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The AMC Gremlin gets a bad rap as a terrible car. Lumped in with other vehicles of the 1970s that were choked by emissions controls, rusted on dealer lots, or prone to catching fire in an accident, people assume it was bad and best left in the 1970s like leisure suits, shag carpet, and the music of The Captain and Tennille.   

However, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty good. When the American Motor Company needed a solid sub-compact car to fight the Volkswagen Beetle, it created something solid and original using off-the-shelf parts. It borrowed heavily from the AMC Hornet, a vehicle with an 18-year run in its various guises as the Concorde and Eagle. The powertrain featured the rugged inline-six engine that Jeep used up until the early 2000s, and the car still has a large cult following.   

Most importantly, the AMC Gremlin dominated the small car market thanks to an economic crisis in the 1970s and sold more than 671,000 copies before its run ended. Simply put, it was a good car at the right time. 

A brief history of the AMC Gremlin

The Gremlin originated as an idea floated by AMC’s chief designer Dick Teague and stylist Bob Nixon to develop an import fighter for the Volkswagen Beetle and new Japanese cars from Datsun and Toyota. AMC chopped the back end off a two-door Hornet, creating a distinctive hatchback shape that reduced the overall length by 18 inches. It was identical to the Hornet from the doors forward but was now only 161 inches long and weighed 2,600 lbs. 

Featuring a cartoon Gremlin, AMC marketed the car as a different kind of car for “free thinking” people. The styling fit well with the funky 1970s vibe of groovy lava lamps and pet rocks. Even though it was a basic vehicle, it was endearing, much like the VW Beetle it competed against, and has a strong cult following to this day. 

AMC produced the Gremlin through 1978, when it was replaced by Spirit, with a more traditional hatchback design. It shared the same platform, engines, and many of the styling cues from the Gremlin but offered a more refined ride and more comfort features for the next era of shoppers.

During the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, the U.S. embraced small cars

A side rear profile of a yellow AMC Gremlin subcompact sedan with the X sporty style package
AMC Gremlin X | Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images

According to Petrolicious, Bill Mitchell, the flamboyant head of GM’s styling in the 1960s and 1970s, once said, “Small cars are like vodka. Sure, people will try them out, but they won’t stay with them.” Responsible for the Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado, and the sharply creased styling of Cadillacs in the post-tailfin era, Mitchell had a point. Americans loved cars, especially big ones. 

That changed in 1973 with the onset of the oil crisis. OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, initiated an oil embargo against countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Overnight oil prices went from $3 a barrel to $12 a barrel. Gas prices skyrocketed as fuel became scarce, leading to long lines at gas stations.

Until then, gas had been cheap, with a gallon costing about 36 cents. Fuel economy was far from most people’s minds, and the average car in 1973 got less than 12 mpg. As gas prices increased, people began buying smaller, more fuel-efficient cars like the AMC Gremlin, which got more than 20 mpg, according to Hagerty

The AMC Gremlin was better than many of its competitors 

Thanks to its solid platform and rigid body shell, the Gremlin was one of the most dependable vehicles AMC produced during that period. It felt substantial and rode better than many of its competitors. The front suspension was based on the suspension from AMC’s full-sized car lineup and gave the Gremlin the ride and handling of a larger car. 

The most frugal engine was AMC’s 232 cubic-inch inline-six, but buyers could opt for a larger 258 cubic-inch inline-six or a 304 cubic-inch V8. Coupled with a choice of a three-speed manual or automatic transmission, the drivetrain developed a reputation for being virtually indestructible. In fact, both inline-six engines proved so rugged they lived on in various Jeep vehicles up into the early 2000s. 

There were smaller, lighter cars than the Gremlin. That included cars that got better gas mileage or didn’t seem as basic. However, unlike many of its competitors, the Gremlin was solid, reliable, economical, and provided better performance. That’s why when many Americans decided to ditch their old gas hog during the OPEC embargo, they turned to the AMC Gremlin.

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