By on April 8, 2020

The AMC Gremlin celebrated its 50th birthday recently, a fact which would have passed by without notice were it not for commenter Steve Biro. And since we’re talking Gremlin today, we may as well take a look at an oddball trim that’s as quirky as it is rare.

It’s a Levi’s Gremlin from 1976, and it comes standard with an invitation to the Pants Party.

Spirited small automaker AMC, like the other American car manufacturers, needed a car in the early Seventies to counter the invasion of small economy cars from abroad. Entries like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla caught American companies without a card to play as fuel economy suddenly became a concern of consumers. Using ingenuity and as few dollars as possible, AMC created the thoughtfully named Gremlin.

Gremlin’s development started in earnest circa 1968, after the debut of the AMX-GT concept. The Richard Teague design was based on the Javelin, but the pony car platform did not mix well with specifications for a subcompact car. The AMX name was used later, but the concept itself did not go to production. Instead, designer Bob Nixon used the same general principles of the AMX-GT, mating the design to a shortened version of the existing compact Hornet platform. Unlike Ford and GM, AMC could not afford an all-new platform for its subcompact. The Hornet’s wheelbase was shortened a full foot (to 96 inches).

Gremlin was introduced April 1, 1970, ahead of the Chevrolet Vega, and a year before Ford’s Pinto and the imported Dodge Colt. The most basic version had no rear seat and no window hatch, and asked $1,879. The standard version, with four real seats and an opening rear window, was priced at $1,959 ($12,900 adjusted), which made it a value leader. Engines ranged from a VW-sourced 1.9-liter inline-four to AMC’s 304 V8 (5.0L). Transmissions were of three or four speeds in manual guise, or a three-speed automatic. Earlier automatics were sourced from Borg-Warner, while later ones were Chrysler’s ironclad TorqueFlite.

The available options were unusual for an economy car, as was the choice in engines. Customers who found its looks acceptable were pleased with their unusual domestic hatchback. In its first full year of sales in 1971, AMC moved 53,480 Gremlins. 1973 was the first considerable update for the Gremlin, as new bumpers were compliant with federal 5-mile-per-hour impact rules. Interior furnishings saw a rearrangement, which spelled more legroom for rear-seat passengers. And more importantly, Levi’s was the hot new trim package.

The main appeal for the Levi’s package was the interior trim, which was actually a denim-look nylon, since cotton in a car interior was an impermissible fire hazard. On the doors were removable map pockets, allowing owners to show their friends some cartography. The seats were also complete with authentic Levi’s red tab logos. Real copper rivets completed the jeans look. These no doubt turned into little branding discs in the Arizona sun.

The added appeal of Levi’s and other trims meant a jump in sales to 122,844 in 1973. Late in the year, the Arab Oil Embargo occurred, so Gremlin sales kept going strong. It didn’t last long, and by 1976 sales were slumping for all domestic subcompacts. A new international economy car competition was afoot, one that was front-drive and considerably lighter. That year, AMC refreshed the Gremlin with a new grille and headlamp surrounds, plus revised fenders. New sheet metal in 1977 didn’t rescue the Gremlin from its sales slide, which meant 1978 was its last year. In 1979 Gremlin was replaced by the equally Hornet-based Spirit, which, unfortunately for AMC, was neither lightweight nor front-wheel drive.

Today’s ’76 Gremlin, in excellent condition, hails from the Pacific Northwest region. It’s rust free and has a three-speed manual and the 3.8-liter inline-six. That engine eventually became the 4.0L used by Jeep through 2006. This AMC asks $10,900.

[Images: seller]

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35 Comments on “Rare Rides: A 1976 AMC Gremlin, Fully Covered in Jeans...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Wow, that’s incredibly clean. You’d have to really love the Gremlin to jump at $10k+.

