Classic Cars

The AMC Gremlin was the best April Fool’s Day joke an automaker has ever done

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Sure, it wasn’t a great car, but that was kind of the point of the thing.

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The automotive world is full of wheeled punchlines, from the Ford Pinto to the Pontiac Aztek. And you must be thinking Hyundai hates it when every time they release a new car a Canadian automotive writer feels the need to mention the fully disposable pony. But, on April 1, let it be determined that there has never been a bigger April Fool’s joke than the AMC Gremlin.

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We are literally talking here. This big little car door stopper was launched on April 1, 1970. Looking back, it’s hard not to laugh, just like we do at all the bad fashion decisions of the 1970s. Was AMC kidding? He had designed a car that looked like a shoe and named it after a mythical creature associated with disastrous mechanical failure. Considering it was just three years after the so-called “Summer of Love,” it’s clear someone had smoked something.

But the Gremlin was…good? By today’s standards, it’s as dumb as bell bottoms and shirt lapels wide enough to land a Boeing 747, but AMC has sold over half a million of those things. The Gremlin outlasted the Pinto, gained a reputation for being a performance bargain, and was popular among younger buyers. Or at least affordable among young buyers, which amounts to the same thing.

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Not bad for a car designed on a bag of barf (more on that later). Considering what today passes for an April Fool’s joke of automakers – remember all that stupid Voltswagen stuff? – the Gremlin was at the very least a successful prank. It took a dose of humor and limited budget engineering to create a lasting cultural impact.

The 1978 AMC Gremlin X
The 1978 AMC Gremlin X Photo by American Motors

To better understand the history of Gremlin, we must first take a look at the American Motors Corporation, better known as “AMC”. In the domestic market, there were the Big Three of Chrysler, Ford, and Chevrolet, and then there were these guys. Formed from a mashup between Nash-Kelvinator (a company combining cars and refrigerators) and Hudson (you may remember Doc Hudson from the Cars movies) AMC set out to establish itself as a brave underdog. In 1966, it was losing twelve million dollars a year. Whoops.

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But salvation was at hand in the form of designers Dick Teague and Bob Nixon. Teague had cut his teeth styling cars at Packard and was used to working on a budget that amounted to pocket fluff. Nixon was the size of an NBA player, so being in charge of AMC’s small car design section was a slight irony.

During a robbery in the fall of 1966, Teague found himself pitching a new subcompact to AMC Vice President Gerry Meyers. Having neither Nixon’s concept sketches nor any other paper handy, he sketched a rough model on the back of an airsickness bag. The key, he knew, was for AMC to build the kind of car that bigger, more conservative automakers wouldn’t dare.

A sketch of the AMC Gremlin prototype
A sketch of the AMC Gremlin prototype Photo by /Hems

If you think that approach wouldn’t work today, let me remind you of a certain battery-electric automaker that has equipped a number of its cars with “pet mode.” AMC’s idea was at least less juvenile, and it was also intended to be very inexpensive. The cost-cutting couldn’t quite match the Volkswagen Beetle, but the Gremlin was less than a hundred dollars from the German bestseller.

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Reviewers, which included many passers-by at a gas station, liked to point out that the Gremlin looked like an AMC Hornet with the back unceremoniously cut off. They were right, but AMC’s work to shorten the Gremlin to a 2.4-meter (94.5-inch) wheelbase and four-meter (157.5-inch) overall length made it a true subcompact rival. of the Beetle. And you have a lot more power in a Gremlin than in any Volkswagen.

The same long hood that made the Gremlin look so wonky housed one of the many straight-six engines. At first they churned out the kind of horsepower numbers you’d expect from the 1970s, with the base 3.3L engine putting out just 128 hp. A few years after racing began, a 304 ci (5.0 L) V8 was made available. It wasn’t that fast, but made the right sounds and spun the rear tires easily.

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Plus, the Gremlin V8 spawned a dealer-traded version with an absolutely shocking 6.6-liter V8. Basically the Gremlin version of a Yenko Camaro, these few cars pitted 255 horsepower and 345 lb-ft of torque against around 1,200 kg of short-wheelbase, wave-steered, humpbacked AMC subcompact. It sounds terrifying. And also fun!

The key was for AMC to build the kind of car that larger, more conservative automakers wouldn’t dare

But never mind the performance aspirations of the Gremlin, because where the car really stood out was in cheap fun, a long list of options and pretty decent fuel economy compared to the lazy six. It’s a car that finally came in a Levi’s special edition, complete with denim-covered seats, orange stitching and copper buttons. It sounds ridiculous now, but back in the 1970s, it was exactly the kind of light treatment that caught the eye of consumers.

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For a while, Gremlins were everywhere. There was a prototype hydrogen car and an experimental electric car fitted with a 15 kW electric motor and lead-acid batteries. The inventor of the Jaws of Life came up with a Gremlin loaded with rescue gear and dubbed the Hurst Rescue System 1 as a fast-response emergency vehicle at racetracks. US Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush both drove Gremlins in their youth. Just like comedian Jon Stewart. At the AMC assembly plant in Brampton, Ontario, Gremlin production peaked at just under 40,000 for the 1974 model year.

The 1973 AMC Gremlin
The 1973 AMC Gremlin Photo by American Motors

Production ended in 1978, and by the 1990s the Gremlin was popular culture shorthand for stupidity. He left the road The simpsons and was a perennial favorite on any list of the ten worst cars.

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To be frank, the Gremlin deserved some of the kicks it got. It was oddly stylish, unapologetically rooted in the 1970s, cursed with a name barely better than calling it The AMC Lemon, and cheaply built. Taken out of the context of its time, it’s definitely a funny little car.

But at a time when each successive generation of cars seems to boast of being aggressive or luxurious, the attitude of the Gremlin seems like a lost art. Yes, it was launched on a day best associated with jokes and pranks. Sure, you can laugh about it, but it’s hard to laugh at something that seems like it’s been in the joke the whole time. Do not laugh at the AMC Gremlin. To laugh with this.


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