(first posted 8/6/2014) As a young child, I could’ve been forgiven for thinking the Subaru DL/GL/Loyale and AMC Eagle were the best sellers in the US. They were extremely popular in the Adirondack foothills of New York state where I lived until I was about nine, along with the usual array of popular late ’70s to mid ’80s models, but despite serving much the same purpose, I couldn’t have had a more dissimilar impression of the two models. The Subarus, with their cubist styling, typified what I understood as attractive design (and I find most hardtop Subarus attractive to this day); the AMCs, however…
…well, they seemed somewhat like monsters to my eyes. Naming them after a frightening predator was quite apt when you think about it. They looked more aggressive than a lot of SUVs did, with an increased ride height unrelieved by squat bodywork. Barreling down the road with brown slush caked around the wheel wells, Eagles seemed ready to eat all the Datsuns, Colts and Rabbits surrounding them. Just as some remember their juvenile fear of incinerators, furnaces or basements in general, AMC Eagles will always look somewhat menacing to me.
In addition to its obvious toughness, the Eagle always looked a bit… distorted. When something looks otherwise normal but for a single visual cue which has been thrown off, the result can be almost grotesque (think of someone with shaven eyebrows). That was never exactly the goal of the engineers headed by Roy Lunn (hired away from Ford to head up Jeep engineering in 1971), but increasing the ride height was a requirement for transferring drive to the front wheels. Hence management’s reaction to the initial proposal to build the car: what the hell is this?
Those bizarre proportions, of course, give the Eagle a unique charm; one which its self-selecting buyers must’ve enjoyed quite a bit. It’s impossible for any modern car fan not to have some love for the Eagle, such is its functional appeal. So when I saw this white (yes–another white car) example at the end of June, I had to take pictures. The owners of the car informed me it was a 1981; it’s in remarkable shape for being so old and likely sat unused for quite a while.
It’s also quite rare; AMC sold 1,737 Eagle sedans that year, some 601 more two-doors made if off the line, along with about 8,600 more wagons. Actually, with 23,000 sold that year, the short wheelbase SX/4 liftbacks were the most popular AWD Eagle variants. On the other hand, the sedan was the most popular rear-drive Concord, selling about 24k units, next to 15k each for the wagon and two-door. The most popular AMC model that year was the Spirit, which moved almost 45,000 units, though 43,000 of these were liftbacks.
With 2,000 sold, the Kammback “sedan” (the rear panel of which we see here on this photoshopped Seville) was the least popular rear-drive AMC, but in AWD guise, still managed to outsell the Eagle four-doors like our featured car. But while a slow seller, the sedan would remain on the market three years longer, selling alongside the Alliance, which displaced it on the Kenosha production line, selling 751 Ontario-built units for 1987, its final year.
Compared to most American cars of their day, the Eagle is quite rust resistant, but it’s not as impervious to corrosion as the likes of the Audi C3 or Volvo 700-series. That would explain the haggard Eagles I saw in my childhood. I should’ve informed the father and son who own this sedan that Fluid Film is a very effective (and slightly stinky) barrier against road salt. Spraying it in the early fall ensures enough dust accumulation to keep it from being easily washed off and at about ten bucks per aerosol can, it’s a good value. As a Japanese car lover who spent his childhood in the Adirondacks, you can bet that rust is a nightmare come to life as far as I’m concerned; one which I’m keen to help others avoid.
There are no production breakdowns available, but I’d be shocked if this car has the Iron Duke engine. For 1981, that means its 258 six put about 110 horsepower (I’ve also read 114) and 210 lb-ft of torque through its TorqueFlite. Given all the tragedies which faced AMC in the ’70s, the switch from the BorgWarner automatic to the famed Chrysler unit wasn’t one of them. Though the engine these output peaks at a very low 3,200 and 1,800 rpm, respectively, the benefit of an efficient transmission was still an important one, even with lower-than-average final drive ratios of 3.08:1 (3:54 optional). For 1982, a five-speed would join the standard four-speed.
