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When you hear the word “Gremlin,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For many people, it’s a small, mischievous creature that causes problems with machinery. That association has stuck with one car with an unfortunate name: the AMC Gremlin.

This poor hatchback has been the butt of jokes for decades. But the truth is, it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. There are plenty of reasons why the AMC Gremlin was a successful car in its day. Let’s take a look at this misunderstood machine with a terrible name.

A brief history of this quirky little car

A yellow AMC Gremlin parked in front of a brown building with some tress.
AMC Gremlin | Getty Images

To understand the AMC Gremlin, you must know its history. Introduced in 1970, it was a subcompact wagon designed to compete with other small vehicles, including the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega.

“It was introduced to the public on April Fool’s Day,” MotorTrend explains. “And as for the styling, AMC design chief Dick Teague made his first sketch of the car on the back of a Northwest Orient Airlines barf bag.”

During its production run until 1978, it was available in various configurations, from a base two-door hatchback to a sporty X package with a V8 engine. Overall, the Gremlin sold well.

The AMC Gremlin’s name sets this car apart

Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: the name. “Gremlin” doesn’t seem ideal for a car. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “a cause of error or equipment malfunction (as in aircraft) conceived of as a small mischievous gnome.” 

Indeed, the car “was named for the mythical creatures said to be responsible for crashing airplanes and breaking machinery,” MotorTrend reports.

Teague designed the sawed-off wagon to be cute yet contentious, reflecting the free-thinking ’70s. But who wants to drive a car whose name evokes images of crashing?

After AMC discontinued the Gremlin, the name became more commonly associated with the troublemaking critters in the 1984 movie Gremlins.

What made the AMC Gremlin a success?

Despite its less-than-stellar reputation, many factors made the AMC Gremlin a success. For one, it was much cheaper than its competitors. “AMC sold 25,300 Gremlins in the abbreviated first year,” MotorTrend reports. “The Gremlin’s first full year of sales was 1971, but by then it was facing competition from the Vega and Pinto — and yet still sales doubled.” 

The Gremlin was also more reliable than some of its subcompact rivals. And it had a solid engine that provided good performance for its size. Those factors contributed to the Gremlin’s popularity.

But what about aesthetics? The odd sloping roofline and short body make the Gremlin almost comical-looking. However, the design was meant for function over form. AMC intended the Gremlin to be a small, practical car that could easily navigate city streets and save gas. In that sense, it succeeded — and for many consumers, those qualities were more important than style.

The AMC Gremlin wasn’t so bad after all

Sure, the AMC Gremlin has a dorky look and an unfortunate name, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad car. Its affordability and reliability made it a popular choice for many drivers. So the next time you see one of these subcompacts scooting around, show a little respect. It isn’t glamorous, but it’s still one of the best cars of the 1970s.


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