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

(first posted 1/3/2017)      I thought this would make an interesting counterpoint to yesterday’s Mark IV CC. I suspect that the usable interior space in the Mark isn’t all that much bigger than the Pacer’s. We’ve covered the Pacer a few times here at CC (links at bottom), but it’s always a popular topic. And this time, we’ll hear what R&T had to say on this controversial subject after a proper road test (R&T’s technical analysis is here).

R&T makes it clear right from the get-go that the Pacer does not fit their idea or definition of a small car. Well, it really was a new format, given its almost full-size width along with its almost Pinto-sized length. Its ratio of width to length was essentially unprecedented; the closest analogue would have to be the Studebaker Lark, which was a drastically cut down “full size” Studebaker. But at 71.4″ wide, it was a half-foot narrower than the 77″ wide Pacer. And the Lark was 3.5″ longer to boot. So the Pacer really was something different, but given that its footprint was comperable to large import sedans like the Volvo 164 and BMW Bavaria, and with a curb weight of 3425 lbs, it just didn’t fit the definition of a small car. And given that footprint, it was decidedly short on rear seat room, compared to those other sedans. One does wonder just what AMC was going for here, from a packaging point of view.

Of course there were upsides to its unique design too. Visibility was superb, something we can only fantasize about. But would folks today like sitting in a fish bowl?

Like so many other radically-styled new cars, the Pacer was a hot commodity in its early days, until people got used to the idea. R&T notes that looking like its standing still when doing 60 was perhaps a good thing in the days of the 55mph speed limit.

The pacer’s ride was all-American big car-like: smooth, as long as the road was smooth. As soon as the surface deteriorates, the Pacer’s unambitious and utterly conventional suspension with rear leaf springs quickly also deteriorates. AMC was not known for its suspension prowess, and the Pacer was no exception.

Power steering was a must, otherwise the very slow manual steering with six turns lock-to-lock was not in keeping with a modern car, despite it being rack and pinion, rather unusual in a larger American car. Feeling was absent in the power steering unit.

The beefy radials on this tester resulted in good cornering power, although with the front anti-roll bar, the rear end liked to pop out in hard cornering. The optional (and highly recommended) disc brakes were ok in normal use, but very disappointing in emergency use. The pacer had bad front end dive, something mostly gone in other cars by the mid 1960s, and rears locked up too easily, demanding an inordinate amount of effort to keep the car in control.

The test car had the larger 258 (4.2 L) six, which curiously was rated at the same 100 net hp as the smaller six, but with more torque. Combined with the Chrysler Torqueflite 3 speed automatic, it made for a relaxed drive train, but sluggish acceleration. 0-60 was a quite modest 15.8 seconds; no better than almost all of the really small and cheap economy cars of the time.

Surprisingly, the engine was found not to be as quiet at speed as might be expected, despite the low gearing. Fuel economy was mediocre, at 16.0 mpg.

There were some beefs with some ergonomic and ventilation issues too.

But despite the carping, R&T ended the review on an upbeat note, saying that the Pacer’s unique and fresh styling accounted for quite a bit, in terms of its impact on the driver and the public. And they (rightfully) assumed the majority of America drivers would most likely be quite satisfied with its dynamic qualities. Who can resist the charms of a fresh new face, even if it is hiding a few sins? Unfortunately, fresh new faces don’t always have much of a life span.