The Pacer looked horrible, drove badly and ate money. Martin Buckley wonders why Americans loved it
Tuesday 30 May 2006
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.
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