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AMC had just one mission for the Gremlin: Kill the Beetle

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Image courtesy OldCarBrochures.

AMC had tried before to counter the rising popularity of imported cars in the United States. The Metropolitan and the Rambler American each had their charms, but like Ford with the Falcon and Chevrolet with the Corvair, they didn’t do all that much to keep the can’t-seem-to-kill-it Beetle at bay. So on April Fools Day in 1970, 50 years ago today, AMC introduced essentially its last great hope against the tide of imports from Germany and beyond: the Gremlin.

Curious name, yes. Curious design, definitely. Curious mission, not at all. While the Rambler American continued to sell well through the Sixties and gave way to the all-new Hornet for the 1970 model year, they both ended up competing against other conventional American compacts like the Chevy II and the Plymouth Valiant. What AMC needed, AMC designers Dick Teague and Bob Nixon realized, was a car “for the free-thinking early 1970s,” quirks and all. Something that the Big Three wouldn’t dare to produce.

Nixon had proven his worth with small cars since joining AMC in 1959. His 1964 restyle of the American led to a 60 percent increase in sales for the compact, and his Tarpon concept car – seemingly everybody now agrees – should have remained on the compact car platform instead of going bigger when it entered production as the Marlin. So in the midst of the restyle of the American into the Hornet, he and Teague discussed a shorter Hornet and Nixon went to work drafting some design studies.

Courtesy GremlinX.com.

(That story about Teague designing the Gremlin on the back of an airline barf bag? Yes, he did sketch out the design while pitching the Gremlin to AMC Vice President Gerry Meyers on a flight in the fall of 1966, but he was relying on his recollection of Nixon’s designs, none of which he had with him at the moment.)

Teague liked the chopback design so much, he incorporated it into the AMX GT concept for 1968. Meanwhile, Nixon, Vince Geraci, and Dick Jones all went to work refining Nixon’s shortened Hornet sketches into the production Gremlin, at one point toying with the name Wasp.

The end result of their work: a reduction in wheelbase from 108 to 96 inches (one inch shorter than the 1968-1970 AMX) and 18 less inches in overall length, qualifying it as “America’s first subcompact,” according to AMC marketing materials. And they even managed to squeeze in a back seat. Still an inch and a half more wheelbase than a Beetle and just a hair longer overall. And, yeah, a little chunkier, but it also had a choice of two torquey straight-sixes, either one of which had multiples of horsepower more than the Beetle.

But rare is the car buyer who makes purchasing decisions based on wheelbase and overall length (and rarer still, the subcompact car buyer who makes those decisions based on horsepower). While the Deutschmark had appreciated versus the dollar throughout the late Sixties, the Beetle still remained an economical $1,874 in 1970. The best AMC could do with a standard-equipment Gremlin was $1,959, but by trimming away a few items – including the back seat and the lifting rear window – the company could get that price down to $1,879 for its base model Gremlin.

Mileage came up a little short of the Beetle’s as well – 23 MPG for the Gremlin versus 26 for the Beetle – but AMC noted that the Gremlin still got the best mileage of any American car and argued that the wider and more powerful Gremlin was better suited to American roads and American tastes. It was not an economy car, the company argued, rather an economical car.

Still, the Gremlin sold well among its target demographic – “folks who’d rather hold down costs than keep up with the Joneses,” according to the above filmstrip – and among younger buyers. Not as well as the Beetle, but enough to warrant AMC keeping the Gremlin in production for the next eight years.

Over that time, the Gremlin saw a number of production changes. The Gremlin X package, introduced for the 1971 model year, tarted up the subcompact with stripes and wheels. AMC’s 304 made it under the hood a year later, and for 1973 AMC made its Levi’s interior available as an option in the Gremlin. Sheetmetal changes came along in 1977, as did Audi’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder to goose the Gremlin’s fuel economy figures, and in its final production year, AMC even gave it a stripes-and-spoiler GT package.

AMC also experimented with a number of different takes on the Gremlin, from the 1972 Voyageur concept with cane-woven side panels and a slide-out “Grem-Bin” in the back, to the one-off, right-hand-drive Big Bad Orange-painted Rambler Gremlin proposed for the Australian market, to the give-it-more-glass 1974 Gremlin XP prototype, to the Gremlin G-II that previewed the sloping hatchback roofline of the Gremlin’s eventual replacement, the AMC Spirit. All of the above but the G-II now reside in the collection of Gremlin enthusiast Brian Moyer.

In the end, with total sales over its lifespan (671,475) just a little more than what the Beetle sold in one year during its Sixties heyday, the Gremlin didn’t take down the Beetle. Or, at least, it didn’t take the Beetle down its own; a slew of other subcompacts, including those from the Big Three and from Japanese carmakers, took away plenty of Beetle sales just as increasing emissions standards and safety regulations caused a no-good Seventies for Volkswagen’s air-cooled wonder.

Still, the Gremlin went on to become one of the most memorable cars of the Seventies – not bad for a car introduced on April Fools, named after a mechanical fault and boasting built-in quirk.