The AMC Pacer: Like It? Or Loathe It?

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By Ben Selby

Anyone who has watched the classic 1992 comedy “Wayne’s World” will know this automotive oddity straight away. Who could forget that iconic scene where Wayne and the gang are rocking out to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody while cruising late at night in none other than Wayne’s blue flamed adored AMC Pacer?

The AMC Pacer has long been considered one of automotive history’s greatest bloopers.  A car which promised so much, but failed to deliver on so many levels. It also signalled the end of the road for its parent company, AMC. Here is its story.

To understand the origins of the Pacer, we need to look at AMC itself. AMC, which stood for American Motors Corporation, was the result of a hefty merger between classic American marques Nash, Kaiser Jeep, and Hudson in 1954. The merger was the biggest collaboration of three brands, the likes of which had never been seen at that time.

The American automotive landscape since the turn of the 20th century was largely dominated by the big three, these being Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. AMC was regarded as the runt of the litter early on by the big three. So, AMC management decided to do their own thing, by exploiting areas of the market where its other rivals in Detroit never thought to go, or maybe, would never dare.

By the late sixties, AMC was producing a number of radically different models like the Nash Rambler and Rebel. By the early seventies, they even entered the muscle car game with the Javelin and the AMX.

The AMX even saw success on track in the immensely successful American Trans-Am series. AMC’s Matador and Hornet also appeared in the 1974 James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun.”

As AMC were starting to get going in performance, world events had other ideas. The 1974 OPEC oil crisis saw petrol price sky rocket and calls for low emission economy cars grew louder in Washington. AMC, by now the sole truly independent American auto maker, rose to the challenge in 1971 with the Gremlin, and in 1975, the Pacer.

Now, what you need to remember is that AMC never had the same research and development budget as the big three.  In fact, designer Dick Teague often found himself very much underfunded when it came to designing a new car. So, in 1971, despite the budget issues, he set to work on what would become the Pacer. Teague wanted to emulate other European eco cars of the era, but with a distinctly American flair.

At launch, AMC saw this as the car of the future. “When you get a Pacer, you get a piece of tomorrow,” the ads screamed in magazines and newspapers. The hype was there and people took notice, but then things began to unravel.

 AMC described the Pacer as “the first wide small car.” The Pacer sported the same width as many full-size American gas-guzzlers of the era, so it wasn’t really a small car per say. AMC had also stuffed the Pacer with plenty of crash protection areas and massive bumpers. As a result, the Pacer was a heavyweight, weighing in at close to 1400kg.

Thanks to this weight, the 3.8L and 4.2L straight six engine, which only produced 100hp, were immensely underpowered. The three-speed automatic slush box didn’t help matters either.

You could order a 304ci V8, but since this was supposed to be an economy car, it kind of went against the Pacer’s ethos. Whether you ordered a six or eight, you would seldom do better economy than 11L/100km. Ouch.

The styling of the pacer was also which led to it being a sales disaster. Teague had styled the Pacer so four adults and their shopping could fit easily, just like the Mini. However, with heavy use of curved glass in the rear, many Motoring Journalists at the time referred to it as “The Fish Bowl.” It also wasn’t much cop to drive either.

Needless to say, the Pacer never caught on. With European compact cars arriving stateside in droves, it became increasingly hard for AMC sales staff to shift. Despite this, by the time production ended in 1979, around 280,000 Pacers in various trim levels and variants left the factory.

AMC itself would be broken up and taken over by Chrysler in 1988. Ironically, today the Pacer, and its Gremlin counterpart, do indeed have a cult following. Maybe that aforementioned film starring Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey has something to do with it.

The AMC Pacer should have worked. However, thanks to under development and budget restraints, it just never worked out as hoped. The Pacer is like Marmite, you either love it, or you will run a mile.

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