July 19, 2004
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by Bill Vance
The Nash Motor Co. of Kenosha, Wisconsin, was the only successful American small car manufacturer between the end of the Second World War and 1960. Hudson, Studebaker, Willys, Kaiser-Frazer and a few fringe makers tried, but only the little Nash Rambler introduced in 1950 would survive, and even it had a hiatus during 1956 and ’57.
When Nash and Hudson joined to form American Motors Corp. in 1954, it was Rambler-derived designs that would keep it going for as long as it survived as a separate entity.
Nash had been ahead of its time with smaller cars. But as imports began taking a bigger market share, the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) responded with their 1960 compact Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Chrysler (soon to be Plymouth) Valiant. But when the compacts gave the imports only a temporary setback, Ford and GM tried again with their 1971 Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega subcompacts.
American Motors knew that Ford and GM had smaller cars coming in 1971; it wanted to respond, but its resources were depleted by its attempt to go head to head with the big carmakers. It was saved by AMC’s chief stylist Richard Teague, the master of the low-cost makeover, who came through with another of his ingenious but inexpensive creations. The result was the subcompact Gremlin, which AMC was able to bring to market on April 1, 1970, a half year ahead of Ford and GM.
Teague based the Gremlin on the Hornet, which AMC had created by heavily facelifting the Rambler American in 1970. By chopping the back end off the Hornet at an angle just behind the front doors, and fitting a glass hatch, a much shorter car was produced.
Compared to the Hornet, the wheelbase was reduced 305 millimetres (12 in.) to 2,438 mm (96 in.), and over-all length came down from 4,547 mm (179 in.) to 4,089 mm (161 in.). While the Gremlin was a subcompact in length and wheelbase, it wasn’t in width or weight. It was still as wide as the Hornet at 1,793 mm (70.6 in.), and its 1,157 kg (2,550 lb) weight was a bit on the heavy side. The Gremlin suffered from being exactly what it was: a cut-down larger car.
Its lack of finesse was betrayed under the hood, too. While other small cars had economical four-cylinder engines, the Gremlin had an overhead valve, inline six of 3.3 litres (199 cu in.) standard, or 3.8 (232) optional. The six wasn’t particularly economical, nor was handling that great due to the heavy forward weight bias. And because so much had been cut out of the Hornet, the back seat was cramped and luggage space was minimal. Even the Volkswagen Beetle, hardly a paragon of space efficiency, offered more cargo room.
Also, cutting 457 mm (18 in.) out of the Hornet’s wheelbase meant that the rear springs had to be shortened, with the result that the Gremlin had a choppy ride.
The Gremlin’s performance was above subcompact car levels of the era. Motor Trend magazine recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 12.6 seconds with the 3.8 (232) engine. Both the Ford Pinto and the VW were in the 18 second range. Fuel economy was reasonably good at 28 to 30 mpg with the small six, but not quite competitive with the VW.
American Motors recognized that they didn’t have a style leader, so they promoted the Gremlin as “cute” and “different,” and pitched it to younger buyers. The strategy paid off; over 60 per cent of Gremlin purchasers were under 35.
Considering the shortened model year, AMC did fairly well with the Gremlin, selling 26,209 1970 models. The little-changed ’71 soared to 73,534 sales, helped along by the optional stylish X-package with such features as a blacked-out grille, bold stripes, fancy wheels and larger tires.
For 1973, AMC made the 5.0 litre (304 cu in.) V-8 optional, which turned it into a kind of mini-muscle car. It also got a stylish blue denim “Levi’s” trim package which was popular with young buyers.
The Gremlin got its only real restyling in 1977 in the form of new front fenders, hood and canted grille. In keeping with the times, it also got a Porsche-derived overhead-cam, 2.0 litre (121 cu in.) four-cylinder engine (the V-8 had been discontinued in 1976), but it never proved popular.
Less than 14,000 fours were sold during its short two-year offering, but it did have the distinction of making the Gremlin a car with one of the widest engine ranges of all time: from 2.0 to 5.0 litres.
Nineteen seventy-eight would be the last year for the Gremlin as such; it would be badge-engineered into the Spirit for 1979. During its 8-1/2-year span from mid-1970 to 1978, Gremlin sales totalled almost 672,000, and it was a money-maker for AMC. That’s not bad for what was basically a chopped-off Hornet.