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Rarely do you find a vehicle on the road today that is as polarizing and iconic as the AMC Gremlin. The Gremlin, produced from 1970 through 1978 in the United States, was one of the first trendy, economy subcompact vehicles produced by an American company. With styling that many considered so ugly that it was cool, solid fuel economy, and an incredibly affordable price tag, the Gremlin offered something different that other American companies failed to produce at the time.

Sadly, the AMC Gremlin would eventually be redesigned and rereleased as the AMC Spirit in 1979 with a much more subdued design, losing much of its original character. Although the Gremlin was a failure in the public eye, the AMC Gremlin was a sales success for AMC due to just how cheap these vehicles were to produce. Some of these successful sales can be traced back to the catastrophic failures seen with the Gremlin’s only domestic competition. Here is everything you need to know about the AMC Gremlin and which two automotive failures helped contribute to the Gremlin’s success.

The AMC Gremlin was way ahead of its time

A black and white image of a 1970 AMC Gremlin subcompact car model with its rear liftgate hatch open
1970 AMC Gremlin | Hulton Archive via Getty Images

The AMC Gremlin was originally designed by Dick Teague, with the original Gremlin design being sketched out on an airline barf bag, according to The Great Funk by Thomas Hine. The Gremlin was to be produced as a short-body version of the Javelin with styling that stood out from the competition. The Gremlin was built as a subcompact vehicle, still made with care and sturdy construction. The one-piece rear glass, which opened independently of the body, helped the Gremlin feel much more solidly built than the competition. While the Gremlin may look like a hatchback, only the rear glass was movable.

The Gremlin was cheap to produce and cheap for consumers, starting at just $1,879, which, adjusted for inflation, is only around $15,000 today. This made the Gremlin one of the cheapest cars you could buy that was not a Volkswagen Beetle. According to MotorTrend, the Gremlin was also cheap to drive, thanks to its combined fuel economy numbers of around 21.7 mpg. This amount of fuel-saving capabilities was something never before seen with an American-produced car, especially one produced before the 1973 oil embargo.

The Gremlin found success thanks to its competitors’ mistakes

When the 1973 Oil Embargo hit the U.S. with fuel shortages and gas prices climbing to heights never seen before, the AMC Gremlin was a favorite for many due to its solid fuel economy and availability on American dealer lots. The Gremlin also had its fair share of luck with its competitors; the Chevy Vega and the Ford Pinto.

The Pinto infamously had issues with combusting upon rear impact. According to the American Museum of Tort Law, rear-end collisions while driving the Pinto didn’t just lead to simple fires but explosions due to the rear gas tank being one of the first components of the Pinto to rupture on impact. While the Pinto continued selling, Ford was forced to recall 1.5 million Pintos from 1971 to 1976.

On the other hand, the Chevy Vega was not necessarily a dangerous subcompact to drive, and it sold well due to its Camaro-like appearance. However, with use, the Vega turned out to be an unreliable car due to rusting body panels after just a few years of use and malfunctioning engine valve stem seals, which would rot away quickly and lead to engine oil entering the Vega’s cylinders.

The AMC Gremlin was a success, just not an obvious one

Related Here’s Why the AMC Gremlin Had 1 of the Worst Names You Could Pick for a Car

Here’s Why the AMC Gremlin Had 1 of the Worst Names You Could Pick for a Car

For the mainstream automotive market, the AMC Gremlin seemed like a failure. It was an ugly car that ended up being discontinued, so the public thought it was a sales flop. However, the Gremlin was a huge success at the end for AMC, and it helped AMC’s public image by producing a domestic subcompact that was not plagued with dangerous recalls or premature rust issues.

With over 600,000 Gremlins sold, this quirky car kept AMC afloat and led to the development of better subcompact American cars in the future.