Curbside Classic: 1986 AMC Eagle Wagon – Ahead Of Its Time, And Behind The Times

(first posted 10/25/2017)     Some cars are ahead of their time; some are behind the times.  The AMC Eagle was both.  Its overall shape and four-wheel drive system foreshadowed crossover vehicles that would dominate the marketplace decades later.  Yet it was far from modern, with underpinnings traced to a car engineered a decade earlier.  The Eagle’s odd flight through automotive history would have ended in obscurity had the idea of a slightly elevated, 4wd wagon not proved to be so prescient.  This was a proto-crossover, though no one knew it at the time.

By the late 1970s, only a completely new car could have saved American Motors, but the company’s financial troubles made that nearly impossible.  Out of necessity, AMC occasionally reskinned existing models instead – a process that led to the 1978 Concord.  That’s where our Eagle story begins.

When introduced, the Concord itself was already an old car.  It was a mildly updated version of the compact Hornet, which had been sold since 1970.  Marketed as a luxury compact, AMC hoped Concord would get the cash-strapped company through another few years, and as one executive noted, “the Concord is our reaction to downsizing and manufacturers who offer Buick nameplates on Hornet-sized cars.”

At AMC’s Southfield, Michigan headquarters, officials soon realized that fighting the Big 3 head-on like that wouldn’t work.  After Renault acquired 46% of AMC, the company articulated a different strategy to remain afloat.  This plan focused on three “specialty segments” – Jeeps; small cars (from Renault); and our featured car, the 4wd Eagle.  The idea was to stake out territory where AMC could sell cars unmolested by its bigger competitors, turn a profit doing so, and then develop new models.

Developing a 4wd compact car was hardly a spontaneous decision, as AMC Engineering VP Roy Lunn had experimented with 4wd concepts through much of the 1970s.  Lunn and his colleagues hoped the Eagle would satisfy “a latent but burgeoning demand for on-road vehicles that can handle off-road conditions.”

In simplest terms, the Eagle was a Concord with 4wd.  This became a hurdle to overcome, since with its conservative design and luxury accoutrements, the Concord hardly looked like an innovator.  Like Concord, the new Eagle was available in 2-door, 4-door and wagon formats, but raised 3” to accommodate the front drive axle.  The Eagle also rode on 15” wheels, and featured Kraton fender flares and lower bodyside moldings because of its 2” wider track.

Given the Eagle’s dated Hornet/Concord origins and its parent company’s financial afflictions, one would assume that its 4wd system was unsophisticated.  The truth was exactly the opposite; AMC created what was likely the most advanced 4wd system of its day.

Eagle featured a modified version of Jeep’s Quadra-Trac system, which itself was rather advanced.  Modified by the English firm FF Developments (who engineered a similar system for the rare Jensen FF), the Eagle’s Quadra-Trac contained a viscous coupling limited-slip differential within the transfer case, the first mass produced car to feature such a set-up.  Power was directed to those wheels with greater traction, like many modern 4wd and traction control systems.  Furthermore, the viscous coupling acted as a rudimentary anti-lock braking device, since it reduced wheel slippage upon deceleration as well.

An Eagle’s viscous coupling contains dozens of perforated clutch plates rotating in liquid silicone and attached to either the front or rear driveshaft.  The silicone, about as thick as honey, enables the plates to spin freely under normal driving circumstances, and permits a small difference in wheel speed, such as when the car turns.  However, when a significant difference in wheel speed occurs (i.e., wheel slippage), the plates spin at different rates, causing a shear effect that quickly thickens the silicone, effectively locking the driveshafts together.

AMC tried to convince the public to view 4wd differently than before.  As its Eagle press release noted: “It’s a totally new dimension in the automotive field – a marriage of the luxury and convenience of a compact car and the superior traction and handling characteristics inherent in four-wheel-drive vehicles.”  The question then was whether buyers would be willing to take the vows.

