Kimberly V. Althage – July 1, 2021
The Gremlin is often thought as one of the least aesthetically pleasing vehicles and finds itself featured on various ugliest car lists and often a winner of Concours d’Lemons trophies. Even its creator Dick Teague, the Design Chief at American Motors at the time stated candidly in a 1970 MotorTrend interview that he did not believe the Gremlin would “win any styling awards.”
No, it is not your average looking car. Not then, nor now. The Gremlin’s weird and wonderful appearance is what makes it so endearing to many.
According to rumor and Thomas Hine’s book, Richard Teague designed the Gremlin on a flight in 1966 by sketching it on the back of an airsickness bag. Perhaps equally fitting to some was the April Fool’s Day launch or debut as well as its namesake. Yes, just like those little monsters in the 80s movie or the Bugs Bunny ‘Falling Hare’ cartoon, a Gremlin is a mythical “mischievous invisible being, said by airplane pilots in World War II to cause engine trouble and mechanical difficulties.”
The Gremlin was meant to be a subcompact car. It was based on the AMC Hornet with the back end lopped off because there was no ability to shrink the front. All due to it being made using larger vehicle mechanical parts. It almost looks like it had a mishap in a mechanic’s garage looking like its front and rear ends were designed for entirely different cars. Automotive reviewers blasted its strange body as a result.
Raison d’être – A Changing Market
Smaller cars that were light, efficient, inexpensive, fuel-efficient, easy to park, and frankly of better quality were assaulting American automakers’ market share. By the late 1960s, it was apparent America’s appetite for such economy cars was not going to disappear – detailed in the intro of this Gremlin promo. The Gremlin was a response to counter those imports like the Volkswagen Beetle and Toyota Corolla.
The Gremlin was introduced in April 1970 as a subcompact automobile, five months before the Ford Pinto and the Chevrolet Vega. American Motors did not have the resources to engineer one from scratch, so Teague basically chopped the back off the company’s Hornet sedan and shortened the wheelbase while eliminating all the sheet metal beyond the rear wheels. This allowed them to borrow heavily from its corporate parts bin, dramatically reducing development costs while simultaneously speeding up development time. It was both a creative and well executed way to create a new product from an existing one.
While the front two-thirds of the car was conventional, the car’s K-tail rear set it apart from both domestic compacts and imports alike. Its unusual shape quickly won it fans and critics with equal fervor.
The Gremlin’s lack of technical innovation, in truth being a Hornet’s hand-me-down with the truncated Hornet rear section, made the Gremlin nose-heavy and weirdly imbalanced. Its shortened longitudinal leaf springs gave it a choppy ride and the Gremlin’s back end prone to fishtailing or skipping sideways while taking a turn.
The Gremlin was more powerful than the Beetle and other imports of its time. In fact, Car and Driver got 0 to 60 mph in 11.9 seconds with a 232-powered Gremlin. It felt like a more substantial car, but it was a gas guzzler despite being a fraction of the size as the other land yacht contemporaries. However, this downside of its lower fuel economy did not stop sales from growing every year.
The Gremlin’s appeal went well beyond its unique look. It was very economical on the pocketbook. AMC marketed this car specifically for people who were fiscally limited, as it was known for being basic, but very affordable. Often ad taglines would say, “If you can afford a car, you can afford two Gremlins.”
Some owners could relate to the Gremlin’s underdog status. Being the joke themselves in high school, the Gremlin and it being the butt of jokes made the car endearing. Jerry Seinfeld and his guest Jon Stewart had some chuckles in season 4 (2014) episode 5 of ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ because the Gremlin was Jon’s first car.
Many dismiss the Gremlin as a bad car, but history says otherwise. Buyers took an immediate liking to the Gremlin and its dorky looks. As cheap and simple as the design was, the Gremlin was the right car for a changing market. It served both American Motors Corporation well and became a true success story becoming the second-best selling car in AMC’s history. Its successful run continued until 1978 when replaced with the AMC Spirit.
The ugly duckling AMC Gremlin has become an automotive classic. It is now idolized as 70s kitsch, being appreciated in a knowingly ironic or humorous way. Its appeal is that it does not look like anything else, and equally recognizable in an instant. Being visually distinct, simple, and robust makes Gremlins a terrific candidate for a first collector car. Especially since many are now worth more than their original cost when taking inflation into account.
To view more a video of this Gremlin in our Milwaukee showroom, click here.