Vintage R&T Review: 1977 AMC Pacer Wagon – “What The Pacer Should Have Been From The Beginning”

It’s fairly well known that AMC’s quirky 1975 Pacer arrived in showrooms as a rather compromised vehicle. The company’s new model was originally meant to be a “true small compact” powered by a lightweight rotary to be developed by GM. As such, AMC’s new compact was projected to weigh a slim 2500 pounds, offering good performance, swift handling, and groundbreaking styling. Or so the idea was.

But once GM killed its Wankel program, the eventual Pacer arrived lacking most of its intended benefits. Overweight, and carrying outdated hardware with dismal fuel economy for its class, AMC’s ad people tried to spin –and hide– the car’s shortcomings under “The Wide Small Car” slogan. A ruse that worked… for a brief while.

After a pretty good first year, sales for the car quickly dropped. Many attribute the car’s failure to its styling, which was challenging. But more importantly, the product just didn’t deliver on its promise.

For all intents and purposes, beyond the futuristic wrapping and reduced length, just about everything in the Pacer felt like a typical mid-size offering from Detroit. As far as performance and utility, the car didn’t make a good case against its competitors.

“What the Pacer should have been from the beginning,” said R&T about the new ’77 Pacer wagon. And they had a point. With the wagon’s added room, there were no longer pretenses of the Pacer being a “true small compact”. Instead, the model was just your usual Detroit family wagon. With quirky AMC styling, of course.

Buyers agreed with the assessment, with wagon sales almost doubling those of the sedan for model year 1977.

Against the sedan, R&T’s thoughts about the wagon were generally positive. “It embodies all the features of the sedan while offering the increased cargo of a wagon. And with no sacrifice in handling. In fact, overall performance is better in most instances as the wagon stops quicker and rides quieter than its 1976 sedan counterpart. Yet in spite of its new configuration, it has gained little in weight and overall length.”

The Pacer wagon’s steering and handling were what you’d expect of a Detroit product from the times. “The power-assisted steering is virtually numb and the car’s dominant trait is understeer…” Braking distances were slightly improved on the wagon over the sedan’s, though suffering similarly to some rear brake lockup.

Meanwhile, the tested wagon’s 49-state 258 CID six engine improved over the sedan’s performance; if slightly. 0-60 arrived in 13 secs. and the quarter mile shed 0.5 sec. against the sedan.

Of course, the car’s main selling point was its newfound usefulness as a wagon. And as such, the model made a better case for itself than it ever had. “Because the Pacer is wide on the outside, it is also wide on the inside and in this case, that’s a definite plus.” It added to a cargo capacity of 24.9 cu ft with the rear seat up and 48.3 cu ft with the rear seat down. It was “about the same capacity as the foot longer Hornet Sportabout we tested in July 1974…” Finally, liftover height was another benefit; “when you open the rear hatch you encounter a perfectly flat surface.”

Staying on the car’s packaging, the wagon’s seating position was deemed comfortable, and “the rear seats are spacious (all things considered).” And just like the sedan, the wagon had lots of head, leg, and elbow room.

Of course, while the new wagon made the Pacer a better car, it wasn’t necessarily an outstanding one. New practicality aside, overall sales kept tumbling until production ceased in 1980. From then on, the company would remain on life-support thanks to its Jeep brand and endless permutations of its 1970 Hornet. But that’s a story for another day (and already covered elsewhere at CC).


Notes: The quote “What the Pacer should have been from the beginning” is nowhere in the review. Instead, it comes from that R&T issue index. Meanwhile, the “true small compact” term comes from AMC’s CEO Gerald C. Meyers, as he discussed the Pacer’s development in a 2010 interview.

Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1975 AMC Pacer – The Spacer

Vintage R&T Review: 1975 AMC Pacer – “The World’s Biggest Small Car?” More Like The World’s Shortest Big Car

Curbside Classic: 1978 AMC Pacer D/L Wagon – Roll With It, Baby

CC Capsule: 1976 AMC Pacer – The Alien Awaits