Among the world’s most recognisable cars, the AMC Pacer holds a place in the heart of many, either as a joke, a fond memory, or the car that truly took motoring design to a whole new level. This strange but very practical little car was exactly what the ailing American Motors Corporation (AMC) needed, but its huge popularity would also bring about the failure of the entire company, a true victim of its own success.
To follow the Pacer you really need to follow AMC itself from its creation back in the 1950’s. AMC was formed in 1954 following the merger of Nash-Kelvinator and the Hudson Motor Car Company. The merger was carried out due to the increasing expansion of the Detroit Big-Three; Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. Unwilling to be gobbled up by these increasingly large and influential companies, the merger was carried out so as to create an equally large company, but to design models that would be much smaller and more efficient than their contemporary rivals. Cars such as the
Rambler and the Gremlin were small but plucky when compared to the likes of the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvair. At the same time the company made a slew of powerful Muscle Cars such as the Matador and the AMX. The company’s main success though was the Jeep brand, which was incredibly popular throughout the 1960’s with products such as the Gladiator and the Wagoneer, among the world’s first SUV’s.
While their strategy was making them money, their influence on the U.S., as well as the global market, wasn’t nearly as pronounced as their competitors, so they had to think big. Towards the end of the 1960’s, it became apparent that there was something of a decadence emerging among the Big-Three; cars were being built with underpinnings that dated back to the 1950’s, and their gas guzzling nature made them unpopular with the average family who wanted something cheap and cheery. Enter the Japanese, who began exporting economy cars to the USA from the beginning of the 1970’s. Since Japan had no available oil reserves of its own, the nation had to make do with either Scooters and Bicycles, or high efficiency, low consumption cars, which also had to be small given Japan’s cramped nature. While early models such as the Toyotpet Crown of 1959 were seen as something of a joke by the American press and public, their influence was growing and the Big Three, who had convinced themselves they were too big to fail, didn’t see it coming.
AMC, however, had always noticed this trend, and decided that they would create an economy car for the 1970’s, which turned out to be somewhat timely, considering that the Fuel Crisis struck only three years later. Initial designs were first considered as early as 1971, when chief stylist Richard A. Teague began work on a small car that he predicted would become the face of automobiles in America by the end of the decade. Much of the design work centred around giving the car as much interior space as possible, but
without making it a big car. It was also styled to be aerodynamic so as to improve efficiency by way of reduced drag, but most important of all, the idea was to make it look interesting and outlandish. Though today, car designers often give somewhat mundane cars very strange external looks, such as the Fiat Multipla, in 1972 this was almost unheard of, only in the realm of sports cars and one-off concepts were such strange looking designs commonplace.
AMC explored options in order to make their car not just innovative on the outside, but also on the inside. However, their lack of adequate funding meant that many of these ideas were either curtailed or had to be outsourced from suppliers. The first major innovation was to make the car as wide as possible, to compensate for its shorter length. Wheels were pushed to the far corners to allow for as much space as possible internally, and the windshield was extended slightly over the engine compartment rather than ending at the A-Pillar like on conventional cars. The car was also Front-Wheel Drive, among the first production cars ever in the U.S. to have this feature, and this allowed for some gung-ho performance. Another unique design feature was that the passenger door was four inches longer than the driver’s, allowing for easier access to the rear seats, though such an ability only had its uses in countries that drove on the same side as the USA. Mechanically, the car was fitted with Rack-and-Pinion steering, only the second American production car, behind the Ford Pinto, to be given such. The car was also incredibly safe, with strong roll bars and crossmembers covering the structure to protect occupants from even the worst crashes.
However, this is sadly where the dream car ends and trouble begins. As mentioned, some of the futuristic and innovative features that were to be put inside had to be scrapped due to cost, perhaps the most notable being the idea of giving the car LED readouts instead of analogue dials. While this could’ve been an interesting and unique feat, it’s probably better that it didn’t, especially following the palava that was the Aston Martin Lagonda. This, however, wasn’t the biggest issue, that would be reserved to that rather crucial part of the car; the engine.
