1977 AMC Pacer Station Wagon
1977 AMC Pacer Station Wagon
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

North America underwent two energy shocks, so-called “oil crises,” in 1973 and 1979. With the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ first 1973 threat to the oil supplies on which we had grown increasingly dependent, there was a mad scramble for cars with smaller gasoline, or diesel, engines.

But memories are short, and by 1975 buyers were already turning back to the traditional large American cars. It would take another wallop in 1979 to convince us that there could indeed be a real oil shortage, for political if not for natural reasons.

It was into this between-the-crises climate that American Motors Corporation launched its Pacer in February, 1975. It seemed to exemplify the ambivalence of the period. Here was a car that looked all new, and small, but wasn’t either. The only external dimension that could be called compact was the unit construction Pacer’s 4,346 mm (171.5 in.) over-all length. The most outlandish measurement was the width; its 1,956 mm (77 in.) girth was full-size car territory.

But the styling was certainly different, almost cute. It had lots of glass, although the side windows were so deep, and the beltline so low, that the windows wouldn’t lower down out of sight.

Stylist Dick Teague tried to hide this with large bolsters on the inner sides of the doors. The extensive glass area and rounded shape that curved almost down to the rear bumper gave the car a kind of “glass turtle” look.

The style was most of what was new in the Pacer, although it did have rack and pinion steering, the second American car after the Ford Pinto to use it. The rest of the mechanicals were rather uninspired. The Pacer was originally to have the compact Wankel rotary engine under its sloping hood, but when development problems prevented that, AMC used its long, overhead-valve, inline six. This intruded quite far back into the passenger compartment, making the front seat impractical for more than two passengers.

Suspension was basic AMC: A-arms and coil springs in front, and leaf springs and a solid axle at the rear. Because the Pacer’s width was virtually that of a full-size car it used the large Matador’s rear axle. Four-wheel drum brakes were standard, although front discs could be had as an option.

What AMC offered, then, was a short, wide, heavy, four-passenger car. When Road & Track magazine published a technical analysis of the Pacer in February, 1975, it remarked that “… the car is very heavy – just under 3,000 lb (1,361 kg) in standard form.” They went on to say that “… any mass-produced four-passenger car should weigh less that 3,000 lb, a lot less with its standard equipment.”

If that seemed excessive, imagine the surprise to read in R & T’s road test of the Pacer a couple of months later that it really weighed a hefty 1,554 kg (3,425 lb), causing them to wonder if it was the world’s biggest small car. The test car was fitted with the 4.2 litre (258 cu in.) engine (standard was a 3.8 litre (232 cu.in.), and an automatic transmission.

Excessive weight made the Pacer slow and thirsty. R & T recorded a mediocre zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) acceleration time of 15.8 seconds and a top speed of 142 km/h (88 mph). They reported a thirsty 16 mpg fuel consumption.

There were other shortcomings too. The between-the-wheels rear seat was quite narrow. R & T calculated the luggage space at a limited 5.2 cubic feet, but this could be increased to 16.4 by folding down the rear seat-back. The huge expanse of glass made air conditioning necessary.

As an interesting contrast on what a small sporty four-passenger car could be, R & T tested the new front-wheel drive Volkswagen Scirocco in its February, 1975, issue. Although the Scirocco gave away a few inches here and there in passenger space to the Pacer, its packaging efficiency was far superior. The 875 kg (1,930 lb) Scirocco represented the future; the Pacer was a
holdover from the past.

The Pacer was made from 1975 to 1980 during which time 252,000 were built. Although it wasn’t space efficient, it did have some interesting features. There was, as mentioned, the really striking styling with the lavish use of glass, and a roll-bar integrated into the wide B-pillar. The windshield wipers were concealed, and the doors curved nicely into the roof, aircraft style. The use of a right door that was 89 mm (3.5 in.) longer that the driver’s door for easier entry to the rear seat was unusual, if not unique. Its “wide-small” concept gave Pacer drivers the impression that they were at the wheel of a conventional large American car.

A wagon model was added and later Pacers could even be had with a 5.0 litre V8 for higher performance, but even poorer fuel economy. While not a paragon of automotive efficiency, the Pacer was just unusual enough that it could become a future collectible.

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