Whether or not the benefits truly outweigh a good set of snow tires is debatable, but there’s no denying that all-wheel drive has surged in popularity within the past decade, particularly with sedans. Indeed, a significant percentage of today’s sedans, in varying size and price classes, offer available all-wheel drive (usually for about a $2,000 premium). But not that long ago, all-wheel drive in a sedan was nearly unheard of.
In the early-1980s, if one wanted a vehicle with power sent through all four wheels, the pickings were pretty slim. Each American automaker offered at least one SUV and pickup with some form of four-wheel drive, but the idea of putting this feature in a car was a rather novel idea.
The idea for the Eagle originated in the late-1970s, when AMC was struggling especially hard. An early purveyor of small cars, its subcompact Gremlin and compact Hornet accounted for over half of AMC’s car sales by this point. However, without a modern 4-cylinder providing capable power and competitive fuel economy, AMC was now taking a substantial blow as buyers flocked to the growing number of Japanese imports.
AMC was also losing further ground to the Big Three. Given its limited resources, AMC couldn’t afford to keep up with GM, Ford, and even Chrysler with new vehicles and platforms, forcing its product cycles to be longer. Lacking a full-range lineup was also taking its toll on sales. Additionally, the few new vehicles AMC did roll out, such as the Pacer, failed to provide a significant return on investment relative to developmental costs.
With sales of its small and dated lineup of passenger cars slumping, AMC was in serious need of a new product offering a unique value proposition. Unfortunately, the automaker’s precarious financial situation meant that AMC would have to turn to existing vehicles and technology to create this vehicle.
The one bright spot in the AMC empire was the Jeep brand, which as a whole was virtually unchallenged in the market. Historically, AMC had seen other successes in segments where it lacked competition (i.e. the Rambler, which predated other domestic compacts by two years), and it was the application of this principle that led to the creation of the Eagle.
Back in the early-1970s, AMC had experimented with four-wheel drive in a passenger car. Taking an existing Hornet, engineers used a Jeep Quadra-Trac 1 transfer case, modified Warner front axle, and unique constant velocity front drive shafts by Dana to create this concept. Although the system worked fine mechanically, excessive NVH and sub-par handling ended any possible plans for production. Several years later, with limited options available for new vehicles, AMC thought it was time to revisit this idea of a 4WD passenger car. Apart from the subcompact Subaru Leone, the four-wheel drive passenger car market was largely uncharted territory in the U.S., and AMC saw this as a prime market niche to exploit.
With work on what would become the Eagle (internally codenamed “Project 8001 plus Four”) commencing in 1977, AMC engineers turned to the Hornet’s successor and their “newest” car, the Concord, for their starting point. Admittedly, the Concord was hardly “all-new”, as it was really just a revised and restyled Hornet, with many visible shared parts. Not the greatest starting point, but this was the best AMC had to work with.
Like the four-wheel drive Hornet concept of several years earlier, AMC made use of its existing Quadra-Trac full-time four wheel drive system used in Jeep models. With the Eagle, however, AMC integrated a new Ferguson-developed single-speed transfer case with viscous coupling and an open differential. This system allowed for the front and rear axles to turn at different speeds, as needed. In the event of slipping, the coupling would send more torque to whichever axle had the best traction.
The Eagle’s four-wheel drive was primarily intended as a permanent aid for on-road traction, and not for serious off-road capability. Due to this, engineers did not add a two-speed transfer case, and no driver action was required to engage the four-wheel drive. The Eagle’s permanent all-wheel drive system provided seamless operation. Due to customer concerns over fuel economy, in 1981 AMC made a rather cumbersome “Select Drive” feature available, which allowed the Eagle to operate as rear-wheel drive only. However, it was not until a shift-on-the-fly system was implemented in 1985 that drivers could shift into 4WD without being in “Park”.
The Eagle also implemented several other “firsts”. Unlike any other four-wheel drive vehicle built in the U.S., the Eagle was a unibody vehicle, as opposed to body-on-frame. It was previously believed that such a vehicle couldn’t handle the added stress of a four-wheel drive system, but extensive testing of prototypes dispelled this belief. Whereas four-wheel drive SUVs and trucks used a solid front axle, the Eagle was unique in implementing an independent front suspension.
