The Gremlin: 8 Years, Multiple Models, Lots of Changes.
The AMC Gremlin arrived in America a full 5 months before Chevrolet’s Vega and Ford’s Pinto, making it the first sub-compact to be introduced to America. It originally arrived in April of 1970, which made it a half-year model. Ford and Chevrolet introduced their sub-compacts in September, as 1971 models.
An 'Oh So Humble Beginning'
The Gremlin was originally sketched out by the late Richard Teague, on the back side of a barf bag. It was an ominous beginning for what would become one of AMC’s biggest hits. AMC was never one of America’s biggest car companies but, they did produce some memorable cars. One of my personal favorites was the Rambler. The AMC version of the Rambler was a much more economical vehicle than Nash ever built. Another American favorite was the Hornet.
The Hornet was a cute little car that through its fairly long life, often resembled a cross between a Plymouth Duster, and a square nosed, and shortened station wagon. It was the Hornet that gave Mr. Teague a starting point for the Gremlin.
A Car For Everyone's Needs
The idea was to make a shorter more economical vehicle that still had enough power to hold its own on the roads. The dawn of the decade of the 70s had America looking for vehicles that were new, and more economical than the monster gas hogs of previous decades. The Gremlin was AMC’s answer to that desire. As a smaller car company, AMC didn’t have the deep pockets that the other car companies had for research and development. They went with what they knew worked, and combined some of the best features of cars that already had a strong following.
Combining certain aspects of different vehicles was not something new. It is still very popular today. It cuts down on manufacturing costs considerably if a company has interchangeable parts in most of their cars. This is why when you look at any given family of cars you will see a distinct resemblance. The Gremlin is perhaps an epitome, of sorts, of this practice. When it first arrived on the scene it was the butt of many jokes. The most common of which was, ‘where’s the rest of the car’?
My father was a master auto mechanic, and I remember clearly when he took me to the dealership just to see this new vehicle. To my young eyes it looked like a baby amongst its family. The 1970s Gremlin had the distinct square Hornet nose but, its hood was shorter. Still the resemblance was there. Unfortunately for the Gremlin, that is where the visual similarities ended. The rear end of the car looked as if it had literally been cut off. AMC tried to mask the abrupt ending of the car with a racy stripe that usually started at the nose and swooped up behind the abbreviated passenger window. In a few versions they tried to visually elongate the car by drawing the stripe back to the tail lights. In my opinion the longer stripe did not help. At least the swooped stripe gave it a cutesy look.
The lack of a tail end meant one thing, there was no trunk. To the white picket fence families of America, that was a death toll for the little Gremlin. But, to the young radical college age crowd that had grown up in the psychedelic 60s, the hatch style back window, and the storage space behind the back seat was right up their alley. The Gremlin was new, and radical, and so completely unlike the cars that the establishment drove that, it was a hit with the younger crowd.
By far the most popular year for the AMC Gremlin was 1974. That year saw the Rallye-X, a strong V-8, an aesthetic paint and design job, and it had popularity on its side. Yet in 1976 AMC messed with the recipe, and doomed the Gremlin to history. As the first sub-compact it had some big shoes to step into, and as a sub-compact the Gremlin had to step into those shoes with considerably less than any other car in American history. I believe that is why so many found fault with the little Gremlin. It simply was not its older brother and could never become its older brother. It did try to grow up by getting the big V-8, front sway bars, beefed up brakes, and big endorsements from the likes of Levi. Yet it was still maligned. It could never lose the “half-a-car” image, for if it did, it would no longer be a sub-compact. It simply was not fair to compare the Gremlin to full-sized vehicles. It was not, nor was it ever designed to be, a full-sized car. Still, it was a mistake of AMC to downgrade the little guy when it was doing so well, and simply expect its popularity to continue.
The AMC Gremlin beat everyone to the punch, and perhaps that was an error. There simply was nothing else to compare the very first Gremlins to. They stood on their own, in a world full of huge luxury cars, muscle cars and family sedans, and was expected to meet a mark that it was never going to reach. Then instead of letting the original design speak for itself, AMC succumbed to pressure and pushed the Gremlin into a spot alongside muscle cars, where for a short time, it held its own. But, AMC could not continue to pump so much into the little car so, once they had America’s attention, and the Gremlin had a modicum of respect, they stripped it of its bling, and sent it out without so much as a turbo booster, or something like it, to help it stay afloat.
No, it is my opinion that had AMC left the Gremlin alone, and upgraded smart things like suspension, customer seating, especially the back seat, and given more options on the inside, the Gremlin might have become popular as a sub-compact. As it was, the Gremlin became popular as a beefed up, light weight drag racer. This was not the niche that AMC was looking to fill, I’m certain. For when they took away the big engine, the Gremlin no longer fit the niche, and oddly enough they could no longer fit into the one in which it was originally designed to fit either. Hence, the little Gremlin died an inglorious and pathetic death. Regrettably, despite the sales numbers, it will forever be remembered as a failure.