COAL Extra: 1977 AMC Gremlin – The Dangers of Procrastination

1977 AMC Gremlin

I’m calling this one an “Extra” because this was not my car nor a car I ever drove.  This was my sister’s first car, and it’s a good enough story that I felt it was one worth sharing.

My sister got her license on her 16th birthday in 1982 but didn’t have enough money to buy her own car.  Since my mother worked from home and didn’t drive very often, she allowed my sister to drive her ‘78 Plymouth Horizon.  What little money she did have – about $1,000 – was from an inheritance that my parents had wisely locked away in a 16% Certificate of Deposit a year or two prior (one of the few advantages of high inflation).  When my parents traded in the Horizon, she switched to driving my father’s Omni.

'78 Plymouth Horizon and '79 Dodge Omni

Mom’s ’78 Plymouth Horizon (Left) and Dad’s ’79 Dodge Omni (Right)


“Driving” Is a Strong Word

Now, saying my sister was “driving” those cars is like saying that Michael Vick was just “playing” with his pit bulls.  She had a nasty, aggressive streak when it came to cars, and wear and tear increased exponentially after she started driving them.  Most notable was a rear-end collision while driving the Horizon.  She was leaving work, and the woman in front of her stopped short as they were pulling into the left-turn lane – my sister was driving too fast, not wearing her seat belt and cracked the windshield with her head in addition to the front-end damage.  Say what you want about how ugly 5-MPH bumpers were, but that day they probably prevented the car from being a total loss.

The situation was so bad that my parents floated the idea of making me wait until I was 18 to get my license, a notion that I fought with every fiber of my being.

1977 AMC Gremlin

The last straw came when, after one of the Omni’s numerous breakdowns, the grille fell apart during the tow.  When my father was relating the story about how he was determined to make the towing company replace the grille, we heard an “Uh…..” from my sister.  After asking what she (clearly) knew about it, she admitted one of her friends was sitting on the hood and accidentally kicked in the grille.  Like the smart teenagers they were, they glued the grille back together and hoped nobody would notice.  The owner of the towing company had already purchased a Horizon grille from a salvage yard, which my father then reimbursed him for and installed on the Omni.

The Time for Action Is…Never

When it came time to trade in the Omni, my sister was warned that she would need to get her own car.  Her CD had matured, and she was about to graduate high school.  Now, you would naturally think that this would light a fire under someone’s butt, but not my sister.  I have vague recollections of her mindlessly meandering through the Auto Trader looking at cars way out of her price range. I specifically remember her asking me what I thought of a 1979 Beetle Convertible listed for $4,995.  How she was planning to buy a car with less than a ¼ of the money was beyond me.  There was no way my parents would be stupid enough to cosign a loan for her (that year).

Oddly enough, I’m now exactly the same age my father was when all of this was going down, and I have two kids who are exactly the same ages as my sister and I were. I see this same behavior in my own kids.  You can make the threat.  You can even have a track record of following through on threats.  Yet, they either still want to think you won’t follow through, or they just don’t care.  It confounds me.

1977 AMC Gremlin

Needless to say, by the time my parents had put down a deposit on a new car, which they would pick up the following week, she hadn’t done anything.  They also had no desire to cart her to and from various after-school activities or her job at Publix.

Whose Money Is This Anyway?

Luckily for them, my sister was just shy of her 18th birthday, which means that they still had control of her bank account.  With just a week to play with, my father didn’t even bother with the Auto Trader, either because he didn’t want that many options or didn’t want to be bothered spending the $1.95 – or whatever it cost back then – having just bought a new car he couldn’t really afford.  Picking up the local free Penny Saver – imagine a print version of Craigslist – he found what he was looking for:

1977 AMC Gremlin, A/C, 100,000 miles but only 5,000 miles on new transmission.

My parents then withdrew $1,000 from her bank account, which had grown to $1,350 thanks to that 16% interest, and brought the car home.

