by Drew Beck
DREW’S NOTE: I originally wrote this article for American Motoring magazine, the publication of the American Motors Owners Association. The article appeared in 1992. I’ve made a modifications since that time and have incorporated them into this version.
The AMC Gremlin was introduced on April 1, 1970 as a 1970-1/2 model. It was the result of a fast track program to bring the first modern, U.S.-built subcompact car to market. AMC was successful in beating both GM and Ford to the punch with this program, since neither the Chevrolet Vega nor the Ford Pinto were introduced until September, 1970 (as 1971 models).
By 1970, AMC had become a car company that was trying to be all things to all people, instead of concentrating on the economy end of the market as had been done successfully under George Romney during the late 1950s and early ’60s. The trouble was, AMC was the smallest of the U.S. auto companies and could least afford the tremendous costs associated with developing new vehicles. Resources were spread quite thin in an attempt to develop a line of cars which (hopefully) would please almost everybody.
Perhaps the most significant car in AMC’s 1970 line-up (at least in terms of future products) was the new Hornet , which was the heir-apparent to the successful but aging Rambler American series. In many respects, the Hornet was a very up-to-date car, even though it used a number of mechanical pieces from its Rambler ancestor.
The Hornet would be the basis for several AMC progeny through the years, including the Concord and the all-wheel-drive Eagle. And, within six months of its own introduction, the Hornet had already spawned a bob-tailed offspring known as the Gremlin.
Fans of AMC’s distinctively-styled subcompact may not be too quick to admit that the Gremlin’s basic design was penned on the back of a Northwest Orient air sickness bag about 18 months before the car was introduced. The designer using such a resourceful medium for his sketches was of course none other than the late Richard Teague.
Mr. Teague was able to combine many of the rear-end styling features of the 1967 AMX/GT show car with the more mundane front end hardware of the production Hornet. The result of this merging of seemingly disparate design elements was successful in many people’s eyes, though the “kamm-back” tail treatment proved to be a bit controversial for some and became the basis for the inevitable “what happened to the rest of your car?” wisecracks. It’s interesting to note that several of today’s hatchback models from Honda, Toyota, et. al. bear more than a passing resemblance to the original Gremlin design.
There were two basic Gremlin models offered for the initial model year: a bare-bones two-seater model and a more civilized four passenger version. The fixed rear window two-seater was targeted as an import-fighting price leader and was initially offered at a miserly $1879. The four-seater, which added a flip-up rear window "hatch" in addition to the Marquis-de-Sade-inspired rear seat, was priced at $1959.
One of the Gremlin’s major selling points was its powertrain. While the rest of the subcompact competition had to make do with four-cylinder motivation, the first year Gremlin came equipped with either of two in-line, six-cylinder engines: a 128 horsepower 199 cubic inch (3.3L) engine was standard, while a 145 horsepower, 232 (3.8L) cubic inch version was optional. These engines were the tried-and-true AMC seven main bearing sixes that had gained a reputation for durability and economy since their introduction in mid-1964. A three speed manual (column shift) transmission was standard with the 199 engine, while the 232 came standard with a floor-mounted shifter. A column-shift, 3-speed automatic produced by Borg-Warner was optional for either engine.
Because of the extra cubes and torque provided by the large six-cylinder engines, Gremlin’s performance was quite sprightly, especially in comparison with the rest of the subcompact competition. This was in spite of the fact that the portly Gremlin weighed several hundred pounds more than the other small cars. The immortal "Uncle" Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated’s flamboyant auto tester, drove an early production Gremlin equipped with the optional 232 engine and automatic transmission. His test car was able to zip up to 60 MPH in 11.9 seconds and also topped 100 MPH out on the straightaway at Daytona Speedway. He noted that the Gremlin exhibited "fast and easy" handling (though some other auto testers found the Gremlin’s handling to be a real handful due to a combination of front weight bias, short wheelbase and torquey engine). At the conclusion of the test, Uncle Tom stated that, "On a dollar for dollar basis, I rate the Gremlin the best American buy of the year". Not bad for the first year out.
