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.
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.
AMC Eagle Wagon And Sedan: “What The Hell Is This?” Paul Niedermeyer
1984 AMC Eagle Sedan: Back From The Future Brendan Saur
It’s implied that this is the car Clark Griswold had ordered before he got stuck with the Family Truckster.
With Rally Fun Pack!
Rusty, Audrey and Aunt Edna wouldn’t have all fit in the back seat of the Eagle. He was better off with the Truckster.
I always wondered if an Eagle 4WD was the implication if that scene, due in part to this scene at the station. I figured either that or something Japanese.
It’s a blue station wagon, like the car Clark ordered.
These were comfortable and solid vehicles. I always liked the wagon and 2 door sedan, as well as the Kammback Eaglett.
I owned a ’75 Sportabout and to this day feel it was the nicest styled compact of the 1970’s (second place goes to my ’77 Skylark 4-door sedan).
Sometimes styling themes come back. To me the Dodge Magnum of the mid 2000s has a similar window and roof appearance to my Sportabout a.k.a. Eagle wagon.
At the time I considered both the Concord and Eagle to be low budget desperation plays. “Wow, a Hornet with Jeep running gear.” The ultimate in parts-bin engineering.
You have shown me the error of my ways, as I had no idea how much effort went into this vehicle. I have been slowly building towards a strong liking on these, the wagons especially. And I don’t ever recall seeing one of these with the wire wheelcovers. I probably just never noticed.
This makes me wonder what might have happened if AMC had been able to do some heavy restyling to turn this into a junior Grand Wagoneer. That vibe might have been an easier sell at the prices AMC was charging for these.
Jeep had been using a full-time AWD systems (Quadra-Trac) since 1973. Other US 4×4 pickups and utilities used full time AWD also during the mid-late 70s. They all stopped doing so after some years for fuel efficiency reasons. But for some years full-time AWD was the big thing across the 4×4 sector.
All of this goes back to the Ferguson FF system, which actually built the prototype Eagle.
And the kits to convert those “full time” transfer cases to “part time” became very popular with the big advertised feature being the increase in fuel economy.
Are all of the surviving Eagle wagons brown? I can think of four I’ve seen in the last six or so years, in vastly different locations, and all were brown!
These have always intrigued me and it’s good to know specifics on them, especially the four-wheel drive system. I, too, thought it was simply plugging in various Jeep components to accomplish the result; sometimes it’s good to be wrong.
“Are all of the surviving Eagle wagons brown?”
You made me spill my coffee. But you are absolutely right.
I can’t not read that in Mr. Regular’s voice.
Seems like fake-woodies have survived out of proportion to the original take rate too.
Back in first year ’80, seemed like most were blue around here.
The ones that survive here are blue except for a couple of yellow in NorCal, When my son first saw one in the parking lot at a car show he asked why someone would do that to a Hornet wagon. I explained what it is and after he started collecting cars he nearly bought one.
I thought the deeply raked D pillar, and smaller cargo area windows, of the Sportabout/Concord/Eagle Wagon is what made the styling especially unique and attractive among 70s domestic wagons. And helped the design age gracefully.
Wire wheel covers are probably the least flattering look for this design. AMC started offering some decent looking alloy wheels around 1983-84.
I’m going to guess that the wagon uses the same rear doors as the sedan, which often leads to weird styling problems. But it works fine on this car, and those rear side windows just make it even better.
True. If you look at the Volvo 240 wagons, you can see the filler at the top that lets them use the sedan rear doors.
That’s always struck me as weird, because Volvo could have made a window frame that fit.
Nice to include a picture of the American Center in Southfield. That name stayed on the building longer after AMC ceased to exist, only somewhat recently being changed. The exit of 696 is still American Drive, though.
The Eagle emblem looks like it belongs on the end of cane – was that from Airwolf?
An eagle wagon has been on my buck list for quite a few years. I remember a friend’s mom had a blue wagon she used to deliver mail on the back roads of Michigan.
Of the car companies that failed AMC is one I wish never did. I always viewed them as rebels in the industry. Different and with innovative engineering and marketing on shoestring budgets.
I always thought this, too. Especially living on Kenosha, the heart of AMC production in the 1960s and 70s.
You have to wonder if they could have survived the way FCA is surviving today with Jeep being their real savior.
Gerry Meyers says that was the plan 40 years ago after the Pacer died in the market. Jeep and 4WD would be the breadwinners, and there would be token Hornet/Gremlin derived products to keep the dealers in the passenger car market. There was serious discussion of going Jeep only.
