AMC Eagle 4wd
Underfunded before its time
by Patrick R. Foster
The idea of a four-wheel-drive automobile has been around for decades. Harry Miller had his glorious (but unsuccessful) four-wheel-drive Indy cars back in the '30s. Willys offered four-wheel-drive versions of its station wagon model beginning in '49, and International pretended its Scout was really a car in the '60s. Yet it was left to Subaru to bring a true four-wheel-drive car to the volume end of the market in the '70s and it was a modest hit, establishing the brand as a hardy "New England" car.
Over at American Motors, product planners had been working for several years on the same concept. Subaru's success, no doubt. put spurs to the designers, By fall 1979, AMC was ready with the first American-made four-wheel-drive production automobile, They called it the Eagle.
First glances invariably brought double takes, since the Eagle was strange looking. AMC's chronic lack of development dollars meant the new car had to be cobbled together from existing parts. Thus, AMC used the Concord (nee Hornet) body and stretched its wheelbase one inch, to 109. Two- and four-door sedans. and a four-door wagon were offered. AMC's big six, a 258-cid cast-iron job with 110 hp, was the only engine available the first year. it was hooked to a Chrysler three-speed automatic transmission. What brought on the double takes, however, was the ride height. To ensure proper clearance for off-roading, AMC raised the body three inches. One magazine described it best when it said that Eagle looked like a Hornet standing on its tiptoes.
A few styling touches distinguished the Eagle from its two-wheel-drive cousins. The bumpers were pulled closer to the body. mostly because the shock-absorbing rams were left off. Eagles were classified as light-duty commercial vehicles- and thus weren't required to meet passenger-car bumper regulations. Standard were 15-inch tires (instead of the 14-inch rubber found on the two-wheelers, with dent-resistant Krayton plastic wheel flares and rocker-panel that can considered an early form of body cladding.
The heart of Eagle's four-wheel-drive system - and the feature that made it different front most other four-wheelers - was its third differential. This centrally mounted unit was filled with a thick, honey-like viscous fluid that provided smooth. quiet power transfer. The unit worked on Fergusson's Master Differential idea, whereby engine power was directed proportionally to the axle with the greatest traction. This was a true full-time setup, able to run in four-wheel drive, on any surface without undue wear on suspension or driveline components, and a forerunner of other systems that followed from other manufacturers. Eagle's traction was far superior to the Subaru's, and could beat that of many so-called off-road vehicles. But Eagle didn't offer a low range in the transfer case; AMC claimed that Eagles were meant for on-road use. with only occasional. light-duty off-roading, and thus didn't need a low range.
The motoring press was prepared to dislike the Eagle. After all, AMC was a small firm building very conservative cars. Many auto writers considered the company too poor to develop anything worthwhile. But test drives quickly won some wide-ranging support for the Eagle. Popular Mechanics said, "The only time you'll even realize the four-wheel drive is there is when it gets you out of a jam no two-wheel-drive system could... it works amazingly well." Mechanix Illustrated noted, "Driving the Eagle in the rough. we couldn't find a hill that would stop it," while Four Wheeler concluded, "For the average consumer, Eagle is the perfect blend of car and 4 x 4. The beginning of a new generation of cars,"
Sales started strong, with help from a fuel shortage that scared many four-wheel-drive owners clean out of their Blazers. Compared with the usual 8 mpg that the era's full-size four-wheelers delivered, Eagle's 16-mpg EPA city rating looked wonderful. A hopeful AMC announced a production increase within a few months of introduction.
Two additional models were rolled out in 1981. The first was a sporty two-door liftback called Eagle SX-4, built on the Spirit/AMX body. The second was a price-leader called the Eagle Kammback, built on the Spirit Sedan (nee Gremlin) chassis. Kammback started at just $5,995, but found few takers. Also new were a base, 2-5-liter four-cylinder- engine, a four-speed manual transmission, and a front axle-disconnect feature for enhanced fuel economy when all-wheel drive wasn't needed.
Eagle sales held for a while - 32,000 in calendar 1980, 43.000 in 1981, 35,000 in 1987-- but then began to drop off. With no cash at AMC for significant styling or engineering upgrades. the line on the sales chart took a nosedive in the mid-1980s.
The Eagle 4wd automobile went out of production after a short run of
1988 models was built - about two years before the sport/utility boom began
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