Gremlin AMC’s answer to the Beetle

The AMC Gremlin.

It was first sketched on the back of an air sick bag at 30,000 feet.

The name came from the mischievous creature which causes havoc in machinery and electrical equipment 

Not the movie. American Motors (AMC) Gremlin!

It was released on April Fool’s day, 1970.

The Gremlin achieved considerable success for the always financially weak AMC. 

They sold more than 670,000 of them between 1970 and 1978.

AMC’s design boss Jim Teague penned the shape in 1966 on that plane fight.

Gremlin was a fast tracked program because AMC wanted to be the first US car company to bring a modern, sub-compact to the market to challenge the fast rising sales of small imported cars such as the VW Beetle and Toyota Corolla.

And they succeeded.

AMC got a six month’s start on GM’s Vega and Ford’s Pinto.

Rather than develop a completely new car, which GM and Ford were doing, AMC used its newly released Hornet as a base. 

It had little choice. 

Resources were always tight at America’s fourth car company and there was no money for a stand-alone car.

Taking the Hornet, which sat on a 108 inch/2743mm wheelbase, the AMC crew chopped 12 inches/31mm from the wheelbase behind the B pillar.

1968 AMC AMX GT concept
1968 AMC AMX-GT concept


One of Teague’s senior designers, Bob Nixon, then gave it a distinctive slanting rear end, taken from a recent concept car — the AMX-GT.

The outcome was instantly recognisable and delivered exceptional rear head room, even if legroom was a little short.

To achieve a low, low price of $1879 (almost equal to the VW Beetle), the entry level car was stripped of almost all amenities. 

It had just two front seats, rubber floor mats, no glove box door, vacuum-operated windshield wipers (yes, just like an FJ Holden) and 13 inch wheels. 

The rear window did not open. 

Luggage was loaded through the doors. 

If you wanted a back seat and flip up rear window that was an extra $8o.

Although the AMC Gremlin looked like a hatchback it did not have a full tailgate. 

The company had no money for its development.

On the upside, using the Hornet front end meant the Gremlin came with a six cylinder engine as standard. 

The basic offering was a 199 cubic inch unit, with a 232 cubic inch optional. 

A three-speed manual was the standard transmission.

The six gave it a performance advantage over four cylinder imports and, later, the Vega and Pinto.

The legendary “Uncle” Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated’s celebrated auto guru, tested a Gremlin with the 232 engine and automatic transmission. 

He was impressed by the 100mph top speed and 0-60 time of 11.9 seconds saying that “on a dollar for dollar basis, I rate the Gremlin the best American buy of the year.”

With strong initial sales AMC quickly expanded the options list. 

By 1972 a 304 cubic inch/5.4 litre V8 was offered, enabling the 0-60 sprint to be achieved in 8.5 seconds. 

Oh, and front disc brakes became an option, too.

In order to maintain interest in the car AMC developed a number of trim and special package editions of which the Levi’s Edition was one and the most sought after by today’s collectors.

It gave buyers upholstery that looked like blue denim, complete with Levi’s brass studs, yellow-orange stitching and brand tags.

Australian Motor Industries (AMI), who assembled AMC products in the 1960s and 1970s, imported a Gremlin to evaluate it for local sale. 

Converted to right hand drive it appeared at the 1970 Sydney Motor show and on the cover of Wheels magazine. 

Given local content rules AMI’s accountants quickly realised that a local Gremlin would have to be priced similar to the Holden Premier or Ford Fairmont which instantly ruled it out. 

The one AMI Gremlin was sold locally and then, about 30 years later, returned to the USA where it now does the rounds of the classic car shows.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos


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