Curbside Classic: 1981 AMC Eagle Sedan – Kindertrauma

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As a young child, I could’ve been forgiven for thinking the Subaru DL/GL/Loyale and AMC Eagle were the best sellers in the US.  They were extremely popular in the Adirondack foothills of New York state where I lived until I was about nine, along with the usual array of popular late ’70s to mid ’80s models, but despite serving much the same purpose, I couldn’t have had a more dissimilar impression of the two models.  The Subarus, with their cubist styling, typified what I understood as attractive design (and I find most hardtop Subarus attractive to this day); the AMCs, however…

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…well, they seemed somewhat like monsters to my eyes.  Naming them after a frightening predator was quite apt when you think about it.  They looked more aggressive than a lot of SUVs did, with an increased ride height unrelieved by squat bodywork.  Barreling down the road with brown slush caked around the wheel wells, Eagles seemed ready to eat all the Datsuns, Colts and Rabbits surrounding them.  Just as some remember their juvenile fear of incinerators, furnaces or basements in general, AMC Eagles will always look somewhat menacing to me.

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In addition to its obvious toughness, the Eagle always looked a bit… distorted.  When something looks otherwise normal but for a single visual cue which has been thrown off, the result can be almost grotesque (think of someone with shaven eyebrows).  That was never exactly the goal of the engineers headed by Roy Lunn (hired away from Ford to head up Jeep engineering in 1971), but increasing the ride height was a requirement for transferring drive to the front wheels.  Hence management’s reaction to the initial proposal to build the car: what the hell is this?

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Those bizarre proportions, of course, give the Eagle a unique charm; one which its self-selecting buyers must’ve enjoyed quite a bit.  It’s impossible for any modern car fan not to have some love for the Eagle, such is its functional appeal.  So when I saw this white (yes–another white car) example at the end of June, I had to take pictures.  The owners of the car informed me it was a 1981; it’s in remarkable shape for being so old and likely sat unused for quite a while.

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It’s also quite rare; AMC sold 1,737 Eagle sedans that year, some 601 more two-doors made if off the line, along with about 8,600 more wagons.  Actually, with 23,000 sold that year, the short wheelbase SX/4 liftbacks were the most popular AWD Eagle variants.  On the other hand, the sedan was the most popular rear-drive Concord, selling about 24k units, next to 15k each for the wagon and two-door.  The most popular AMC model that year was the Spirit, which moved almost 45,000 units, though 43,000 of these were liftbacks.

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With 2,000 sold, the Kammback “sedan” (the rear panel of which we see here on this photoshopped Seville) was the least popular rear-drive AMC, but in AWD guise, still managed to outsell the Eagle four-doors like our featured car.  But while a slow seller, the sedan would remain on the market three years longer, selling alongside the Alliance, which displaced it on the Kenosha production line, selling 751 Ontario-built units for 1987, its final year.

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Compared to most American cars of their day, the Eagle is quite rust resistant, but it’s not as impervious to corrosion as the likes of the Audi C3 or Volvo 700-series.  That would explain the haggard Eagles I saw in my childhood.  I should’ve informed the father and son who own this sedan that Fluid Film is a very effective (and slightly stinky) barrier against road salt.  Spraying it in the early fall ensures enough dust accumulation to keep it from being easily washed off and at about ten bucks per aerosol can, it’s a good value.  As a Japanese car lover who spent his childhood in the Adirondacks, you can bet that rust is a nightmare come to life as far as I’m concerned; one which I’m keen to help others avoid.

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There are no production breakdowns available, but I’d be shocked if this car has the Iron Duke engine.  For 1981, that means its 258 six put about 110 horsepower (I’ve also read 114) and 210 lb-ft of torque through its TorqueFlite. Given all the tragedies which faced AMC in the ’70s, the switch from the BorgWarner automatic to the famed Chrysler unit wasn’t one of them.  Though the engine these output peaks at a very low 3,200 and 1,800 rpm, respectively, the benefit of an efficient transmission was still an important one, even with lower-than-average final drive ratios of 3.08:1 (3:54 optional).  For 1982, a five-speed would join the standard four-speed.

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I’ve never ridden in, let alone driven, one of these cars, but the power outputs combined with a max curb weight of 3,400 pounds doesn’t seem uncommonly tragic for the era; I’ll let more seasoned readers fill me on on how they stacked up to the remnants of the domestic “compacts,” and new downsized intermediates of the early ’80s.  The interior, despite its older dashboard, looks pretty smart compared to other efforts for the era; though not necessarily in fashion for an early ’80s domestic, it’s aged better according to my import-centric sensibilities.  The experience of riding and driving in these cars was either incredibly unpleasant or the stench of death around AMC was undeniable, because in terms of quality and restraint, I can think of much worse contemporary cabins.

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Perhaps the original Hornet just didn’t wear its Brougham hat very well.  The last year any version of the Concord sold over 100,000 units was 1978 (its first year on the market), and the original Dick Teague design as seen on the Hornet was decidedly more sporty than ornate.

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Those well integrated wraparound taillights and flush door handles are at odds with any of the other ornamentation tacked onto the Eagle and Concord and if it was decoration people wanted, well, most other manufacturers had those cars beat.  When it came to pretension as understood in those days, AMC was never able to compete and, as we know, hurt itself in trying to do so.  In terms of image, it would be the XJ Cherokee of 1984, also styled by Teague, which would be AMC’s final sensation.

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In many ways, that SUV replaced the proto-crossover Eagle.  And why not?  Unburdened by any expectation of vulgar ostentation, it was a more widely welcomed embodiment of its manufacturer’s practical design and engineering ethos.  If Kenosha had the money to replace the Hornet with an actual car, one could imagine it would ideally look and feel more like the XJ than the Alliance and Encore.  Better yet, the Cherokee gave the impression of capacity necessary to attract the import-oriented buyers who were put off by the Eagle’s combination of thirst and poor packaging.  If nothing else, it was a necessary clean slate to carry forth the collaboration of engineers and stylists under Lunn and Teague, respectively.

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As much respect as the Cherokee deserves and gets, however, the Eagle has a quirkiness (yes, I used the awful Q-word) it can never match.  And, as I mentioned earlier, it has an anamorphic presence which Cherokee owners can’t attain without lifting their rigs to kingdom come.  If the Eagle looked like a car from my childhood nightmares, the evergreen XJ is almost cuddly in comparison (except with Max Cady as portrayed by Robert DeNiro strapped to the bottom–now that’s a nightmare).  So hats off to the father and son who’ve put this tough mother to work as a daily; it’s been decades since I’ve encountered one of these four-wheeled predators, and the sight of this white sedan really takes me back.

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Related reading:

Curbside Classics: AMC Eagle Wagon And Sedan – “What The Hell Is This?”

Curbside Classic: 1970 AMC Hornet – Today Is The First Day of the Rest Of Your Life

Curbside Classic: 1981 AMC Concord – The Underdog Learns One More New Trick

Curbside Classic: 1981 Eagle SX/4 – The Trickster

Cross An AMC Concord With A Spirit: The Lerma