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The import car wars could not have come at a worse time for the American Motor Company. Already cash strapped, the smallest of the “Big Four” U.S. automakers had just bought Jeep from Kaiser-Fraser and was readying an all-new small car for the domestic market, the AMC Hornet. 

As the successor to the Rambler American, the Hornet was AMC’s small car of the future. However, due to the popularity of the VW Beetle and the rise of Japanese imports from Datsun and Toyota, AMC realized it needed a basic economy car. It also realized it didn’t have the money to fully develop one, so it started with the Hornet. 

If there was one thing AMC was good at, it was scavenging parts from other cars to make a new model. Just like the Hornet borrowed parts from other AMC vehicles, the new car borrowed heavily from the Hornet. To separate the two cars, AMC gave the new car a new name, the Gremlin

Which leads to the question – if the AMC Gremlin is based on the Hornet, how different is it? 

A brief history of the AMC Hornet

The AMC Hornet was a major investment for AMC. An all-new design it took three years and $40 million to develop. To save money, AMC reused engines from its other cars and the new front suspension from its full-sized cars. To maximize sales, AMC offered the Hornet as a two-door coupe or hatchback, a four-door sedan, and a four-door “Sportabout” wagon.   

Launched for the 1970 model year, the Hornet was a hit for AMC. Starting at $1,994 for the base model, the car could be outfitted with one of two economical inline-six engines or a 304 cubic inch V8. Sharing design cues with the AMC Javelin pony car, it proved inexpensive with sporty good looks. To capitalize on that, AMC produced a number of special editions, like a Levi Jeans trim package for 1973 and a Gucci luxury package. 

AMC produced the Hornet through the 1977 model year before updating it and renaming it the Concord. The Concord lasted until 1983, spawning an all-wheel drive wagon variant called the Eagle. Arguably the first crossover vehicle, the Eagle lasted until 1988 and served as the basis for a new compact Jeep SUV named the Cherokee. 

The AMC Gremlin was AMC’s response to the VW Beetle

An unidentified couple (at left) speaks with an automobile salesman about an American Motors Corporation (AMC) Gremlin in showroom
AMC Gremlin | Warren K Leffler/US News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The AMC Gremlin originated as an idea floated by AMC’s chief designer, Dick Teague, and stylist Bob Nixon as a car to fight the popular VW Beetle. They thought the idea of a shortened version of the AMC Javelin offered the potential for another small car. Ultimately, the shortened Javelin became the AMX two-seat sports car built from 1968 to 1970. 

That’s when Nixon used the new Hornet platform to anchor the Gremlin. As the story goes, Dick Teague sketched the body for the Gremlin on an air sickness bag during an airline flight. Teague borrowed some of the stylings from the AMX concept and chopped the back end off a two-door Hornet, reducing the overall length by 18 inches. From the doors forward, it was identical to the Hornety but was now only 161 inches long and weighed 2,600 lbs. 

AMC pulled no punches promoting the Gremlin as an import fighter and pricing it at $1,879. Billed as a sub-compact vs. the compact Hornet and featuring a cartoon gremlin logo, and promoted it as a funky alternative vehicle for “free thinking” people who liked to defy convention. Apparently, plenty of free-thinking people were out there because the Gremlin sold over 671,000 copies.   

The AMC Gremlin ended production in the U.S. after the 1978 model year when it was replaced by the Spirit, a more conventionally styled hatchback based on the Hornet/Concord. However, it continued to be produced in Mexico until 1983. 

The Hornet morphed into the quieter, more comfortable AMC Concord for the 1978 model year and then formed the basis of the AMC Eagle all-wheel drive wagon in 1980. It continued on until 1988, after Chrysler bought AMC for its Jeep brand.  

Despite the funky looks (or because of them), the Gremlin remains endearing today. People who owned the car speak fondly of them. Even though it was a cheap car meant to get people from point A to point B and lacked a lot of modern amenities we take for granted, it was a rugged, well-built car. Best of all, it had personality, which is something you can’t always say about today’s econoboxes. 


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