotary.

    This little sweetie would run quite nicely with an aluminum LS and an overdrive automatic.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      Check out Jay Leno’s Garage.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      When AMC figured out that they were not getting a rotary engine they squeezed in the six by slightly extending the center of the dashboard into the car so the number five and six cylinders fit.
      Removing the rear spark plugs can be a bit of a job but apparently a long extension and swivel joint works.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I think the trim surrounding the woodgrain vinyl must have been falling off, because I can see no other reason for all those screws driven through it. I can’t find any other pictures of Pacers with all those screws, and they’re not in the brochure pics.

  • avatar
    ToddAtlasF1

    GM was very late in telling AMC that the engine they were betting the farm on wasn’t going to be delivered. Considering the various gas crunches that happened, I’m not sure it would have effected the Pacer’s success much had it been delivered as envisioned with better packaging and performance but big-block fuel consumption.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      It’s for the best that the GMRE was a bust, between the fuel consumption, lack of torque, probable apex seal problems, and owners not keeping up with oil consumption (since rotaries require some oil injection).

  • avatar
    spookiness

    There is a recent Jay Leno video with a very nice Pacer wagon appearing completely stock on the outside, but with a LS swap.

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    That looks like total fun. :-)

  • avatar
    threeer

    Gads, I’d drive it (at least once) just for the green exterior and those seats! Stunning glory in all of its weirdness!

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Built to take over the market!

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    These were so weird right from the beginning, but somehow kind of lovable (if you didn’t own one)

    The Mirthmobile wagon :)

  • avatar
    Lovelockguy

    I was “selling” Volkswagens from mid 1974 and the dealer finally realized I was a really bad at it so they made me the F&I guy, which sort of worked out.
    About 1975 I ran into a 2nd cousin on the floor, (our dads were cousins). We weren’t close but he was interested in a Rabbit. I thought he was buying but he said he’d let me know. A couple of days later I called him and got no answer and then about 10 days later, his dad called my dad (first cousins) to tell him the cousin had bought a Pacer wagon. Never saw or heard from him again until I went to his dad’s funeral 15 years later. The Pacer didn’t come up in the conversation.

  • avatar
    Greg Hamilton

    When I was a kid, my Dad rented a 1975 Pacer to make the trek from Manhattan to Long Island on the weekends. It looked different from anything else at the time and was very futuristic to me. Sort of the future that might have been. Many people waved and smiled as we drove by. That is saying something for cynical Manhattanites. I thought it was great.

  • avatar
    2drsedanman

    I work with a guy who swears the seats in the Pacer were the most comfortable he ever set in of all the cars he has owned.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    So many clever ideas, but the whole package was just a bit too radical for the market. I still enjoy seeing them on the rare occasions when it happens, though.

    Imagine if AMC had had a modern big-bore four available to it. That would have been the perfect engine for this car.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      It’s a design that *almost* was really right. Apparently Porsche’s Tony Lapine took comparisons of the 928 to the Pacer as a compliment rather than an insult because he understood what Dick Teague was after (and may have achieved if AMC had had deeper pockets).

      It probably went over well with Joe Six Pack in 1978, but the refreshed grille and hood really changed the front end for the worse.

      Oh, and God bless the French: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AMC_Pacer#International_markets

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    For those who made fun of the 3 Pintos I owned, there was always the Pacer to point to.

    However, the Pacer “Sandwich King” ad was the best:

    “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3Utv8kXPUI”

  • avatar
    SirRaoulDuke

    “The chink in the Pacer’s armor ended up being newer, lighter, more efficient compact offerings from Japan.”

    Ugh. You folks need a culturally sensitive editor?

    • 0 avatar
      ravenuer

      If that’s a question, the answer is no, they don’t.
      The term has an actual meaning, has been used for hundreds of years and has nothing to do with race or culture.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      ! Wait, is the complaint about the word ‘chink’ ? .

      Wow, that’s a stretch, even for the butthurt brigade .

      Maybe someone here should learn ENGLISH before making incredibly foolish dog whistle comments .

      Of course, if that wasn’t the word in question, I’m just one more old fool you can ignore .

      -Nate

      • 0 avatar
        CammerLens

        I once saw a letter to the editor of a major newspaper claiming quite seriously that use of the word “nip” in any context whatsoever was clearly insulting and perjorative to Japanese-Americans.

        • 0 avatar
          -Nate

          The butthurt brigade isn’t known for being overly intelligent .

          Some of my gay friends laughed when they heard the dopers on nextdoor claimed it’s a pejorative aimed at gay folks….

          Some people simply _must_ search for things to be upset about .

          -Nate

  • avatar
    ajla

    I like the Gremlin more.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    Well, I like green but………

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Yes I’ve never understood the Internet Wagon Crusade’s obsession with BROWN.

      Brown can be nice (especially in a shade like “copper” or something with a little metallic to it) but green is so much better. I wish I could have gotten my TourX in that 90s Emerald Green that GM loved to use. But given the current color palate I’m pretty happy with Rioja Red.

  • avatar
    star_gazer

    My mom worked for AMC and was the proud owner of a green Pacer. I drove it from Milwaukee, WI through Madison and onto Dodgeville. Great little car, with no acceleration. Felt like I was driving a fish bowl.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    It’s hinted at in the article, but AMC really deserves some kudos for how well they incorporated those bumpers. Very little underbite compared to other vehicles from the mid to late 70s.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      Kind of to your point, Russycle, the moaning about 5-mph bumpers really ought to be focused on the phenomenon of 5-mph bumpers grafted onto earlier designs rather than, as it tends to be, directed at ’70s and ’80s cars in general. Once the designers got a chance to incorporate the more robust bumpers from square one of a project, they were able to do a better job. The bumpers on the downsized ’77 B and C-bodies are pretty big and bold, but they look like they belong in a way that, e.g., the front bumper on a ’73 Riviera doesn’t.

  • avatar
    MeJ

    Wow, that is all kinds of ugly!
    My Dad had a burgundy coupe version of this and it was horribly unreliable.
    We didn’t have the wood panelling so I guess this car is better.

  • avatar
    HotPotato

    Call me crazy, but I think two-door compact wagons are the coolest cars ever. AMC Pacer wagon, Opel Kadett wagon, Ford Pinto wagon, Mini Clubman. Bring ’em on.

    Although let’s face it…for the Pinto wagon to be cool, it needs fluorescent green paint, slot mags with oversized tires in back, sedan-delivery style steel panels in back with a tinted bubble porthole window, and the car’s name airbrushed somewhere.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I’ve always thought these looked awful but so many I knew back when these were new though they were the shiznit .

    AMC makes reasonably good cars but not good enough for me to want one .

    -Nate

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    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.


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