AMC's answer to the fuel crisis of the Seventies was the bizarrely styled Pacer - the second most controversial American car of all time after Ford's Edsel. MARK WILSON tracks down probably the finest example in the UK.
Photography: Mike Key
If ever an American car has been ridiculed over the years, it's the infamous AMC Pacer. People have mocked its bulging, rounded styling, its greenhouse-style massive areas of glass, its odd-sized doors and its failure to take America by storm. Some laughed when it appeared in 1975 and they're still laughing now. The controversy that surrounds American Motor Corporation's most bizarre compact car is still alive and kicking, even after nearly three decades.
It's all a bit of a shame, you know. The idea behind the Pacer was a good one, and showed a great deal of intelligent prophesying on the part of AMC. A clay model of the Pacer was built as early as 1971, before the fuel crisis bit hard and before the flood of Japanese imports that so shocked the rest of the American motor industry. Created by AMC chief stylist Richard Teague, the Pacer clay model spent much of 1972 being displayed at 'customer clinics' (a fairly new idea back then) to gauge public reaction. Interestingly, the Pacer still made it into production - although not until 1975, by which time its specification had altered significantly.
The four long years between the first clay model being created and the first production Pacer rolling off the line saw massive changes in American car buyers' habits. Fuel prices were rocketing, supplies were limited and, for the first time ever, American drivers became aware of the importance of economy. By the time the Pacer actually hit the streets though, large numbers of neatly styled Japanese 'econoboxes' were proving a big hit in the States - and alongside those, the bizarre looking Pacer was a shock to the system.
Still, at least AMC had the luxury of having spent time developing their own compact car. Chrysler, by comparison, were caught out by the fuel crisis and, in desperation, ended up launching an American-spec version of Britain's Hillman Avenger, going by the name of Plymouth Cricket. Now that really was a bad decision …
The AMC Pacer is still considered one of the weirdest looking cars ever to come out of America. And yet despite the shock of its looks upon its launch in '75, the Pacer was a revolution in some ways - and very much ahead of its time. Even so, the specification was 'diluted' compared with what was originally intended. Richard Teague had planned a car with front-wheel drive and a rotary engine, which was to be supplied by General Motors. The problem was that GM wasn't able to make an engine that was efficient enough in terms of fuel consumption and, in the middle of an oil crisis, economy was top of the list of requirements.
Development of the rotary engine was axed in 1974, leaving AMC without a powerplant for the Pacer. A major problem. This caught AMC on the hop, leaving it with only one real option. The Pacer was too far down the line to be junked, and so it was modified to accept American Motors' tried and tested 3.8-litre straight-six engine and rear-wheel drive. Fitting this into a car designed from the start to be front wheel drive meant AMC had to fit a solid rear axle and leaf springs, relocate the fuel tank into the boot (losing valuable storage space), fit a driveshaft front to rear and so on. To add a driveshaft to this design was no easy task; in fact the body of the Pacer had to be widened by six inches. Later AMC would use this as a plus point in advertising, saying 'If you want to ride like a Pacer, you've got to be wide like a Pacer'.