Automotive History: Trying To Make (Business Coupe) Sense Of The Gremlin

(first posted 2/22/2011)    From a contemporary and European perspective, the Gremlin (CC here) makes no sense whatsoever, with its large 3.8 L six, mediocre fuel economy (20 mpg,  11.75 L/100 kmh), and poor space efficiency. Never mind its slow steering and clumsy handling. Now I’m not going to claim that the Gremlin really did make sense, but I am going to try to put a little historical perspective to it.

Two passenger body style versions of conventional “full-sized” American cars were very popular from their earliest days up to WW2. Yes, the four door touring version of the Model T was the most popular, but in retrospect, it’s surprising how common the two-passenger roadster and coupe were too. Of course, the roadster was always the cheapest version of any car’s model range; but then that was the case with the Gremlin. It was (essentially) a two passenger Hornet.

Roadsters and coupes were often bought by folks who used their cars primarily for business, or the younger buyers who didn’t have kids, and those that just wanted or needed to spend as little on the purchase price as possible.

The traditional two-passenger coupe evolved into the “business coupe” as cars got longer in the late thirties. Some coupes and roadsters also offered rumble seats that folded out of the trunk.

By the late thirties or forties, that rear storage area grew in size. This shows a late version, from the early fifties.

The Chrysler Corp. cars from 1941 through 1948 had a particularly sexy booty business coupe, if large ones are your thing. This is a ’46 Dodge.

And some business coupes, especially those after WW2, had small back seats, suitable for kids, like the Gremlin’s. Business coupes did have huge trunks, which made them popular with traveling salesmen and the like, and hence the name.

They disappeared around 1953 or so. Anyone know which was the last (other than the Gremlin)?

Around the time the Gremlin appeared (1970) gasoline prices were near an historic low in America ($1.95 adjusted) up until then. Gas prices had actually dropped, in inflation adjusted dollars, all through the sixties. So folks looking for an “economy car” weren’t necessarily interested so much in in fuel economy, but a low purchase price. The Gremlin’s $1999 price ($11,000 in 2010 dollars) matched the Beetle’s, and was as cheap as any American car at the time.

Many Americans, especially away from the coasts, didn’t trust foreign cars, or had legitimate issues with them, like the VW’s wretched heater. That meant something in cold upper-Midwest winters (don’t ask about the Gremlin’s traction in snow, though). Service for imports was sketchy, and the Gremlin offered an utterly familiar and easy to service vehicle.

The Gremlin was likely bought by a single person starting out, since cars were very affordable in relation to hourly wages at the time. In fact, 1971 was the all-time high for median hourly wages. Get a job, instantly go buy a new car; the (good old but not so ubiquitous anymore) American way. The Gremlin offered good straight-line performance, and felt familiar from the front seat forwards. Or it was bought as a second car, for a family still devoted to traditional American vehicles.

I’m not trying to exonerate the Gremlin from its many shortcomings, but hopefully, this puts it in perspective a bit, as the last American business coupe.