As might be expected, there weren’t any major appearance changes made to the Gremlin for model year 1971. The same basic two- and four-seat models were again offered though the two-seater model would be retired at the end of 1971 after only 3,017 were produced during the year-and-a-half run. The factory base price for the two-seater model increased to $1899, while the four-seater could be had for one dollar shy of $2000. Sources differ, but somewhere between 73,534 and 76,908 Gremlins were built for the 1971 model year.
The 199 cubic-inch engine disappeared from the line-up after 1970, so the 232 (now downrated to 135 horsepower) became the standard engine for 1971. A new 150 horsepower, 258 cubic inch (4.2L) derivative of the AMC six was made optional. The same 3-speed manual and "Shift-Command" automatic transmissions were offered for 1971. A special 2.37:1 economy axle ratio was standard on Gremlins equipped with the 232 engine and automatic transmission.
The sporty and desirable "X" package made its first appearance on the Gremlin option list for 1971. This package consisted of special "spear" striping on the body sides, body color grille surround, Goodyear Polyglas D70 x 14 blackwall tires mounted on 14" x 6" slotted wheels (raised white letter tires were optional), space-saver spare tire, custom interior trim including bucket seats, "engine turned" instrument trim, and special "X" decals. the rear deck inset panel containing the taillights received a full width decal as part of the "X" package. This inset decal was the same color as the body side stripes, and included an emblem showing the engine displacement in liters. The 232 became the "3.8 litre", and the newly optional 258 was designated as the "4.2 litre".
Model year 1972 saw little styling change in the Gremlin, though the small chrome Gremlin character found on the front fenders of the 1970-’71 models was eliminated. The big news for ’72 was under the sheet metal. While the 232 and 258 CID sixes were continued from 1971 (now rated at 100 and 110 net horsepower respectively), the 150 (net) horsepower, 304 cubic inch V8 could now be found on the Gremlin’s option sheet.
As might be expected, the V8 engine gave the relatively lightweight Gremlin very lively performance. Road tests showed that a stock V8 Gremlin could get from 0-60 MPH in 8.5 seconds, while the quarter mile could be covered in 16.8 seconds with a terminal speed of over 80 MPH. This is respectable acceleration, considering that the 304 was inhaling through a smallish 2-barrel carburetor and a exhaling via a restrictive single exhaust. The 304 was identified by a "5-litre V8" badge on the rear inset panel of cars equipped with the "X" package.
AMC switched to a Chrysler-supplied, "Torque-Command’ automatic transmission for 1972, replacing the Borg-Warner unit used previously. This transmission, already well proven in Chrysler vehicles for many years, was generally smoother shifting and more reliable than the old Borg-Warners. Other revisions for 1972 included redesigned front seats, fully synchronized manual transmission, and improvements in both the suspension and brakes.
Numerous detail changes were made to the Gremlin for 1973, but the basic appearance remained the same as the 1972 model. Perhaps the most noticeable change was the more massive front bumper mounted on "telescoping" struts, designed to comply with the federal government’s 5-MPH collision standards [webmaster note: these may have been phased in]. The side striping for the "X" package was modified as well. The stripe now "hopped up" over the rear wheel arch, accentuating the rear quarter flare. The base price for the Gremlin was no longer under $2000; inflation had taken its toll and pushed it up to $2098.
1973 was also the first year for the now-collectible Levi’s trim package, which consisted of special "blue jeans" spun nylon fabric covering the seats, door inserts and map storage pockets on the door panels. Adding to the effect were orange stitching and copper rivets. A "Levi’s" trademark emblem on the front fenders identified cars equipped with this package.
In an act of mercy, AMC redesigned the Gremlin’s rear seat to allow more legroom for those unlucky passengers who didn’t get "dibs" on the front seat (author’s note: Over two decades later, I still haven’t worked the kinks out of my legs from a trip I made in the back seat of a Gremlin, all the way from Iowa to Colorado!). New "soft-control" knobs with international symbols were added to the dash, and a floor shifter for the automatic transmission became available for the first time. Powertrain options were the same as in 1972, though the tall 2.37:1 economy final drive ratio was apparently no longer available (2.73:1 was standard for 6-cylinder cars; 2.87:1 for the V8s).
The Gremlin received new front and rear styling for 1974. A completely redesigned grille/headlight panel was used up front, as was a wider, free-standing bumper. A new telescoping bumper was added to the rear and the sheet metal around the rear bumper was smoothed. The two horizontal depressions on the rear sail panels were replaced with four smaller, vertical-angled indentations.
The "X" package striping was completely redesigned. The side stripes were now shaped like hockey sticks, and the sail panel indentations were integrated into the stripe. The rear indent panel decal was also enlarged so that it continued under the rear bumper and extended almost to the edge of the rear sail panel. These design elements all combined to make the Gremlin appear longer and more substantial than the previous models.
Powertrain availability was more or less the same as in 1973, though a bit of rear axle ratio juggling did take place. A new "Rallye-X" package was offered, which included a dash-mounted tachometer (appearing in the right-most pod of the three-pod instrument panel borrowed from the Hornet), oil pressure and ammeter gauges, front sway bar for six-cylinder models, and "blacked out" instrument panel and steering column.
Gremlin’s styling was carried over for 1975, with only a slight change made to the curve of the front bumper (some sources say that the rear wheel arches were more subdued for 1975, but I’ll be darned if I can see the difference). Under the hood, electronic ignition was now standard on all engines. Unfortunately, AMC chose to use an ignition system sourced from Prestolite, which proved to be quite troublesome. This was also the first year for the much-maligned catalytic convertor in the exhaust system. Interestingly, the use of catalytic convertor allowed engines to be "tuned up" slightly so that in many cases, performance and gas mileage were actually improved over 1974 models.
Base price for the six-cylinder Gremlin was now up to $2798. The base V8 Gremlin, coming in at $2952, was priced at exactly one dollar per pound. One notable option appearing for 1975 was an electrically-activated overdrive for cars equipped with six cylinder engines and manual transmissions.
The 1976 Gremlin sported a restyled grille and headlight ensemble, as well as new front side marker lights. The "X" package side stripes, while maintaining the same basic "hockey stick" design as the previous two years, was revised so that a portion of the stripe jutted straight back over the wheel arch. The "Gremlin X" designation appeared in this portion of the stripe.
The 304 V8 engine option was dropped at mid-year. Only 826 V8-equipped Gremlins were produced for 1976. The 232 and 258 sixes soldiered on, as did the optional "Levi’s" and "X" packages.
For 1977, the Gremlin received its first major restyling. The front end of the car was shortened by four inches with all new sheet metal, grille and bumper. The rear of the car was also completely restyled with a new, 23% larger glass hatch and enlarged taillights. The gas filler cap was moved behind the rear license plate, eliminating the exposed gas cap. (The exposed gas caps, with their embossed Gremlin character, was a favorite target of vandals. Back when Gremlins were a common sight on the roadways, it seemed like every other one was missing its gas cap, which was generally replaced with a rag stuffed into the filler neck!).
At the beginning of the year, Gremlins were limited to six-cylinder motivation, including the standard 232 and an optional 258 with revised valve timing and two-barrel carburetor. At mid-year, a 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder engine designed by Porsche but made by AMC (and sold to Porsche) became available. This engine featured an overhead camshaft and an aluminum cross-flow head. Also optional was a new Borg-Warner 4-speed manual transmission for both four- and six-cylinder cars. With a price cut to $2,995, Gremlin was the cheapest American-made car in the U.S.
The "X" package received a new striping treatment, where the side stripes appeared to split into two upswept segments near the rear of the car. Gremlins equipped with the Custom trim package gained side stripes that looked a lot like the old "hockey stick" stripes on previous "X" models.
The Gremlin entered 1978, its final year, with the same external styling seen in 1977. However, the interior received a major update in the form of a dashboard which was shared with the Concord, a new model that replaced the Hornet for 1978. This dash had a more integrated and "civilized" appearance than did earlier versions, and the simulated wood trim on Custom models looked surprisingly real. The upswept, split side stripes were gone from the "X" package, replaced by an attractive decal running along the lower third of the entire length of the car.
Later in the year, a "GT" package was offered for the Gremlin. This package included fiberglass front spoiler and front/rear fender flares; body colored front and rear bumpers, "blacked-out" grille, mirrors, wiper arms, door and quarter window frames. Gremlin GTs were also treated to the "extra quiet" sound insulation package, DR70 X 14 steel-belted radial tires mounted on 5-spoke wheels with trim rings, and a front stabilizer bar. Less than 2000 Gremlin GTs were made, all of them equipped with the 258 six.
