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Bob Nixon, AMC designer who penned the Gremlin and Pacer, dies at 86

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Bob Nixon (left) with Dick Teague. Photos courtesy the Pat Foster Collection, except where noted.

Dick Teague may have whipped up an early sketch for the AMC Gremlin on an airline barf bag, but the task of actually designing a production-ready truncated Hornet fell to designer Bob Nixon, the longtime American Motors designer who died last week at the age of 86.

Perhaps the greatest irony of Nixon’s long career at America’s last independent carmaker arose from his assignments at American Motors. While Nixon towered over his colleagues in height, he ended up leading the company’s small car studio and designing many of the company’s compact and subcompact production cars.

That includes the first assignment Nixon received when he started at American Motors in 1959. As Pat Foster noted in his profile of Nixon in Hemmings Classic Cars #55, Nixon had started out at Chrysler as a technical illustrator and worked in the Dodge styling studio, where he presumably competed against a platoon of other designers. Once he moved over to American Motors, however, Teague put him on the Rambler American and chose Nixon’s front-end design for that car’s 1964 restyle.

Nixon’s design, which took the American from a late-Fifties holdover to a modern-looking automobile with hints of Chrysler’s futuristic Turbine car, helped boost American sales nearly 60 percent over the prior year. He followed that front-end design with a radical rear-end design for the Classic, adding a fastback for the Tarpon show car that eventually (with meddling from Roy Abernethy) became the Classic-based 1965 Rambler Marlin.

Courtesy GremlinX.com.

By the mid-Sixties, Nixon was put in charge of the small car studio, where he oversaw the American’s boxier 1966 redesign as well as the design of the American’s replacement, the Hornet. During the Hornet’s gestation, Nixon and Teague discussed a shorter Hornet and how it would look (according to Marc Cranswick’s The Cars of American Motors, at one point the shorter Hornet would have had a notchback design and gone by the name Wasp) and Nixon began to draft some design studies.

According to Aaron Severson, Teague’s infamous barf-bag sketch came about only because, while pitching the Gremlin to AMC vice president Gerry Meyers on a Northwest Orient flight in the fall of 1966, he had neither Nixon’s design studies nor any other paper at hand.

“Teague convinced management that if their new subcompact was going to survive (pending competition), Gremlin had to be distinctive and stand out from the crowd,” Cranswick wrote.

As Nixon related to Foster, the Gremlin was considered his “baby,” but he also credited other AMC stylists, among them Vince Geraci and Dick Jones, with helping birth the Gremlin.

1967 AMX III sports wagon. Courtesy the Chris Zinn collection.

Nixon later went on to oversee the design of the 1974 Matador coupe — a car that, at least in the front, referenced his Rambler American from a decade prior — as well as the Pacer, the Concord, and the Spirit production cars. In addition, while it appears Nixon wasn’t heavily involved with the overall design of the AMX and Javelin, both cars originated in his studio and he did seem to occasionally lend a hand as those designs progressed: his renderings informed the look of those cars’ front ends, and his proposal for a four-door Javelin sport wagon (named the AMX III) later evolved into the Hornet Sportabout station wagon.

Nor did Nixon limit himself to production cars. Along with several other stylists, including Vince Gardner, Nixon designed the AMX II concept car, one of the project IV series of show cars that debuted in 1966. Then later in the Sixties he worked with Fred Hudson on the AMX/2 showcar that preceded the AMX/3 mid-engine supercar.

When AMC formed its partnership with Renault in 1979, it redirected its design staff to focus primarily on Jeeps, according to Foster. Nixon remained aboard to oversee the design of the Jeep XJ Cherokee then, following that project, led the design team for the Jeep ZJ Grand Cherokee. His work on the latter continued through Chrysler’s purchase of AMC in 1987 and led Nixon to remain on at Chrysler — where his career started decades prior — until he retired in 1992.

Nixon died February 5.