We’ve all gone through those awkward adolescent years when we didn’t quite look like kids, nor adults, but instead appeared to be a random collection of physical characteristics from both. AMC’s Eagle SX/4 was an automotive version of such awkwardness. Part compact car, part off-roader, it was really neither – but it looked like it yearned to be either one or the other. It’s hard not to have empathy… as long as you don’t stare at it for too long.
The fact that the SX/4 emerged as being somewhat of an oddball couldn’t have been surprising, given the car’s lineage. It was a combination of AMC’s Eagle (itself a unique mixture of car and off-roader) and its Sprit (based on the Gremlin, one of history’s most unusual designs). Add to that a desperate attempt to appeal to a younger clientele with a sporty image, and you have our featured car. It doesn’t know what it is, but it wants to be young and exciting. What could possibly go wrong?
AMC introduced its Eagle sedan and wagon for 1980 by essentially mating a Concord with a modified version of Jeep’s Quadra-Trac 4wd system. Mingling various off-the-shelf components is a low-budget way to create a niche vehicle, and one very much up AMC’s cost-constrained alley. Despite an initial flurry of sales, it soon became clear that selling passenger cars with 4wd and raised suspensions wouldn’t be easy. Add to that an troubled economy and rising gas prices, and Eagle sales falterd. AMC quickly hatched two Spirit-based eaglets in an attempt to broaden the concept’s appeal – those wound up being the Kammback, and our featured car, the SX/4.
These new Eagles were aimed at 18-34-year-olds, for whom the Concord-based sedans and wagons seemed too stodgy and too expensive. Kammbacks sold for about 20% less than the cheapest Concord-based Eagle, while the SX/4 listed for about 13% less. Styling was likewise oriented towards young adults, with racy fog lights, a rakish spoiler and fast-looking graphics. Of course, it didn’t take much investigation to figure out what this car really was: A Spirit, which itself was a reskinned Gremlin. Engine choices included the standard 75-hp 2.5L four or the optional 90-hp 4.3L six.
SX/4’s short (97.2”) wheelbase and large-for-the-era 15” wheels amplify the visual effect of its raised suspension. Ironically, we’re somewhat inured to such a stance today; this BMW X6 looks like it could be the SX/4’s direct descendant. However 38 years ago, this was a look more commonly seen on Hot Wheels cars. It was a little far out, even for the target market of rebellious young adults.
For a while it seemed like AMC’s gamble might actually pay off; when the SX/4 debuted for 1981, more than 17,000 were produced – nearly half of all Eagle sales. But everyone who liked the idea probably bought one in ’81. 1982 SX/4 sales dropped by 40%, and for ’83 just 2,300 were produced before the concept was axed. The SX/4 never got a chance to grow out of its awkward years. Which is sort of too bad, because it could have grown into a mighty popular crossover.
Photographed in Hannibal, Missouri in March 2018.
1981 AMC Eagle SX/4: This Bird Has Earned Its Wings Joseph Dennis