The 1979 gas shortage and the 1980–1982 recession kicked that plan in the teeth. AMC didn’t have competitive economy cars, and couldn’t sell expensive 4WDs with poor gas mileage.
In theory, AMC is still around, but as being a part of [Mopar] FCA. Just that Kenosha operations are long gone. Brampton plant is a surviving part, along with Jeep.
In theory, AMC is still around
I suppose one can theorize anything, but it helps to have some supporting evidence. 🙂
I just looked at the Canadian AutoTrader site. There are 10 ads currently listed as AMC.
2015 AMC Ambassador R/T (aka Dodge Journey)
1997 AMC America (aka ’97 Camaro Z28)
1995 and 1998 AMC Eagle (aka Eagle Talon)
2010 AMC Pacer (aka Pace American trailer)
Just had to share…
Than what you really mean is that Willys is still around. 🙂
Seriously, Jeep has had a number of owners, but there’s no corporate continuity from AMC to FCA.
But what about:
– Chrysler buys AMC in 1987
– Before that, Chrysler already had a deal with AMC to use their excess capacity in Kenosha to build Chrysler M body cars
– The car originally slated to debut as an AMC Premier (by some accounts, AMC/Renault Premier) becomes the Eagle Premier, and later is also sold as the Dodge Monaco.
– Chrysler names the former AMC division Jeep-Eagle, assumedly after AMC’s last car.
– A whole bunch of talented engineers and marketing people from AMC move to Chrysler, where they finally have some money to turn their ideas into products. Many accounts I have read talk about Chrysler adopting several AMC business practices
– Chrysler’s LH sedans were an evolution of the Premier design, longitudinal engine and all. Not many actual shared parts, but the design ethos was similar and the LH bears much more resemblance to the Premier than to the Dynasty/New Yorker.
Alot of whether a company that’s bought out by another company is perceived as “still being around” depends on whether the absorbing company decides to keep the former’s name. In 1956, most people would have said Nash is still around, but not in 1976, because AMC decided to continue the Nash brand for a few years after they bought or merged with Hudson. But had AMC continued the Nash marque past 1957 rather than using Rambler or AMC as marque names, Nash would have “still been around” until at least 1987. Conversely, if Chrysler had decided to phase out the Jeep name and call it the Dodge Grand Cherokee or RAM Grand Cherokee, lots of people would have considered Jeep to be gone.
If you ignore the brand names, Willys really is the one true survivor amongst the postwar independents. Remember when Nash’s George Mason wanted to make a fourth “big” American automaker by joining what at the time seemed like the strongest independents – Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker? Willys, for whatever reason, wasn’t considered. Jeep has changed hands almost 10 times and has often kept their parent company alive:
– Kaiser-Willys (merger), later renamed Kaiser Jeep
– Renault takes majority interest in AMC
– DaimlerChrysler (billed as a ‘merger of equals’ but really a Daimler buyout)
– Cerberus (holding company that bought Chrysler from Daimler)
– Chrysler goes bankrupt; US & Canadian governments, Fiat, even UAW pension holders assume joint ownership
– Fiat buys out those other interests to become FCA
Strangely, a California company picked up the American Motors trademarks in the early 2000s, but that only lasted a few years. I remember seeing their website while it was up. I think they sold car batteries under the American Motors name.
The Fiat 500 is popular in Southern California, I saw many of them this summer. Built in the factory that once made the PT Cruiser. It is sad to see what’s become of Chrysler, though.
AMC didn’t “fail” or go under like Studebaker-Packard. It got funding from Renault, then bought out by Lee Iacocca. AMC brand name was discontinued, like Hudson and Nash, but company really became Jeep and is still alive.
Studebaker Corporation quit building cars and trucks. It didn’t go broke.
It is currently still operating after a series of mergers/acquisitions. The current company name is Cooper Industries. They did not carry the car business forward after 1966 but they did get stuck in the last several years paying for some lingering environmental issues at the long-defunct South Bend auto manufacturing site.
You’ve got it backwards. As JPC pointed out, there’s still a corporate continuity from S-P to today. But none for AMC. Just because a brand gets sold, doesn’t mean its former owner “is still around”.
Part of Renault’s desire to unload AMC may have been due to Renault president Georges Besse being assassinated in 1986 by radicals. (The company had been closing plants and laying off workers in France while pumping money into AMC.)
Between the domestic problems and yet another Renault faceplant in the States, it was too much to keep going.
The weakest point of the Eagle was its engines – either underpowered fours or the gutless old groaner 258. The Jeep 4.0 Six introduced in 1987 for the Cherokee/Wagoneer would seem to have been a perfect match for the Eagle. However, I guess 1987 was too late for AMC to consider rescuing the Eagle, especially since Renault was looking to unload the company by then.
