Everyone Said the AMC Gremlin Was a Joke: Ford and Chevrolet Weren’t Laughing

In everyone’s “10 Worst Cars Ever Made” lists, the AMC Gremlin is there. Considered a joke then, as it continues to be now, the only automaker laughing was AMC. For what it cost to develop the Gremlin, relative to its Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega competition, it was the home run Ford and GM always dreamed about. 

Wasn’t the Gremlin a bad car?

Not that it wasn’t a crappy car. In most ways it was, but most owners wore the Gremlin’s freakish looks and subpar performance with pride. The engine was an outdated straight-six with performance that matched the car’s looks, mostly poor. Drum brakes at the corners, a manual three-speed transmission with no First synchro, and shortened Hornet leaf springs supporting the similar rear end were ancient developments. 

Base models didn’t have a back seat, and the rear hatch was bolted shut. But this accommodation to price had an upside, as the platform was solid. Only the rear end’s tendency to dance over train tracks and the like compromised its street manners. Gas mileage wasn’t the best, either.

AMC Gremlin
AMC Gremlin | Stellantis

But what it lacked in almost every category didn’t matter to corporate. It was an unexpected winner for AMC. Being spun off from the similar 1970 Hornet sedan, most of the tooling was spread out between the two models. It was almost like the Gremmie was a gimmie. Basically, the Gremlin was a foot-shorter Hornet. 

To the public, who was becoming concerned about the environment, the Vietnam war, police car bombings, and militants running amok, it just struck a chord. It was a visual middle finger to the Luxo-barges and established corporate America under attack. The Gremlin fit the times. 

What was the Gremlin’s competition?

AMC Gremlin
AMC Gremlin | Stellantis

Its development ran a parallel path with Detroit’s war on Volkswagen. Or rather, its envy of the Beetle’s huge popularity. Ford and GM decided they could do much better, and virtually snuff out the Wolfsburg wonder. To wit, Ford developed its Beetle fighter, the Pinto, with Chevrolet taking the reins with its Vega. 

Both corporations could throw millions of dollars at development almost without thinking about it. Not so AMC. Two money drains for the corporation were its development of the Hornet sedan, and purchasing orphaned Jeep. It was barely able to accomplish both. 

AMC Gremlin
AMC Gremlin | Stellantis

What it did have was the king of the facelift, Dick Teague. A veteran of Oldsmobile, Packard, and Chrysler, he could do more with less than anyone in Detroit. Teague could take a turkey like the 1954 Packard, and work his magic to create the 1955 Packard that you’d swear was a completely different car. Doing a spinoff of the Hornet on the cheap was his forté, nobody could do it better. 

The two conquerors, on the other hand, cost many millions more to develop than the Gremlin. And development took longer than expected, leaving the only Detroit Beetle-breaker for 1970 to AMC’s kind of lazy rookie. Its odd looks, stripped-down appeal, and base price of only $1,879, were in line with the features many loved the Beetle for. 

In fact, it was only $40 more than the 1970 VW Deluxe Sedan. How could someone looking to buy a Beetle sedan not want to at least check out a Gremmie? GM and Ford could only wish for such a perk. 

How well did the Gremlin sell?

AMC Gremlin
AMC Gremlin | Stellantis

And legacy-wise, the Pinto’s highly-publicized gas tank explosions, and the Vega’s abysmal rust tendencies took decades to go away. Both cars reinforced the appearance that Detroit was on the downslide to mediocrity at best. In fact, these were some of the worst cars the two corporations ever made.

Not so the Gremlin. When the first gas crisis hit in 1974, Gremlin had its best sales year. And when the last Gremlin rode down the assembly line in 1978, AMC did the same thing to it that was done to create it in 1970. It spun off a new model called Spirit, which was a fastback hatchback version of the Gremlin, with the same wheelbase and an updated fascia. Another retread winner for Teague that lasted through 1983. 

Ford’s Pinto squeaked into 1980 before finally getting the ax, while the Vega barely survived into 1977. In all, the Gremlin found 671,475 buyers while its Hornet sibling sold 865,000, for a grand total of 1.5-plus million. Vega won the numbers war with three million sold, with the Pinto hitting two million units. But the cost of development and the cost to the brands’ reputations ultimately made them the losers. 

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