(first posted 6/2/2016) The AMC Gremlin’s quirky styling and name have become increasingly rarely seen and heard more than three decades after the demise of the Gremlin and its similarly styled successor, the Spirit Kammback. Seeing more than one at a time outside of a car show or a meeting of AMC enthusiasts has to be a once-in-blue-moon occurrence, akin to lightning striking the same place twice. So you can imagine my surprise at seeing Gremlins in stereo — and not an ordinary pair of Gremlins — one otherwise ordinary morning.
Here is the view that we really should have started with, displaying the chopped tail that we all knew but few loved during the 1970s. The green one in front has been parked in this location regularly for several years, and I have spotted it regularly while walking to the nearby Metro station, to ride Washington’s gremlin-riddled subway system home, from the auto repair shop that I have used for over a decade when my car experiences gremlins. Earlier this year, the white Gremlin appeared here. The owner of these Gremlins has to be one of the model’s greatest fans, and in his recent acquisition, he or she has found a surviving example of one of the more distinctive Gremlins.
The “Gremlin ’76” stripes identify it as a 1976 Gremlin with “AMC Patriot Edition” decorations, sold during America’s Bicentennial. Comparable to Chevrolet’s 1974 “Spirit of America” package, AMC Patriot Edition trim was made for Gremlins and Pacers, according to the only resource that I could find about it.
Photo from planethoustonamx.com
Forty years of exposure to the elements has bleached out most of the color from the stripes of this AMC Patriot Edition Gremlin. As seen in this photo, the stripes when new emulated the American flag with bands of red and white and a blue field emblazoned with “Gremlin ’76” and stars. Time and sun have reduced the stripes to the blue fields with “Gremlin ’76” in them, with only faint traces of the red bands.
Photo from planethoustonamx.com
According to the instructions, the Gremlin ’76 stripe package also should include an “AMC Patriot Edition” eagle installed on the right rear just below the hatch, but the eagle is missing from this one. It appears never to have had one. Perhaps the original owner of this Gremlin 40 years ago wanted more subtlety in his patriotic expression.
Anyone driving a Gremlin can be confident about not running into someone else driving the same car on any given day, and the driver of one of what must be very few surviving examples of the Gremlin ’76 after 40 years can be confident about not running into an identical car ever. These cars are the antithesis of a “belly-button” classic, and their owner deserves kudos for being different. A car collector who has taken the time and effort to amass two Gremlins is someone who really knows what he or she likes and does not care what other people think, and that kind of dedication is to be commended, regardless of what one thinks about the Gremlin itself.
Curbside Classic: 1977 AMC Gremlin — Purposely Contentious
Curbside Classic: 1977 AMC Gremlin — Pay 8% More and Get 13% Less HP and 33% Fewer Cylinders
Gremlin sightings always remind me of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the black one driven by Mike Damone. Along with several other excellent attributes of that movie, the casting of the particular cars for the various characters approaches perfection. Nice find.
I saw that movie in a theater during the summer of 1982, and I still remember the audience laughing when Mike Damone’s Gremlin first appeared.
The way that “1 – Eagle Emblem” is in a different typeface on the instruction sheet list makes me think that it was perhaps a later addition to the kit.
I wouldn’t say the Gremlin was unloved, they sold almost 700k of them in the 1970s. They were generally reliable especially with the 6 and Torque Flight transmission and easily serviced. They had unique styling as did most AMC vehicles of the era but not bad. Certainly not in an era that included many vehicles of questionable taste foreign and domestic alike.
These two seem to have been restomodded. This aftermarket transparent hatchback looks a lot better than the usual standard ductape hatchback.
I learned to drive on my parents’ 1973 AMC Gremlin. After a few years the struts on the hatch simply gave up the ghost. They were replaced by the dealer with factory-approved parts, and soon after that the latch for the window became loose, which made it difficult to properly close the window.
My parents finally sold the Gremlin for junk in late 1983. I’ve never seen a car since that had more parts either fail or simply break off in your hand. It was as though every part used by AMC costs less than .25 cents. People today ridicule the Pinto, but my aunt’s 1977 Pinto two-door sedan was a veritable Lexus compared to that Gremlin in reliability and fit-and-finish.