The Hornet-based Eagle wouldn’t have been competitive when most brands started offering small SUVs like the Explorer. AMC would have needed all hands on deck to get the Grand Cherokee to market sooner instead of wasting resources on the Eagle.
Another interesting thing it has in common with modern crossovers. I believe it had unibody construction, unlike most other 4wd vehicles at the time.
Once they had proof of concept, they went ahead and made the XJ Cherokee unibody.
Unibody 4WD vehicles had been around for a long time, in Europe. And of course the Subarus were unibody. The Cherokee was unibody because its was designed/engineered by Francois Castaing, who came from Renault to head up AMC’s product development.
I’m not aware of any other domestic car company making unibody 4wd cars in 1979. I don’t think they were common in Europe either. According to Wikipedia, the first crossover built by Renault was the Koleos and did not appear until 2007. They did have a 4wd minivan called the Scenic SX4 released in 2000.
Audi had the Quattro, but that did not come out until 1980.
Steyr-Daimler-Puch made a very interesting 4wd version of the Fiat Panda in 1983 but this came out after the AMC Eagle.
According to Wikipedia, the first unibody SUV with an independent front suspension was the Lada Niva, which came out in 1977, 2 years before the AMC Eagle, but the 4 door version did not come out until 1994.
I’m not sure if this is completely correct as the Subaru Leone came out in 1974 or 75, but it looked more car with 4wd than a crossover. The 1979 model somewhat resembles the 1979 AMC Eagle.
The 1970s Subaru 4WD wagons used a part-time 4WD system that worked like those often found in pickup trucks of the era; the 4WD could only be engaged in slippery conditions.
but it looked more car with 4wd than a crossover.
Sorry, but the Eagle is not a crossover; it’s a passenger car with AWD and a slightly jacked up body. Like the Audi Allroad, the current VW Alltrack wagon, the Subaru wagons, including the Outback. You’re going to call an Eagle coupe or sedan a “crossover”?
The proper definition of a crossover is that it is passenger-car based (platform/suspension/drive train) but has a unique body, which is taller (meaning actually taller, not just riding taller). The original crossover is the Lexus RX. The full story of the crossover, and its earliest use/definition is here: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-asian/curbside-classic-1998-lexus-rx-300-a-teaching-moment/
A crossover is an SUV that is passenger car-based rather than truck-based, but has a unique SUV-oriented/looking body. For instance, the Subaru Forester is a CUV, since it’s Impreza-based, but has a unique, taller body. The Outback is just a slightly jacked-up Legacy.
My real point was that giving AWD to a unibody is no big thing intrinsically. There’s nothing exceptional about it. Yes, there weren’t any production American unibody AWD vehicles because prior to the Eagle, it was all truck/truck-based utility vehicles.
The Subaru Leone was in every way comparable to the Eagle except for not having full-time AWD, and beat it by five years. It’s success undoubtedly was a key motivation for AMC to build the Eagle.
As for older European unibody AWD vehicles, I can think of a few, but I’ll just show you one obvious example below. It’s really not germane, but I can dig up others if you think it’s really relevant.
Here’s another: the 1966 Jensen FF. Unibody and AWD.
The Jensen seems like an interesting car. I never knew the British made 4wd other than Rover. Although like the Lada it only has 2 doors. The Schwimmwagen was a military vehicle and not sold to the public. I disagree about the Lexus being the first CUV, first luxury CUV yes, but the RAV4 came out in 1994, the Honda CR-V came out in 97.
The article below claims the AMC was the first “CUV” because of it’s elevated ride height. The author claims Subarus at the time did not have this. I do believe the Leone had some influence on the Eagle. As 80’s came along they ended up looking somewhat similar, so it’s possible the AMC may have had some influence on Subaru as well. It’s really hard to say what exactly a CUV is because there are conflicting definitions.
The reason unibody construction is significant is because all modern CUV are unibodies and based on cars. The SUVs that came before were body on frame and based on trucks. Modern CUV’s have 4 doors and a hatch. Early CUV’s like the Rav4 had 2 doors, but they have all but disappeared. In the 70’s only Subaru and AMC met this criteria. Although some sources claim the Subaru did not have full time 4wd.
The Jensen was not a a unibody. It had what all-par referred to as a “mini-chassis”. The second source listed described it as having a perimeter tube frame. They also made only 320 of them over 5 years, averaging about 64 per year. I am not sure that would qualify it as a mass produced car. Interestingly the BBC claims the transfer case from the Eagle was developed with assistance from the same people who developed the Jensen FF.
