Car Show Classic: 1977 AMC Gremlin X – In Charles Townsend’s Alternate World

1977 AMC Gremlin X. Downtown Flint, Michigan. 8/15/2015.

One of my long-time favorite shows from the 1970s is American television producer Aaron Spelling’s “Charlie’s Angels”, which ran from the fall of 1976 through the summer of ’81.  It either made or cemented the stardom of its main actresses, including Farrah Fawcett-Majors (hyphenated at the time), Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, and the first “replacement Angel”, Cheryl Ladd, who started in the second season.  Even if actor David Doyle who played the character of John Bosley (known simply as “Bosley”) didn’t have his profile raised to the degree of that of his gorgeous female costars, he did make the rounds on game shows that were popular at the time.  Even the actresses who joined the series later enjoyed some extra mainstream exposure, including successful model Shelley Hack (who was up to that point well known as the face of Charlie perfume) and actress Tanya Roberts.

The Fords of the Charles Townsend private detective agency. Charlie's Angels.

I own the first three seasons of this show on DVD, and each time I rewatch an episode, there seems to be some new detail, nuance, or plot twist I notice to which I hadn’t paid attention before.  One thing remains the same over repeated viewings, though, and that is Ford’s obvious product placement throughout pretty much the entire series.  At any given time, the vehicles owned by the Charles Townsend Associates private detective agency and used by the Angels and Bosley were all Fords.

Sisters Jill and Kris Monroe (played by Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Cheryl Ladd, respectively) were assigned the sporty looking, flashy Mustang II Cobra II hatchback in successive fashion when the latter actress replaced the former on the show.  Kelly Garrett (Jaclyn Smith’s character) drove a chamois-colored Mustang II Ghia notchback.  When Bosley got screen time on the road, he was often seen driving a pine green ’77 Thunderbird, a newly downsized and very popular car that year.

1977 AMC Gremlin X.

Last and certainly not least, Sabrina Duncan, played by Kate Jackson, was assigned an orange Pinto, complete with plaid seats, wire wheel covers, and a white vinyl half-roof.  I had long felt bad for Sabrina’s character for having been assigned a lowly Pinto, when the other two Angels at least got Mustang IIs.  Why couldn’t one of them been assigned a Capri II, maybe even an all-black “S” model?  (I’m guessing the answer to that would be the Capri’s European heritage and “not made here” syndrome.)  I did always understand that a two-door Maverick would have been completely out of the question.  That compact Ford was on its way out, and even its ostensibly sporty variations offered in the U.S., the Grabber and the one-year-only Stallion, would disappear after ’75 and ’76, respectively.

1977 AMC Gremlin X interior, driver's side.

Back to Sabrina’s Pinto, even though I snicker almost every single time I hear it “peel out” from a full stop on an episode, it has won me over, plaid seats and all, to the point that I have searched (as yet unsuccessfully) for a scale model kit or dealer promo of one.  For my fellow fans of the show, however, exercise your imaginations with me and envision a scenario where American Motors had beat Ford to the punch and convinced and compensated Mr. Spelling to use new AMC products from the upcoming ’77 model year instead of Fords when this show first hit the air.

Jill would have driven a Hornet AMX hatchback.  Since the posh ’78 Concord D/L compact was still a year away, Kelly might have driven a nicely equipped, fashion-forward Pacer wagon, a body style that was new for ’77.  For Bosley?  A swoopy Matador fastback, but not the two-toned, vinyl-topped, opera-windowed Barcelona II version.  Bosley’s character was endearingly goofy and wore many ridiculous costumes throughout the series, but the Barcelona II might have been a bit much, even for Bosley.  I understand that the style quotient of the new-for-’74 Matador coupe ripened and spoiled relatively quickly when new, but in the right colors and accessorized properly, I still like the looks the coupes, especially in profile.

1977 Ford Pinto & 1977 AMC Gremlin.

Sabrina Duncan’s 1977 Ford Pinto and a ’77 AMC Gremlin X.

Sabrina would have gotten a newly restyled ’77 Gremlin exactly like the one immediately above, plaid seats and all.  Imagine the Hornet AMX, Pacer, and Gremlin all lined up in a row in front of Townsend Associates instead of the two II’s and the Pinto.  Try to keep a straight face and remember that even in ’77, while the Mustang II and Pinto were still selling in excellent numbers, they were not exactly seen as prestigious automobiles by the majority of the automotive press.  These AMCs would seem to befit the personalities of the characters to which they were assigned: the Hornet AMX was the pretty, obvious beauty of the lineup, the Pacer could be a posh, upscale small car, the Matador was a little goofy but likeable, and the Gremlin…

1977 Ford Mustang II Cobra II & AMC Hornet AMX.

Jill Munroe’s 1977 Ford Mustang II Cobra II and a ’77 AMC Hornet AMX.