Bingo Geeber. And consider: for 71 AMC only used ONE of those struts on the rear window to save on costs.
My parent’s 71 was a mess of ill fitting plastic, paint runs, squeaks from the back seat latch [one again], seat framing and hardware poking through the upholstery, and the floorboards filled with water on a trip back to PA one year.
I loved that car. But it was cost cut to death. And built by accident.
At least our Gremlin never leaked. I will give it that.
My grandmother’s “gentleman friend” lived less than a block away from McNight Motors in Chambersburg, Pa. When we’d go there for Sunday dinner, I’d walk down to the dealership to look at the new cars and the Jeeps.
By 1978 AMC was putting more money into the interiors of its cars, but by then it was too late.
The dealership buildings and the lot are still there. The old showroom and garage are now a tire store.
The quality of Gremlins must have been pretty bad. I remember growing up in the early 80’s when I first understood and saw cars, and even by that time, Gremlins were a curious oddity that weren’t all that frequent. In hindsight, any car company that names their car after something pesky and irritable, probably doesn’t bode too well. When one mentions “chasing down gremlins” in something, that’s not a good connotation!
My parents only owned one new car, a Pacer, and they said that it was a total disaster–things breaking down on it, constantly. If the Gremlin’s quality was as bad as the Pacer’s, AMC probably solidified their fate by cheaping out on quality and rushing things into production.
Do you guys happen to remember that “Simpsons” episode in which Bart was informing the school busdriver that a Gremlin was attacking them from the side?
Busdriver thought it was a real Gremlin creature and pulled the steering wheel over to shake loose from the Gremlin.
Turns out, that Gremlin was an AMC Gremlin, which pushed by the school bus into the roadside groove.
Hey; at least they have the hatch! It was optional for the base Gemlin, at least in 1971, as was the rear seat, in order to keep the price under $2000.
A Gremlin without a rear seat and rear hatch; mighty practical.
The rear seat was so horrible, deleting it wouldn’t be much of a loss.
Loved Gremlins and owned a ’76 model for almost 3 years.
I have always admired Gremlins from afar – and prefer to keep it that way.
But wow, what a sighting! And I had forgotten all about that ’76 Edition. Who was more patriotic during 1976 than American Motors?
The missing eagle most likely ended up on somebody’s tool box in the service department 🙂
You gotta hand it to AMC, they were inventive about using what they had to keep tooling costs down, with Pacers and the Matador Coupe being major (and fatal) exceptions.
The Gremlin’s first concept drawing was made on an airplane, using the resources at hand – a barf bag.
To be fair, I thought the change to the Spirit, with the sloping hatchback roofline was an exceptionally nice change.
The Spirit was very handsome, but 4-5 years too late. Imagine if it had debuted for 1975 as a “downsized” Javelin.
“very handsome”? Hmmm. Well, it was a lot better than the Gremlin, but I wouldn’t go that far. It was still stubby, and the back seat was even more less useful than in the Gremlin, due to the sloping roof. But it didn’t really matter, as an adult couldn’t get back there anyway.
I remember looking at the first 1979 Spirit at the local AMC dealer in the fall of 1978, and wondering how anyone over the age of five was supposed to fit into that back seat.
Maybe another 2 inches of wheelbase – behind the door, not in front of it – would improve the proportions of the car?
AMC was definitely inventive when it came to using as many of the same parts as possible. The subcompact Gremlin used the same front suspension components (aside from spring and shock rates) as the full-sized Ambassador!
You are correct that the Pacer and Matador Coupe cost the company dearly, particularly the Pacer since that car shared almost nothing beyond the drivetrain with other models. The money squandered on those should have been sunk into their mainstream vehicles. (Hindsight of course is always 20/20.)
That trend had started years before when George Romney left the company to pursue a political career and his replacement (Roy Abernethy) decided to go toe-to-toe with the Big 3. The company was hammered by high tooling bills and falling sales as a result, nearly nearly going under in 1967. (At one point AMC even had to arrange loans to meet payroll.)
