Curbside Classic: 1981 Eagle SX/4 – The Trickster

No doubt the Eagle SX/4 is a joke; the only question being whether it’s a good one or a bad one, or whether the joke is on us. Did I have to ask?

In mythology, the trickster appears in many forms, a real shape-shifter. The SX/4 is the final variation of that all-time clown-mobile, the Gremlin. Designed on an air-sickness bag, the Gremlin created a whole new category of car: the problem is finding the right words to describe it. Tricky indeed. A big six cylinder up front, no room in the back; effectively a two seater; and the worst overall packaging of the modern era. Just call it the Gremlin class; of one.

But the troublesome little troll wouldn’t go away; it morphed into the Spirit, which saliently asks the question: “Why horse around?” Good question indeed.

The ill-fated Kammback version was a much less ambitious effort at horsing around, being that it was just a Gremlin with a bigger side window. As if anyone would actually sit back there to take advantage of the views.

When AMC unleashed the all-wheel drive Eagles (CC here) on the world in 1980, the body choices were sedans and the popular wagon. AMC Chairman Gerry Meyers was quoted as “what the hell is this”, when first confronted with the jacked up Concord. What he must have said a year later when the Spirit and Kammback were propsed for the same treatment has been politely left out of recorded history. “The joke’s on you, Gerry. We were just kidding; we didn’t really mean to suggest that you put these in production!”

And not only the Spirit, which became the SX/4, but also the Kammback. Sadly, the odds of finding an Eagle Kammback anymore are not good at all: only some 6k were ever built in 1981 and 1982. I was happy enough to find this SX/4, which actually was the best selling Eagle in the lineup the year it first appeared, 1981.

Like so many desperate AMC products in its dementia declining years, the SX/4 had a one-year sales pop, and then also crashed, and lasted only a year longer than the Kammback. The joke got around pretty quickly. But it was a good one: I vividly remember my aching sides when I first saw a picture of one. Holy Toledo; what will they pull off next; oh right, the Pacer. (Update: oops, that came earlier; Rernault came next). Yes, laughing was a good remedy to offset the pain of watching the last American independent go down the drain.

I’ve been a bit harsh on the poor SX/4, I know. It had its redeeming qualities, as long as you didn’t mind 14 mpg from its giant 258 CID six and the interior room of an MGB-GT. Everything has its trade-offs, and the Eagles Selec-trac full-time AWD system was a gem. The SX/4 was the forerunner of a whole raft of AWD/sports car imitators:

Did I miss someone? (Update: Oh yes…a couple of more recent ones; which at least have the interior space problem licked, sort of)

They were all equally successful, that’s for sure. It’s a niche that’s just irresistible, at least to certain makers of cars whose business, or at least certain models are/were heading for hospice care. That’s how the trickster works…”follow me!”

The SX/4 is fun to drive, the owner of this one told me. Undoubtedly. More smiles per mile; from the inside or from those watching it go by on the outside. I forgot to ask.

Ok, we’ve had our laughs with the SX/4. Obviously, Subaru ended the joke quickly, offering well-made four wheel drive wagons, sedans, hatchbacks and even coupes that had twice the interior space and got at least twice the mileage. But they’re not nearly as amusing all these years later; well, with a few exceptions.

The SX/4 has carved out a special place in the automotive mythology indeed; the only thing wrong was its name. It should have been the Eagle Coyote.