Upon its introduction, the sole power plant for the Eagle was the 4.2L AMC inline-6. Making 110 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque, it was coupled with a TorqueFlite 3-speed automatic transmission. Beginning in 1981, GM’s 2.5L “Iron Duke” I4 was added as the base engine in sedans and wagons, along with a 4-speed manual, in an effort to squeeze out a bit more mileage, which was not an inherent strength of the Eagle.
The Eagle sat approximately 3.5 inches higher than the Concord, and was 300 pounds heavier due to its all-wheel drive modifications. Despite riding on a 1.3-inch longer wheelbase, overall length was actually down 4.1 inches due to less-protruding bumpers. Other visible changes to the Eagles included the slimmer bumpers, flared wheel arches, and wider rocker moldings. While these modifications looked right at home on the wagon, quite possibly enhancing its somewhat dowdy appearance, they made for a rather awkward look on the sedans and coupes. Especially with standard vinyl roofs, this “jacked-up Brougham” look was a bit hard on the eyes.
During its nine model year run, the AMC Eagle was available in five body styles. These included the Concord-derived 2-door coupe (1980-1983), 4-door sedan (1980-1987) and 5-door wagon (1980-1988), as well as the smaller Spirit-derived SX/4 3-door liftback (1981-1983) and Kammback 3-door hatchback (1981-1982). From the get-go, the wagon was the most popular model by far, accounting for 60 percent of total Eagle production. With the exception of 1981, when the new SX/4 claimed top spot, in every year, the wagon handily outsold other Eagles by a large margin.
This 1984 Eagle is one of just 4,241 sedans produced from a total of 25,535 1984 Eagles. By this point, the Concord and Spirt had been discontinued, leaving the Eagle as AMC’s sole homegrown car line from the pre-Renault involvement. It appears this car’s vinyl roof was removed at some point, and it certainly looks a lot better without it.
Given the rest of the car’s similarity, interiors of the Concord-based Eagles were predictably carry-over, with the exception of the added Select Drive switch. While its two-tiered dash did stand out among other cars in its class, the design and many components dated back to the 1970 Hornet, something that can be said about mostly everything else of the car. Unlike The Big Three, who had multiple brands in somewhat hierarchical positioning, AMC’s solo status meant that Eagle interiors could range from spartan to luxurious.
Notwithstanding certain intrinsic shortcomings, the AMC Eagle was a very innovative vehicle for its time. Never before had an automaker released a full line of cars with either permanent or selectable all-wheel drive. It likely succeeded in bringing more foot traffic into AMC showrooms, and many of its buyers were probably people who would’ve never considered an AMC were it not for the Eagle’s four-wheel drive.
Unfortunately, the Eagle’s shortcomings were many. Based on the dated Concord, which in turn was a face-lifted version of the ancient Hornet, the Eagle offered the novel feature of all-wheel drive and not much else more. The Eagle’s sheetmetal was a clear teller of its early-1970s roots, looking quite elderly among crisp “Sheer Look”-inspired late-1970s/early-1980s models from the Big Three, and even more so against new “Aero” designs from Ford beginning in the mid-1980s. Especially given the somewhat ungainly modifications required by adding four-wheel drive, the Eagle’s appearance was not one of its selling points.
Considering the very cash-strapped AMC’s limited resources, the automaker must be given credit for its ingenuity in creating such a trend-setting vehicle as the Eagle, all while using mostly existing parts. While the Eagle achieved moderate success, it was merely too ahead of its time. The idea of an all-wheel drive car was very attractive to some consumers, but it was a few decades away from mass appeal. AMC continued to sink further, and by the year this car was produced, the Eagle was the last AMC car that didn’t come from Renault.
Following Chrysler’s buyout of AMC in 1987, the Eagle was transferred to the newly-created Eagle brand of Chrysler’s new Jeep-Eagle division, the Eagle’s initial legacy in name. The remaining wagon models were simply marketed as the “Wagon”, with no other model name. Although it would be a few more years, who knew that AMC’s idea of an all-wheel drive car would make its way to many FWD and nearly every RWD-based car on the market 30 years later?