I’ve always had a bit of a thing for the underdog. In the automotive world, AMC is pretty easy to cite as the biggest underdog. Their cars were just so weird and immediately recognizable with those funny flush door handles. Growing up in the 90’s there were already not many left due to the fact that everything that old had already rusted away, especially unloved cheapskate-mobiles. For me, the Gremlin was the biggest underdog (sorry Pacer) in a line-up full of underdogs. It was just a hilarious looking car; could any other automaker sell a car that was such an obvious amputation of a bigger car? I had to have one, and eventually one showed up in the weekly classifieds paper I’d been reading since I was 12.
At the time, I don’t believe I had ever seen a Gremlin “in the metal”. I had seen pictures in books and on the internet but never of the final 1977-78 iteration. Imagine my surprise when the above image greeted me upon seeing this car parked right up against a fence in one of the lesser-nice neighbourhoods in town. It was even weirder than the other Gremlins! I wanted it.
Having learned from my first car, this car had to be a runner, it had to move, steer, brake and not need any major work. Above all, there had to be no major rust issues in the frame, floor or other vital areas. I was a lot more diligent inspecting this car. The odometer showed 43 000 kms and the old lady who owned it had put all of 3500 kms on it in the 15 years she owned it. She learned to drive in that car at middle age and never really felt comfortable doing so. I don’t think she could have picked a worse car to navigate Winnipeg’s brutal winters and terrible roads. Nonetheless, she cried when I gave her the $700 cheque to make it mine, and she handed me a $20 bill for my first tank of gas.
I may have been more diligent in inspecting this car but as you can see from the photos, it was not without its faults. Cosmetic issue like the broken grille, rust-through on the tops of the fenders and around the tail lights did not concern me. Where was I going to find a new grille anyway? A full tune-up was quickly performed on the 232 cubic inch tower of power, which stopped its annoying tendency to diesel and made it run much better. I took it out on a covert uninsured test drive to the gas station I worked at and it seemed ready for full time duty. Filling up the tank the first time I was astonished; the gas tank just kept swallowing fuel. It took 80 litres to fill it! Good thing it was an economy car. Nonetheless, I was confident it would pass its government mandated safety inspection required of any vehicle changing hands in the province.
For my first safety inspection I figured I’d improve my odds of success by bringing it into the shop owned by the father of a friend. I remember him laughing when I dropped it off; was this a bad omen? Turns out it wasn’t; I can’t remember the details but it needed some work that I performed in short order. He did advise me though that the front sub frame was beginning to rot and that it was unlikely to ever pass another inspection. I didn’t care; it had passed! Finally, my own wheels; no more borrowing my Mom’s ’93 Taurus wagon.
The first order of business, now that I was free, was to pick up my best friend and go for a late night high speed burn to “blow out the carbon”. I would have taken any excuse to hoon on my new baby, but it really did need it. The poor car had been sitting too long and even when it was driven, I doubt it ever made its way onto the highway. I pinned the throttle and flew up and down a quiet back road, the old 6 cylinder readily took the abuse and rewarded me by actually running better. It was still by no means fast, or fuel efficient, but it was running well and could be counted on to get me and my friends around.
Sitting in the (not very comfortable) driver’s seat, a Gremlin does not feel at all like a “sub-compact” car. There’s a fairly long hood out front (albeit far better proportioned for 1977-78) and a solid feel all around. The interior is very cheap but actually looks pretty decent in black. Only when you start driving the car does it not feel at all like an average sub-compact car. Or any other car for that matter. The steering is very light, takes forever to get from turn-to-turn, but has a tight turning circle. The wheelbase is so short that the rear-end wants to slide out at the slightest provocation. The motor is torquey but refuses to rev beyond 5000 rpm, and is not zippy or responsive. If nothing else, it was a very good vehicle to learn to drive with, as the poor handling forced you to be a better driver.
Have you noticed the bias-ply tires yet? I should point out now that this was 2000-2001; it’s not like radials weren’t available. The old tires passed the inspection so I kept them. The old rear ones were “winter cleats” that I drove on until they formed a crack that went all the way around the sidewall, but still they never blew. I figured some preventative maintenance was in order, so I threw on 2 AMC rally rims off an acquisition that will be detailed in a future COAL. Those tires tried to fling me off the road numerous times but they never succeeded. At least nothing that resulted in injury to me or the car.
So I had a car and a license, but needed money to keep said car, what’s a boy to do? Get a job driving the car, of course. It was time for me to become a pizza delivery guy. Is there a better job for a teenager? The incentive is to drive fast as the more deliveries you do, the more money you make. You get free pizza and when there’s no deliveries you can do what you want; you just have to be close by in case of an order. So you could also hang out with your friends when it’s slow. What’s not to like? Well, it’s really hard on your car. It’s a job I would work off and on for the next 5 years, outlasting 4 of my vehicles.
I did many things with this car that are bad ideas; I’ll even share some of them with you.
I decided the stock exhaust system was stifling my motor so I replaced it with a home-made Cherry Bomb muffler in a clamped-together mess that was way too loud.
I once had the entire 7 man staff at my work in the car to go to and from a staff meeting downtown. They weren’t small guys either; I felt really bad for the guy in the fetal position behind the back seat. There was a lot of muffler scraping and sparks; it made quite the scene.
Some buddies and I did a 2 hour road trip in a blizzard at night to see a rock concert. Got on the highway 15 mins before it closed, nearly put it in the ditch numerous times, never exceeding 60 km/h but made it just in time.
Once I fishtailed too hard around a corner and ended up stuck in the snowbank in someone’s yard. Without anyone to help me I hurriedly grabbed the stock death-trap bumper jack and proceeded to jack the front bumper and knock it over until I was back on the road. With the final violent knock-over, the impact somehow caused the horn to stick on. I scrambled to pop the hood and yank the horn wire and quickly sped off.
But the dumbest thing I did that led to it’s demise didn’t seem dumb at the time; it actually seemed pretty smart. In the interest of gas savings, I would shut off the engine and coast into a parking spot without burning any fuel. Steering was kind of difficult but good exercise. I would push back the spot where I would shut of the engine as I figured out how much momentum I would need to glide into the driveway. Soon after, the transmission began to slip, badly. I replaced it with a $50 junkyard transmission but again this one began to slip. I convinced my Mom that I would need a parts car for another transmission and various other rare parts and the result is the $100 hulk you see above. The lesson of course is that when you shut of the motor, the torque converter stops turning the transmission oil pump and the transmission stops getting lubrication, thus causing transmission failure. Whoops.
I think I may have stopped my practice of killing the engine and gliding to a parking spot before the third tranny died. It may have failed due to the parts car sitting for 18 years or maybe just general abuse. I had had enough of doing the transmission bench press in the driveway and it was time to move on. The car was sold without a functional transmission to an eccentric fellow who drove a 1964 Econoline van for the princely sum of $300. He quickly fixed it and put it on the road, but was soon badly rear-ended and the old Gremmy was retired.
image via allfordmustangs.com
As for me, I would make yet another youthful mistake in the form of a 1978 Mustang II fastback with a 351W swapped in. Every time I fixed something, something else would break; it was an endless battle I lost and gave up on before I had gone too long without my own wheels. I would wise up with my next purchase and buy something that came with a passed safety inspection, although it really shouldn’t have passed. It wasn’t an AMC, but there would be many more AMCs in my future.