Paul – a minor point. The Jensen you pictured is the ordinary Interceptor. The FF has a longer wheelbase and twin vents behind the front wheels.
Pre-1979 European 4WD derived from production cars:
– Citroen 2CV Sahara (counts as a 4WD, though it got there by having a 2nd engine in the trunk)
– Peugeot 504 Dangel
– Renault 4 / 6 / 12 Sinpar
– Renault Colorale 4×4
– Ferves Ranger (based on the Fiat 500)
– Moskvich 410/411
– GAZ Volga M-22 / M-24
– GAZ 61-73 (pictured, dates back to 1941!)
– GAZ M72 Pobieda
That’s all i got right now, but I’m sure there would be more. Not all of these were unibody, I grant you, but still they’re all based on 4-door cars (except the Fiat 500) and though some were not made in huge quantities, they predate the Eagle by quite a few years — decades, even.
My mother bought a new Hornet Sportabout in 1974. It was an attractive car for its day.
We lived in Kenosha at the time and I remember when the Concord came out. Even my young, naive self could figure out the desperation involved in trying to take the Hornet and make it prettier. The interiors of the Concord were nice, though. It was odd seeing leather seats, power windows, and power seats in what still looked like a Hornet from a decade earlier.
The 1984 Eagle Limited interior:
I didn’t know this car was so sophisticated in terms of the drivetrain. The wire wheels and wood trim on the outside don’t work on a 4WD – well maybe the wood if the old Grand Wagoneer was anything to go by. It was definitely a forerunner of the Subaru Legacy Outback, Audi Allroad and the one Volvo used to make based on the V70. Lifted cars with AWD capability always look better as wagons rather than as a coupe or sedan. AMC’s last hurrah?
There was a sport trim package available too which looked much more modern, with blackwall tires and alloys (real or fake, I’m not sure), and black trim around the rear side window as shown in some of the photos above.
This black car has the sport package — changes the Eagle’s appearance considerably.
Good GOD that looks good.
I usually don’t care for blacked-out cars, but that one is really nice.
I’d say AMC bought the wire wheel covers from Buick (as they had done before with wheel covers) and used a AMC center button, look at 77-78 BuickRiviera.
I had a flirtation with the Eagle, owning a pair of them for less than a year in the late ’90s. I had noticed their kinship to the current crop of Subarus, and had the opportunity to buy a somewhat tired example. I still think the basic Hornet body is handsomely styled, and wore well over time. Anyway, I got this (ahem) brown Eagle with woodgrain, and had it a month or so when I noticed a gold and brown one (without woodgrain) at a gas station nearby. It was much nicer but needed an engine. I made a deal with the station owner to install a short block, and took it home. First drive was a disappointment, as the car wheezed and coughed, its carb still needing sorting. It never did run right, and I gave it and its brother to a friend. I still have a full set of alloy wheels for it that I never mounted, one of which is NOS and mint.
My ’08 Outback is so similar in configuration that it’s as if I still had the Eagle.
Just curious, Barry, which alloy wheel design do you have?
The 5 spoke from the SX-4. They are in my storage space, and I haven’t looked at them for a while. I was going to refinish the ones I pulled out of a junkyard while I still had the cars, then ran across the NOS one at a now defunct hub cap store in Easton, PA. I don’t believe I have a full set of centercaps for for them, and those I do have are dented, which I imagine is usually the case. The photo below is off the net (wheelcollision.com), not of my actual wheel, but the “new” one I have looks just as good.
We had these below on our ’85 Cherokee, but they were technically available only on the XJ Wagoneer and the Eagle (for a couple of years). They were never very popular, but I liked them and had the dealer switch them out.
This was a very well written article, Eric. Kudos.
Thanks very much — this was a fun article to write, too.
There weren’t a lot of these seen even in snowy Canada but I remember the people that had them were fiercely loyal.
A lot of people that did the “new car new payments” routine kept them way past their normal date for updating cars.
My folks bought one of these, an ’85, for $15K right after the ’86 came out. It was exactly like the one above, except a dark blue. I went to the Prom in it.
The most noticeable difference between 85 and 86 is that the package shelf (seen in the picture of the 84 above) was deleted for 86.
It was a nice car, and could handle sandy beaches with aplomb (shh, don’t tell my folks!). Dad sold it to a neighbor, and as far as I know, it’s still there.
My ’86 had the package shelf. I believe that Eagles (and Concords) with AC got the shelf since there were air conditioning outlets embedded in it, a carryover from the Hornet.
