Classic cars

AMC Pacer

The Pacer looked horrible, drove badly and ate money. Martin Buckley wonders why Americans loved it

The AMC Pacer is really America's Austin Allegro, a Seventies car that was so uniformly inept in almost all respects that it has passed into folklore and become perversely "cool".

It makes any top 10 of all-time worst cars, its profile raised by appearances in the 1992 Mike Myers comedy Wayne's World and the Eminem video for "The Real Slim Shady".

Why was it so awful? It's hard to know where to begin, but its problems really stemmed from the fact that the Pacer was the issue of AMC (American Motors Corporation), by far the weakest of the Detroit producers. Here, funds to develop truly new models were limited in the early Seventies, yet it was felt that AMC needed to try something radically different to make its voice heard in the market-place.

The result was an American attempt at an "economy car", or, in the words of AMCs advertising blurb, "the first wide small car": the Pacer was 100 inches long but 77 inches wide - wider, in fact, than a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and about the same length as a Ford Granada.

AMC's styling supremo Dick Teague (who, tellingly, had a problem with one of his eyes after a childhood car crash and was unable to perceive depth) ignored the contemporary fashion for angular bodywork and instead fashioned a rounded, futuristic two-door hatchback that had a definite touch of the lunar vehicle about it, with massively deep goldfish-bowl windows.

It caught the American imagination at a time when other domestic "compacts" (including the infamous exploding Ford Pinto) merely looked like scaled-down full-size cars. In fact, the Pacer's "lemon" image is somewhat belied by the fact that sales in the first year were huge, with the domestic magazines saying polite things about it through gritted teeth in the name of patriotism.

The Pacer was born in the midst not only of a fuel crisis (suddenly gas mileage became an issue for Americans), but also increasing sales of foreign cars. The American buyer was beginning to be educated in the sophisticated ways of the European automobile, learning to love the thrift and reliability of Japanese cars in huge numbers.

The Pacer might have had more credibility as the all-American answer to the invading hordes had it not been powered by a 3.8-litre straight six engine that could barely push its quivering bulk to 90mph on an emissions-strangled 95bhp while averaging 18mpg or less.

Taken from the Jeep, this boat anchor of a power unit was so heavy that it broke the steering on early Pacers. In fact, the car was so heavily built (in anticipation of Federal crash safety legislation that never actually came into force) that AMC eventually abandoned all pretensions of economy and offered the Pacer with a five-litre V8.

The one fact that fascinates people about the Pacer is that the passenger door was 10cm longer than driver's door to make it easier to get shopping in the back. That was fine until AMC tried to sell the cars in the UK with right hand drive; the driver's door was so big that getting out in the typically confined English parking spot was virtually impossible.

The British press were a lot less forgiving of the Pacer's weaknesses. The weekly Motor announced on its cover: "We test the Pacer - and wish we hadn't." Shortly afterwards, AMC stopped importing cars into the UK altogether. Back in the States, the initial enthusiasm for the car had flagged significantly despite attempts to shore up sales with a bizarre stationwagon version (with fake wood along its flanks) and a faux Mercedes-style front grille. Production ended in 1980; the inevitable happened in 1987 when AMC was swallowed up by Chrysler.

The fact that rare survivors from the Pacer's six-season, 280,000 car run are now enjoying a cult following in its homeland proves that some Americans do have a sense of irony.

AMC in brief

AMERICAN MOTORS was a brave attempt by an amalgamation of smaller brands to challenge the dominance of Detroit's "Big Three" car companies - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

In 1954, the Nash and Hudson motor companies decided to pool their resources and, in 1957, to rationalise their brands under the "American Motors" label, just as Austin and Morris had combined to form the British Motor Corporation a few years ago (although in that case the old names and even dealer networks were retained. The Nash Metropolitan was the strange offspring of a BMC-AMC joint venture). In 1970, American Motors acquired Jeep, still at that time concentrating on fairly utilitarian products. "American Motors" was soon commonly abbreviated to AMC.

Not all of the cars made by the AMC were as wacky as the Pacer, but the company made a name for itself in the early 1970s by launching "compact" models (that is, compact by American standards). The Pacer followed the Hornet and Gremlin in this tradition.

However, the company was less successful in persuading more affluent customers to sample its mainstream offerings, and quality control and cashflow problems pushed AMC into the arms of Renault at the end of the 1970s.

Selling mildly facelifted versions of the Renault 9 and 11 failed. By 1987, the firm was in such poor shape that it sold itself cheap to Chrysler, which abandoned the AMC badge. Jeep, an underdeveloped brand, was the real prize, just as it was when Chrysler-Jeep itself was bought by Daimler-Benz in 1998.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

    SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

    Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

    £85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

    Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

    £55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering