Curbside Classic: 1975 AMC Pacer X – The Spacer

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(originally posted 4/26/2011)    The Pacer is the poster child of how questionable ideas and good intentions go awry.

In 1971, scrappy little AMC was faced with a dilemma: how to capture buyers looking to downsize, when they were incapable of actually building a truly downsized car. Yup; there was no way AMC could tool up to build a genuine compact car, like the Vega and Pinto. So the solution was to stop pretending, like the Gremlin (CC here) that preceded the Pacer.

And the pregnant answer was to build the world’s first wide-body compact, a segment nobody had ever identified before, much less pined for. To add to its zestiness, why not break all the styling molds with acres of glass and asymmetrical doors. And then just for good measure, stick a rotary engine in it. As we’ve seen repeatedly, desperation is the mother of bizarre disasters.

AMC explained the Pacer this way: it was “the first car designed from the inside out”. How about the first compact designed for the obese? The rationale and implication was that a segment of Americans just weren’t going to be happy giving up their accustomed hip, elbow and love handle room for a cramped import or a Pinto.

So it really started that way: cut everything away from AMC’s extravagantly-long Matador mid-size coupe except the seats and then design the shortest body possible around them. I’ve long had the desire to take a torch and cut away about six feet on both ends of a ’71 Cadillac coupe. Dick Teague, my hero, had the same impulse and actually did it (not with the Caddy, sadly). Too bad Cadillac didn’t do the same thing for the Cimarron; now that would have been something memorable.

Then AMC signed a licensing contract with Curtiss-Wright for the rights to design and build a rotary engine to stick under the resulting stubby hood. When the idea of actually developing and tooling up for a Wankel started looking onerous (you think?), a deal with GM to buy their rotaries was cut. God, I love AMC. Too bad GM chickened out on that brilliant plan at the last minute. If they had actually built it, it would have undoubtedly made the Vega engine look like a paragon of durability.

But GM’s rude cancellation of their rotary program created a nasty little-big problem for AMC; the Pacer was designed just for that compact little five-gallon bucket sized engine, and there was nothing to take its place except the big AMC family of venerable cast-iron inline sixes, since AMC sold back the production tooling of the 3.8 V6 to GM some years earlier.


Nothing else to do but roll up the sleeves and get out the acetylene torches and start cutting away; that six just had to fit somehow. Probably just as well in the end, even if the “compact” Pacer ended up weighing “an astounding 3425 lbs” (C/D) when it actually hit the road with a few options. An obese compact for obese compact-haters. Back then, that kind of weight was pushing right into mid-sized car territory.

Teamed up with a choice of two de-smogged sixes (3.8 or 4.2 liter) that mysteriously both made 100hp (couldn’t they have coaxed maybe 5 more ponies out of the optional engine?), performance was predictably flaccid. Later, a two barrel six found those extra few horses, and when the 304 V8 was finally wedged in, it gave a boost, but by then the Pacer was already dead meat anyway.

The Pacer was a wild gamble in hoping that a market niche existed for a highly truncated mid-sized coupe without a proper trunk: turns out it didn’t. Its Jetsons-styling novelty gave it decent first-year sales of 145k units, then interest quickly withered away. Lousy gas mileage hastened the Pacer’s demise. American’s love for the latest toy is usually cut short either by ADD or the toy’s all-too obvious shortcomings. Or both.

Predictably, the American car magazines gushed over the Pacer, especially Motor Trend: “Suddenly its 1980: American Motors’ new Pacer is the freshest, most creative, most people oriented auto born in the U.S. in 15 years” Well, by 1980, folks had long moved on to genuinely modern small FWD cars (think Honda) that could actually be comfortable, have real trunk space, be zippy, and didn’t get 15 mpg. The fact that the Accord arrived the same year that Pacer sales shriveled is perhaps no mere coincidence.

Small Cars had this to say on the Pacer’s styling: “admiration was an obvious reaction…the knowledgeable product writers knew without being told that they were privileged to be there to see something new in automobile design.” Privileged “knowledgeable product writers” indeed. Admittedly, the Pacer’s design was refreshingly different, and Porsche blatantly cribbed the greenhouse for its 928.

Car and Driver’s Don Sherman was distinctly more prescient in his assessment: “our first real urban transporter…There is, of course, the chance of monumental failure; it might be another Tucker ahead of its time or a pariah like the Marlin. But…with its high priority on comfortable and efficient travel and absence of Mach 2 styling, [it] at least seems right for the current state of duress. Consider this bold offering from AMC a test: Are we buying cars for transportation yet, or are they still social props?” Did you really have to ask, Don?

Road and Track offered this more objective take: “bold, clean and unique…even when it’s going 60 mph is looks as if it’s standing still..[Seems like they got that backwards, or were they saying something of significance with that?].” but noted that, even with the test car’s optional front disc brakes, “in the usual panic-stop tests…our driver had one of his most anxious moments ever as the Pacer screeched, skidded and demanded expert attention at the steering wheel to keep from going altogether out of control. The histrionics are reflected in long stopping distances from highway speeds… [The car’s] engineering—old-fashioned and unimaginative in the extreme—does not match the perky design”, which the magazine declared “most attractive to look at and pleasant to sit in.” Especially when its not moving.

The British The Motor just said: “We test the Pacer – and wish we hadn’t.”

Am I being harsh with the poor misunderstood Pacer? Oh well, it all seemed like a good idea in 1971, when AMC stylist Dick Teague started on his latest project after the almost equally adventurous and unsuccessful Matador coupe, which followed the not-so bold and daring Gremlin. Don’t get me wrong; I love Teague, and his playful and risk-taking approach. He did things no one else was doing, and he handled the dreadful 5 mph bumpers masterfully. Its just that he set himself to such difficult and improbable tasks, and  then solved them with such curious solutions. But he’s certainly enriched our automotive stylistic history.

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The Pacer arrived with a number of shortcomings. The pathetically tiny luggage compartment was a particular sore spot, and AMC made the remarkably heroic effort to address that with an extended Pacer, a so-called wagon. Realistically, it was more like what should have been built in the first place, but in any case, it was too late to save the Pacer’s rapid crash. As was the slip of the surgeon’s scalpel that created the first automotive upper-lip lift.

Fitting its futuristic garb, and outfit called Electric Vehicle Associates converted Pacers to EVs, using eighteen six-volt golf-cart batteries for a claimed  53 mile range. Now that would be quite a find. Well, finding this pretty solid Pacer X wasn’t a bad find either; it’s been a while since there’s been one on the streets here. And this one was looking for a new home too; only $1500. What a bargain for a genuine mid-seventies period piece, an authentic Dick Teague original. Party on, Wayne!

(This is a CC Rerun, and no, it’s not still For Sale. I talked to the seller recently, and he said it went very quickly, not surprisingly, given the $1500 asking price. I should have snapped it up)

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