Good news for the Gremlin and Hornet. Very bad news for the Ambassador, which was supposed to be AMC’s finest car. And the reason my Dad said he’d never buy another one.
Even with the Buyer Protection Plan and a claimed stronger focus on quality, the build quality on my folk’s 72 Ambassador Brougham was just as bad as on the Gremlin. Something else they both shared.
My dad bought a brand-new ’72 Ambassador. i think he kept it for less than a year.
What a great find. It’s funny to think that when these were new they were no less of an object of ridicule than they later became, but despite that they still make most people smile whenever they turn up.
To have one Gremlin is eccentric–to have two is dedicated! Love the color of green on the first one also, and the Patriot Edition trim on the white one is quite the rarity!
My brother had a Gremlin for several years. He lost it on his country-road commute one morning when he crested a rise and hit a large if shallow puddle on the other side, and hydroplaned into a mailbox. “That’ll learn him,” I thought … and then he went out and bought another one!
I should have expected it, since he had also owned two consecutive Metropolitans, an equally untalented automobile.
I betcha he’s got a parts car around back as well, or at the very least a cache of parts in his garage. You pretty much have to be dedicated to keep them on the road at this point….says a guy whose Gremlin is currently not on the road 🙂
The white stripe on the green one does wonders for thinning out the fat look of the massive C pillar. Big improvement by just tricking the eye.
A Gremlin with a roof rack…can’t say that I’ve ever seen one before.
My grandfather was a BIG AMC fan…74 Gremlin, 77 or so Hornet hatchback, 80ish Spirit hatchback with color-keyed wheelcovers that he would pop off the car and clean in the sink because it was the only way they got clean enough to meet his standards.
He is the same guy who didn’t like radial tires, and when the Spirit was delivered with radial tires, he promptly went to the local Kelly-Springfield dealer and had them swapped out for bias belted Kelly tires.
“had them swapped out for bias belted Kelly tires”
When I was four, my folks talked over getting a second car so mom wouldn’t be stranded at home when dad drove to work. There was at least one Gremlin in our neighborhood, and one evening while we were out on a walk, I pointed to a Gremlin and said “Please don’t get that kind of car”. One or the other of my parents said “How come?” and I said “Because it hurts my eyes”. They wound up adding a ’77 Cutlass to their ’78 Caprice.
True. Even as very young children, we could always spot the ‘weird’ cars. I even considered the Hornet sedan an oddball. Due to its bulbous wheel well openings, and their general rarity. However, the Sportabout did pass my ‘coolness’ measure. Seeing my first Karmann Ghia around the age of five, I genuinely didn’t know what to make of it. Finding it one of the uglier cars on the road at the time, at least to my very young eyes.
For the life of me, I can’t understand what kind of Chief Marketing Officer would approve “Gremlin” as the name for a car. Might as well have called it the “Lousy”.
Better than the original name: Belchfire Weasel.
Well, that’s what I heard…
In 1969-70 “Gremlin” just meant something not large or disconcerting.V dubs had been “beetles” for years.
r_henry: Saw a YouTube video about the Gremlin at it’s introduction the other day and Abernathy explained it as just for that purpose: to be controversial and distinctive basically.
Was Abernethy still with the company in 1970? I thought that he got the boot in 1967, when AMC came perilously close to bankruptcy.
I’ve seen the video also & it was Roy Chapin
It’s amusing to read about people’s experiences with AMC products back in the 70’s. The experiences already noted above were just about as I myself remember their cars. Some historians today try to rewrite history with Rose colored glasses. I was there. The cars were mediocre. If you got a good one, you were doing good. I remember seeing 3 year old AMC’S with holes rotted in them that you could put your fist into. They were just another car on the road back then. Certainly nothing special.
In a lot of ways the 1960s Ramblers were better than what followed in the 1970s, despite some obsolete technology. In the early 1960s for a while Rambler even outsold Plymouth! The Hornet was inferior to the Rambler American it replaced in terms of interior space and ride comfort, though they did finally get rid of those blasted trunnions in the front end. (Getting rid of vacuum wipers took a little while longer.)
