Vintage R & T Review: 1977 AMC Gremlin 2.0 Four Cylinder – A (Porsche) Engine Waiting For A Better Car

It’s 1977 and the Gremlin gets its first redesign, with revised sheet metal, shorter front fenders, new bumpers, a new grille, and other cosmetic details. Bodywise, the revisions meant 4 in. less in length; resulting in a more ‘compact’ subcompact. What’s more, a new and exciting Porsche-sourced 2-liter four-cylinder engine was now offered. Finally, AMC’s subcompact had a modern engine to deliver the fuel efficiency befitting an economy car. Or so the idea was.

As it’s known, many compromises were taken to create AMC’s first ‘subcompact’ back in 1970. Being basically a sawed-off Hornet, the Gremlin was considerably heftier than its Detroit competitors; all while carrying outdated 6 cyl. engines that weren’t that fuel-efficient. Seven years later, AMC felt ready to remedy the situation.

AMC had been looking for a newer engine to fit in their economy models since the late ’60s. First of all, a deal for GM’s upcoming Wankel had gone bust, and with that, AMC’s hopes for a lightweight compact. A fuel crisis later, the Wankel didn’t seem so hot, and AMC looked towards Volkswagen, which had just successfully launched the Golf in 1974.

The Golf’s mill was too weak for the hefty Hornet Gremlin bones, but something else was brewing at VW; a new 2-liter engine, to soon debut in the Porsche 924 and other VW products, like the LT/Van Transporter. A deal was struck, and Kenosha would not only purchase engines but also own the equipment, tools, and production lines to manufacture the 2-liter; all at a cost of $60 million. There was one condition: no mention of the engine’s origin was to be used publicly by AMC.

Looking solely at Wikipedia’s Gremlin entry, the 2-liter concept sounded good; it provided better fuel economy and reduced the model’s weight by 250-300 pounds. EPA ratings were 21MPG in the city, and 33MPG on the highway. By those stats alone, the 2-liter Gremlin seemed a compelling offer.

As the road test shows, there was more to it than just adding a modern engine to an ancient platform. For starters, the Porsche and AMC mills varied in some important details; the original 924 engine had a forged iron crank, while the Gremlin’s made do with cast iron. Bosch fuel injection was used on the 924’s, while 2-barrel carburetion served on the Gremlin’s. Besides that, AMC had no electronic ignition that could fit the 2-liter.

Under driving, R & T gives a damning assessment; ‘an engine this modern deserves better than the 7-year-old Gremlin.’ As in typical late-AMC carmaking, the idea sounded better as a concept than as a finished product; ‘the new 2-liter engine had neither the horsepower nor the torque to power a 2745-lb. Gremlin, making the car even more of a compromise than the original model.’

Reviewers further noted ‘the engine starts easily when cold but dies unless the driver blips the throttle. It’s also slow to warm up… Unlike the torquey low-revving AMC sixes, the inflexible 2-liter demands impassioned shifting… However, the spacing between 1st and 2nd is too wide and even if you shift out of first at 5500, the engine falls way off the power curve. To add to the miseries, the engine is noisy and a shaker.’ To compare impressions, testers also tried a 2-liter 924 and found its engine freer revving, smoother, and much quieter.

Elsewhere, there was little done to keep the Gremlin up to date with the competition, particularly when it came to the interior. Handling hadn’t changed much either, with predictable understeer at all times. However, as testers noted, ‘the car suffered of a case of axle tramp the likes of which we haven’t experienced since the supercar Sixties.’ Furthermore, in real conditions, fuel efficiency was far less than expected, with the Gremlin delivering 19.5MPG on average. To top all those shortcomings, the 2-liter had an 8% premium charge over the 6-cyl. models.

In the end, R&T declared the 6cyl. Gremlin as the better choice. Buyers largely agreed. Of the 46,171 Gremlins built in 1977, only 7,558 had the 2-liter engine.

Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 1977 AMC Gremlin – Pay 8% More, Get 13% Less Horsepower and 33% Fewer Cylinders.