This article originally appeared in the March 2000 issue of American Auto News, the official journal of the American Auto Club (UK). Reprinted with the permission of the author and editor.
by Mark Vickers
I can remember very clearly the very first American car that I saw in real life. Before that my father had kept me interested in British and Italian cars, from pictures of the old MG J2 that he owned as a young man, to the Alfa Romeo's that he was driving when I was a youngster. From the age of about seven I could correctly identify every European car on the road. But this particular day is so fresh in my memory. It was 1975, I must have been 14, and we were walking up the hill towards "Betty's Teashop" when suddenly I saw this pale blue car the likes of which I had never seen before. I was instantly rooted to the spot, my mouth dropped open first in disbelief, and then broke into a big smile as it drove past. What was it? You'd be hard pressed to guess! Perhaps a finned fifties fantasy? Or a rumbling, menacing, muscle car? A sleek Cadillac or Lincoln? No! The car in question was an AMC Pacer, just introduced that year so the one I saw must have been an extremely early import. I had just never seen anything like it before, or since for that matter!
The original idea for the Pacer began with a sketch drawn by Richard Teague in 1971. This developed into the AMC Pacer over the next few years, finally released at the 1975 Chicago Auto Show. "Business Week" labeled the new car "the hottest car of 1975", whilst "Car and Driver" called it "our first real urban transporter". The uniquely styled car was to last 6 years with just over 280000 units built in that time. Total production ended in 1980.
What is so amazing is that the Pacer made it into production at all. American Motors was the last independent, but by the early seventies it was a struggling company. Back in the late 1940s the president of Nash (which later joined with Hudson to form General Motors), George Mason, said that for any motor car manufacturer to survive outside of the Big Three corporations, it needed to offer something different. In other words, don't try to compete with them at their own game. This same philosophy was repeated several times during subsequent decades in AMC. Following this principle rather than playing safe AMC's management launched two of the most innovative designs of the decade. First of all came the sub-compact Gremlin, introduced in 1970 as a rival to Ford's Pinto and Chevrolet's Vega. This was then followed by the even more unusual design for of the Pacer. It had a body style unlike anything else that had been seen before, short hood, vast glass area, and unusual width compared to its length, the first small wide car they called it, but that was not all. More surprisingly it was designed to have rotary engine and front wheel drive! General Motors had shown an interest in rotary power and was developing such an engine, and it was this that AMC planned on buying for their new car. Suddenly, in 1974, pressures brought about by the oil crisis caused GM to drop their development programme. Rotary engines are very smooth and love to rev, but their down-side has always been a higher than normal thirst for the precious petroleum. I owned an RX7 a few years ago and it was a fabulous car to drive, but I could get the same fuel consumption out of a carefully driven late eighties 5-litre Camaro, and I certainly get considerably more from my (admittedly carefully driven) 1989 3.1-litre Cutlass Supreme. In the early seventies however the rotary engines had other problems too - in particular the effective sealing of the tips of the fast spinning rotors. NSU was marketing the RO80 at this time remember, and one only needs to look at how many were converted to other conventional engines to realise that even the renowned engineering technology of the Germans couldn't master the rotary concept. Indeed the only manufacturer who succeeded was Mazda.
So here were AMC, having made such a brave plan with this unique looking and supposedly uniquely powered car, and suddenly they had no engine. The body style was like no other that had gone before, or since for that matter. It had a sloping hood, tunneled headlights and great visibility thanks to the immense glass area. The rear side windows curved around to the large rear door which gave excellent access to the boot space. The doors cut well into the roofline for easy access, and the passenger door was 10cm longer than the driver's door to ease entry and exit onto the safe pavement side. Interestingly, many claim that one of its most obvious features, its width, came about by accident. If these stories are correct it was the sudden change from front wheel drive and Rotary power to rear wheel drive and the 258ci slant 6 (*) engine that resulted in a widening of the original design by six inches for the driveshaft. Whatever the reasons, the dimensions are very unique:
Whether by accident or not AMC capitalised on the unusual width, "You only ride like a Pacer if you're wide like a Pacer" was just one of the marketing slogans used. The design certainly worked, and contemporary reports, whilst seemingly confused by the "weirdness" of the exterior, were complimentary about the way it felt inside. All commented that sitting in such a wide airy car, with its big 6 cylinder engine gave the sensation of riding in a much bigger car. Low center of gravity and wide stance also made for commendable handling.