I’ve never ridden in, let alone driven, one of these cars, but the power outputs combined with a max curb weight of 3,400 pounds doesn’t seem uncommonly tragic for the era; I’ll let more seasoned readers fill me on how they stacked up to the remnants of the domestic “compacts,” and new downsized intermediates of the early ’80s. The interior, despite its older dashboard, looks pretty smart compared to other efforts for the era; though not necessarily in fashion for an early ’80s domestic, it’s aged better according to my import-centric sensibilities. The experience of riding and driving in these cars was either incredibly unpleasant or the stench of death around AMC was undeniable, because in terms of quality and restraint, I can think of much worse contemporary cabins.
Perhaps the original Hornet just didn’t wear its Brougham hat very well. The last year any version of the Concord sold over 100,000 units was 1978 (its first year on the market), and the original Dick Teague design as seen on the Hornet was decidedly more sporty than ornate.
Those well integrated wraparound taillights and flush door handles are at odds with any of the other ornamentation tacked onto the Eagle and Concord and if it was decoration people wanted, well, most other manufacturers had those cars beat. When it came to pretension as understood in those days, AMC was never able to compete and, as we know, hurt itself in trying to do so. In terms of image, it would be the XJ Cherokee of 1984, also styled by Teague, which would be AMC’s final sensation.
In many ways, that SUV replaced the proto-crossover Eagle. And why not? Unburdened by any expectation of vulgar ostentation, it was a more widely welcomed embodiment of its manufacturer’s practical design and engineering ethos. If Kenosha had the money to replace the Hornet with an actual car, one could imagine it would ideally look and feel more like the XJ than the Alliance and Encore. Better yet, the Cherokee gave the impression of capacity necessary to attract the import-oriented buyers who were put off by the Eagle’s combination of thirst and poor packaging. If nothing else, it was a necessary clean slate to carry forth the collaboration of engineers and stylists under Lunn and Teague, respectively.
As much respect as the Cherokee deserves and gets, however, the Eagle has a quirkiness (yes, I used the awful Q-word) it can never match. And, as I mentioned earlier, it has an anamorphic presence which Cherokee owners can’t attain without lifting their rigs to kingdom come. If the Eagle looked like a car from my childhood nightmares, the evergreen XJ is almost cuddly in comparison (except with Max Cady as portrayed by Robert DeNiro strapped to the bottom–now that’s a nightmare). So hats off to the father and son who’ve put this tough mother to work as a daily; it’s been decades since I’ve encountered one of these four-wheeled predators, and the sight of this white sedan really takes me back.
Curbside Classics: AMC Eagle Wagon And Sedan – “What The Hell Is This?”
Curbside Classic: 1970 AMC Hornet – Today Is The First Day of the Rest Of Your Life
Curbside Classic: 1981 AMC Concord – The Underdog Learns One More New Trick
Curbside Classic: 1981 Eagle SX/4 – The Trickster
Cross An AMC Concord With A Spirit: The Lerma
As a child, it was always the Mk III Ford Zephyr that I found scarily menacing. No idea why – but we didn’t get Eagles here (feathered or vehicular), so I don’t know how it would have compared in my mind when I was pint sized. Despite only seeing them from afar, I really like the Eagle styling – it shouts ‘bigger, tougher Subaru’ to me. I even like the add-on ornamentation – the only thing that really bugs me is the clunky bumpers – it really needed integrated wraparound bumpers to complete the look. Still great that you found this nice survivor Perry! The Seville looks like a photoshop (note the right-rear window visible through the hatch) but is nonetheless an intriguing idea – although possibly menacing to some!
Yes, I’ve amended the article to state so explicitly. It was just a fun sidenote to the “distorted car” theme.
I wasn’t exactly scared of the Eagle when it was introduced (possibly because I’m a bit older than Perry).
At the time I thought of AMCs much like an aged relative who is doing her best to live out her remaining years with dignity, when everyone actually knows that she is dying, slowly and painfully.
“At the time I thought of AMCs much like an aged relative who is doing her best to live out her remaining years with dignity, when everyone actually knows that she is dying, slowly and painfully”
That sums my thoughts up pretty well.