By most standards, the Gremlin could be considered a successful model. According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars, Volumes 2 and 3, a total of 671,475 Gremlins were produced from 1970 through 1978. Model year 1974 was Gremlin’s best in terms of volume, with 171,128 produced.
I’ve owned three Gremlins since the mid-1970s, and "test driven" many more over the years. My first Gremlin was Firecracker Red 1974 "X" equipped with the "Rallye-X" package and a 258 six coupled to a floor-shifted "Torque Command" automatic transmission. The next was a well-behaved Powder Blue 1978 Gremlin Custom equipped with a 232 six and a column-shifted automatic transmission. It had the economy 2.53:1 final drive ratio, which made for relaxed high-speed cruising and great fuel economy. My final Gremlin was a 1977 Custom in Brilliant Blue (looks just like "Big Bad Blue") with black stripes. This Gremlin was powered by the 232 six and a floor-shifted 3-speed manual transmission and 2.73:1 final drive ratio. I bought this car in 1991 because it was in flawless, mint condition. The car had never seen a Wisconsin winter, nor even rainy weather. I sold it in 1995 after putting only 3,000 miles on it over 4 years.
Gremlins are interesting cars to drive. They are very maneuverable and have tight turning circles, though cars equipped with non-power steering require a lot of wheel-winding when parallel parking. With a short, 96-inch wheelbase, they tend to give a slightly choppy ride, but the wide track endows them with a degree of stability which most of the Gremlin’s small car contemporaries lacked, especially at highway speeds.
Six-cylinder Gremlins, while not rip-roaring performance machines, have a lot of low-RPM grunt and manage to give very respectable acceleration up to highway speeds. The low stress, big displacement sixes simply don’t have to work very hard at pushing the little Gremlin around. They do run out of breath at higher speeds, though by that time, you are far enough ahead of the rest of the small car pack that you can afford to back off.
V8 Gremlins are a blast. Just a touch of the throttle brings on a sharp burst of acceleration. Really sticking your foot into it gives that good old spine-flattening push which only a large V8 can provide. With all that weight hanging over the front wheels, it’s easy to fry the rear tires on these cars without even trying.
The only performance dogs in the Gremlin family were the 1977 and ’78 models equipped with the Audi 4-cylinder engine. They simply had no torque. In order to get any kind of acceleration out of these cars, you had to be constantly rowing the gearshift to keep the engine wound up to its power peak. Four-cylinder cars equipped with automatic transmissions were agonizingly slow; you would grow old trying to get up to speed on any freeway entrance ramp with even a slight uphill grade.
Gremlins did have a few weak spots. Like most of their AMC siblings, they had a tendency to rust. Rocker panels and the tops of the front fenders seemed especially corrosion-prone. Handling was also a bit quirky due to the pronounced front weight bias. Interestingly, four-cylinder Gremlins handled better than the bigger-engined models since they carried about 250 lbs. less weight over the front wheels. And, of course, no Gremlin description would be complete without mention of the rear seat torture chamber. This one item helped to keep the chiropractic industry afloat during the 1970s.
When I first wrote this article back in 1992, Gremlins had very little following. But during the late 1990s, interest really grew in all things related to the 1970s, even clothing styles (ugh!). The Gremlin (and Pacer) gained a certain amount of respect in collector car circles, though they will certainly never achieve the status of a ’57 Chevy or ’66 Mustang.
That being said, Gremlins can provide a lot of cheap, affordable fun. Though nice ones are a very rare sight, most parts are available since the basic mechanicals and much of the sheet metal were shared with other AMC models of the period. Of course, the "spirit" of the Gremlin lived on after 1978 in the appropriately-named Spirit, which lasted through 1983.
From an investment standpoint, the most collectible Gremlins are probably those with both the V8 and the sporty "X" package. If you manage to find one that also has the "Levi’s" interior, it’s a definite keeper. With only 3017 made during 1970-’71, the early 2-seater models are very rare today and are worth holding on to as a novelty item. Ditto the fewer than 3000 Gremlin GTs produced during 1978. However, any Gremlin in good shape is worth keeping since they are becoming quite scarce--they are definitely worth preserving as a rather unique piece of automotive history.
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