I have somewhat of a soft spot for these vehicles, as they were truly the last fully-developed in-house AMCs. AMC truly was ahead of the game with this, which is something to be said for a struggling automaker. One can only imagine what its successor would have looked like, or what vehicle it would have been based on had AMC continued or had Chrysler elected to introduce a successor.
I considered a new Eagle in 1984. Instead we bought an ’84 XJ, in this case, the Wagoneer (not the larger Grand Wagoneer) .
That XJ Wagoneer competed directly with the Eagle. It was designed to be more car-like, more upscale and more traditional than the Cherokee, and was aimed directly at the Eagle market.
The Wagoneer was a more modern, useful vehicle than the Eagle, quite car-like and even had the same full-time 4wd transfer case.
Imho the entire XJ line doomed the Eagle, and pushed it out of the marketplace.
I had forgotten that the XJ came out during the Eagle’s run. In an earlier comment I wondered how things might have been different if AMC had put a mini-Wagoneer body over the hardware. I think you have answered my question. It worked out marvelously. 🙂
I’ve long thought that many people who went to check out an Eagle in ’84 or later instead were enticed by the XJ Cherokees and Wagoneers in the same showroom and bought one of those instead. They were obviously far more modern in design, but car-like enough to sell to people who would never consider any of the early SUVs which were still quite trucklike and often lacked rear doors. Although the XJ is legendary for its off-road capabilities and is a true SUV rather than a mere crossover, I think many buyers treated they would a modern crossover (using the 4WD for on-road winter traction rather than off-road use) and would have bought true crossovers if any were available back then.
Always liked these. They drove and rode much like Concord but were more surefooted. They were classified as light trucks by the EPA and therefore AMC was able to pull the bumpers closer to the body and integrate them better for the 1981 models as they needn’t be 5mph affairs.
Car & Driver mag was quite smitten by these and gave them high praise. They even took a wagon and transformed into into a 4×4 Boss Wagon in the June 1980 issue. They did a bit of work on the six to get some more power, tweaked the steering for more road feel (they changed a spool valve and even gave the GM part #!!!) and ripped out the Concords overstuffed seats and installed cool Recaro-style thrones and reupholstered the back seat too and added Volvo-style headrests. It totally transformed the car! Why AMC didn’t pay attention to this and rush this into production immediately is a mystery to me, because this is what Eagle should have been from the start.
“why not rush this into production immediately ”
They simply did not have the cash lying around, and Renault wanted their own cars sold.
Those weren’t just “Recaro-like” seats but rather actual Recaros, with custom upholstery. AMC could have offered a car like the one C/D built without much expense – most of the mods involved off-the-shelf parts or easy changes (they used a gum eraser to rid the dashboard of chrome trim – C/D *hated* chrome interior accents back then until American cars got rid of the chrome and European cars started adding chrome; then C/D started liking chrome trim again). Ford offered optional Recaros in Thunderbirds and special-edition Mustangs back then. Likewise, AMC could have easily factory-installed the aftermarket stereo, electronics, wheels, and suspension parts themselves.
When I was growing up during the 80s, my next door neighbor had one of these in the exact same color as the featured car. They moved away circa late 1989 or early 1990; I have no idea what ever became of them or their wagon (which they still had when they left).
Growing up in the 80s, these were super rare, super weird, and super cool. Haven’t seen one in person for years around here, though. Thanks for the article!
I had a 1986 Eagle years ago. I don’t know if it was due to a supply problem or other issue, but that year all Eagles came with an open center differential in the transfer case instead of the viscous coupling. If one wheel lost traction the car would sit there and helplessly spin that one wheel. (The viscous coupling returned for ’87 and ’88 models.)
That was an odd retrograde move. But are you sure the viscous coupling returned in ’87 and ’88?
According to this AMC enthusiast site, the open differential was, in fact, for 1986 only. Under the 1987 model year, this site says “Model 129 transfer case is back” — that’s the transfer case that debuted with Select Drive in 1981.
Yes. I did a bit of looking since I posted that comment, and sure enough. I find it utterly baffling that they would have made this change, given how it was a rather key component of the system.
The only advantage I can think of is that with an open differential, the car can be driven in 4wd mode on dry pavement, whereas with the Select Drive viscous set-up, it cannot. (At least I think this is true).
This is one possible theory for why the open differential came out in ’86: Eagle’s Select Drive added shift-on-the-fly capability for 1985, so maybe AMC saw a number of cases of drivers forgetting their cars were in 4wd, and then causing damage to their differentials. Then AMC decided the open differential would be a better fit for the Eagle. But after it was produced, consumers complained that the traction wasn’t as good… so the viscous coupling returned for ’87.
That’s just a guess. Or maybe it was a supply issue, like Inspector Gadget said. Regardless, it was a pretty odd move.
