(first posted 1/7/2014) While Eagle is surely one of the most American brand names, it was ironically applied to a motley collection of badge engineered and imported vehicles. Our featured car, the Premier, was derived from a French sedan, styled by an Italian and, to top it off, built by Canadians in Bramalea, Ontario. The Eagle brand was aimed squarely at consumers who’d normally not consider buying an American sedan but would have instead sought out a Volvo or an Audi.
At the time of its initial development, Renault had a stake in-and later wholly owned-AMC. By the late Seventies, AMC’s car lineup was rather dated and sold mostly on the novelty of four wheel drive. With a view to offering a full line up of vehicles, AMC sought to develop a modern, front wheel drive, flagship. Project X58 was thus born, and Renault already had a suitable donor car in the recently developed 25 that could be modified to suit the directive. That car’s chassis was stretched, and Renault Medallion (Americanized Renault 21) suspension components were donated to create a unique floor pan. A pair of companion models consisting of a two door sedan as well as a station wagon were also planned but never made it to production.
Perhaps in an attempt to mask the car’s French origins, AMC chose not to go with the stock Renault styling but instead considered a number of internal proposals as well as one from ItalDesign. Famed designer Giorgetto Giugiaro lead the ItalDesign team and their bid was ultimately selected. In viewing the car’s profile, especially around the wheel wells, the C-pillar and long rear doors, it seems likely that the Renault’s hard points were retained. As a side note, while the Premier looked Volvo-boxy, its drag coefficient of 0.31 was actually lower than that of the more aerodynamic looking 1986 Ford Taurus.
While the exterior had crisp, if boxy, European styling, the interior was an all American design, courtesy of AMC’s internal teams. It was a solid effort, definitely in keeping with times and the seats in particular received praise for their superior comfort. There were some rumbles about the quality of materials when new, but our junkyard examples seems to have held up amazingly well. This higher trim ES model sports optional leather with a center console, but lower trim versions could be equipped for six passengers.
Rocker switches for the ventilation system mounted on pods which flanked the steering column were probably the only big ergonomic misstep.
The interior space and trunk size were among the highest in class and probably the Premier’s best feature.
Providing motivation for the 3000 or so lbs of Premier is the infamous “Douvrin” 90° V6 engine. Produced by PRV, which was an alliance between Peugeot, Renault and Volvo, it is perhaps most known for its installation in the DeLorean. Or perhaps for its role in making the Volvo 260 a less reliable version of the tank-like 240. On paper the V6 engines slightly bettered the Mitsubishi V6 engines already in use at Chrysler with 150 hp @ 5,000 rpm and 171lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm. The car’s Renault roots are evident in the longitudinal placement of the engine and in theory, this allowed for rear or all wheel drive variants to be produced with relative ease. A ZF four speed automatic with overdrive was clear step up from the three speeds used elsewhere at Chrysler and gave the Premier reasonable performance with 0-60mph coming in 10 seconds flat. Unfortunately neither the engine nor the gearbox had a stellar service record. An AMC 2.5L four cylinder engine teamed with a Renault four speed automatic was specified for the base cars. It developed 111 hp and 142 lb-ft of torque and offered 4 mpg fuel mileage advantage over the more commonly fitted V6.
Suspension on the Premier was all independent with the front receiving MacPherson struts and the rear, a four trailing arm system with transverse torsion bars. To control body roll stabilizer bars were standard front and rear. Steering was a powered rack and pinion system. Initially, brakes were discs up front and drums in the rear but was later changed to a four wheel disc configuration. The rear disc brakes were later re-used on the Viper.
The new car was initially dubbed the Renault Premier and 172 were even sold as such before Chrysler purchased AMC from Renault and rebranded their cars. The crown jewel of the transaction was the Jeep brand but a rather nice bonus was the new and modern Bramalea factory built for the newly-developed Premier, which also came with the deal, along with the well established AMC dealer network. Chrysler found itself in a quandary over how to market the other car designs acquired in the takeover and their solution the establish an entirely new brand, Eagle. Intended to be an import fighting brand along the lines of Ford’s equally star-crossed Merkur, history proved Eagle to more of an odd mixture of badge engineered and orphaned cars that could be sold alongside the more profitable Jeeps at Jeep-Eagle dealers.
First year sales showed some promise with 50k units moved but this rapidly dropped off soon after. It could have been lack of marketing, brand confusion or the stench of failure from previous French cars, but while the Premier had good driving dynamics and a spacious interior, it never really found its place in the market. For 1989, the sportier looking ES Limited with a monochromatic color scheme and well integrated body kit was introduced. Unfortunately it offered no performance advantage or manual gearbox option, although the suspension was mildly tuned for better handling.
Chrysler had a contractual obligation to take a specified number of Renault V6 engines and for 1990, dropped the four cylinder and introduced a badge engineered Dodge Monaco variant in hopes of shifting a few more units. Differing only in a few optional paint colors and a different grill, the Monaco sold just as poorly. In an attempt to address quality complaints, Chrysler made a host of improvements for 1991, including the substitution of Chrysler parts for Renault ones, and tweaked transmissions to smooth out shifting as well as improve cooling. If you must have a Premier/Monaco, a later 1991 or 1992 example is the one to have. The later examples tend to be very well equipped, which is a nice bonus.
While the Premier itself can be considered a failure in the marketplace, it certainly wasn’t an engineering dead end. Plans to develop a new line of large cars based on yet another up-sized, K-based platform were mercifully abandoned for a design based on the decidedly more advanced Premier. These became the LH series cars, which featured the same longitudinal engine placement and front suspension design. Tellingly, Premiers even served as development mules during the LH’s design phase.
By the time these cars were put into production in the Premier’s old factory, various new Chryslers were being created using a development process brought to the company by AMC engineers. In a rather favorable twist of fate, the people behind the Premier were unsuccessful in saving AMC, but achieved something even bigger in transforming an indifferent Detroit company.