It’s always noteworthy when one sees an AMC Gremlin in the wild, and even though Gremlins have been examined previously on this site, there can always be more said about what is one of the most distinctive and polarizing cars in recent memory. This particular car is from the Gremlin’s penultimate year of 1977, and – as if being a Gremlin wasn’t startling enough – is painted in firecracker red.
Modern references to Gremlins usually take the form of being on someone’s Top 10 list of ugliest/worst/most shameful/etc. cars ever made. To name two such lists, Time magazine called the Gremlin one of the worst cars of all time, and Hagerty Insurance named it the 6th “most questionable car design of all time.” Yet, despite this ignominy, the Gremlin sold well over its 9-year lifespan: about 650,000 were produced. Far from being a failure, the Gremlin was a remarkable and underappreciated success for a company that was perpetually on the verge of collapse. Its story is more interesting than one might imagine.
To start, let’s briefly look over the Gremlin’s origins. American Motors Corporation had long been associated with smaller cars, and was set to introduce its new compact, the Hornet, in 1970. Sensing a need for a still-smaller car to battle the increasingly popular imports, a plan was devised to create a subcompact version of the Hornet. The concept was essentially a truncated Hornet, and AMC’s VP of Design, Richard Teague, evidently first sketched the Gremlin’s design on an airplane air-sickness bag.
The design featured the Hornet’s long hood and mid-section mated to a wedge-shaped rear that AMC termed a “chopback.” Wheelbase and length were over a foot shorter than the Hornet. The size difference all came from the passenger/cargo area, and the above ad is revealing: the rear seat was only suitable for small children, and a pet could occupy the cargo area — as long as it didn’t move.
Its angular rear was unusual, but that was the point. AMC gambled that a new type of buyer was purchasing subcompact cars, and such a buyer wanted something unconventional – something that didn’t resemble mom and dad’s car (for a modern analogy, think of present-day companies trying to anticipate millennials’ consumer preferences).
Due to its roots in an existing product, the Gremlin was almost comically cheap to bring to market (total tooling costs came in at $5 million). That was very much in line with AMC’s new product approach, since in the 20-year period between 1960 and 1980, the firm spent a paltry 1.8% of its revenue on research and development.
Initially aimed squarely at the Volkswagen Beetle, early marketing materials pointed out that the Gremlin was lower, wider and heavier than the Beetle, and came standard with a 6-cylinder engine. In other words, it was marketed as a more substantial car. The Gremlin was a subcompact that felt bigger and sturdier than it was, and that paradox became a selling point.
Unfortunately, sturdiness did not bestow roadworthiness, and the Gremlin wasn’t exactly delightful to drive. Nose-heavy, with a choppy ride and notoriously slow steering, Gremlins had driving characteristics that would doom most other cars. In addition, interior space, while ample for the driver and passenger, was compromised. The rear seat was small and uncomfortable (6” less legroom than a Hornet), while luggage room was meager (6.4 cu. ft. with the rear seat up) and difficult to access through the high liftgate. The wide C-pillars created large blind spots. Still, Gremlins sold well. Why?
Because of price. The Gremlin was the most affordable American-made car when introduced, and stayed price-competitive throughout its life. Its core market of young, slightly unconventional buyers placed a low priority on space efficiency, and the low price and operational affordability compensated for its drivability shortcomings.
In fact, the Gremlin was a masterpiece of marketing. Take the name, for example. “Gremlin” had its origin in WWII British aviation slang, initially meaning a mythical creature that caused mechanical problems in airplanes. The term caught on, and in 1943, Roald Dahl wrote a wartime children’s book called “The Gremlins,” complete with illustrations of impish critters. Gremlins then surfaced as creative plane nose art as well, usually represented by mischievous characters. The name became fixed in the English language, with a negative, but rascally connotation.
Like its aviation predecessors, AMC’s Gremlin debuted with a critter mascot, found on early models’ gas caps (which became a frequent target for thieves) and fenders. In a world of magniloquent automotive names and symbols, Gremlin stood out.
