What was your dream car as a kid? Mine was a V8 Gremlin. I know, that’s really weird. And when you set the bar low, it’s pretty easy to attain. I never harboured any illusions of buying a Lamborghini, Ferrari, or a Corvette. I’ve already explained my love for these strange little things in prior articles so I’ll spare you that diatribe. This car appeared in the driveway of a gearhead friend down the road one day and within a year it was in my parent’s driveway. That was fifteen years ago. And I still have it.
When I first signed on to write my COAL series I wrote a list of all the cars I’ve owned in chronological order. I had a very hard time figuring out where to put this one as I’ve only actually driven it for 6 months – over the last 15 years. I bought this thing when I was 17 and it’s still in my garage. We all have our excuses for uncompleted projects but I’m really pushing the limits. This car has followed me through 8 moves and about 15 different jobs. It’s always had shelter in a garage; much of the time in decrepit ones. My brother even dragged it 1600 kms on a U-Haul tow dolly across the country so it could join me in my new home in BC. My parents really wanted it out of their garage and it gave my brother a good excuse to come visit me out in the mountains.
So this car showed up on my street right around the time I bought my first Gremlin. It looked much like it does in the above picture except it was attached via tow bars to a ’78 Dodge Ramcharger that had just completed the 2300 km journey from Vancouver, BC. The twenty-something son of the backyard mechanic down the road had returned from living out west for a while and brought both his vehicles and all his earthly goods with him in one trip.
After a year of sitting in storage I bought it for a ’89 Pontiac Firefly plus $1000. The Firefly was bought from a different neighbour across the road the day before she moved for the princely sum of $350. It had been sitting with a for sale sign for a few months and no one was interested so my brothers and I bought it looking to make a quick buck. We did some work on it and buddy down the street approached us looking to buy it as he just got a job as a courier and needed some cheap wheels. I jumped at the deal, it’s not often someone comes knocking at your door offering you a V8 Gremlin. Granted, he knew I loved it. The deal was however complicated by the fact I had to pay off my brothers for their share of the Firefly, but we came up with an installment plan.
My Gremlin was one of 3410 V8 cars that left the factory in 1975. It originally had a 304 with a 3 speed but that was long gone by the time I got a hold of it. An earlier owner had swapped it out for a 343-4V and Borg-Warner automatic from a ’69 Ambassador cop car. He obviously made the most of this combo as the motor and tranny were both badly worn. The guy I bought it from was an auto body technician and had redone the body and painted it. The very dark metallic purple with white racing stripes looked really good to my 17 year old eyes but looks increasingly tacky as we both age. He had also painted some steel Cherokee rims to match. The interior was disassembled but came with Levi’s edition rear seats and the wiring really needed to be redone.
As this was a project car I slowly worked on it as time and money allowed. Unfortunately I had very little of either. I first set to work fixing the wiring which proved very frustrating. I can’t remember what was wrong with it but I ended up with a butt connected mess that was ugly but functional. Next came the assembly of the interior which wouldn’t have been possible without the parts car I had purchased for my earlier Gremlin. There was no way I could go to a local parts store (or junkyard) and ask if they could source me some interior parts for a Gremlin. I would have been laughed out of the store.
My next task was to replace the drivetrain. Knowing the Borg-Warner automatic that came with the car was very worn I found a ’73 Ambassador wagon at a local “junk farmer” and yanked the 727 Torqueflite for cheap. I took it to a local tranny shop for a full rebuild with shift improver kit. This transmission was a very tight fit as they never came with Gremlins from the factory.
The eccentric fellow I had sold my first Gremlin to called me up one day and said he knew of a ’76 Matador with a freshly rebuilt 390 that was about to be junked. Knowing Matadors never came with 390s I went and had a look at what turned out to be a 304. It appeared to be freshly rebuilt and ran very well so I bought it for $500. I procured an Edelbrock Torker intake manifold, a Holley 4 barrel carb and some headers and threw it all together. A custom 2.5″ exhaust was built and I was finally ready to rip.
So, 4 years after buying this car I was finally driving it. What a beast! It took nothing to break the right rear wheel loose. Yeah, unfortunately it has an open differential. If you stayed on the pedal while spinning, the wheel would hop violently like a jackhammer. I soon installed some traction bars which solved the wheel hop, but not the excessive spinning. The transmission shifted very firmly, often barking the tires on the shift from 1st to 2nd. Not surprisingly, the rear end was very prone to breaking loose. Apparently re-locating the battery to the trunk didn’t solve all the weight distribution problems. Fat tires, good shocks and re-arched rear leaf springs improved the handling but it was still borderline scary. I was absolutely loving it.
As the summer progressed I gradually made some tweaks to improve my ability to go fast. Any unnecessary weight was jettisoned. By unnecessary I mean things that every car should have. Like a front bumper and heater. I think I was overly influenced by the movie Two Lane Blacktop. But she would certainly go fast; I managed to get the needle past the end of the 120 mph speedometer.
As winter approached, I cancelled the insurance and made a dumb decision that would keep her off the road for a while. In the interests of going faster I decided to rebuild the 343. I did a lot of research and came up with a plan to get around 400 hp out of the old mill. I brought it into a local race engine rebuild shop with hopes of picking it up in the spring.
It would be a year and a half before I got the motor back and it cost way more than I had hoped. Apparently the engine shop hadn’t rebuilt any old obscure AMC motors in a while. I dropped it in, hooked it up to the new aluminum radiator and tied everything back together. I threw on a good carb from a friend’s car, pre-oiled the system with an old distributor shaft and a cordless drill and ran it for 20 minutes at 2500 rpm. A pushrod broke and the lobes were wiped off the cam. What the hell? I pointed my finger at the engine shop and they pointed their finger at me. I still don’t know what exactly went wrong but I suspect the valve springs may have been too stiff.
As the engine was sent back to the shop, I had just finished University and decided it was time for me to head out west for my own adventures in BC. The shop agreed to re-rebuild the engine at a heavily reduced rate and I told them to take as long as they wanted. I would pick it up another year and a half later on a return visit from my new home in BC. I hastily re-installed it in the engine bay in a few days so that it could be towed out to BC. A few months later my brother towed it out for me and my parents were finally rid of all my cars and junk. Except for the engine crane that’s still under their deck, I’ll get it next time I’m out there.
So that was 8 years ago, where all progress pretty much stopped. What are my excuses? The usual too many projects, mainly other vehicles but I also bought an old house I fully renovated and sold. Work, family life and an increased love for the outdoors (hiking and skiing) have forced this project to the background. Not having a decent garage until recently hasn’t helped either.
Above all though, the biggest barrier I have right now to getting this thing done is that I haven’t had a driver’s license for 15 months. Unfortunately, I’ve recently been diagnosed with epilepsy and cannot work or drive. I have lots of time to work on it but have little motivation due to my inability to be able to enjoy the car. I’m doing well and taking effective medication, so I should soon be getting my license back within the month. I’m not looking for sympathy, it’s just information that will figure in future articles. It’s also a pretty good excuse to not be driving my dream car.
On a positive note, I have recently started fully re-doing the entire electrical system with a full universal wiring kit. Turns out I did a shoddy job the first time around. It’s really not very fun but it’s progress. If all goes well, I plan for the Gremlin and I to be back on the road together next summer. My wife will not accept any more excuses. She’s been wanting to go for a ride in it for seven years.
Thus concludes the tangled tale of the Gremlin X. For those weary of hearing about AMCs, I promise next week’s COAL will not be weird. It might even be a true classic, albeit in terrible condition.