I’d love a black ’87 wagon myself
I’m not much older than Perry but the Eagle wagons were always one of my favorite cars when I was little. I can’t really say why–the mind of a child is an odd place. But I always really liked them in all their high-stanced, wood-paneled glory. They weren’t terribly common down South, but I feel like I saw many more Eagle wagons than I did the sedans (unsurprising), but also more than the SX4/Liftback or even the RWD Concords and Spirits.
They have largely left us now, but it’s good to see one in fine shape like this find. I did see a wagon on the road not too long ago, so a few are still around, but rare and worth documenting!
In Colorado, AMC Eagles were relatively scarce compared to “real” 4x 4’s, Blazers, Broncos, and of course Wagoner and Scout remnants. The only AMC I ever drove was a Concord sedan, that had replaced Studio Larks as the go to cheepo for government fleets. Ordinary is about the kindest thing to say..
You mustve been out away from Denver. Back in ’86 when I was a kid, we made a trip out there and Eagles seemed like they were everywhere. Mostly wagons, but I saw everything except the Kammback.
My recollection is that after 1983, the Eagle sedan was produced for fleet sales only.
When the basic Hornet body shell was introduced in 1970, it was arguably the last inoffensive new or revised car that was AMC designed. It was still an offensive and fairly miserable car in stripper trim, but it wasn’t weird or outright ugly.
The Concord / Eagle updates to the Hornet were surprisingly successful by AMC standards, and the Eagle was truly a unique offering. Perry points out, Subaru was its nearest competition.
We have enough snow that the Eagle sold well where I live. It seemed like most of them were wagons. I’m surprised that the Spirit numbers were as high as they were in 1981, but I believe the wagon had a longer total run, and likely sold collectively more.
In Hornet, Concord or Eagle trim, the wagon body always seemed the best looking of the body styles. The sedan seems a bit awkward with its high stance as an Eagle, but Subaru’s rather awkward styling seemed to ratify the idea that four wheel drive cars will look a little odd. The bulky padded vinyl top was the other awkward point on the sedans.
Make mine a two tone blue wagon with all the options!
As someone who was around then, I never thought of the Eagle as anything other than a butched-up AMC Hornet. I had always kind of liked the Hornet, but once we rolled into the 1980s, the car was really, really old – it dated to 1970, ferkryinoutloud. Actually, I found them kind of friendly and comforting – puffy, roly-poly little cars in an era where everyone else was doing their styling with rulers and chisels.
Took a Concord to Guam for four years in late 1978. Only problem I had was a wiper motor. You are right about the rust. There was some of that. My nightmares with the nonexistent kammback. I think that is pretty ugly.
These were good cars IMO for the time. Left a constantly dying Olds to buy a concord and never once regretted it. A person who lives not far from me had a beige spirit wagon. I don’t know about the other engines but anyone who had a medium sized AMC with a 258 should have no complaints about normal driving duties. I think I will have to have 4wd from now on for my personal use. One of these would work pretty well.
Eagles were a huge hit for its first model year in Chicago area, with fresh memories of the 1979 Blizzards. AMC dealers were charging over sticker, and reminding people ‘you don’t want to get stuck in snow like last season!’
Then, a mild 1980 winter cooled the mania a bit.
I’ve always liked the AMC Eagle wagon, but I’ve never seen an Eagle sedan. The only thing I didn’t care for was the grille used on the Eagle. I’ve always preferred the Spirit grille. Everything else looked very nice. I used to see both when I was a boy in the 80s. Subaru 4wds are nice, but I’ve always liked the American in American Motors.
Last week I was out in the middle of the Mark Twain National Forest, on a road that goes for miles with nothing but trees. Pulling over to check on something, I heard a car coming. It was an AMC Eagle sedan like this, but in tobacco brown metallic.
The wagons are indeed much more frequently seen, so seeing a sedan is a treat.
I agree. I’ve never seen a sedan or a two door Eagle. To see either one, or both, would be a treat. 🙂
I always thought these were really odd looking – actually, all the Hornet, Concorde and Eagle sedans. I remember seeing one not too long ago.
And wow, that 2 door Cherokee Chief looks so good. A couple of tweaks and on a modern platform, that thing would sell like crazy.
