Curbside Classic: 1981 AMC Eagle SX/4 Series 50 – This Bird Has Earned Its Wings

011 - 1981 - '83 AMC Eagle SX4 Series 50 CC

(first posted 4/12/2016)    On the Friday night before my most recent, February trip to Las Vegas, this hatchback greeted me in front of my favorite, neighborhood pizzeria on my walk home from the L after work.  It was still in the middle of winter, and the lack of daylight in the PM hours stood in sharp contrast to bright late-afternoons as of this writing in April.  Even with its black paint amid this evening’s darkness, this Eagle stood out like some sort of exotic bird that hadn’t migrated south for the winter.  These cars aren’t getting any more plentiful on the ground.

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Paul Niedermeyer has already covered the ’81 Eagle SX/4 here, in a post from 2011 – which is a great read for much factual information on this unique product.  I’m not actually sure if this particular car is an ’81 – it could just as easily be an ’82 or an ’83, which was the last year for this bodystyle.  The featured liftback shared its “Series 50” designation with the Gremlin-descended “Kammback” two-door hatchback sedan.  Both Series 50 bodystyles were on the same 97.2″ wheelbase, which was 1.2″ longer than the Spirit on which they were based.  The “regular” sedan and wagon variants of the Eagle were called “Series 30”, and were produced from 1980 for the two- and four-door sedans and the wagon, with the two-door notchbacks disappearing after ’82, and the four-door sedans after ’87.  The Eagle wagon held on through ’88 as part of Chrysler Corporation’s newly-formed Eagle Division before it departed after selling a nominal 2,305 units that year.  All Eagles were four-wheel-drive.

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As for the SX/4 featured here, its first sales year, ’81, was its strongest – with over 17,000 sold with prices starting at $6,717 (about $18,400 in 2016) for cars with the base engine, a Pontiac-sourced 2.5L four-cylinder.  A combined total of just over 30,000 SX/4s were built over three model years before the Series 50 was retired after selling just over 2,200 units for swan-song ’83.

1979 AMC Spirit GT ad

I was a young kid when the Spirit liftback on which this Eagle was based was introduced.  Before I had learned to make fun of AMC cars from my siblings and kids with whom I went to school (and before I had unlearned to do so and had chosen just to like what I like), I always thought the Spirit looked great.  Later on in grade school, I came to recognize the Spirit liftback as a reasonably modern-looking car with a great greenhouse (I loved that the shape of the rear, side windows echoed those of the Matador coupe, which I also liked), pleasing horizontal taillights, and a nicely-sloping front fascia.  A contemporary Javelin or Mustang-competitor it wasn’t, but the Spirit’s styling seemed to include all kinds of special touches, like the disk-shaped rear side-marker lights.

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Visually, the only things that seemed a little “off” to me were that the front still seemed a little blunt, and the free-standing bumpers weren’t executed as gracefully as some Big Three offerings which featured smoothly integrated, body-colored bumper covers.  It didn’t matter that the Spirit didn’t take your breath away with its beautiful styling.  That it was simply an attractive, new-ish design from AMC with no hideous or polarizing features made it stand out and a stylistic success for simply just those reasons.  Admiring the Spirit liftback was almost like going to a movie with friends that you expected to be absolutely terrible from the previews, but when you wound up actually liking it, it gained your respect in the process.

Rough Riders 4X4

As for the aesthetics of the Spirit-to-Eagle-SX/4 conversion (utilizing AMC’s Quadra-Trac 4WD system), the raised height of the Eagle conspired with the short wheelbase to give the liftback slightly cartoonish proportions.  Getting past that, though, I came to really like the SX/4.  To my young mind, its elevated stance and giant wheels made the Eagle SX/4 resemble one of those Matchbox “Rough Riders 4X4” toy cars that would appear in commercials between my Saturday morning cartoons.  It has been documented at Curbside Classic how much I loved my Matchbox cars.  Check out the white car in the middle row on the far right.  Look familiar?

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As a counterpoint to less-sympathetic views I have read about these cars, I feel that time has been good to the SX/4, and also that it has become much less of an automotive punchline that it might have been for some in the past.  As evidence of this, I’ll conclude by relating a brief exchange I witnessed on the night I took these pictures.  This car was parked roughly two blocks south of Loyola University’s North Shore campus.  Part of what I love about living in this neighborhood is both the diversity of the families who live here, and also the youthful energy the college students bring to this area.

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As I was photographing this car, a group of four gentlemen who appeared to be students of east Asian descent were passing on the sidewalk, speaking a language that was unfamiliar to me.  In the midst of their conversation, I heard “AMC Eagle” from one of them.  They all looked at the car, nodded appreciatively, and continued in their conversation without missing a beat.  I had no idea what they were saying about the car, but context clues led me to believe it was something positive as there was no derisive laughter or tone of voice that peppered their speech as they passed by.  And for that, this SX/4 deserves your respect – for being an example of the last, new, all-American bodystyle of passenger car that came off the line in Kenosha, and also just for having made it into 2016.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, February 5, 2016.

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