I helped restore and modify a 73 Gremlin. This one was pritine and garaged since new, no winters. I was horrified to find the rear quarter panels and C-pillars were bare metal from the factory. No paint, no undercoating, and no protection from rust.
I like AMC’s, but they earned their reputation as mediocre rust buckets
That kind of rot was not unique to AMC products. The Chevrolet Vega, for example, practically came with rust from the factory. The Plymouth Volare/Dodge Aspen twins had severe fender rusting problems. Japanese cars of the era, although otherwise screwed together well, would dissolve after a few severe salty winters.
I’ve owned and driven quite a few 1970s-vintage vehicles, AMC included, back in the day as well as more recently. (In fact I had a Hornet in the stable until just a few years ago.) I have not found them to be significantly better or worse than their domestic competition as far as assembly quality is concerned. Factory defects were a fact of life for the Big 3 as well, and the ’70s were the low point for the entire domestic industry.
The whole 70’s was a huge Deadly Sin for the American car companies……that and the poor quality that continued into the 80’s (The Cadillac HT4100, for example, and the Olds diesel, etc) singlehandedly drove people into the arms of foreign carmakers, who had upped their game. The Big 3 (and others like AMC) just didn’t get it……they thought that people would just stay loyal with any old crap that they put out.
My mom’s ’74 Sportabout was a major rustbucket before it hit six. Good runner though.
If AMC had taken the money they saved on tooling, parts, etc. and dedicated it towards real genuine assembly line quality control and customercentric dealer service experiences, the word would have gotten out (albeit slowly) and they would have survived and perhaps prospered. After all, you didn’t buy a ’70 VW Beetle because of the latest suspension technology and horsepower ratings, you bought it for the build and service and frugality.
Quite possibly AMC’s new rep would have pulled the Bigger Three away from the precipice that the Japanese automakers pushed them into.
Nice article and cool find indeed since finding a Gremlin like this is like finding a 75th Anniversary Jeep Compass in 2056.
I found a relative to the Gremlin a bit ago and they are not common in Oregon.
Generally, if Mitt’s dad had stayed with AMC…would have been better off maybe?
Parents had ’60 and 64 Ramblers, but switched to Big 3 in 1968-69. Were ‘sick of them’, and Dad had said “only if we lived by the Kenosha factory to get parts” would he get another.
Gremlin is an example of car that hasn’t aged well, IMO. And as someone said, “car historians use rose colored glasses” in looking back at AMC.
Jeep purchase was the best thing AMC did, overall and they still exist in ‘ghost’ form, being one of Fiat Chrysler Auto’s roots.
“Generally, if Mitt’s dad had stayed with AMC…would have been better off maybe?”
Possibly… Romney’s plan was to stick with what at the time were considered compact cars and reduce costs via shared tooling. He realized there was no way AMC could match the tooling budget of the larger manufacturers. By 1964 all AMC cars used the same basic platform. Classic and Ambassador shared the same unit body shell, and the smaller American used a cut-down version of that same shell. (Doors on the American were the same as the Classic and Ambassador!) So AMC had 3 car lines all built from the same basic tooling.
Roy Abernethy was a big car guy who wanted a piece of the Big 3’s action. When he came in right away he was concerned about dumping the “Rambler image” and money was spent on tooling to differentiate the cars; $$$ spent on body tooling that Romney would most likely not have approved. (Originally the 1963/1964 Classic platform was planned to last until 1969, with an external refresh along the way.) The fastback Marlin was a flop – it was Abernethy who wanted it built as a larger car with an awkward roofline rather than the original smaller Tarpon concept. The 1967 Rebel and Ambassador were a suicidal attempt to compete head-on with Big 3 large cars and shared nothing body-wise with the smaller American. (I remember reading an article in a period mechanics magazine which used the word “suicidal” to describe what AMC was doing.) GM, Ford, and Chrysler had cost structures geared to churning out full-size cars by the millions. AMC really had no chance against them, it’s pretty amazing that they managed to do as well as they did.
Of course even if AMC had not embarked on a mission to challenge the Big 3 on their own turf, those companies had invaded Rambler’s space with compact and intermediate models so AMC no longer had that market segment to themselves. However had Romney’s plan of shared tooling been followed through the 1960s and beyond, AMC’s costs would certainly have been kept much more in check.