    Today, you can buy the Hyundai Venue Denim, which has a similar interior theme – minus the branding rivets. :)

  • avatar
    R Henry

    A truly quirky car that looks better to my eyes today than it did in the 1970s. In a normal auto market, this would be a car worthy of consideration. In the contemporary realm of the Plague however, its availability, and price, are mostly irrelevant.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      AMC’s dollar shortage prevented them from moving the fuel filler tube to the side, which would have enabled a full hatch, not just the window. They finally got it right with the later Spirit hatchback.

      The mileage wasn’t all that great with the old 232 six, but the acceleration left Japanese-made contemporaries in the dust. Zero to sixty in under twelve seconds! That’s not much today, but the late 1970s subcompacts were MUCH slower, something like 18-19 seconds, making freeway merging somewhat exciting.

      I owned one, a 1977, for a very short time. It was rear ended and totaled at a stop light. I didn’t even get replacement cost. It was a blast to drive while I owned it though.

      • 0 avatar
        sgeffe

        I forgot about the Spirit liftback, which was foreshadowed by the latest Gremlins. Those looked good! And the concept of truncating a Hornet was probably better looking back 50 years than the clean sheets of music which proved to be the start of the undoing of GM, and a stain on FoMoCo’s reputation.

  • avatar
    cprescott

    I wish I had the money to start picking up the malaise era Detroit cars that have been saved to this point. It would be a wacky and odd collection, but I remember these as a teenager and they still resonate with me (nostalgia). I’d like some huge Detroit land yachts in pristine collection as well. Unless I win the lottery, this is just a pipe dream.

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    Never saw one of these that didn’t have the 258 I6. That was a good motor.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      The base engine was the stalwart 232 (our ’66 Rambler American had one), and the 304 V8 became an option in ’72. A 2.0l four bought from Audi (as used in the 100LS) debuted for 1977.

  • avatar
    Vulpine

    When I was in the USAF I had a roommate with that exact model. For all that people called it ugly, it was a surprisingly good little car. All the benefits of a proper mid-sized car (now full-sized) without the boot, letting it fit in smaller places.

    Got decent gas mileage too. The owner measured his fuel usage by hours of operation, rather than by miles. Said he could get six hours out of the tank, whether it was city or highway driving.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I always found these interesting with the V8 for the sheer “short wheelbase + big engine” fun of it.

    “Real copper rivets completed the jeans look. These no doubt turned into little branding discs in the Arizona sun.”

    Don’t wear a bikini or a speedo then.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      I remember a comedian who said the Gremlin looked like the designer did the drawing from the front bumper to the B-pillar before he was told that it was supposed to be a compact car.

    • 0 avatar
      nrd515

      I can tell you from experience, you didn’t need to be wearing anything more than thin pants to get the “branding disc” experience. My friend’s mom had one and if it was parked in the sun for a while, watch out! We went to the drag races and after about 4 hours, we could see a storm was coming in and so we decided to leave ahead of it’s arrival. I got in and about 5 seconds later, bailed out with my friend laughing hysterically. His dad had done the same thing a week earlier. Next time I saw the Gremlin, it had seat covers on it, those weird “Indian Blanket” ones that used to be common.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    I have many, many memories of times spent in Gremlins.
    For the era, it was a rather robust, forgiving vehicle.

    ‘Hey what happened to the back of your car?’

  • avatar
    Sigfried

    I owned a 72 Gremlin in the early 80’s. Paid $175 or something like that. My assessment was that it was a great concept poorly executed. Mine had several unique features. There was a Fred Flintstone size rust hole in the floor. Even though it was covered by a heavy rubber floor mat you had to be careful where you put your feet. If you leaned back too hard the seat back popped out of its hinges so you had to hold the steering wheel tightly under heavy acceleration. Until I replaced the nylon bushing on the pivot points the clutch pedal was pretty sloppy. The shifting rails for the three speed manual were pretty lose so the shifter could jump out of the notch and you had to fish around to find what gear you were in to shift to the next one. That’s why you held the steering wheel when the seat back popped off rather than the gear shift. Once turned on you could remove the key. Unless you turned it all the way back to the lock position which required pressing the steering wheel lock lever, you could operate the car with no key just by twisting the knobs above and below the key slot. The gas gauge didn’t work but with a 25 gallon tank and 25mpg I could get 500 miles between fill-ups.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I get high just looking at that dashboard. A lot of kids got these for high school graduation