Well, I’ll say this.  The Sabrina Duncan character is probably my favorite Angel because she seemed to be the one who most often stayed focused on her assigned mission without letting stupid things like love, feelings, rainbows and butterflies get in the way.  She was attractive in a way that didn’t call self-conscious attention to itself, and she also seemed extremely pragmatic in dealing with her cases, in a very “if/then” manner when solving crimes.  One could say that like Sabrina, the Gremlin arrived with one goal – inexpensive, no-nonsense transportation, one it stayed with until it officially departed after ’78, one year before Kate Jackson left the show to be replaced by Shelley Hack.

1977 Ford Mustang II Ghia & 1977 AMC Pacer wagon.

Kelly Garrett’s 1977 Ford Mustang II Ghia and a ’77 AMC Pacer D/L wagon.

The restyled, two-year, 1977 and ’78 editions of the Gremlin have long intrigued me for many reasons.  The three, original U.S.-built subcompacts that made their debut in the early 1970s, including the Gremlin, the aforementioned Ford Pinto and also the Chevrolet Vega, had seen some minor changes through the early ’70s.  Nineteen Seventy-Four brought the most obvious changes to all three, with the newly required five mph bumpers affixed front and rear.  Seventy-Seven was the last year for the Vega nameplate, with the hatchback continuing for ’78 as the “Monza S” and the Kammback lasting through ’79.  However, ’77 also brought significant redesigns to both the Pinto and Gremlin, both of which I thought were successful.  The little Ford’s newly sloped nose and enlarged, segmented taillamps look better to me than what they replaced.

1977 Ford Thunderbird & 1977 AMC Matador coupe.

John Bosley’s 1977 Ford Thunderbird and a ’77 AMC Matador coupe.

The Gremlin’s sheetmetal revisions went a bit further, not only with a backwards canted front fascia, but also with a front clip shortened by about three inches that made the car look significantly less front-heavy.  Out back were attractive, enlarged, hamburger-shaped taillamps and a license plate holder that was moved upward to conceal the fuel filler cap.  The rear glass hatchback window was also made larger, making loading and unloading a bit easier.  The little AMC still wasn’t conventionally attractive, but I like the way the revised, inverted trapezoidal grille made the restyled Gremmie look like it was smirking – a fitting visual cue for a vehicle named after a mythical creature known for causing impish trouble.

1977 AMC Gremlin brochure page.

By ’77, the Gremlin was already in its eighth model year, having had a late, first-year introduction on April Fools’ Day of 1970, so it was way past its sell-by date.  Sales of the Pinto, then a similar seven years old by ’77, dropped by about 30% that year, but were still very respectable at about 202,600 units.  Gremlin sales were still pretty healthy in ’76 (by AMC standards), at about 52,900 units.  Its ’77 redesign prompted a 69% sales decrease to just 16,200 units.  That number increased slightly to 22,100 for ’78, but still, a drop of over two-thirds was abysmal.  Was this due to the disappearance of the V8 option?  I’d wager not, as only 826 V8 Gremlins had been sold in ’76, which translates to less than 2% of total Gremlin production that year.  The truth was that there were other new small cars out there that were simply better at doing what the Gremlin did.

Shelley Hack as Tiffany Welles inherited Sabrina Duncan's Pinto.

Tiffany Welles, portrayed by Shelley Hack, inherited Sabrina Duncan’s Pinto.

Getting back to “Charlie’s Angels”, I can recall having seen episodes with more than three occupants in the Cobra II.  I’ve also ridden in the back seat of a Ghia similar to Kelly’s car (down to the color) owned by my friend, Michelle, when we were in high school.  Space was tight back there with another rider, but doable.  I was a decent Twister player then, so I could contort to fit my tall, lanky body without too much trouble, and Michelle was kind enough to move her driver’s seat way up.  I also remember seeing several episodes of “Angels” where all three lead characters were loaded into the Pinto.

1977 AMC Gremlin X, rear view.

I have great difficulty, however, imagining more than two occupants in the Gremlin, with its nonexistent rear legroom, compared even to the Pinto.  Sabrina (or Tiffany) would be driving, and the other two would have to flip a coin to see who would get the front passenger’s seat and who would get to stretch longitudinally across the back seat.  And it would have been extra-ridiculous to hear the added-in tire squealing when the orange, six-cylinder Gremlin would launch from a start in pursuit of the bad guys.

It may be a fruitless mental exercise, but I just like the thought of what might have happened if in another one of AMC’s famous “just go for it” moves, it had spent part of its meager advertising budget on placing its vehicles on a show that would go on to become a huge ratings success and cultural phenomenon.  Who knows?  Maybe use on this program would have provided a sales bump to American Motors products the way it did for the Cobra II.  At the very least, it might have given us the visual treat of watching Kelly Garrett outrun some bad guys in a wood-sided Pacer wagon.

Downtown Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, August 16, 2014 & Saturday, August 15, 2015.
Brochure photos were sourced from
All other photos were sourced from the internet.

Click here for related reading from GN on the ’77 Pinto.