(first posted 4/25/2011) Picture this: Mid 1976. A young man just out of high school. Landing a good job that requires a 50 mile round trip every day. And he does it in a 1974 Cougar XR-7 with the massive Ford 460 under the hood. Sound like a dream commute? Not to this 18 year old, especially since the girl in the ad didn’t come with my car. The Cougar was getting 8 – 10 MPG driving through the thick Los Angeles traffic. And with gas just passing the (gasp!) 70 cent per gallon mark, I felt I had to do something. Quickly.
Flashback. Two years prior, my father and I observed our yearly ritual, attending the Los Angeles Car Show. I can only remember one car we saw that year. It was at the AMC section of the Convention Center, and it was a beautiful red Pacer.
For a gangly 6 foot 4 inch kid, a small car that looked like it actually might fit his frame was an irresistible draw. I got the presenter’s attention on the stage, and asked him about the interior room. He spoke into the microphone and invited me up on the rotating platform. I towered over him.
“How tall are you, son?” he asked. “Six-four, sir.” “This car is designed for people like you, Here, sit.” He opened the door and I sat down.
Incredible! The amount of room inside! I thanked the man. Dad and I continued through the auto show. I was enthusiastic about the new Pacer, probably selling a few Pacers for the local dealers that day.
Back to 1976. Thinking back to that experience, I paid a visit to the local AMC dealer where I struck a deal on a beautiful new 1976 Pacer D/L. White over blue, two-tone. Bucket seats. Floor shift 3 speed automatic. And the 258 c.i. straight 6 engine. I sold the Cougar to a co-worker and had enough to make a great down payment on the Pacer. A 2 year loan was all that was required.
My friends looked at me like I’d lost my mind. A Pacer? What were you thinking? A pregnant Volkswagen? I heard them all. But I was very happy with my purchase. The interior room was marvelous. The drawbacks? It was slow, and gas mileage was only 14-15 MPG.
WHAT? I purchased a small car only to gain 4 MPG over my Cougar? Something’s not right. I went back to the dealer and had it checked out. Everything checked out right and I went on my way, puzzled. I think the best I ever saw was 16 MPG. And the highest I ever saw on the speedometer was 85 MPH. Downhill. Thinking about that now, most of it had to do with the weight of the car, over 3,300 lbs! The Pacer was 220 lbs heaver than a Mercedes 240D, which was considered a large car.
I liked the uniqueness of the Pacer, so the next 3 years, my Pacer and I were inseparable. We went everywhere together. I had a mobile DJ business before they were in vogue, so I carried all my sound equipment and records in the back of the Pacer. With the rear seat folded down, it was more than up to the task.
One weekend I went to a church camp where I had been hired to DJ the Saturday night dance. After unloading my sound gear, I drove the Pacer over by the large tent I had been assigned to sleep in. When night came, 5 other young men and I had just settled in when we heard the first raindrops on the old ripped tent. I grabbed my sleeping bag and headed for my trusty Pacer. With the back seat folded and the front passenger seat folded flat, I slept soundly and dry while my tent mates were getting wet.
I’m still not sure how I was able to attract dates driving that car. The looks my Pacer and I got were devastating at times.. The closest comparison is a 1950s button-down businessman looking down on a beatnik. A disdainful look.
Fortunately, as stated earlier, I did not have to take out a long-term loan on the Pacer. Just under 3 years after I bought it, I was driving down I-5 when the engine started to roar. I made it home and immediately called the local dealer to make an appointment.
The verdict came back. The manifold had a hole blown in it. A death sentence for the 258. I looked at the estimate, and made a hasty decision to head in to the showroom and see what was available. This particular dealership had recently become a dealer for a new line of Japanese cars, and I drove out of the dealership in a 1978 Honda Civic CVCC, stripping my poor Pacer of belongings and leaving it behind.
The Honda didn’t have as much room, it certainly was not as comfortable. But with a 4 speed manual transmission, small 4 cylinder engine, and 42 MPG it was quicker than hell and incredibly fun to drive. (Ed: and Honda didn’t use sexy girls in their ads; maybe that tells you something there)
As improbable as it may seem, I still miss my Pacer in some ways. Underpowered, not exactly cool, but certainly original. A quality I admire in a car.