1976 AMC Hornet Sportabout — The Color of Sad

It was about 1986 when a coworker at the Schwinn shop where I fixed bikes asked me if I wanted to buy his Hornet wagon. Having already been burned by a couple of poorly maintained, malaise-era jalopies (a ’77 Plymouth Arrow and a ’76 Mercury Capri), I wasn’t ready to rush into another relationship with a carbureted and smog-controlled pile of used-up junk, especially not from AMC. By the ‘80s. anybody could see AMC was rushing towards a dead end. I think I insulted Alan when I said, “No thanks, I’m saving up for a real car next time.”

All these years later, I don’t recall what changed my mind. Maybe it was the fact the Hornet had belonged to Alan’s granddad, so it was nearly a one-owner car. Maybe it was because Alan and I were coworkers and on a friendly basis, if not actual friends, so I thought he wouldn’t try to screw me. Maybe it was just seeing the car reliably get him to work every day. Whatever the reason, a few days later I handed Alan a few hundred dollars, and the AMC went home with me.

Alan’s replacement for the Hornet was a second-generation Accord hatchback in a lovely seafoam green, which was about the same shade of envy I was when I saw it. At that time, the second-gen Accord had only been out of production for a year or so, which should have placed it well out of reach of a bike mechanic, either me or Alan. Putting it further into context, in the ’80s people were still willingly paying thousands over list for Accords. An 18-year-old kid like Alan with a newish Accord was a lucky kid indeed. You were a lucky SOB, Alan!

Not a 2nd gen, but it’s close to the color of Alan’s Accord. Photo credit: Kieran White, Manchester, England


Not like me. I was stuck with a sad gray Hornet. A car that had been introduced in 1970, so its styling was, by definition, a product of the ’60s. And man, it showed, especially on the interior. The shapes, the finishes, everything seemed to have been imported straight from another time, because it was.

Not my car, but this captures the datedness of the Hornet’s interior. Photo credit: Nynexman4464


The odometer read about 13,000 miles and I assume it had been around once. With the sale Alan included invoices showing the automatic transmission had been replaced once and rebuilt once, which seemed odd, but I crossed my fingers that whatever issue there had been, was fixed. For some reason the car had been repainted, from metallic silver to that sad primer gray, the color of rural water towers, of industrial electrical panels, the color of misery. I mean, of all the colors you could choose from…why? Still, when washed, it looked pretty decent. The styled steel wheels, stripes, and rakish rear roofline gave it a sporty aspect (AMC reportedly resisted calling the 5-door Hornet a wagon, hence the Sportabout coinage). Supposedly from Alan’s grandfather’s home in Florida, the car was rust-free except for a couple of small spots developing on the front fenders.

While installing a new stereo, I accidentally broke the dash trim for the center stack, that piece that rises from the dashboard like a ghost of the 1960s. But I knew where there was a non-running Hornet parked on a vacant lot in a rough area of Cleveland. I drove down there one evening, got the attention of an old man who said it was his, paid him a few bucks, pulled out a screwdriver, and a few minutes later I had a replacement piece of dashboard trim. (Hmm, it just occurred to me that the guy may not have actually owned that car).

A 258 c.i. inline six provided power. Everything I’ve read about that engine for that era has it being ridiculously underpowered, like 100 hp or so, but I don’t remember the car being that much of a slug to drive. The Hornet had a rear defogger, which was nice, and AMC’s Weather-Eye A/C, which needed frequent recharges with R-12 to keep blowing cold. I did get an estimate to fix it properly, but it came close to what I paid for the car, so that was out of the question. A monthly can of Freon was cheap enough, though. I would like to apologize to the ozone layer, however.

The car had a couple of odd driveability anomalies. Going over potholes (or chuckholes as we called them in Cleveland) would result in stalling out. Another cause of stalling was pumping gas into the tank. About a minute after leaving the gas station, the car would stall. Every time. It happened so regularly that I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. My best guess was that cold, fresh gasoline in the tank caused some kind of thermal shock when it reached the warm carburetor. I got pretty adept at putting the trans in neutral and re-starting the engine whenever this happened, so I could continue on with no loss of momentum.

Speaking of the gas tank, it was an enormous 27 gallons. I never bothered topping it up, except on one trip, when I drove up to Canada’s Manitoulin Island. I parked the Hornet in Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula, took the MS Chi-Cheemaun across the strait to Manitoulin, the world’s largest freshwater island, where I spent 2 ½ days riding my bike around the island, then took the ferry back to the car. I filled the Hornet’s tank in Tobermory and began driving home, down through lower Ontario to Niagara, across into New York state, and through New York, Pennsylvania, and into Ohio. I remember glancing down at the gauge as I neared Cleveland and being impressed with the range I was getting. About 25 miles from home, I still had a quarter tank left!

Ten minutes later, I ran out of gas.

Evidently, the gas needle’s trip to the F end of the gauge was so shocking to it that it lost its calibration and was indicating several gallons left when really there were none. So there I was, out of gas at 3AM.

Is there anything more satisfying than unloading your gear after a successful trip?


The end came one night when, parked behind a restaurant where I had picked up some takeout, the car refused to start. After months of mostly trouble-free running, it had recently started behaving this way. “Damn this car to hell,” I muttered to myself as I cranked it. Suddenly, there was a pop from under the hood, soon followed by a plume of smoke and a telltale flicker of yellow light visible behind the grille. Good thing I’m not a spiritual person or I’d have thought my imprecation summoned Old Scratch himself.

A restaurant employee saw the fire and called the fire department. Can’t blame him, I was parked only a few feet away, after all. But once the firefighters got there, it got ugly. They unsympathetically popped holes in the hood with their axes, put their hoses to the holes, and flooded the engine compartment with copious amounts of water. They were gone minutes later, leaving me with a broken Hornet.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to tell you I fixed the Hornet for $28 and drove it for three more years. Nah. After tallying the costs in my head – a replacement hood, new wiring, hoses, connectors and anything else made of rubber or plastic, and possibly a new carb and air cleaner depending on how much damage the fire axes did, plus weeks of down time – I never even bothered opening the hood to check the damage. I called a junkyard the next morning and sold the Hornet for $30. Revoke my car guy card, I don’t care. I didn’t love the AMC and I saw this as an opportunity, even though it left me without transportation.

I’ve been hard on the Hornet. Taken in context, it wasn’t a bad car at all. But it was a very, very sad car.