Has everyone heard the story about the birth of the Gremlin? Here’s the way I heard it: One day in 1966, AMC Design Chief Richard Teague was on a commercial airline flight to Detroit mulling over ideas for the ‘new wave’ of subcompact cars that the Big Four were planning to compete with the VW Bug. The VW had proven that a new generation of Americans had a keen interest in a low-cost, economical automobile that still retained a degree of ‘style’ that would be attractive to young buyers. American Motors’ then current economy entry, the Rambler American, had no real youth appeal at all, and the design (as well as the ‘Rambler’ nameplate itself) was due to be phased out by 1970. Plans were already underway to replace the stodgy Rambler with an all-new compact car, which was then being designed using elements of the ‘Vixen’ and ‘Cavalier’ design exercises that had already been shown to the public. But the new car, which would eventually debut as the Hornet, was a compact, not a subcompact. AMC still needed a price leader.
Teague was working under several constraints. AMC’s development budget was miniscule compared to the larger car companies, so the new car had to use one of the existing AMC powerplants–no new engines were in development. As a result, the new concept had to be physically small enough to qualify as a subcompact, yet large enough to accommodate the 199/232 AMC inline Six. In addition, AMC was determined to get their car to market ahead of the Ford, Chevy, and Dodge competition, and the quickest (and cheapest) way to do that was by minimizing retooling costs as much as possible by using existing parts.
Suddenly, Teague had an idea…what if he took the brand new Javelin platform, and simply ‘chopped’ it off as short as possible to make it a subcompact? That way the new car could share as much tooling as possible with an existing model, yet have a totally different profile and ‘personality’ from it’s parent car. Teague grabbed the nearest available piece of paper and sketched out the idea, and that very same piece of paper made it all the way back to the design studio when it was time to mock up a proposal. Never before had an air sickness bag played such an instrumental role in a new automobile program!
Teague’s initial sketch was eventually rendered in full-scale as the AMX-GT, which was first shown at the New York International Auto Show in April, 1968. By this time, Teague’s ‘shared platform’ concept had already been put into practice with the AMX, which made it’s debut in March. The AMX, which had originally been planned as a unique offering, wound up being the first expression of Teague’s ‘cut down’ strategy. Built on a short 97″ wheelbase, the production AMX was a virtual twin of the Javelin from the ‘B’-pillar forward, although it also shared a rear window, trunk lid, taillight bar, and bumper with it’s Javelin parent. The AMX-GT was also on a 97″ wheelbase and shared it’s front end design with the Javelin, but the rest of the design was much more faithful to Teague’s original idea of providing the car with a unique personality. Just as in Teague’s original drawing, the GT was basically a Javelin truncated abruptly by an angled ‘kammback’ in place of the conventional trunk. The result looks much like the familiar Gremlin, yet much lower and sleeker.
The AMX-GT was not really considered for production, especially after the success of the AMX sports car. However, Teague was never one to abandon a good idea, and the basic ‘kammback’ concept was merely transferred to the next platform being developed…the compact Hornet project. Once again, the kammback car would share everything from the ‘B’-pillar forward with it’s parent car, yet the rear portion would be unique.
This time, the kammback concept made it all the way to production, and the new subcompact was given the name ‘Gremlin’ prior to it’s April, 1970 introduction. The new Gremlin soon became a huge success with young, first-time car buyers interested in economy. Although ridiculed by some observers as ‘half-a-car’ at the time, the fundamental kammback design proved very durable and inspired a slew of imitators over the next twenty years.
The base Gremlin (available in 2- and 4-seat configurations at first), was joined in 1971 by the Gremlin X, which used mag wheels and tape-stripes borrowed from the Javelin for a sportier look. Gremlins got some muscle to compliment the sporty look in 1972, when the 304 V8 became an option. The original Gremlin was facelifted for 1974 (bumpers and grille), restyled for ‘77 (new front clip, taillights, and rear-window treatment), and updated once again for 1979 when it became the Spirit Sedan (new front end treatment, new rear quarter panels). The final Gremlin variation was the Eagle Kammback, which was a 4wd version of the Spirit Sedan.
