AMC Pacer - this turkey flew once

By: CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz via Wikipedia. 

By: CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz via Wikipedia. 

Last week I wrote about one of the several cars that were supposed to come with GM’s then-revolutionary Wankel rotary engine. That engine project influenced a number of vehicles which happen to be on the Curbside in our turkey cars series. This week’s featured marque is no exception. The AMC Pacer could have really shaken the world up had it been equipped with this engine; however, the rotary never materialized. 

Ah, the AMC Pacer. While tiny AMC had a very limited budget the cars that rolled off the end of their assembly lines were certainly interesting. After all, who doesn’t love the AMC Gremlin, which was designed on the back of bar napkin? Not having the resources to come up with anything truly revolutionary, AMC’s Dick Teague went to the parts bin and found a lot of Matador parts which were stuffed under a much shortened platform and wrapped in what actually was revolutionary sheet metal, along with tons of glass, and unleashed on the American public. 

Had the Pacer been equipped with that rotary engine, as it was supposed to have been, the car would have truly been a sporty machine. The lightweight and peppy rotary would have given the Pacer a whole different character. However, GM had reliability issues and, more importantly, saw that the rotary engine was as inefficient as a V8 right at a time when the Arab oil embargo forced Americans into gas lines in the hopes of filling their fuel tanks even part way. 

By Charles01 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Charles01 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

For example, the Chevy Vega, which was the prime beneficiary of the rotary engine, was tested to achieve 20-26 miles per gallon with its unreliable four-cylinder piston engine. Drop in the rotary job and GM saw mileage no better than 18mpg. Yikes. 

And then there were emissions issues just at the time when automakers started having to clean up their acts. 

So here’s AMC with a car that was specifically designed around the rotary engine with no rotary engine. What’s a company to do? Amazingly Teague and his team managed to shoehorn the company’s existing inline six cylinder engines under that sloping hood. 

While the Pacer used tried and true running gear, its body design did break new ground. For example, the unitized structure had doors that wrapped over the top of the car into the roofline. While this is very commonplace today, it was a huge deal in the 1970s. Speaking of doors, the drivers door was actually shorter than the passenger door facilitating access to the back seat. In those days, four-door cars weren’t cool, they were just necessary. It demanded a coupe to be cool. 

The Pacer was also only the second American car to come with rack-and-pinion steering and the car did have a modern front and rear suspension system mounted to subframes, another sign that AMC wasn’t solely relying on their parts bin. 

Other things affecting the Pacer were looming government standards for rollover and side impact so the Pacer was designed to meet those standards. 

In the days when the Pacer was introduced most Americans drove full-size behemoths that slurped gasoline like it was free and had all the handling prowess of the Queen Mary. While a car like the Pacer seems so strange today, it actually made some sense when introduced. 

The Pacer was about the same width as the full-sized Matador and, with all that glass, felt like a much larger car than any of the compacts from Detroit. Certainly the Pacer also felt much more spacious than the import subcompacts which were starting to make slight inroads into the market at the time. While Americans realized that the days of the giant gas guzzler may be waning, that didn’t mean they wanted to shoehorn themselves into a small car. 

Today the Pacer is an anomaly. Its truly unusual purpose and styling make it a standout at a car show and definitely on the road. But, compared to the huge beasts that were plying the roads in the 1970s it actually makes some sense in historical perspective. 

That’s also what buyers thought the first year as they snapped these up like mad. But they also discovered that fuel economy wasn’t that much better than the large sedans they were used to and cars like the Plymouth Volare and Ford Granada offered much more traditional styling yet also didn’t feel very small. 

Dick Teague had a lot of unique machines to his credit but the Pacer is one of those cars that, if I ever find one for sale, I might just have to have. After all, it is the first wide small car! And who doesn’t want to be seen in a car described as “The Flying Fish Bowl”? Although, like the turkey, the idea really didn’t fly.

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Tony Barthel

Tony Barthel has been writing the Curbside blog since 1996 with reviews of new cars, stories about old cars and the people who love them and finding the best car shows around for the Curbside car show calendar.