In the first year of production 145,528 were sold, 72158 of which were the sporty X-models. The heavier than average weight of the car, caused by the drivetrain and the huge glass areas, together with all the emissions control devices and tiny carburetor, did nothing for the car's performance and some criticism was levelled at it in this regard. As the table above shows, this was no lightweight, although to be fair perhaps too much is made of this - there were plenty of other American cars of the same period weighing similar amounts.
Generally speaking 1975 had been a very bad year for all US auto manufacturers, but most recovered for 1976. There was an early surge for the Pacer and production rose from the initial 480 units per day to 800 by the end of 1975 ('76 model year). Unfortunately for AMC, enthusiasm for smaller cars quickly waned and 2700 AMC workers had to be laid off with production slashed. The major change for the Pacer for its second year was the option of a 258ci motor (*), with one or two barrel carburetor. The original 232ci engine was still available. 117,244 were sold by the year's end. In 1977 a new the Pacer Wagon was introduced which looked a little less controversial and could carry an amazing 47.8 cu ft of cargo with the rear seats folded. Despite all these attempts to re-vitalise enthusiasm just 20,265 Coupes and 37,999 Wagons were sold. Ironically, downsizing across the industry had begun this year, but AMC's products were failing to capitalise on this trend, and even contemporary analysts could not dictate why this should be. There seemed little wrong with the products themselves, but somehow they were simply not selling.
AMC decided to offer their 304ci (5-litre) V8 to the Pacer for 1978. This necessitated a different hood (bonnet), and whilst they were at it a new grille which cut up into the hood line was introduced. This made quite a difference to the frontal aspect of the car, but whether it was an improvement over the original simple straight-across design is very much, as ever, a matter of taste. Unfortunately for AMC none of this improved sales with a very disappointing 7,411 Coupes, 13,820 Wagons sold, 2,514 of which had the V8 option. Overall however AMC had its best year since 1973, but virtually all of this was due to Jeep sales.
The writing was very much on the wall. AMC were losing a bundle on this unique vehicle, the gamble seemed to have failed. They simply didn't have the money available for re-design, and so the only change for 1979 was the availability of the limited-package. This consisted of leather interior, power windows, power locks, cruise control, and a hood ornament. Sales were predictably down again, 2,863 Coupes, 7,352 Wagons, of which 1,014 were V8 powered. AMC ties with Renault were strengthened until stockholders agreed to sell 46% of the company for $200 million. The rarest Pacers were those so-called 1980 models, but actually they had been built the year before and it was more a clearance of existing stock than a true new model year. In this its final year 405 Coupes, and 1,341 Wagons were sold.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the relative failure of the Pacer it has achieved something of a cult status in recent years. Who doesn't know of its famous role as Garth's "Mirthmobile" in the 1992 film "Wayne's World"? But keep your eyes open and you will quite frequently notice a Pacer as a backdrop in music videos and other films.
Perhaps less well known is that the Pacer was raced in IMSA events in the late 1970s alongside AMC Spirits, and whilst researching for this article I have come across several photographs of them being used as drag racers! Unfortunately I have been unable to ascertain how successfully.
So, what do you think? An object of ridicule, or a failure that really deserved to succeed? Remember that jelly-mold styling didn't come along until years later - remember the furore over the supposed "new look" when the Sierra first came out? Yet compared to the Pacer all those years earlier -- please! The Porsche 928 designer, Tony Lapine, admitted that the Pacer provided the inspiration for the tail end treatment of that particular motoring icon! One could also claim that it was the first car with the now popular Chrysler styling cab forward design! And as for the Neon - hey, the Pacer concept was there first by a long shot! Personally, I will always have a real soft spot for them. Partly because I can so clearly remember that one freezing me to the spot in Harrogate all those years ago, but also partly just in admiration for the uniqueness of its design, and braveness of AMC to attempt such a radically new type of vehicle.
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