Car Show Classic: 1979 AMC Spirit GT – Disco Is Dead

(first posted 12/22/2017)       Never able to match the Big Three’s sheer amount of capital needed for R&D, annual styling changes, and a broader lineup, AMC’s fortunes could always be described as somewhat shaky. By the late-1970s, however, “dire” was a more appropriate description.

With record losses nearing $75 million by 1977, aging production facilities, and falling sales of everything except for Jeep, AMC simply did not have the ability to ultimately launch all-new products every few years like its competitors. A joint manufacture and retail agreement with Renault in 1978 brought with it some hope for future vehicles AMC badly needed, but for the time being, American Motors had to make due with minor refreshes of existing models.

Unable to update its model lines in a major physical way, AMC turned to the power of marketing to make its refreshed models as impactful possible, hypothetically creating greater excitement and interest… and ultimately sales. The aging Matador and oddball Pacer, both slow sellers, were dropped without direct replacements. The also nearly decade-old Hornet and Gremlin lines, on the other hand, were treated to the little bit of nip-tuck that AMC could afford, and re-launched under new nameplates as “all-new” vehicles.

The compact Hornet received new front and rear styling, highlighted by a new grille, headlights, and hood, along with new taillights and the “filler injected” treatment of fiberglass rear fender caps for an augmented look. Now AMC’s largest car and de facto flagship, the Hornet was rechristened as the “Concord” in 1978, and featured richer appointments and higher levels of equipment than its predecessor.

AMC’s only other remaining offering, the subcompact Gremlin hatchback, received a similar treatment for 1979, becoming the “Spirit” in the process. Frontal styling changes were marked by a more formal looking quad headlamp setup and egg-crate style grille, a fascia that also migrated to the Concord that year. New lighter-weight aluminum bumpers and a revised hood completed the former Gremlin’s matured face.

The actual rear fascia of the Spirit hatchback (which was confusingly marketed as the Spirit “sedan”) was little-changed over the Gremlin, but the Spirit’s most noticeable styling change from the Gremlin was its larger, more conventional rear windows.

The big news for the Spirit, however, was the addition of an all-new fastback bodystyle (marketed more accordingly as the Spirit “liftback”). Although it shared the same wheelbase and sheet metal from the A-pillars forward as the Spirit sedan, the liftback featured an entirely different roofline with all exclusive rear sheet metal.

The liftback’s rear fascia, in particular, sported a much more contemporary treatment than the sedan’s, with its rather archaic looking taillights. Truthfully the closest thing to an in-house, non-Renault-based all-new model AMC would have for the rest of its existence, I doubt few will contest that the Spirit liftback was the looker of the two bodystyles, and AMC’s lineup for that matter.

As with the Concord, all Spirits regardless of bodystyle featured numerous refinements and enhancements over their predecessors. Standard features now included vinyl sport bucket seats, color-keyed carpeting, full wheel covers, along with softer suspension tuning and increased sound deadening. Mid-level DL and high-end Limited trim levels added increasing levels of features, while numerous options and equipment packages on all models allowed one to add in all the available conveniences and luxuries of the era to their subcompact AMC.

Short of the newly revived all-out performance AMX model, the most exciting news enthusiast-wise was the Spirit GT liftback. Featuring what AMC described as “the European look of blackout exterior accents”, glass belted radials, spoke styled wheels, black sport steering wheel, and a tachometer that “adds flair and function”, the GT package added a significantly sportier appearance much in the same way the various popular “sport” appearance packages do to modern cars.

Although a further extra-cost option exclusively on six- and eight-cylinder Spirit GTs, the G.T. Rally-tuned suspension package offered improved handling with heavy duty front and rear sway bars, adjustable “Strider” shock absorbers, tuned strut rod brushings, beefier brakes, and enhanced steering ratio.

Speaking of which, as far as powertrain on the Spirit went, 1979 offered the greatest amount of choice, with a 2.5L I4, 3.8L I6, 4.2L I6, and 5.0L V8 all available with either a 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic, or 3-speed manual exclusive to the six cylinders. The 3.8L I6 and 5.0L V8 were eliminated for 1980, a result of CAFE efforts and never to return.

Although visual changes to the Spirit over its five-year run were limited, AMC made more meaningful engineering enhancements that were less obvious to the untrained eye, particularly in the way of anti-corrosive protection and fuel efficiency. Beginning in 1980, all models received AMC’s new Ziebart factory rust protection, that included an epoxy-based primer coating, galvanized steel for all exterior body panels, plastic inner fender liners, and all backed by a 5-year rust protection warranty.

1981 saw the remaining 4.2L inline-6 receive substantial improvements, now providing greater low-end torque for improved efficiency and aluminum replacing many of the steel and iron components, resulting in total weight reduction of 90 pounds. 1982 saw the addition of optional 5-speed manual transmission, with the 3-speed automatic receiving revised gear ratios for greater efficiency.

Spirit offerings were trimmed as the years went on, with the Limited and AMX models disappearing after 1980, and the less popular sedan body style eliminated early into the Spirit’s 1982 season. Conversely, 1981 saw the all-wheel drive Eagle series gain variants based on both the Spirit sedan and liftback, dubbed “Eagle Kammback” and “Eagle SX/4, respectively. Neither proved very popular, with the Kammback lasting just one year and the SX/4 only two.

By 1983, Renault’s stake in AMC had increased to 49%, and its influence was finally starting to be seen with the introduction of the new front-wheel drive subcompact Alliance and Encore, and the sport-compact Fuego, the latter two of which effectively superseded the Spirit liftback. Amidst falling sales and purpose in AMC’s lineup, the Spirit liftback was discontinued after 1983, ending the run of what was essentially a 14-year old design.

Though very elderly and lacking substantial mainstream competitive edge, the struggling AMC made due with the little it had, and did its best to make meaningful investments into an aging vehicle with the Spirit. Indeed though the final 1983 Spirit shared a lot in common with the very first 1970 Gremlin, AMC did its best to update the car, keeping relative with the times and ever changing tastes. With the Spirit lifback, it made the very best car out of the homely little Gremlin it possibly could, giving it a new wave on life.

Photographed: Endicott Estate in Dedham, Massachusetts – July 2015

Related Reading:

1977 AMC Gremlin

1981 AMC Eagle SX/4