Curbside Classics: AMC Eagle Wagon And Sedan – “What The Hell Is This?”

(first posted 1/24/2014)    The Pacer and Matador Coupe were AMC’s Hail Mary passes. We all know how those turned out. So now what? AMC’s passenger car business was kaput, the company was essentially broke, and the development fund kitty might have just bought enough rounds of Leinenkugel at one of Kenosha’s watering holes for the executive team to thoroughly drown their sorrows. But somebody in the back shop was still coming up with ideas, and pretty radical ones at that.

Freed from having to worry about more pressing matters, a few AMC engineers led by Roy Lunn cobbled up a jacked-up Concord with a Jeep full-time AWD system. When AMC Chairman Gerry Meyers first saw it, his reaction was, “what the hell is this?” Pretty rich, coming from the guy who green-lighted the Gremlin and Pacer. But why the hell not? It’s not like we have anything else other than the Jeep Grand Wagoneer that we don’t have to practically give away. What have we got to lose? We’re as good as dead anyway.

The Eagle was green-lighted for production without any sort of proper market analysis or consumer clinics. Once the AMC brass figured out that it was something they desperately needed, they just rushed it into production.

From today’s vantage point, it’s pretty hard to imagine how different the automotive landscape was in and before 1980. No minivans, no CUVs, and SUVs were big heavy truck-based rigs with rough rides and abysmal fuel economy. Four wheel drive was something ranchers ordered on their pickups out west, except the Jeeps, of course. Audis were strictly FWD.

The Subaru wagon, which came out five years before the Eagle,  was the pioneer in offering a four wheel drive passenger car, but that was still a part-time affair that could only be engaged in non-paved roads or snow, since there was no center differential. Not that this really hindered its exceptional versatility. There’s no doubt the 4WD Subaru must have been the key inspiration on those back-room AMC engineers. They already had the perfect AWD system, it was just a matter of placing under the right vehicle.

Jeep had introduced Quadra-Trac in 1973, a full-time system based on Borg-Warner’s innovative BW1339 transfer case and central locking differential. It was inspired by the revolutionary AWD system developed by Ferguson for the Jensen FF. As utilized in the Eagle, the system used an inter-axle differential pack utilizing a multi-clutch pack encased in silicone fluid to provide automatic limited slip function between the axles. It all worked like a charm.

AMC Eagle 2 door dave saundersshot by Dave Saunders

The Eagle was truly a revolutionary car. It may have looked more than a bit silly, a Concord all jacked up and with plastic fender flares. And of course, the Eagle was a transitional vehicle leading to much more civilized small SUVs like Jeep’s own XJ Cherokee. Although the Cherokee and other SUVs were instantly “hot”, there were plenty of folks who weren’t yet ready to embrace that new fad. Plus, the S-10 Blazer, Cherokee and Bronco II were still a few years away in 1980. The Eagle created and owned a small but real market for itself, especially in snow and mountain country. It didn’t do much for AMC dealers hurting in Texas or Florida.

That’s not to say that the Eagle didn’t have its limitations. It was still an elderly Concord body sitting on stilts, and everything that implied. Meaning, mediocre space utilization and ergonomics. The Eagle really wanted something new and bold sitting on its new and bold underpinnings, but that’s what there was, and it kept the lights on in Kenosha long enough until Renault started paying for the bills.

And the other limitation was under the hood. Like the Pacer, the Eagle, which gained 300 lbs along with its AWD, suffered from the smog-strangled 258 (4.2 L) six during those pre-fuel injection years. Performance was modest at best, and the thirst was great. AMC offered fours; first the GM Iron Duke, then their own 2.5 L four beginning in 1983. In truth, hardly any were actually built with the four; they were there to allow some half-way decent EPA numbers in the ads. The Eagle was just too big and heavy for the fours, especially since the AWD system typically backed up a Chrysler automatic.

Not surprisingly, the wagon version was by far the biggest seller over the Eagles’ fairly long life from 1980 through 1987. Over 100k wagons were sold during that time.  The Gremlin-derived Spirit got the Eagle treatment too, and the odd little hatchback SX/4 (CC here) was the second biggest seller in its first year, followed by the four-door sedan, two-door sedan, and the other Spiritual oddity, the Kammback.

Undoubtedly, numerous folks have transplanted the Cherokee’s fuel injected 4.0 six into Eagles. Had that been available in the Eagle’s time, it would have really made an impact, not that the Eagle didn’t. It gave rise to the whole genre of AWD wagons and the Eagle can certainly be called the mother of all CUVs, depending on your personal definition of that rather vaguely defined acronym. Yes indeed; desperate times can be creative times, and Roy Lunn and his engineers deserve a pat on the back for their creative adaptation of what they had at hand.