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by Drew Beck
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 modifications since that time, which appear in 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.
AMC advertised the 1970 Gremlin as being the lowest-cost American car, with the best gas mileage (on regular), despite having a standard 199 cubic inch six which produced 128 hp - to Volkswagen Beetle’s 57. AMC quoted the 0-60 time as 15.3 seconds, “the kind of pickup you need for expressway driving.” The turning circle was three feet less than VW’s. The car was 800 pounds heavier than the Bettle, which AMC posited as a plus, because off the “smooth, stable ride.”
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 the later hatchbacks 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, in comparison with the rest of the subcompact competition, though 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 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). Uncle Tom stated, “On a dollar for dollar basis, I rate the Gremlin the best American buy of the year.”
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 now optional. The same 3-speed manual and “Shift-Command” automatic transmissions were kept on; a 2.37:1 economy axle ratio was now standard on Gremlins with the 232 engine and automatic transmission.
The sporty and desirable “X” package made its first appearance in 1971. It had “spear” striping, a body color grille surround, Goodyear Polyglas D70 x 14 blackwall tires mounted on 14" x 6" slotted wheels (raised white letter tires were optional), a space-saver spare tire, custom interior trim including bucket seats, and X decals including a rear deck inset panel full-width decal, the same color as the body side stripes, with an emblem showing the engine displacement. The 232 became the “3.8 litre,” and the newly optional 258 was designated as the “4.2 litre.”
The 1972 Gremlin styling was little changed, though the small chrome Gremlin character found on the front fenders of the 1970-71 models was eliminated. The big news for 1972 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 exhaling via a restrictive single exhaust. The 304 was identified by a “5-litre V8” badge on the rear inset panel of cars with the X package.
AMC switched to a Chrysler-supplied, “Torque-Command” automatic transmission, replacing the Borg-Warner unit. Already well proven in Chrysler vehicles for many years, the new transmission was generally smoother shifting and more reliable. Other revisions included redesigned front seats, a 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. The more massive front bumper was mounted on struts, to comply with a new 5-mph collision standards [these may have been phased in]. The X package side striping now “hopped up” over the rear wheel arch, accentuating the flare. Inflation took its toll, pushing the base price to $2098.
1973 was the first year for the now-collectible Levi’s trim package, with “blue jeans” spun nylon fabric covering the seats, door inserts, and map storage pockets; it had orange stitching and copper rivets, with emblems on the front fenders.
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 swapped in, and a floor shifter for the automatic transmission became available for the first time. Powertrain options carried over, other than the tall 2.37:1 economy final drive ratio; 2.73:1 was standard for 6-cylinder cars; 2.87:1 for the V8s.
The Gremlin was restyled, front and rear, for 1974, with a new grille/headlight panel and wider, free-standing bumper. A 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, now shaped like hockey sticks, with the sail panel indentations integrated into the stripe. The rear indent panel decal was 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.
Rear axle ratio juggling took the place of engine changes; and a “Rallye-X” added a dash-mounted tachometer (in a 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.
The 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 catalytic convertor; interestingly, it allowed engines to be “tuned up” slightly, so that in many cases, performance and gas mileage were actually improved over 1974 models.
The 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 stripes, were revised so a portion of the stripe jutted straight back over the wheel arch; this portion showed the “Gremlin X” designation.
The 304 V8 was dropped mid-year, and only 826 Gremlin V8s were produced for 1976.
For 1977, the Gremlin received its first major restyling. The front end of the car was shortened by four inches with new sheet metal, grille, and bumper. The rear of the car gained a 23% larger glass hatch and enlarged taillights. The fuel tank held a surprising 21 gallons.
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!).
Gremlins had a standard 232 and an optional 258 with revised valve timing and a two-barrel carburetor, with a new Borg-Warner four-speed manual transmission on all Gremlins. With a price cut to $2,995, Gremlin was again the cheapest American-made car in the U.S.
Mid-year, AMC started making a 2.0 liter, four-cylinder engine designed by Audi, shipping some to Germany and using some in their own Gremlin (a fuel injected version was used in the Porsche 924). With an overhead camshaft and an aluminum cross-flow head, it was carbureted on the Gremlin, generating less power than even the small six. The good news was a 250-pound weight savings and gas mileage rated at 21 mpg city, and a fine 33 mpg highway. Only Gremlin Custom buyers could make the limited-production engines — and only 7,558 were sold in 1977.
The X stripes were changed again, with the side stripes appearing to split into two upswept segments near the rear of the car. Gremlins with the Custom trim package gained side stripes that looked like the old “hockey stick” stripes on previous X cars.
Despite the new styling, the easing of fuel shortages and increased competition led to lower production, down to 46,171 for the model year.
The Gremlin entered 1978, its final year; the styling was unchanged, but the interior gained the new Concord dashboard, with a more integrated, “civilized” appearance. The simulated wood trim on Custom models looked surprisingly real; the upswept, split side stripes were gone from the X, replaced by an attractive decal running along the lower third of the entire length of the car.
Later in the year, a “GT” was added, with fiberglass front spoiler and front/rear fender flares; body colored front and rear bumpers, and “blacked-out” grille, mirrors, wiper arms, door and quarter window frames. Gremlin GTs were 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 2,000 Gremlin GTs were made, all of them equipped with the 258 six.
By most standards, the Gremlin could be considered a success. According to the Standard Catalog of American Cars, 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 have test driven many more over the years. My first Gremlin was Firecracker Red 1974 X with the “Rallye-X” package and a 258 six coupled to a floor-shifted automatic. The next was a well-behaved Powder Blue 1978 Gremlin Custom with a 232 six and a column-shifted automatic, and the 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, powered by the 232 six and a floor-shifted 3-speed manual 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 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 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 were the 1977 and 1978 cars, equipped with the Audi four-cylinder engine. They simply had no torque. To get any kind of acceleration out of these cars, you had to be constantly rowing the gears to keep the engine wound up. Four-cylinder cars 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 a bit quirky due to the pronounced front weight bias. Four-cylinder Gremlins handled better than the bigger-engined models since they carried about 250 pounds 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. The Gremlin (and Pacer) gained a certain amount of respect in collector car circles.
Gremlins can provide a lot of cheap, affordable fun; though nice ones are a rare sight, most parts are available, since the basic mechanicals and much of the sheet metal were shared with other AMC cars of the period. 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 3,017 made during 1970-71, the early 2-seater models are rare today and may be worth holding onto as a novelty item. Ditto the fewer than 3,000 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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