AMC nickle and dimed their cars to death, while the Japanese went the other route to quality. The basic design of the Hornet/Gremlin wasn’t too bad, but atrocious quality control, low-buck components and sloppy workmanship really did them in. Combine this with the money that was wasted on the Pacer and the Matador Coupe, and we can see in hindsight why AMC didn’t survive.
It’s neat that cars like the Gremlin are fondly remembered now as icons of a bygone era; it would be even neater if they were remembered as really great cars instead of just having a quirky design.
Agreed that if AMC had done some things differently, that they may have survived. It’s tough to tell though……when they were trying to compete with the Big Three, it’s sort of equivalent to maybe a mom and pop store trying to compete with WalMart. WalMart just has the resources to even make it through failures (ie: numerous bankrupcy problems at Ford, GM and Chrysler). Another analogy is with a successful gambler–people will give him money, even through the losses, because they always end up winning big. AMC just didn’t have the financial support to weather the gambles, and they went tits up.
The problem with AMC, was that even their gambles were too risky, and far out. At the gambling table, you still want someone that you have faith in to make a wager on something that’s proven to eventually pay out on in the past, instead of a hail mary throw. The Pacer–had they had the proper money to build it correctly–could have been a revolutionary car as long as it was built properly. It was originally supposed to have a rotary engine in it (the design bought and researched by GM, I believe), but GM had backed out, and then AMC were left scrambling to find an adequate engine for their very heavy “small” car. When the rest of the industry had got wind of it (and certainly the buying populace), AMC found out that you can’t be revolutionary on a shoestring budget.
As others have said, even if AMC had made all the right moves, they were just too small to weather the normal, cyclical, inevitable economy downturns.
So, they might as well go out with a bang. As astronaut Gordon Cooper supposedly said, “If you can’t be good, be colorful”.
Talk about “the right moves,” they had the Eagle AWD wagon in 1980. Look around any parking lot now and it’s easy to see it was one of the best cases of automotive “right place, wrong time” ever. Maybe it didn’t help that the body was a tarted-up version of the early-70s Hornet…
The Eagle Wagon is definetely a fantastic example of “right place, wrong time”, I agree. The other problem is that it was yet another polarizing car, because speaking personally from an aesthetic viewpoint, it is not a graceful car. It’s a cross between a station wagon and a truck, and to me, it’s the worst of both worlds–the resignation that you will be uncool by driving a station wagon, and the poor ride quality and handling of a truck.
The best phrase that I can use to describe it is “functionally hideous”. The way that the Eagle wagon sits up high just always looked bad to me, even as a kid. It reminds me a bit of an early version of a pimped out blingmobile cruiser sitting up high on gigantic rims.
But it is revolutionary, I will give it that.
Weird coincidence – just yesterday I watched as a restored/customized Gremlin turned the corner in front of me here in Michigan!
I remember thinking it was the first one I’d seen on the street in a LONG time. And I remember when they were everywhere.
My BIL bought a new Gremlin around 1974. He was none too happy with it and traded it in a year or two later……on a Pacer.
the thing I always remember about one is a six and a half foot neighbor who owned a 77/78 getting in a fight with his wife and when I came out to work the next morning here was a dew covered gremlin parked on the front lawn, both doors open and a pair of legs sticking out the drivers door and a pair of long arms out the passenger side.
2 wives, several cars and thirty years later I still remind him of that when I see him
Priceless Bart Simpson Gremlin Fun !
Hahaha!! So good!!!!
South American Spanish slang…. near non-understable for Spanish (Spain native), people
I just have to say that the “not an ordinary pair of Gremlins” at the end of the first paragraph made me LOL…just by being seen as a pair, they managed to be extraordinary!
But I do get the point, I don’t even remember that “Gremlin ’76” package from when I was a wee lad in the 70s.
Love it or hate it, one of the most iconic designs of the 70s. A winner by that measure. The ‘X’ package, being particularly well done.
The AMC Gremlin looks like it did much better than the other small cars in crash tests! See here