CC Capsule: 1976 AMC Pacer – The Alien Awaits

The horrors Detroit inflicted upon the world in the long decade spawning 1973-85, also known as the Malaise Era, were many and affected all makers. Vega. Mustang II. Volare. Diesel Olds. Imports boomed; exports cratered. The monstrous dimensions of the garishly overstyled, technically backwards, slow, cramped, shoddily-made and thirsty American vehicles of the time, with few exceptions, were egregious. One of the cars that tried bucking the trend was the AMC Pacer.

The Pacer was and remains controversial. Even before it hit the market, AMC knew it was a risk and would alienate some people. The question was “how many?” Pacers were a hot item in 1975-76, then sales fell off the proverbial cliff. So the answer was “Too many.” But at least they tried to think outside the goldfish bowl.

If everything had gone according to plan, the Pacer would have had a GM/Curtiss-Wright Wankel engine. Maybe they dodged a bullet there. The problem was that the car was too heavy to be hauled by a small 4-cyl., which AMC didn’t really have anyhow (but could have gotten from an outside supplier, perhaps), so they relied on comparatively huge 3.8 and 4.2 litre 6-cyl., but only squeezed 100hp out of all that displacement. So on our Malaise-o-meter, we can check the “slow,” “technically backwards” and “thirsty” boxes.

I’ve heard many stories of how unreliable some people found these, so I’ll throw that in the “Con” column too. But at least in terms of styling and size, at least the Pacer was a breath of fresh air. The lack of overhangs are especially outstanding, given how certain carmakers (looking at you, Ford) were designing their cars in those days. No stupid grille, at least in the beginning and huge amounts of glass made the Pacer stand out even more. That was AMC’s only weapon, and they wielded it expertly.

The upshot was that the Pacer could appeal to folks who never would have considered anything American-made, such as the Europeans. At least, it would have if it had had a much smaller engine. As such, the only folks who could afford one were prepared to pay huge taxes and fuel bills and hope it would not break down too often. Oops…

In the end, the Pacer was AMC’s final failure, and the 1979 tie-up with Renault was to signal the end of the last Independent’s independence. It’s funny they ended up with that company, as I always thought the Pacer looked a bit like a Renault 5 (Le Car) that had grown up on Big Macs.

I have no idea if AMC sold many Pacers in Japan back in the day (I rather doubt it), but however this one happened to materialize here, I glad I caught it. It looks as out of place here as it does in its homeland, or on a European street. It’s beyond Malaise and beyond independent – it’s an automotive alien, parked curbside in Tokyo, awaiting its owner. One of the greatest last throws of the dice by a car company.


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Vintage R&T Technical Analysis: AMC’s New Pacer, by PN

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Cohort Pic(k) of the Day: Pacer and Travelall – A Study In Contrasts, by PN

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