Curbside Classic: 1981 Eagle Limited – The Outback Of Its Time

The Subaru Outback has created a huge genre that it essentially owns: the lifted AWD wagon. Almost 200k are sold in the US per year. It’s propelled Subaru’s relentless growth for decades, since the first Outback appeared in 1995. No one has challenged that to any meaningful degree.

But before that, there was the Eagle.

And of before that, there was the Subaru 4WD wagon. But back in the seventies, the Subaru 4WD wagon was hardly mainstream, finding its first toeholds on the American market in quirky places like the mountains of Colorado, California, Vermont and Oregon.

The Eagle—which arrived in 1980—was as all-American and mainstream as it got. It was of course an American Motors Concord with a full-time AWD (Quadratrac) system, and a healthy dose of ground clearance, a two-tone paint job, some cladding, bigger wheels and tires and fender flares to go with them.

Which was of course exactly all the things that differentiated the Outback from the regular Legacy AWD wagon. And that made all the difference in the world, as in quite likely saving the company, as Subaru was in a bad way in the early 1990s. The Eagle formula created a winner for Subaru, and it’s never looked back.

The big difference was that in its best early years, the Eagle wagon sold some 25k units, but then sales dwindled away to some 5k in 1987 and a mere 2,306 in 1988, its last year.

Why did the Eagle crash and the Outback fly? Undoubtedly for the same reasons just about every other American car line has failed: The Outback was a much more suitable package to the kind of buyers that really wanted an AWD wagon. It was more economical than the Eagle’s big thirsty 258 CI (4.2 L) pushrod six that managed all of 110 hp and had some 3,500 lbs to motivate. Subarus were high in quality like other Japanese brands; AMC struggled with that…quality. And Japanese cars were just strongly favored by the kind of demographics that were embracing the values that Subaru was pushing: Outdoorsy, natural, hip, etc..

That’s another quality American Motors struggled with, until its European-inspired Cherokee arrived in 1984. That changed everything, and the Eagle was made utterly redundant by it, which of course mostly explains its steep drop in sales after 1984. The Cherokee was effectively the first true crossover, in the sense that sucked in buyers who previously wouldn’t have considered a trucky SUV, thanks to its four doors, decent ride and handling, and space-efficient unibody construction.

I’ve covered the details of the Eagle’s curious conception and birth here, so this time, we’ll mostly admire this well-worn survivor. After 40 years, it’s showing its well-earned patina and a few other signs of aging, but its still looks quite solid overall.

This is a top of the line Limited, and I’d forgotten that these had “loose pillow” seats in leather. I didn’t get a good shot of the dash.

So here’s a brochure shot, that shows it to best advantage. My memory is that they weren’t exactly a pinnacle of quality, in terms of materials and fit. That duct under the steering wheel to the a/c outlet shows how antiquated this car was, as the Hornet dated back to 1969. AMC was the master of cobbling things up in the ’70s; the Studebaker of the times.

The back seat has obviously had fewer seat-miles.

AMC’s design history is a study in contrasts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. And the original 1971 Hornet Sportback wagon was clearly in the first category, previewing the stylistic benefits of a steeply raked rear window/tailgate. They became almost universal eventually. And it made the Eagle look more contemporary in the early eighties than it had any right to be. I can’t imagine any Big Three wagon from 1969 that could still be sold in the mid-eighties, even with AWD and a jacked up body. Can you?

This Eagle has flown too close to the sun a bit too much.

A fender-bender that wasn’t.

It’s a crossover; of brougham and Jeep.

Valle Vidal is where I’d like to be right now; it’s a pristine mountain basin in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. And that sticker was advocating for it being spared gas and oil exploration, which happened in 2006.

This is the first Eagle I’ve seen in a while, and I can’t help but wonder how much longer it’s going to be before it gets replaced by an…Outback.



CC AMC Eagle Sedan and Wagon: “What The Hell Is This?”   PN

CC 1975 Subaru 4WD Wagon   PN

CC 1984 Jeep Cherokee: AMC’s Greatest Hit, Thanks To Renault   PN

CC 1982 Eagle SX/4: The Trickster   PN