The car was designed to be fitted with a smooth and efficient Wankel rotary engine, the kind which were being used on the fairly successful Mazda products invading the American dealerships. In 1973, AMC entered into a licensing agreement with Curtiss-Wright to build these engines for their Jeep products. This was later evolved into the company purchasing ready-made engines from General Motors, who at this point were developing the concept for their own vehicles. Feeling that the concept would be successful, AMC designed the engine compartment to accommodate a Wankel design, only to find in 1974, GM cancelled their development of Wankel engines and thus left AMC out in the cold. Without the time or money to develop or purchase an engine from anyone else, AMC was forced to put a mix of 3.8L Inline-6 or 5.0L V8 engines under the
hood. Though these performed well, they weren’t as fuel efficient as the rotary design, and they also did fit inside the engine compartment. This meant that many important parts of the engine were obscured from easy access by the stylish, extended windscreen, making maintenance difficult.
Regardless, the car was launched on February 28th, 1975, to which the entire motoring world, and the public at large, gazed upon it with almost overwhelming acclaim. While its performance and comparative fuel efficiency were praised, as well as the forward thinking design, the car’s looks were of particular interest, and also of contention. Critics were, and still are, polarised as to whether or not the car is among the most stylish or ugliest motor vehicles ever made. I personally find the Pacer quite a handsome little machine, and truly is a staple of its ambitious times, but that’s just me.
However, sales quickly spoke for the cars success as it was whipped up by the public like no tomorrow. In its first year, the Pacer sold a whopping 145,528 units, as opposed to the original forecast of around 70,000. The huge popularity of the car was owed to its stylish looks, but most of all its economic performance. The 1973 Energy Crisis had driven the Big Three almost to bankruptcy, and made them realise their huge and ostentatious designs were no longer popular with an increasingly constrained public. While vain attempts were made to create high efficiency, economy cars such as the Chevette and the Pinto, the AMC Pacer was miles out in front in terms of units pushed, the company simply couldn’t keep them on the forecourt. The car was even sold beyond the U.S. shores, with Pacer’s being distributed in Mexico and France, where the advertising attempted to compare the rear styling of the car to the curvaceous lines of a woman’s backside (only in France!).
Even here in the UK the car was put on sale, being distributed via a local importer, and
then converted to right-hand drive. However, sales in Britain were not long lasting, as the car really wasn’t built for our roads, being wider than a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, and longer than a Ford Cortina. Following some scathing reviews by British critics, exports here ceased soon afterwards.
As popularity increased in the US though, things started to go wrong. Prior to the Pacer, AMC built cars at their own merry speed, attempting to put reliability and a dependable nature over huge mass-production with questionable build quality like the Big-Three. However, such was the demand for the Pacer that AMC really had to forgo this credo and build the car as fast as possible. The result was that mistakes in production were made, and build quality began to falter. With this, the fact that the car wasn’t exactly as efficient as it intended to be, and the increasing influence of European and Japanese equivalents starting to make inroads, sales began to drop away towards 1976 and 77. AMC responded by launching the Pacer Wagon, a station-wagon edition which provided extra space in the rear and also a useful hatch. At the same time the company began a major overhaul of its other products to help give it a new, fresh face. The Matador, the Hornet and the Gremlin were all killed off and replaced with the Spirit, the Concord and the Eagle. In spite of this though, AMC were still losing money.
Hope came however from a very unlikely source, Renault of France. The nationalised Gallic dinosaur had taken major interest in AMC, and cut a deal with the company in 1978 to sell Renault products through AMC for a cut of the profits, the first being the Renault LeCar, an American spec version of the Renault 5. This was followed by the Renault 18, Renault Fuego and the controversial Renault Alliance, a slightly altered Renault 11.
With the deal firmly in place and the French metal on its way, AMC could now put the 4 year old Pacer out to pasture, the last cars leaving production in 1979. AMC itself wouldn’t last much longer either, as the Renault venture failed to live up to expectations as their products failed to win over the US market. Eventually, AMC was bought by longtime rivals Chrysler in 1987, looking to get their hands on the still profitable Jeep division, and this much loved but seldom noticed car builder disappeared from the roads forever.
There is something of a tragedy to the AMC Pacer, it meant well but its success became its failure, and the failure of its company as well. Today they’re a rare car to find regularly, though they do have a passionate following, an appearance in the highly popular Wayne’s World films certainly helping to give these cars a retro adoration by fans. However, the car remains polarising, and is often not considered a classic, but more just some weird looking car that attempted to be good and turned out rotten. I personally love the Pacer, it’s a lovely little car and certainly one with some innovative ideas. I must praise AMC’s designers for their forward thinking view on how motoring would change in the 1970’s, and when you compare it to some of the other Economy Cars of that decade, the Pacer quite clearly comes out on top.
Perhaps one day the plucky Pacer will get the recognition it deserves, but, until then, it continues to be that strange little machine that your parents probably owned once.