AMC published the Gremlin’s initial press release on Thursday, February 12, 1970 – beating Friday the 13th by one day. Consumer sales began on April Fools’ Day of that year. In the marketplace, Gremlin had the advantage of being the first domestic subcompact – beating its GM and Ford rivals (Vega and Pinto) by several months. That helped to spring the Gremlin to popularity upon introduction; orders outpaced production capacity for much of the first year.
Sales boomed during the 1973-74 energy crisis, when over 100,000 Gremlins were produced each year. Those two years alone, when small cars’ desirability suddenly surged, accounted for 45% of total Gremlin production. For the non-energy crisis years during Gremlin’s 9-year model run, sales averaged about 45,000 units, still not a shabby number. For our featured year of 1977, AMC produced 46,171 Gremlins.
While it’s impressive that an odd-looking car with poor space layout and questionable handling sold well at introduction, it’s amazing that sales held up for many years afterwards as well. Gremlins received only minor updates for its first 7 model years.
1977, our featured car’s year, saw the Gremlin’s first significant styling update. True to form, it flew in the face of convention. When introduced, the Gremlin was angular in a world of rounded cars. Then for ’77, when the boxy look was coming into vogue, AMC slightly softened the Gremlin’s edges.
Larger, more rounded tail lights, a bigger liftgate and a new slanted grille distinguished the 1977 models, along with a 4-inch shortening of the Gremlin’s long nose. But the Gremlin still looked very much like a Gremlin.
While 1977 saw the introduction of an optional 4-cylinder engine, 83% of Gremlins were powered by one of the two available 6-cylinder power plants. Standard was a 232-cu. in. engine developing 88 hp, while an optional 258-cu. in. engine produced 26 more hp. Both sixes were available with a 3-speed, 4-speed or automatic (floor- or column-shift) transmission. The previous V-8 option disappeared for 1977.
This particular car is a fairly well equipped example, with optional wheels, a column-shift automatic and some convenience options. Its red paint, gold rally stripe and matching red-and-cream perforated vinyl bucket seats provide an eye-catching look.
The 1977 Gremlin carried a base price of $2,995 – a good bargain for the time, and the biggest reason why the car continued to sell well even 7 years after its introduction. But sales didn’t grow profits at AMC, and the company’s passenger car business generated a pretax loss of $90 million that year. In business articles of the day, AMC was often called “troubled AMC” or “imperiled AMC,” an indication of the company’s travails. Still, the Gremlin soldiered on.
By 1977, though, the Gremlin was clearly outdated, and became hard pressed to keep up with newly innovative small cars such as VW’s Rabbit or Ford’s Fiesta. Its shortcomings were finally catching up to it.
1978 was the Gremlin’s last year. Sort of. While an 9-model-year run for this odd-looking car would have been improbable enough, AMC rebranded the Gremlin as the “Spirit sedan,” and kept producing it with only detail changes through 1982.
Though often maligned (both then and since), the Gremlin was a fascinating car. It is perhaps the best example of a car succeeding despite itself. For all of its obvious faults, the car sold well to its targeted audience of young, budget-conscious buyers, and perhaps the very hostility generated by the car propelled it to a degree of counterculture acceptability.
It’s easy to think of the Gremlin today as an embarrassment. But a certain amount of genius lurks under the awkward body and the driveability faults. For its minimal initial investment, AMC got a car that generated showroom traffic, and significant sales, for a decade. In due course, it was not enough to sustain AMC’s independence, as Renault bought a controlling interest in the company in 1979. However, the Gremlin did more than its fair share to stave off AMC’s demise.
Years later, the most memorable aspect of the Gremlin is still the design; no one has ever mistaken a Gremlin for anything else. AMC President William Luneburg once called the Gremlin’s design “purposely contentious,” a phrase that’s hard to beat in describing this car’s character. Ultimately, that character proved to be the car’s ticket to success – if the Gremlin were conservatively designed, it’s doubtful the car would have sold as many copies, or for so many years. Many of us may laugh at AMC Gremlins, but just like the mythical creatures in the 1943 children’s book, the Gremlins had the last laugh.
Curbside Classic: AMC Gremlin – 1971 Small Car Comparison Number 6 Paul Niedermeyer