Was AMC kidding when they hacked the trunk off a Hornet sedan, named it after a mechanical malfunction, and launched it with a cartoon monster logo on April Fool’s Day? They weren’t done yet. American Motors kept up their marketing genius to the point of introducing a special model named after a pair of dungarees.
In the 1960s-70s, American Motors Corporation was a scrappy Wisconsin independent battling Detroit’s mighty Big Three and wanting in on the explosive market of small cars. A tight budget meant the company couldn't afford to birth an all-new baby like the Big Three could. Instead, they hacked off the trunk of their Hornet sedan, gave it a goofy name and introduced it on national joke day. "Good luck, kid." Necessity was the mother of the Gremlin. As an awkward-looking hatchback born to a poor family in desperate times, it’s has been the butt of jokes ever since. But time has improved the little monster’s reputation.
Amazingly, the Gremlin became a solid success, remaining in production for nine years and selling over 675,000 copies. It was actually superior to its Big Three competitors in critical ways. Ford’s Pinto had a tendency to explode into a deadly fireball when another vehicle hit its tender butt. The Vega was cursed with a bad heart—an engine so flawed that most had to be replaced. But that was okay; you had time to have it swapped out while waiting to have its rusted-through fenders replaced. The Gremlin’s proven components kept things simple, sturdy and reliable. A straight-six cylinder engine and basic engineering made it as trustworthy as a lovable, if less than beautiful, family dog.
Gremlins were built in Wisconsin, Canada, and Mexico with a variety of drive trains. Most were equipped with AMC’s workhorse inline six-cylinder engine, but later offerings included an Audi-sourced four-banger and even a V-8. Early models came standard with a three-speed manual transmission.
AMC built their smallest car in a variety of trims, including an introductory base model that didn’t offer an opening rear hatch or back seat. The upgraded model with back seat and an opening hatch was introduced at just under $12,000 in today’s money. Later, a popular “X” trim package featured bucket seats, graphic decals, a blacked out grille, and upgraded tires. The Levis® Denim Edition featured simulated blue jean upholstery complete with copper rivets. AMC knew their market—over 60% of Gremlin buyers were under thirty-five years old.
AMC’s Gremlin drove peppier than Ford’s Pinto and Chevrolet’s Vega. Its sturdy structure, affordable price, and ease of modification made it a surprisingly good starting point for a drag racer.
AMC designer Walter Teague said he wanted the company’s new subcompact to look “either cute or controversial - depending on one’s viewpoint.” That controversy continues to this day. But despite the Gremlin’s undeserved reputation as an oddball loser (Time magazine named it one of “The Fifty Worst Cars”), it was actually a sturdy little runabout that sold two-thirds of million copies. Kiplinger’s Changing Times magazine named it, “one of the best values in a subcompact used car.” In 2006, Popular Science named it as one of six cars that signified “Small Steps to a Smart Future.” Consumer Reports recommended it as a “best buy.”
Today, the Gremlin has a cult of devoted followers who cherish the surviving examples. It remains an affordable collectible whose stress-free ownership brings the fun, and sometimes the funny. In a world of boring, look-alike cars, few go their own way like AMC’s funky Gremlin did--an American survivor tough enough to outlast the laughter.
Written by Jim Cherry