As confusing as it can get with all the different permutations of Jeep four wheel drive systems, I do know that was not an issue. The Selec-trac was just an evolution of the Quadra-trac, which allowed switchable 2WD. But the AWD was definitely usable as continuous AWD. We had a ’85 Cherokee with Selec-trac, and it could be used either way permanently. In fact, ours stayed in 4WD for much of its life, because Stephanie “felt safer” in it in the wet winter. And it had the viscous clutch.
I started leaving it in 2WD when I started using it, to my regret. I took a neighbor and our boys skiing in the Sierras in it, and it snowed on the way up. We got to a CHP chain control, and had to stop. I flipped it into 4WD right there at the control stop, and when I tried to take off, I couldn’t barely get going due to no drive to the front wheels!! What a bummer.
I had to drive back to the next town and buy chains. What a let-down. It turns out that there’s a little pin that connects the 2WD-4WD switch lever on the console to a vacuum servo that connects to the transfer case. That little stupid pin had fallen out. And it turns out I could have easily improvised a fix with a piece of heavy wire or a thin nail, but I didn’t even try to crawl under it in the snow.
This neighbor was a true jinx. After we moved to Oregon, they came up to visit a couple of times. The first time we took a drivein the country in our two cars, Stephanie and his wife in the Caravan, and he and I and two of the boys in the Jeep. On that little excursion, the transfer case totally croaked!!
And the next time they cam eup, I took him and our boys on a camping trip in the Caravan, and it started overheating on a pass to our destination. It had never gotten hot before. We had to turn back and camp in the valley.
BTW, this guy always assumes the worst is about to happen; a major pessimist. I’ve never taken him anywhere in our cars again!
Well, there goes that theory!
In that case, I’m leaning towards a supply issue. Maybe the world’s supply of liquid silicone was suddenly depleted just before the 1986 model year…
It must have gone somewhere else.
It seems to me I’ve read that the open diff was only 1986, but I certainly could be mistaken. A quick search did turn up this reference to only 1986 Eagles using the NP128 open diff transfer case::
I did find that in practice it was pretty rare to actually spin a wheel and the few times it did happen rocking the car a bit would enable it to regain traction.
I did a bit of fairly mild off-roading in my stock ’85 Cherokee with Selec-trac, and there were a few times when I counted on that VC to work properly. Which it did. Not as good as locking diffs, but it worked well enough.
Frankly, having an open center diff on a 4WD without limited slip/locked axle diffs is really not much different than…1 wheel drive. If that one wheel can’t find traction, you’re stuck.
Frankly, it just seems like a really bad move to take that out. And I guess they realized that too.
Yeah, I’ve never read of a reason for that 1-year change. Cost? Supply issue? Why change back for the very limited ’87 and ’88 production run? Beats me. There’s probably some long-forgotten AMC internal company memorandum on it.
I know what you’re saying about 1-wheel drive with that setup, but I never got stuck with my ’86 under bad weather conditions that would have had my old rear-drive Hornet slipping and sliding all over the place. I guess having the torque spread over all 4 wheels helped despite the open center differential.
Knowing what we know now, the Eagle probably should have been given a Jeep grille and marketed as a Jeep. The dated body would have seemed modern next to the CJ’s and the big Wagoneer and Cherokee.
I came across an article from 1982 (when AMC was discontinuing its 2WD cars) that indicated the Eagle would be re-branded a Jeep rather than live as the one-and-only AMC product. That didn’t happen, perhaps because the company was skittish about diluting the Jeep brand with a “car,” and perhaps because some folks thought it would compete too much with the then-planned XJ Cherokee.
In hindsight, if the Eagle had been redesigned (even a little bit), and sold from the outset as a Jeep, it would probably have been much more successful. Without a redesign, though, a Jeep Eagle would have faced the same “It’s-Obviously-A-Concord” image problem that it had as an AMC.
It would have been so easy to badge engineer a “Jeaple”!
Or a Jeegle. Which sounds kind of like a creature from Lord of the Rings. 🙂
You could drive all the way to Morrrrrr-Dorrrrrr
That looks a lot better than the real thing.
If they had started building it like that, it might still be with us with only headlight re-design. My favorite 4WD vehicle came about after Bill Harrah put a Ferrari 365 2+2 GT front clip, including V12 on a Jeep Wagoneer. Friends wanted one and he had his shop build a few, but with stock Jeep front metal.
The dash pics make me think of my grandfather’s 74 Gremlin, 77 Hornet hatchback, 81? Spirit hatchback, and the 75 Gremlin that my dad sold after less than a year because it was a lemon. My grandpa loved AMC cars, my dad tried one and never went back.
