Car Show Classic: 1978 AMC Pacer D/L Wagon – Roll With It, Baby

I was barely a teenager in the summer of 1988 when my older brother, who was by then an adult and visiting, took our younger brother and me along for a drive to run some errands around town.  His ’85 Renault Encore three-door hatchback had been a lightly used gift from Mom and Dad, who had purchased it new from Country Motors in Owosso, Michigan.  It had no air conditioning, so both windows were rolled down all the way on that hot, summer day.  The car also had vinyl seats (thankfully in a light color, beige), and also no radio.  Despite all this, and based on my own later driving impressions, I thought that Encore was the best strippo car in the world – a position I maintain today.

We were in the southern part of Flint, on South Saginaw Street, when I spotted a Pacer coupe at rest at the stoplight we were approaching.  As our newer AMC product approached the older, homegrown one, the joyous strains of Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It”, an inescapable hit that summer, began to crescendo.  Accompanying Winwood’s husky bleat with her own voice was a boisterous blonde, loudly singing along as she tapped the steering wheel of her Pacer to the beat, seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world outside of her car.

It’s not that I remember her having been a knockout (though she was definitely pretty and looked fun, in a blue-collar, very “Flint” kind of way), but it was her singing with such abandon and great gusto, combined with the visual of her Pacer with its multi-colored, replacement body panels, that left an indelible impression in my mind.  To this day, hearing “Roll With It” reminds me of that very moment over thirty years ago more than anything else.

I’ve professed my genuine, non-ironic love for the looks of the 1975 – ’77 Pacers for years, both the original coupes and the new-for-’77 wagon.  We all know the sob story of how the Pacer’s engineering had been severely compromised by some unforeseen plot twists in its development.  To give one example, it had been designed around a Wankel rotary engine that GM had been working on and later cancelled at the eleventh hour.

I liken AMC’s dependence on this unfinished rotary-in-development to something like me throwing a massive party the weekend of a local appearance of a favorite idol or performer, inviting everyone I know with the promise of meeting said celebrity, and then being crushed when the Guest Of Honor doesn’t show after not even having confirmed that an appearance was definite.  Whoops!  What to tell people now??  I can only imagine the panic in Kenosha the day that powerplant-related news was delivered.

“Every car has a story” (welcome to Curbside Classic), and tastes differ, but I’m going to tell you straight-up that I think the ’78 restyle of the Pacer’s grille and hood is hideous.  This is coming from someone who legitimately loves the rest of the styling of both the coupe and wagon.  As many may have gathered from my previous musings, I’m very much about finding something to at least like about any thing or person who hasn’t been demonstrably gross, bad or evil – but, seriously, AMC?  Was this frontal restyle really the best you could do?  This puffy-upper-lip thing could not have been the only proposal that had sprung from the drafting board.

I sort of get it.  Engineers were not going to make this heavy car lighter or more efficient, so AMC product planners said, “Let’s drop a V8 into it.  That will at least give it something.”  The introduction of the wagon just the year before had failed to return sales numbers to those of the very respectable first- and second-year tallies.  To clear the V8, engineers and stylists had to raise the horizontal surface of the hood.

The unfortunate thing was that instead of raising the entire leading edge of the hood between both headlamps, they raised only the center section in a very bizarre-looking hump, almost like a “Pacer Vanden Plas” (thank you, Roger Carr).  I can’t decide whether the restyled grille and hood more resemble botched lip fillers or one of those TV pillow-things you put on the couch or your bed and lean up against.

I’m hard-pressed to think of another, relatively minor styling update on any car that so thoroughly altered its original visual concept, whether you like the looks of either Pacer or not.  The irony was that the V8 delivered only adequate performance in these cars, both bodystyles of which were both glassy and innately heavy – weighing about the same 3,400 pounds for both the ’78 coupe and wagon.

Here’s a fun fact: the V8 Concord four-door wagon had a starting weight of just over 100 pounds less than the V8-equipped, two-door Pacer wagon.  The advertised 130 horsepower of the 304-cubic inch V8 was not a lot for this amount of weight, and provided only a 10-hp advantage over the lighter 258 six-cylinder that was also optional that year.  (The ’78 Pacer came standard with a 90-horse 232-six under the hood.)

Sales slid hard for ’78, with only 21,200 (7,400 coupes, 13,800 wagons) sold that year, down from 58,300 (20,300 coupes, 38,000 wagons) the year before.  This was after inaugural-year sales of over 72,000 for ’75 and another, truly outstanding 117,200 units for ’76.  Only 10,200 ’79s found buyers (with wagons, again, outselling coupes).  Our featured car is a ’78, identifiable by its front grille and also its interior, which featured the original design.  (The interior of the ’79 was given a minor refresh, with an easy identifier being the revised inner door-panels.)

With the final-year 1980 models (re-serialed ’79s?; Pacer production ended in August of ’79), AMC sold less than 2,000 of them before that whole show was over.  Two thousand.  That was extremely low volume, even for AMC.  The sad irony is that the V8 option which necessitated the truly unfortunate ’78 frontal restyle found only 3,500 takers over the two model years it was offered (there was no V8 for ’80).  Overall, there were 280,000 units manufactured over the Pacer’s six-year run.

It’s true that a decade is a really long time in the car business, especially when I think about the ten model years that separated the first iterations of my brother’s ’85 Encore and that blonde lady’s Pacer.  Both cars had a similar original mission within AMC showrooms: to provide a novel, quality subcompact car experience for U.S. small-car shoppers.  It’s an understatement to say that neither car had any degree of lasting success here in North America.  However, as was demonstrated by the mere presence of this latter-day Pacer wagon which I had spotted at the annual Back To The Brick car festival in Flint last summer, sometimes just to “roll with it” is all you can do – as AMC did often, as much out of its scrappy inventiveness as it did out of necessity.

Downtown Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, August 18, 2018.

Click here and here for related reading on the AMC Pacer.