Sales initially surpassed expectations.  AMC started by producing 250 Eagles per day, and increased output by 60% within a few months (displacing Pacer production in the process).  For a while, it looked like AMC would exceed its 50,000 Eagles-Per-Year forecast, and many Snow Belt AMC dealers reported 5-month wait lists.  And then… everything… slowed… down.

A deep recession sent overall US car sales south in the Spring of 1980.  This was cruelly ironic for AMC, for historically the company succeeded during recessions when its smaller, efficient cars became more appealing.  In 1980, however, the tables were turned.  AMC’s best product was a relatively costly and thirsty vehicle whose best attribute was 4wd – hardly a necessity among most consumers.  With a base price $1,000 more than the Concord and a 2 mpg fuel economy penalty, Eagle was poorly suited to a recession with unstable gas prices.

Accordingly, AMC changed its marketing approach in several subtle ways.  First, that revolutionary 4wd system was tweaked.  Quadra-Trac became Select Drive (optional in ’81 and standard thereafter), meaning that 4wd was no longer full-time, but instead was selected by a dashboard switch.  While seemingly a regression in engineering terms, standard 2wd increased Eagle’s fuel mileage.

AMC offered a more efficient engine as well.  To supplement 1980’s straight-6, for 1981 AMC also offered a version of GM’s 4-cylinder Iron Duke engine, though it was completely overmatched by Eagle’s 3,300-lb. curb weight.  Four-cylinder engines remained standard – but a rare choice – on Eagles through 1984.

The company then hatched two new eaglets.  With the original Eagle being a bit costly and stuffy, AMC sought out 18-34-year-olds with the SX/4 and Kammback models.  These cars blended the Gremlin-based Spirit with the Eagle’s 4wd system.  This approach wasn’t as successful as planned, and both models lasted only two model years.

Note: Does not include SX/4 or Kammback models.

These were all good moves, and given AMC’s financial situation, were probably the best that could be done.  But none of it helped.  With all 3 body styles combined, 1980 production topped 46,000 – close to AMC’s goal of 50,000 sales.  Dealers, however, were left with unsold inventory after the initial demand faded, which suppressed 1981’s production.  1982’s overall figures crawled to about 27,000, and by that time it was clear that Eagle was not AMC’s savior.

Despite the creativity of its 4wd system, the rest of the car was an unabashedly 1970s product, competing in the increasingly competitive 1980s – at a premium price, no less.

Throughout the Eagle’s lifetime, wagons were consistently the best sellers, accounting for three-quarters of total sales.  Given the Eagle’s utilitarian nature, wagons meshed more smoothly with the concept than did the other two body styles.  Our featured car, a 1986 model, is one of 8,217 Eagles produced for that year (6,943 of them wagons).

In its later years, the Eagle lived in suspended animation.  Occupying its own little market niche, it drew a secure but dwindling number of faithful each year it hung around.  And hang around it did – with the last (1988) Eagles outlasting AMC itself, which was purchased by Chrysler four months beforehand.

Though largely outdated, Eagles were not without their merits.  For buyers who wanted a traditional American car – not a truck, and not a Japanese product – with 4wd, Eagle was the only car that fit the bill.  It was comfortable, reliable, relatively rust-resistant… and completely unique in its day.

Most Eagles were fitted with AMC’s 258 cu. in. (4.2-liter) straight-6 engine mated to a 3-speed Chrysler transmission (manuals were also offered after 1980).  Though rather aged, the 258 was quiet and smooth – but not powerful, even for its era.  Smog regulations had squeezed much of the 258’s power so that by 1980, the Eagle developed only 110-hp, barely enough to push a 3,300-lb wagon to 60 mph in about 14 seconds.

Once underway, Eagles delivered a comfortable, domestic-feeling ride.  Eagle’s suspension was somewhat firmer than that of a Concord thanks to stiffer springs and shocks, though with a rear leaf-spring setup, there was no mistaking an Eagle for a sportscar, and the car leaned noticeably in turns.  Eagles excelled, of course, when the going got rough.  Reviewers marveled at how the car kept its composure on wet, or even icy pavement – quite a novelty at the time.

