The Lasting Power of Ugly: The AMC Gremlin

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The AMC Gremlin, a fast and colorful Jolly Rancher of a car, was the result of reduced gasoline supplies in the late 1960s (which played a role in the 1973 oil crisis), and the nation’s sudden appetite for small, fuel-efficient vehicles. The majority of subcompacts were imports, so U.S. auto-makers scrambled to compete. AMC won the race, introducing the Gremlin on April 1, 1970. GM and Ford followed shortly behind with the Chevrolet Vega and the Ford Pinto, respectively.

Designed by Richard Teague, the man behind some of the coolest and most innovative cars of the day, including the Packard Predictor, the 1963 Rambler Classic, the Ambassador, and the Jeep Cherokee XJ, the Gremlin was basically the Teague-designed AMC Hornet with its rear sliced off. A short diamond-shaped hatchback body curved down into a disproportionately long hood, resulting in what looked like a child’s doodle of a car.

The design made the Gremlin just a few inches longer than the Volkswagen Beetle and shorter than the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega. Available as a two-seater with fixed back window, at a suggested retail price of $1,879, and as a four-seater hatchback at $1,959, the Gremlin, due to its low price and quirky marketing strategy was a hit. Designed to be cute and different, and given a name to match, the Gremlin’s advertisements focused on its unconventional design and fun colors, and additional optional features combined brand marketing, with a Levi’s denim interior complete with tiny red Levi’s tags sewn into the backrests offered in 1973. The strategy paid off, as over 60 percent of the Gremlin’s purchasers were under 35 years old. As for the name, AMC fully embraced its potentially negative connotations by incorporating a humorous redefinition into their marketing, calling the Gremlin “a pal to its friends and an ogre to its enemies.'”

The rushed, bizarre design came with more than a few issues. The little ogre carried almost 60 percent of its weight over the front wheels despite being rear-wheel-drive, making for navigating snowy conditions a slippery transaction. Not only was the back seat optional (in the hatchback upgrade), but it was also a second-thought, as it only contained enough room for passengers under 10 years old. The unassisted steering featuring only six turns lock-to-lock, and the heavy clutch defied the Gremlin’s subcompact size, making it about as nimble a ride as a boat.

However, despite these flaws, the Gremlin became a darling to drag racers, due to its speed — it was faster than other subcompacts of the time, and could clock 0 to 60 in 11 seconds. The 1972 model offered an option V8 engine, and with their roomy hoods, could be easily modified for higher performance. With a short wheelbase, they were a choppy ride, but their wide track gave them a stability that most of their subcompact contemporaries lacked. Souped-up Gremlins became a staple of the race track.

Eight years after being introduced, the Gremlin was discontinued. In 1979, AMC replaced it with the Spirit, which was basically a Gremlin with more conventional styling. But the Gremlin has lived on, not just in the hearts of ‘70s nerd-kitsch collectors, but on the silver screen: it has starred in dozens of classic movies and television series, such as The Goonies and Kojak, and has furthered its cool factor by landing roles in recent hits like Cars 2, Justified, The Walking Dead, True Blood and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The Gremlin, at 44 years old, is in the height of its second life as a Hollywood darling.