I don’t think the EAGLE looks GOOD, since it’s so bizarrely jacked up, but it’s appealing. The Concorde and especially the Hornet, though, looked quite attractive. And much more modern; there was no distinct break between the A-pillar and roof life, the door handles were flush, the lights were wrap-around. All in all, it aged better than any other American compact sold alongside it. Same goes for the interior; the seats in this Eagle at least LOOK more like proper buckets than anything you’d find in a Fairmont or Nova or Malibu.
I’d love a V8 powered Hornet. 4.0 high-output Jeep engines CAN be swapped into the Eagles, but it requires some fabrication for some components and seems not worth the effort for most enthusiasts.
And as for the Cherokee, damn right it looks good.
Given the current preponderance of car-platform crossovers sitting high on their gigantic wheels as they attempt to play SUV, the Eagle’s jacked-up look now seems prescient, although in a dystopian future sort of way.
I like how it looks. I believe it would’ve lived quite well in a dystopian environment, given its relative simplicity compared to today’s cars.
I suppose it has a MadMax-iness about it. If that sedan were in bad shape, maybe a flat-black treatment would be appropriate to the car-of-my-nightmare theme.
Eagles are just straight up cool, theres no way around that. Being a Jeep fan since I can remember, I always had a soft spot for a good bit of what AMC has done. When I was a kid, I had a small fleet of Stompers. You know, those little battery operated 4x4s that you turned on and watched em climb? One of my favorites was a lime green and black SX/4. 2nd only to the white Jeep, of course.
These sedans seemed like a HUGE stretch, in terms of appeal and the sales figures prove that out. Ive never come across a Kammback, only a few 2 door sedans (a guy 2 years ahead of me in H.S. actually had one), a few doors, TONS of wagons, and a few of the holy grail SX/4s. Id love to get a nice clean SX/4 and put some kind of worked up Mopar V8 in one for the ultimate ponycar/4×4.
For those wondering how the old 258 six performs, Ive owned a CJ-7 and a Scrambler with that engine. The weight is about comparable to an Eagle so theyre matched there. Most Eagles have slushboxes, both my CJs had sticks, advantage Jeep. My Jeeps had 31 and 32 inch tires and tall highway gears (damn CAFE) so advantage Eagle. Both Jeeps had GOBS of torque down low but ran out of steam at around 55-60 mph on the freeway. My ’00 TJ with the 4.0L was a much better balanced and overall more powerful engine, but the 258 is no slouch. Ive heard of the 4.0 swaps into eagles, but an aftermarket EFI kit and the usual suspects of bolt on go fast goodies would be just as effective.
I agree. I was disappointed when Chrysler took Jeep, but threw away the Eagle. I would’ve liked to have seen it continue.
Ah, Stompers, I remember those. I had one or two but would have gladly had more; cool little toys. Never knew they had an SX/4!
I recall seeing exactly 2 kammbacks about 20 years ago, one was under a tree covered in pine needles and the other one was in the town next to mine and painted bright green .
Having spent a USAF tour at Plattsburgh Air Force Base (near Lake Placid) in upstate NY in late 70s/early 80s, I also can attest to the preponderance of Eagle products, and most everyone I knew who had one was happy with it. Subarus were just catching on and in a few years far outnumbered the Eagles.
I’ve driven several 258 engined vehicles – I’m a fan – great low end torque, very robust, but they quickly run out of steam and have somewhat poor mileage compared to other 6’s.
Plattsburgh was where I grew up; I moved right before the base closed. I miss that town dearly and feel bad about the base closure.
Great find, Perry! Growing up in Cranston, Rhode Island I often saw many of these Eagles as a child. The local druggist (yes, at one time Mom and Pop drug stores did exist) drove one of these. It was a cream and brown two-tone sedan. I always thought it had an odd, almost sinister stance but was still kinda cool in a different way. It seems like he had that car forever – I know one time I asked his wife about it and she said they loved it – they never got stuck in a snowstorm again! We have to remember this was before 4-wheel drive/SUVs were even remotely popular, and front wheel drive was just starting to become the norm on mainstream cars.