I would drive an Eagle wagon as a beater but a Gucci Hornet wagon would really get my interest. Great post.
Fantastic piece, Eric – I now have even more respect for these cars. Still a great-looking basic design.
I never would have guessed “AMC Eagle” by yesterday’s clue of the wire wheel cover.
Thanks — As soon as I saw that Eagle parked, I was excited to get the chance to write one up. But my big hope was that it was an ’88 model, just for the rarity factor. The ’88s outlasted American Motors, and as far as I know didn’t even have any AMC badging on them… just Eagle badges. Maybe someday I’ll find one!
Not really related to the Eagle, but when did North Carolina change its license plates from “First in Flight” to “First in Freedom”?
In 2015, though it was not a general re-issue, so the older designs are still on the road.
Incidentally, the “First in Flight” design and slogan was extremely long-lived for a license plate. It came out in 1982, so it was used for over 30 years, which is pretty remarkable.
I was born in North Carolina and I actually remember when my parents had to replace their old license plates with the “First in Flight” ones. I’m kind of surprised I can remember because only would have been 2 years old in 1982, but maybe they didn’t reissue them for everyone until a few years later. I took one of the old plates and attached it to me Big Wheel trike (with help from Dad, I’m sure), which is probably the main reason I remember.
You have the choice of getting either first in flight or first in freedom plates. For an extra charge you can get first in forestry or other associated blue ridge parkway or forestry plates. I live in the mountains in wnc so I see them all.
It took Subaru awhile to gain some respect. AMC just didn’t have enough time or money to wait that long.
Wondering if/when someone was going to remember the Car and Driver article…!! (Thanks Frank)
You are welcome! C&D really liked this car, and I still have the Feb. ’80 copy with the full review. At the end they said “The Eagle has landed, and is about to scream!” Predicting big things for AMC’s 4WD division. In hindsight, we know know that it was just another flash-in-the-pan from AMC. Sadly. Could have been so much more.
4WD turned out pretty well for AMC.
For the Jeep brand, yes, but the Eagle 4×4 passenger line did not do nearly as well.
What hurt Eagle sales also was the mild winter of 1980. The previous year was one of the worst in Chicago area, and fall ’79 had some eager to get an Eagle for winter.
When hardly any snow fell, buyers stuck with their older cars. That and awful recession/high interest rates.
I knew an engineer who owned one of these back in the 1980s, in Central Indiana when I was a co-op student at Delco Electronics. He ended up selling it, because he said that it went into reverse at highway speeds on two different occasions (or maybe something locked up in the drivetrain). It scared him so much that he got rid of it shortly thereafter.
Two of these Eagle wagons (in brown! 😉 ) used to inhabit the same driveway in our neighborhood until about 5 years ago. One appeared to be immobile, but the other one changed places every so often. Pity I never saw it out & about.
I assumed that they were late 70s or early 80s at the newest. Had no idea they were offered up to 1988.
Eagle production ended in Dec. 1987 after a handful of ’88 models. Pretty remarkable for a design that debuted in fall ’69 as a new ’70 model (the original hornet 2 & 4dr, joined by the wagon sportabout in ’71).
I always thought it weird that when the Sportabout wagon bodystyle was added to the Hornet lineup, it didn’t have a true tailgate that was even with the loadfloor. Instead it was more like a hatchback. Luckily for AMC all of the other American car companies had abandoned the compact station wagon wagon until Chrysler brought out their much larger Volare and Aspen wagons for the 1976 model year.
I would imagine that the reason for the Sportabout not having a hatch opening that came down to the floor would be that in 1973 the Hornet hatchback coupe debuted, and it also has the same leftover height. There was likely a significant savings using some shared tooling for both.
Interestingly, magazines at the time published rumours the Eagle would be replaced with an AWD Medallion, as the Renault 21 was available with AWD in Europe. Alas, it never came to pass.
The Medallion had a short, weird life in the US. It was introduced as the Renault Medallion just before Chrysler bought AMC, and then quickly discontinued. It then was brought back as the Eagle Medallion, but again is sold terribly and was quickly discontinued this time for good. Was this the last conventional wagon (not a crossover with a separate body from the sedan) that had a forward-facing 3rd row seat?
Strange about the hubcaps being ! I have had the opinion that the RWD Chrysler Fifth Avenue from the 80’s used the same taillights as the 75-76 Buick LeSabre. I’ve never tried to exactly match them up, but they look awfully similar. GM supplying parts to other corporations is probably not completely unprecedented, I would guess it’s more common for unseen mechanical parts.
