1981 AMC Spirit
1981 AMC Spirit. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

As the 1970s progressed, American Motors Corporation’s fortunes declined. AMC had been formed by the amalgamation of Hudson and Nash in 1954 and enjoyed a few good years, outlasting Studebaker, Packard and Kaiser-Frazer. Its legendary chief stylist, Richard Teague, became a master at transforming old cars into new ones, and although it tried, AMC wasn’t able to go head-to-head with the Big Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler). AMC was mostly the industry underdog.

Fortunately, AMC had acquired the Jeep utility vehicle line from Kaiser Industries in 1970, and by decade’s end the Jeep division was sustaining the company. AMC discontinued its slow selling full-size Ambassador in 1976 and Matador in 1978, by which time corporate sales had fallen to less than one per cent of the industry.

With relentless domestic and foreign competition, AMC decided to emphasize smaller, more elegant cars. The first step was the 1975 Pacer “glass turtle.” For 1978, it reincarnated the Hornet into the more luxurious compact Concord (the Hornet had already metamorphosed from the Rambler in 1970). Then for 1979, it took the sub-compact Gremlin (created in 1971 by truncating the Hornet) and revamped it into the Spirit.

Not surprisingly, the Spirit bore a striking resemblance to the Gremlin, even though AMC’s Teague tried to camouflage it with some altered sheetmetal. The new Liftback model got a slant-back rear profile while the two-door sedan had a more abrupt chopped off “Kammback” treatment.

Rear side windows were enlarged and reshaped to follow the slope of the roof, improving both visibility and appearance. An optional AMX sporty version of the Liftback included tuned suspension, anti-roll bars, stronger brakes and “Turbocast” wheels.

The Spirit was quite compact, with a wheelbase of 2,438 mm (96 in.) and length of 4,237 mm (166.8 in.), about the same size as Chrysler’s recently introduced Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon. But the Omni/Horizon’s front-wheel drive provided more passenger and luggage space, and at 1,043 kg (2,135 lb) the O/H was some 227 kg (500 lb) lighter than the Spirit.

Underneath the unit construction Spirit’s body was the usual AMC hardware, with coil spring independent front suspension and a solid rear axle on leaf springs. Brakes were front discs and rear drums.

Available engines included a 2.0-litre overhead cam four, two AMC overhead valve inline sixes in 3.8 and 4.2-litre sizes, and AMC’s 5.0-litre overhead valve V8. A three-speed automatic or four-speed manual transmission sent power to the rear wheels.

The four-cylinder was the result of AMC needing a more economical engine to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards. It couldn’t really afford the time or money to develop one so it searched other manufacturers and discovered Volkswagen’s well proved 2.0-litre, overhead cam, inline four which was used in the Audi 100 LS and Porsche 924. With an extra cylinder added it also powered the five-cylinder Audi 5000. AMC bought the production rights and tooling to set up production in a plant in Indiana. It was introduced in the 1977 Gremlin.

The Spirit’s performance was fairly competitive in its class. Car and Driver (5/’77) tested a 1977 four-cylinder, four-speed Gremlin, virtually identical to the Spirit, and recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 15.3 seconds and top speed of 146 km/h (91 mph). C and D’s (2/’79) test of a four-speed, 5.0-litre V8 Spirit reported zero to 96 (60) in 10.6 seconds and a top speed of 174 km/h (108 mph).

The Spirit would carry on without major changes for its five model years. In 1980 the 3.8 six and V8 were discontinued, making the 4.2 six the big engine. The slow-selling 2.0-litre VW-sourced engine was also abandoned in favour of Pontiac’s 2.5 litre “Iron Duke” four. The AMX was dropped, although a GT version came back for 1981.

For 1981, four-wheel drive versions of the Spirit, the Eagle SX-4 and Kammback, were added, and for 1982, a five speed manual was optional. In 1983, the Spirit’s last year, the sedan was gone, as was the 2.5-litre four, leaving the 4.2 six as the only engine.

The Spirit had been introduced in 1979, but in 1980 an even bigger event had occurred, when France’s Renault bought an interest in AMC to obtain its North American marketing expertise and dealer network. Renault would ultimately take over, the first foreign manufacturer (but not the last) to control a major American car company.

AMC’s offerings at the time of the Renault takeover were the Spirit, Concord, Concord-based four-wheel drive Eagle, and Jeep vehicles. AMC/Renault carried on AMC cars for a while, but the emphasis would be on Renaults. The Spirit, another of AMC’s new-cars-out-of-old, became redundant and was discontinued with the introduction of AMC/Renault’s more fuel efficient and roomier front-drive 1983 Alliance.

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