What is even more strange about my growing up around AMC’s is that we had two competing AMC dealers across the street from each other! So in my city I always saw a lot of AMC’s. There were a lot of older folks that purchased them. I remember an older lady that had a Hornet hatchback with the AMX sport package – it was bright yellow and she drove that car for years! The nuns at our local church drove a black Ambassador wagon with no woodgrain and the pastor had a triple black Concord D/L coupe that he used to smoke in – like a chimney in fact! I remember looking in it one day and the ashtray was overflowing with ashes! A close friend of the family’s Mom drove a tan V-8 Gremlin – she always bragged about how fast her little runabout was.
So for me the memories of AMC’s are great. It seems like the owners of them really enjoyed their cars. I’m sure they had their flaws but nothing is perfect, right?
You guys are making me feel old before my time.
I’ve seen all of the variations on the Eagles. My brother owned a 1983 Eagle sedan for about 20 years, it was one tough old bird, to borrow a phrase. IIRC he had over 180-200K on it when it finally would no longer pass Pennsylvania inspection.
I remember when I first saw the Eagles, I had an immediate WTF? reaction. It looked like someone literally stuck a Jeep CJ7 chassis underneath a Concord. I really didn’t understand the appeal until I experienced one. IIRC, there were no “stripper” Eagles, they all were pretty highly optioned out, as were the ones I encountered. That was one of the big selling points vs. Subarus or other trucks. OTOH, these were priced close to some of the trucks, but one forgets that SUVs were not all that common in the early 1980’s.
Jeep’s Cherokee really made the idea of an SUV as a regular car a reality. Before that most SUVs were the big Bronco/Blazer/Trailduster bruisers. Even Jeep’s Grand Cherokees (based on the early 60’s versions) were pretty huge and thirsty. The Cherokee was the right size, power and mileage for most people to adopt an AWD vehicle, the Eagle was the first version, a beta version, in a manner of speaking.
The Cherokee got it right. Regardless, I would love to have one of these, with the obligatory geozinger SBC conversion.
Well, you’re only as old as you feel.
I’m just happy I actually remember seeing a lot of these on the road. There were very few to be found in Ohio. And the sight of this car really made me want it too, but that’s more a function of the Hornet-based body and the well-optioned interior.
Actually, there’s a lovely one on eBay which has quite the interior:
Aw dangit! Now I just went and spent 30 mins looking up old Eagle stuff when I should have been working…
Thanks, Perry! 😉
PS What part of Ohio? I’m from the Youngstown area.
Granville/Columbus from 1992-2013.
Beautiful looking Eagle. I’d buy one myself if it were sold in my neighbourhood. I’ve never seen a sedan version of the Eagle, but I have seen the wagon. 🙂
crazy.. that white hornet is on carsales as we speak (or type)
As nice as the interior on this sedan is, the Limited was Brougham-tastic. What an interior!
Here’s the outside. This one was on eBay a few months back.
A very few 1988-model year Eagles were made, as the ’88s were in showrooms when Chrysler took over.
IMO the three-box Eagles just don’t look as “right” as the wagons – which a middle-school friend’s parents had two of, one with woodgrain and one without – and the SX4 which I owned in the early ’80s (in Stomper form – remember those?).
That being said it’s a shame AMC never figured out how to make a six-window out of their sedan bodyshell without slathering the result in a padded vinyl top. It would’ve looked a full generation newer with that, the deletion of the chrome filigree from the wide taillights and the standardization of the blacked-out Eagle Sport Package grille across the whole Concord/Spirit/Eagle line alone.
AMC did have plans to give the Concord one more refresh which, among other things, would have done away with the padded vinyl roof. Styling mockups were built but the ideas were never put into production.
Having rented a later-era wagon (Eagle? Concord?) in college to move the stuff out of the dorm, I was shocked at how little cargo space was actually back there. Having grown up on full size Ford wagons, I assumed a wagon would do it for the job. This AMC thing didn’t have much more room than a Pinto hatchback with the back seat folded down. High floor, narrow sides, low roof, and the steep slope of the tailgate destroyed a ton of utility. Not a real wagon, in my mind.
Technically speaking, as intoduced, this was not a wagon, but it was a Sportabout hatchback. High liftover, and a high floor, this was not a direct replacement for the Rambler wagon. It was an attempt to introduce something new. It didn’t catch on, but fit found a niche.