It’s done all the time. The Eagle used GM Saginaw steering gear, GM Delco alternator, Ford ignition system, Ford starter, Ford dome light, and Chrysler automatic transmission with a Ford floor shifter. (Probably other stuff as well.) The early Jeep XJ offered a Chevrolet V6 engine before the 4.0 was introduced. I’ve seen pics of fancy AMC hubcaps where if you remove the AMC logo in the center the Buick logo is underneath.
I had a mechanic friend who said that AMC’s biggest internal department must have been Brackets & Adapters.
I always liked these cars, but it was too little, too late. The original Hornet Sportabout wagons from the 1970s were good cars in their day, but by the 1980s they were well past the sell-by date, all the name and trim changes notwithstanding. The Eagle desperately needed a restyled modern body and a new engine to be anything more than a minor player.
I had spent some time with a used 1970s Sportabout at about the time the new ones were sold as Eagles with the 4WD. The car was much thirstier than its smallish size indicated, and was not very comfortable inside. The interior proportions were all weird, it was like sitting inside a cramped tunnel with the ceiling a few inches too low. It just didn’t feel like a modern car in the early 1980s. There was no way I would have been interested in a new version of this car at the time, especially at premium prices. The new 4WD feature was nice, but not essential. In those days most people weren’t used to 4WD passenger cars yet, unlike today.When Subaru and Toyota 4WD wagons appeared, they had strictly niche appeal too. But by then it really was over for AMC.
I always wondered why AMC never installed the 4.0 liter six used in the Cherokee XJ, they could have had a domestic Audi Quattro. That engine would have almost doubled the Eagles’s horsepower and really transformed the car.
The early 4.0 blocks had the mounting bosses needed for the Eagle’s front differential, so it’s possible that it was considered.
The last time that I saw one of these was last year in a store parking lot……it was badly beat up, but still going, apparently. The color of it was (drumroll please)…….BROWN!!
Learned to drive in one of these in the mid-eighties. Same brown with leather as the feature vehicle, but a sedan. Loved that car, but considering I was 11 at the time, probably would have thought anything was cool (yes, we learned things earlier in the country, BTW.)
Ironically, a few years ago I was driving an Outback almost identical to the one pictured as well, just a deeper shade of red. What goes around comes around, right?
“Everything in the world has already been invented. The fax machine is just a waffle iron with a phone attached.” – Grandpa Simpson
My parents used to let me drive Grandpa around in his Delmont 88 at the age of 13. Heck, I was younger than the car. That was amazingly fun. Now that I’m older I’d rather not drive anyone around.
Very enjoyable article. I’ve always thought Dick Teague and his folks did a nice job styling these Concords and Spirits.
These Eagle wagons were very popular in upstate NY – saw quite a few in the Lake Placid area during a military tour in early 80s. But I remember they were pricey – almost as expensive as a luxury vehicle and it was difficult to pay that premium when it was pretty clear where their roots were from. I opted for a smaller and cheaper 4WD Subaru wagon – that would also churn right through the snow.
Looking to get my ’87 Eagle sedan out of storage this fall. This car refused to get stuck in the snowfall of 50″ over 10 days we had in 2010 in MD.
Awesome article Eric. It’s great that when you write articles on some of these more “unloved” cars of the past you still manage to put a positive spin on them. Keep up the great writing!
Thanks Vince! I do enjoy writing about the unloved…?
I didn’t know Ferguson (aka FF developments) of Jensen FF fame did the 4wd system until reading about the Eagle.
Just checked wikipedia, no mention of the Eagle or the Ford Sierra Sapphire Cosworth 4×4 (which I already knew about) under FF’s projects.
Wikipedia only mentions the Chevy/GMC Astro/Safari van, the prototype Jaguar XJ220 and the non 4wd McLaren F1 transmission.
On the Jensen FF wikipedia page my mind was blown by the fact that a 426 Hemi powered car was built in 1968.
I wonder if the car still exists, perhaps the Hemi was pulled and sold as a regular 383 powered production car.
I adding this car to my list of cars that I’d build if I won the lottery.
Twin turbo 426 Hemi, Tremec 6 speed and LSD equiped Dana 44’s at each end in a donor Intercepter shell, unsure about custom build suspension or use a Viper as a donor for the suspension or perhaps the whole chassis.
High speed suspension issues and the cost of purchasing/importing (paying the duty/tax?) the Hemi to Britain was the reason only one car was built in 68.
I thought it would be obvious that there would suspension issues, It would also be a lot of fun to test!
Ha! My car is famous! I wish I would have known. I would have cleaned the inside up a little. Those electric heat warmers were a life saver though.