For many consumers at the time, the concept of a 4wd car was somewhat baffling.  Car and Driver called the Eagle a “grown-up Subaru,” but the then-small niche of 4wd passenger cars was still a few years away from acquiring grown-up tastes.  That would come eventually, but too late for the Eagle.

The Eagle also baffled US government agencies.  Instead of a passenger vehicle, the EPA deemed it a Light-Duty Truck and NHTSA classified it as a Multi-Purpose Vehicle.  While this was mostly of academic interest, Eagle was exempted from some safety requirements.  For example, it exceeded bumper-height standards, and later Eagles like this 1986 model were not required to have center brake lights that were then mandated for passenger cars.

Few changes emerged through Eagle’s nine model years.  The easiest way to spot a later model from an earlier one is by the hood – in 1985, the “power bulge” hood appeared, and the hood ornament vanished.  Wheel designs changed as well, as did minor trim, but overall, the 1980 Eagle was nearly identical to the 1988 model.

By 1986, the Eagle had become a relic.  It lived long enough, though, to see its general concept gain acceptance.  Subaru 4wds gained popularity throughout the Eagle’s lifespan, and further refined the concept of mainstream 4wd cars.  The Toyota Tercel, Honda Civic and Dodge (Mitsubishi) Colt wagons all offered 4wd traction and wagon utility by 1986.  And those cars all cost significantly less than the Eagle.  1986 Eagle prices started at $10,615, while a fully-loaded wagon could break the $17,000 mark – nearly in Audi 4000 Quattro range.  Suffice to say, Eagle customers didn’t buy due to value, but due to preference.

This car is a Limited wagon: For an extra $690, the Limited package provided leather seats, a nicer steering wheel, some upgraded trim, and wire wheel covers.  This car also features most significant options, such as air conditioning, automatic, cassette stereo and cruise control.  The interior is a comfy-looking place, particularly for those who like cushioned upholstery and lacquered-looking fake wood.  Front seats appear to be a bench, but they are really two oversized buckets nestled together.

On the outside, our featured car’s most notable option is the woodgrain trim, a $160 standalone selection.  Consumers who disliked wood and wire wheel covers could instead opt for the Sport package, which delivered blackout trim, 4×4 decals, and alloy wheels.

This particular car has led a well-travelled life.  A dealership sticker indicates it was sold in South Dakota; yet it sports a North Carolina registration, and was photographed in New York’s North Country.  Adding more intrigue to this car’s story is that it has a metric speedometer, though this could have resulted from an owner swapping the instrument cluster, rather than from being a Canadian-market car.

While Eagle may not have succeeded in its nearly impossible mission of saving American Motors, its legacy shines brightly.  The public has long since embraced the Eagle’s signature 4wd.  Furthermore, this car’s overall shape – once considered ungainly and hard to figure out – isn’t unusual any longer.  SUVs like AMC’s own Cherokee, and 4wd wagons like Subarus and Tercels eventually coalesced into… well, high-sitting utilitarian-looking wagons with chunky design features.  Just like the Eagle.

It’s hard to look at an Eagle and not think about how it was a forerunner of now-omnipresent CUVs and crossovers.  While the Eagle petered out before its self-created market segment became popular, it pioneered the concept of a mainstream, comfort-oriented 4wd vehicle.  While a prescient concept, the Eagle’s Hornet roots and underpowered-yet-thirsty engine were impossible obstacles to overcome at the time.  Still, for a car developed on a shoestring budget by an ailing manufacturer, pioneering a future market segment is quite a claim to fame.


Photographed in Watertown, New York in July 2017.


Related Reading:

AMC Eagle Wagon And Sedan: “What The Hell Is This?”   Paul Niedermeyer

1984 AMC Eagle Sedan: Back From The Future   Brendan Saur