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I remember that stealing the gas caps off these was pretty popular back in the day. If you look at the pic of the rear end, you can just make out the little spaceman on the cap. I don’t think there was any way to lock them.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      The original fuel cap had a Gremlin image on it, our fleet had them stolen often in the mid to late 1980’s when I sourced parts for them, I mae sure we always had the correct cap in stock .

      No lockers were available from AMC .

      These were robust but plodders to drive with heavy steering, a thing I remember from 1960’s AMC products as well .

      An extremely eccentric old man I know bought one of these to woo the rich women he hoped to marry, in time one fell for him and he’s now a millionaire in spite of no talents I ever noticed .

      -Nate

  • avatar
    conundrum

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but looking back I now view this ULF as a much better deal than the Vega and Pinto. The Vega was unmitigated trash from beginning to end, and the Pinto my parents had was a rusting hulk in four years with its cam lobes ground almost flat, merely as an added delight you understand. A 258 I6 Gremlin was a car that actually lasted without completely dissolving in a few years although it had a few popular rust points, and no agricultural four cylinder rasp, buzz and roar on the highway. Provided you didn’t think it was a sportscar and got the power steering (otherwise it was over 6 turns lock-to-lock I kid you not) it was perfectly fine. And for some reason I’ll never work out, that engine in a Pacer owned by an acquaintance did not suffer the hiccups and rough-running most other engines did in the malaise era – it was just as slow as sin in that heavy body with 115 hp net. Like I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    That VW EA831 engine was a useless lump of machinery that AMC actually assembled in the US, following negotiations with Ferdie Piech — he must have laughed his head off at the deal. My only experience of it was in fuel injection form in the Porsche 924, and it was a hot oil smelly dog, a cheapo 2.0 l SOHC conversion of the 1871cc Audi OHV four, which was nicer in my opinion – it revved happily and I owned one. The plan was to flog the US-made EA831 back to VW for van use, but it really wasn’t much good. It lasted only two model years ’78 and ’79 and then AMC rightfully dumped it, substituting our old pal the Iron Duke from GM which many said got fantastic mileage in other AMC cars as it throbbed along. Kenosha designed their own four based on the 258 I6 instead by 1984, and that went into Jeeps. My pal a doc had an ’84 Cherokee with a four speed and that engine, not too bad for trundling around. Of course, by then Renault was making pre-broken tin box FWD cars at AMC.

    Mercedes and BMW copied the Gremlin template around 2000. Remember the C230 Kompressor bobtail C Class and some runt of a BMW with the old and useless swing arm rear axle for instant oversteer?

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      I agree, part of my growing-up was near Kenosha which means I spent a lot of time around AMCs of this vintage. Those Gremlins took a lot of abuse and kept coming back. I’ve seen these cross cornfields, add a V8 and this weird little car became a real little power wagon. Hands down they were better then any American counterpoint. A low bar to be sure, but still better

      • 0 avatar
        Art Vandelay

        Add a V8 and you got 150 flaming horsepower in one of the ugliest packages ever. Oooooh baby, sign me up!

        Yeah, cars sucked back then. Yet here we are, people talking about how great this is until the next article with some 2.0 turbo something with probably 100+ more horsepower that will Outlast this turd exponentially gets bashed because reasons.

        This car is a turd among turds in it’s era. Thank God this era is now a memory.

        • 0 avatar
          nrd515

          My friend’s family had two of them, a ’71 and a ’77, both with the six and they were “quirky” styling wise, but they both held up great, to the point they both had a ton of miles and rust on them when they got retired. The original one was orange and the later on one blue. I don’t think either of them had any major repairs done to them.