After the Gremlin became a production model in 1970, a lot of design experiments were done using the Gremlin as a foundation. The 1972 Gremlin “Voyager” was one of the earlier aberrations, exhibited on the 1972 auto show circuit. Designed for sportsmen and the like, the major feature of the car was that the taillight panel pulled straight back, along with the luggage compartment floor, effectively creating a ‘drawer’. Apparently the idea was not seen as particularly marketable and was soon forgotten, although the car itself has resurfaced and is currently owned (and occasionally shown) by Brian Moyer.
The Gremlin and Hornet were also used as the foundation of a pick-up truck project similar to the Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino. The AMC version was called the Cowboy, and a number of design studio portraits have surfaced showing a Gremlin front clip grafted on to a pick-up style bed. Although the existing Cowboy was clearly based on the 108″ Hornet wheelbase, there is evidence that a 96″ ‘Gremlin’ version was also produced in the design studio.
The AMC designers took Teague’s ‘shared tooling’ concept even farther during the mid-1970’s, by combining production parts in various combinations to come up with new ideas. The 1973 ‘Hornet GT’ was essentially a 2-dr version of a Hornet Sportabout squeezed onto a Gremlin chassis–the Gremlin rear quarter panels and liftgate were replaced with those of a Sportabout.
Many universities used Gremlins during the early 1970’s for experiments with alternative fuel sources. Gremlins were very popular for conversions because of their small size and generous engine compartment. One of the most notable experiments was conducted at UCLA, when a project spearheaded by Frank Lynch resulted in a hydrogen-powered ’72 Gremlin. (Details on this project can be found online at http://www.engineer.ucla.edu/history/hcar.html) Other Gremlins were converted to natural gas, hydrogen, and electric power.
Gremlins were also popular as racing cars for the same reason. Wally Booth drove a 401 V8-powered ‘Gremlin X’ in drag racing competition until he switched to the larger (and more aerodynamically stable) Hornet Hatchback in ’73. H.L. and Shirley Shahan also used a Gremlin for drag-racing exhibitions. Kenosha-based racer Brian Ambrosini currently holds a ‘wheelstand championship’ record with his Gremlin drag car.
Mattel provided some further Gremlin aberrations in their ‘Hot Wheel’ diecast toy line. The ‘Open Fire’ Gremlin (1972) was a six-wheeled monster built around an Allison V-12 aircraft engine, while the ‘Gremlin Grinder’ (1975) was a more traditional aspirated hot rod. A third variation called the ‘Greased Gremlin’ (1979) was set up as a dirt track racing car—this prefigured the popularity of the Gremlin body for real-life dirt track racing cars!
A rather interesting Gremlin was built in the mid-‘70s for the Coleman Products Corporation in Coleman, Wisconsin. In order to illustrate the correct placement and function of the firm’s wiring harnesses in the vehicle, engineers built a full-size Gremlin replica out of clear plexiglass! Although not driveable, the vehicle did feature working lights and other electrical features. Details like bumpers, wheels, seats, the dash, and all of the exterior lights were furnished by Kenosha.
A common rumor heard around AMC in the late ‘70s was that a 4-dr Gremlin/Spirit was planned. The ideas would be rather redundant, being so close in concept to the existing Concord Wagon, but the idea was adopted by VAM, AMC’s Mexico City-based partner, who produced the Mexico-only Lerma in 2- and 4- door configurations. The Lerma essentially combined the Spirit’s hatchback with the longer Concord body, and the result was very similar to the contemporary Chevy Citation and Olds Cutlass ‘hatchbacks’ popular at the time.
By the mid-‘70s, the AMC design studio was toying with ideas to freshen up the aging Gremlin design. Some of these experiments, like the 1974 Gremlin XP, were design exercises built around a production Gremlin. Others, such as the ‘Concept I’ and ‘Concept II’, existed only on paper and represented a completely new car from the ground up. In the end, AMC combined the front-end design of the ‘Grand Touring’ concept car and the rear portion of the 1974 ‘Gremlin G/II’ show car to produce the Gremlin’s replacement, the Spirit Liftback. The production ’79 Spirit Liftback looked remarkably similar to the G/II concept car, minus the latter’s rear quarter panel ‘bulges’.
The decision to retain the traditional ‘kammback’ style Gremlin as the Spirit Sedan was made very late in the design cycle—the production prototype Sedan did not appear in Kenosha until December of ’78, well after the Liftback was already in full production. The Sedan was released to the public early in 1980, and was built until Spirit production ceased in 1983. Thus marked the end of the road for the funny-looking car that was truly an American phenomenon.