Curbside Classic: 1977 AMC Gremlin – Pay 8% More And Get 13% Less HP And 33% Fewer Cylinders

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The Gremlin always danced to a different tune. Its design (in the loosest sense of that word) was penned on an air-sickness bag. It was front heavy, dull-handling, and rear-brake locking, with a nearly useless back seat (initially available only at extra cost). But it hung around, and we learned to just accept it as the weird kid on the block.

And then for 1977, the Gremlin heard a new rhythm and surprised us once again: it offered an optional four cylinder engine with less power than the standard six, but with a hefty premium. Makes perfect sense, if you’re dancing to Stockhausen. Or paying for an engine originally designed by Mercedes, built by Audi and used in Porsches.

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Truth is, I don’t think this 1977 Gremlin actually has the optional four. For that matter, it may even be a 1978. But other than the shortened nose, which made the Gremlin less likely to tip forward if a few careless folks were leaning on its front end, there wasn’t a whole lot new to talk about. Our comprehensive 1971 Gremlin CC is here, so we’ll focus mainly on its brilliant new nose and the four cylinder that cost $253 extra (almost $1000, adjusted).

The 1973-1974 Energy Crisis caught the two smallest of the American car makers without a four cylinder engine, let alone a suitable car to put one in. GM already had their dark star Vega and Ford had their kick-in-the butt Pinto, but Chrysler and AMC were stuck with their cast iron sixes from the sixties, and similarly American-sized “compact” platforms. So they went shopping, in Wolfsburg, no less.

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Chrysler modified their French subsidiary Simca 1100’s body for US consumption (Omni & Horizon), but needed an engine to power it. Since the Omnirizon already looked so much like the VW Golf/Rabbit, why not use its engine too? So they made a deal to import a 1.7 L version of the VW EA827 long block, and adapted it to their needs.

AMC 2 liter fourAMC/Audi 2 Liter four

AMC came a-knocking on the same door too. Since the EA827 was a bit too petite for AMC’s intended use in Gremlins and Concords, which weighed up to some 3,200 lbs or so, VW looked in its warehouse and offered up something a (wee) bit heftier: the 2.0 L EA831 four cylinder; actually an Audi engine, as used in the European-market C2 100 and also in the VW LT truck.

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But the EA831 wasn’t a total stranger to Americans, as it was also to be found under the hood of the Porsche 924, which of course started out to be an Audi (now that’s a long-overdue CC story).

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The EA831 was an evolution of the original Audi four-stroke four engine, which had been designed by Mercedes engineers when they owned Audi back in the late fifties-early sixties. It started out with a pushrod alloy cylinder head and was built in sizes ranging from 1.5 to 1.9 liters, but in its final incarnation, it was enlarged to 2.0 liters and graced with a SOHC head.

Porsche  924_Carrera_GTRimage: wikipedia

And in its ultimate evolution, in the turbocharged racing-oriented 924 GTR, it made some 375 hp. Wonder if anyone’s ever swapped one of those into a Gremlin?

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Visions of tearing down a race track at 200 mph were not likely to enter Gremlin drivers’ minds, unless they were blessed with exceptional imaginations. As installed in the Gremlin and Hornet, the four made 80 (net) hp. The standard 232 six was rated at 90 hp, and a few bucketfuls more of torque. So why the premium price for the four?

AMC didn’t exactly get the Audi engine on the cheap (did they knock on any doors in Japan?). The original plan was to import them initially, then build them at a new dedicated plant AMC had already bought, and even sell engines back to VW/Audi(!). But gas prices had settled down, and sales of the four cylinder were sluggish, so AMC just kept importing the blocks, heads and other major components, and assembled them in the US. That drove up costs, hence the pricing, hence the low sales, hence their rarity today.  Incidentally, AMC’s deal with VW/Audi forbid them to make any mention of this engine’s true provenance. Would VW/Audi also have kept it a secret if they had started buying these engine from AMC and using them in their European vehicles?

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So much for intrigue and speculation. Nothing mysterious about the utter lack of legroom in the rear seat. It was standard equipment by now, but useable only to young children or double amputees, who were forever reminded of their misfortune when riding in back. And no, that’s not “lumbar support” on the bottom of the seat backs.

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Before I sully the Gremlin any further, I should point out that the 1977 version also ushered in a redesigned back panel, with a larger lift gate (also now standard), and “distinctive new taillights,” in the rare case anyone might mistake the rear of a Gremlin for that of some other car.

Not that it helped Gremlin sales any; after selling in the 50-60k range for the first four years, by 1977 sales had plummeted down to 15k, thanks to the huge proliferation of competition from Japan, among other things, like the Gremlin’s terrible space utilization and driving dynamics.

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But fear not; AMC had a brilliant plan to stay competitive in the small car field: put some bigger windows on the Gremlin’s rear quarters and call it Spirit; the Gremlin reincarnated. Or the Spirit of Gremlin. Same useless rear seat and pretty much everything else, but the buyers seemed to fall under the Spirit’s spell: sales jumped back to over 50k in 1979, and then soared to over 70k in 1980.

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The Spirit line now had two body styles; the Gremlin-based hatch was now called “sedan”, of all things. But the sloped roof hatchback (with even less rear seat headroom) captured the majority of sales, since it was such an effective competitor to the Mustang. Ford must have been very worried.

In 1979, the Spirit’s enthusiasm was still being dampened by the expensive little 80 hp German four, so for 1980, AMC ditched it in favor of buying the 151 CID (2.5 L) “Iron Duke” four from GM, packing 90 Mustang-eating horses. Eventually in 1984, AMC’s own 2.5 L four came to the rescue.

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But Spirits were not kept up for long, sales-wise. Starting in 1981, they followed the same downward trajectory that the Gremlin–and pretty much most new AMC products–experienced after the first couple of years. Then in 1983, AMC finally got its first true modern small car, the Renault Alliance, which of course followed the same trajectory. AMC’s efforts at building a small car just kept going bust, starting with the Gremlin. Maybe they jinxed it with that bad-luck name?

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