        • 0 avatar
          Lie2me

          Geez, Art, don’t you know by now that all the cars of our youth were either magic buses or horrible POS. You know, rose colored glasses and anemic V8s are all the rage

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          A thousand times this!! An uglier vehicle I’ve never seen!

          And the C-pillar seems to be the basic template for just about everything under the sun these days, but the worst offenders are the Kia Soul, and the thankfully-departed Nissan Juke, though the Toyota C-HR is nipping at the heels of both aforementioned vehicles in this regard!

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      conundrum… those six turns lock to lock also got you a turning radius that was markedly smaller than a VW Beetle. Of course, you got that with the power steering as well. But still…

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      “Kenosha designed their own four based on the 258 I6 instead by 1984”

      For some reason I thought they named that engine “Hurricane,” or at least they intended to name it that, but I can’t find any reference to the name for that engine (the 1980s AMC four cylinder). I know the name was used decades before on some Jeep engines.

      :shrug:

      As for the Gremlin, well, I guess you could say that the design has aged much better than most people would have guessed when these cars were a common sight on the roads.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    Thanks for the piece and the credit, Corey. My father owned no fewer than three Gremlins in a row – all six-cylinder versions with three-speed sticks. They were trouble-free, outside of a few squeaks and rattles, which were typical of all cars of the era. But my brother and I grew from the time he purchased his first Gremlin in 1972, his second in 1974 (an X version with the Levis interior) and his last in 1977. But we were still stuck in the back seat. The Gremlin was never intended to be a family car. But fun, yep… in spades. I grow fonder of the Gremlin with each passing year.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Not all the cars from this era are garbage but I would agree the Vega was the worst of the bunch and next would be the Pinto. The midsize GMs with a V8 were very solid cars and were relatively trouble free compared to many other malaise era cars.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      The Vega was really only bad if you lived in the Rust Belt (especially the first couple of year models, before they figured out rustproofing), and were unforgiving of Americans’ tendency to neglect routine maintenance. The 1975 models added a low coolant warning light and sensor, and all Vegas used an in-tank electric fuel pump wired through the oil pressure sender, so that a loss of oil pressure shut off the fuel pump.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        “In 1972, GM issued three mass recalls, the largest covering 500,000 Vegas, to fix defective axles, balky throttles and problems that caused fires. The Vega’s aluminum engine was notorious for buckling and leaking.” By May 1972, six out of every seven Vegas produced was the subject of a recall. (Wikipedia)

        The aluminum alloy cylinder block, combined with a cast-iron cylinder head created numerous issues.

        I remember watching one ‘blow up’ in the parking lot at the SW corner of Bayview and York Mills.

        • 0 avatar
          -Nate

          Vegas ~ another classic GM failure .

          Oddly enough, the U.S.P.S. bought an entire fleet of the Sedan Delivery wagons and over loaded them every day for about ten years and had few problems .

          They rarely exceeded 40 MPH and were rigorously maintained without concern to co$t .

          Go figure .

          I had a two door one for two weeks, I wasn’t much impressed and it didn’t even smoke .

          I think I paid $150 for it from a seriously bent BHPH lot down the street from my shop .

          -Nate

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    The Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla? No, the Gremlin was targeted squarely at the Beetle, and even featured it in the first brochure:

    https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2020/04/01/amc-had-just-one-mission-for-the-gremlin-kill-the-beetle

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I remember a guy I worked with in the early 70’s who had one of the 1st Vegas and at 50k miles it was ready for its 2nd engine replacement. He said that it was the worst car he had ever owned and it had the life span of a Saturn rocket booster. The Pintos were slow and they had the exploding gas tanks but they were more reliable than the Vega. Is it any wonder that the Japanese gained a foothold in the US with such bad quality in US small cars.

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