Ugly and Lucky

The definitive model was boldly named Gremlin, a word used by second world war pilots to describe the mythical little monsters who sabotaged their planes resulting in so many failures of their aircraft.

Originality and ground-breaking design were the cornerstones of the production of the AMC brand, American Motors Corporation, which emerged in 1954 after the merger of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company. The model we will talk about in this article is the Gremlin, a car produced from 1970 to 1978, which at the time represented a real alternative to foreign cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle and Toyota Corona and also American competition such as the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto.

Already in the late 60s designer Richard A. Teague (1923 – 1991), initially a designer at Packard followed by GM then finally, from 1950, at AMC, where together with his colleague Bob Nixon (1932 – 2019) he discussed a possible model to be positioned below the brand’s low-range compact cars. The car was anticipated by a prototype exhibited in 1968 at the New York Show, the AMX-GT Concept, developed on an AMC Javelin base. Compared with the concept, the car was designed to further reduce costs by being based on the Hornet model with a shortened platform.

The definitive model was boldly named Gremlin, a word used by second world war pilots to describe the mythical little monsters who sabotaged their planes resulting in so many failures of their aircraft. To make matters worse the car seemed to be made of two different halves with the classic Hornet at the front whilst at the rear there was a small window and a cut-off tail making it into a hatchback. People would often wonder where the rest of the car had gone and even its name of Gremlin came to mock the car since, like allied warplanes, the Gremlin was also afflicted by all kinds of failure possible.

Although it was often and willingly negatively judged, both for its lines and for its name and not forgetting its unreliability, the car could at least count on a lower price (under $2000) than every model with which it competed. It also had superior performance to cars in the same category and was the first compact American car. Close kinship with a higher category model gave it improved performance, but the larger engines and greater weight resulted in higher fuel consumption. The mechanicals were classic front engine and rear wheel drive, whilst for power they relied mainly on six and eight cylinder engines with three or four speed manual or three speed automatic transmissions.

At launch in April 1970 the car was offered with a 3300cc engine producing 123 bhp, with an optional 3800cc 145 bhp motor, whilst the layout of the base model was just a two-seater car with fixed rear windows; in 1971 the four-seater X model was introduced with opening rear windows and at the end of that year the base model was deleted from the price-list. As for the engines, the 3.8-litre motor became standard whilst, as an option, a 4.2-litre version was introduced, both engines being detuned. In 1972 came the 5-litre V8 engine, but power was further reduced to comply with the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) regulations of the time. Despite this, the V8 gave the Gremlin respectable performance.

To stress the level of quality a one-year extended warranty was introduced for the first time, called the Buyer’s Protection Plan, whilst later new bumpers were introduced conforming to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) regulations, which was effectively the first stylistic update of the model. The second update came in 1977, seven years after launch, and mainly affected the front, which was completely redesigned, shorter and had a new grille and more streamlined bonnet design, whilst the tail was also modified with new rectangular rear lights and a different rear window glass; the fuel filler cap was moved beneath the licence plate holder. With the update disc front brakes became standard and a 2000cc engine with its original carburettors sourced from Volkswagen/Audi was offered, also in an injected version from the Porsche 924, which gave better consumption but made the Gremlin much slower than the six-cylinder versions.

In 1978 the car ceased production, 670,000 examples having been sold, passing the baton to the Spirit model with a much more conventional design. Although the Gremlin is considered to be among the ugliest and least reliable cars ever made, it achieved great success, being called “ugly and lucky”, or ugly but lucky…

Even today, after many years, it is still considered a popular car in popular collective opinion, particularly for its many appearances in cinema films.

Text by Tommaso Lai

Translation by Norman Hawkes

Copyright © Cars Forgotten Stories. All rights reserved.


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