First Impressions Are Everything

My sister was horrified when she saw it sitting there on the verge in front of our house after she got home from school.  She claims she even cried herself to sleep that night.  She remembers telling them early on that the Gremlin was the ONE car she did not like or want.  Up until a few years ago, she actually believed that they intentionally bought the Gremlin for that reason, a notion that I disabused her of.  According to my mother, “She was such a miserable teenager, why would we want to make her an even more miserable person to live with?”  As the ever-faithful little brother, I was loving every minute of this.

1977 AMC Gremlin

As you can see from the pictures, it was a pretty decent car for $1,000 in 1984 – a far better buy than my $1,500 car just a year later.

Charting the Changes: 1977

For 1977, the Gremlin sported new front sheet metal with a shorter overhang that reduced overall length by three inches.  In the back, there was a larger all-glass hatch and bigger tail lamps.  While a new Volkswagen-sourced 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine was offered for the first time to get the Gremlin to achieve the gas mileage expected from a car this small, this one sported the ancient standard 232-cubic-inch inline six, producing a massive 88 horsepower with gas mileage in the teens.  It was one of 38,613 produced that year with the six according to the Standard Catalog of American Cars.

Life with A Hated Car

According to my sister, she beat the hell out of this car because of how much she hated it.  She quickly discovered that, thanks to the light rear end, it was an excellent car to take mudding.  At some point during her ownership, an I ♥ Robert Plant bumper sticker showed up on the driver’s door thanks to her best friend, Kym.  According to my sister, “She was totally obsessed with him!”

1977 AMC Gremlin

Internet photo of the trusty & true AMC 232 cu. in. Inline Six.


Hard plastic steering wheels can get quite hot in the Florida sun, so rather than the vinyl wrapping that most people used, my sister bought a big, thick, furry cover.  That wouldn’t have been an issue except for the fact that the low-set bench seat and non-adjustable steering wheel already presented a challenge to her 5’ 2” frame.  She and my father had a minor fight about that, but she refused to remove it.  This was accompanied by about 100 things dangling from her rearview mirror.

Being a late-seventies American car and used, there were definitely issues, but not as many as you would think.  She recalls having to take off the distributor cap and dry it every time it rained, otherwise the car would die.  Once, when she and her friend went to visit other friends up in Central Florida on a non-rainy holiday weekend, the car died anyway.  Fortunately, their friends had some mechanical aptitude and quickly diagnosed a bad starter motor.  Amazingly, they were able to source one that day for $50.  So, for that and a six-pack for labor, they were able to safely make it back home.

Gremlin X Ad

My sister most certainly did NOT feel this way about her Gremlin. Maybe if it was an X?


One of her worst memories was after the prom when her date threw up in the car, which is a smell you can never fully exorcise.  After making him clean it up, they tried to use Polo cologne to cover the residual odor.  To this day, you can pretty much guess what the smell of Polo makes her want to do.

My worst memory of the car was when my mother made me clean it out before its scheduled visit to my best friend’s father’s repair shop.  Now, my sister is a slob, and forty years later her car is still a disaster area.  On this day, there was probably a couple of inches of garbage on the floor of the car, including a letter she had written but had never given to whomever it was intended for.  Let’s just say I learned far more about my sister’s private life than I ever wanted to know.

Gremlin Trunk

Internet photo of the Gremlin trunk. Note how the spare tire takes up much of what little space there is to begin with.


Time to Say Good Rid…Er…Goodbye

After she graduated high school, she decided to make a run at a show business career rather than go to college.  She got a job in retail and about a year after “buying” the Gremlin, convinced my parents to (stupidly) cosign a loan for a new car.

The car was still in decent shape visually, but at some point had thrown a wheel cover – likely during one of her off-road adventures.  I had a couple of wheel covers that I’d…ahem…liberated from an “abandoned” ’64 Impala.  So, one side of the car had the stock Gremlin covers, and the other side had the Impala’s.  Either way, the dealer only gave her $300 for it.

Today, of course, she looks back on the car with far more affection.  It doesn’t rank among one of her favorites, but she does wish she’d treated it a little better.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1971 AMC Gremlin — 1971 Small Car Comparison Number 6