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Monday, May 2, 2011

1970 1/2 AMC Gremlin

April Fool’s Day 1970 was picked as the launch date for
American Motors’ subcompact car.
 Gremlin listed for $2,398 f.o.b Brampton, Ontario.
"What would you do if you had to compete with GM, Ford and Chrysler?" was the question burning everyone’s lips at American Motors in 1968. Like little Suzie, the last of the independent automakers was in trouble deep. Its Rambler line had tumbled from a dizzying 35,273 cars produced in 1965, holding a full 5.3 percent of the market, making it one of the most popular automobiles in the Canada to land somewhere near the bottom of the heap. Things were bad enough that when Studebaker folded its tent in 1966 in Hamilton, Ontario, pundits and industry analysts alike predicted American Motors would follow in short order, joining Studebaker in that great Scrapyard in the Sky.

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American Motors top brass vowed to the public it was here to stay and the company was committed to building automobiles. It could reach back to an automotive heritage that began with the construction of the first Rambler in 1902. Top brass acknowledged that the company had been most successful when it reached for and claimed the title of economy king and publicly pledged to return to those small, economy roots. In order to stay afloat, AMC divested itself of its profitable Kelvinator appliance business--after 33 years--and then sold REDISCO, the corporate finance arm.

Weighing in at 2,633 pounds, the 1970 ½ Gremlin
was the first subcompact built by a Big Four automaker.
In order to stay competitive, the team had to deliver products that were exciting to the public—and those products had better arrive quickly—one right after the other. The new head of the firm, Roy Chapin, announced there would be a new model from AMC every six months. The pace was dizzying—even for the auto industry. The luxurious fastback Marlin was unceremoniously dumped and replaced with a sizzling pony car, the Javelin. Javelin was hot and it was followed by the stunning two-seat AMX sports car.

With scarcely enough time to catch their collective breaths, dealers took down the old Rambler signs and hung out the new corporate logo. They saida final ‘goodbye’ to the faithful Rambler and popped the champagne corks for a smartly styled, all-new compact called Hornet.



Three home runs in a row weren’t enough for American Motors. There were more steel beauties on their way up to bat. Ever the pioneer, AMC was the first of the Big Four automakers to enter the subcompact market with a domestically built vehicle. It is absolutely true that head stylist Richard (Dick) Teague designed the tiny car on the back of a Northwest air sickness bag.

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The look was brilliant—Teague sawed off the back of the Hornet and added massive reverse-slant C-pillars that gave the design an unforgettable wedge-shaped profile. A wide, wrap-around grille and oversized flares at the wheel wells added to the sassy looks. Tooling added up to a mere $8 million, chump change around Motor City.

Just to be on the safe side, the Gremlin’s overall design was subjected to a probability study. Marketing invited 1,000 owners of compact and imported cars to view small cars and included the yet unnamed Gremlin among the groupings. The reaction was overwhelmingly favourable. The public had no idea who the maker of this cute little car was but they wanted to buy it.

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Gremlin was AMC's foot soldier, off to battle
 the mighty Volkswagen.
 On April Fool’s Day of 1970, the adorable Gremlin bowed to the public. Highly unique from stem to stern, this subcompact boasted a generous six-cylinder engine. Advertising took on Volkswagen head-to-head. Designed to win back a good percentage of the market being gobbled up by imports--primarily Datsun, Toyota and VW--Gremlins were displayed on university campuses throughout Canada to create awareness and drum up interest among young buyers.

At only $2,398, the car was billed, tongue-in-cheek as the first domestically-built import, “the kind this country has needed for a long time.” Gremlin offered twice the power and double the fun of Volkswagen’s 57-horsepower engine; claimed to be a regular gas grouch delivering 495 miles on a tank of regular fuel and boasted a smaller turning circle than a Beetle. A Gremlin was only 2.5 inches longer than a VW, too.

The entry-level price got one a basic, two-seat runabout. There were no frills whatsoever. The flooring was rubber and the rear window was fixed into place. Only a handful of people bought the unadorned stripper. Buyers could upgrade to the four-passenger version and lots of Canadians did exactly that. 

Whether one bought the two- or four-passenger Gremlin, under that long, bubble-blistered hood lurked AMC’s tried and true 199-cubic inch, six-cylinder engine that scuffed up the asphalt faster than snow melts in April. With a seven main-bearing crankshaft, the mill was virtually indestructible. All 128 horses were mated to a three-speed manual transmission or an optional automatic shifter.


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Gremlin interiors were smart and stylish.
 The bucket seats were optional.
Like Mattel’s Barbie, Gremlin could be had with an tasteful extra-cost accessories tailored to drivers' needs. AMC’s frisky little fellow was given 30 carefully selected optional equipment items including a very fast 145-horsepower motor, power steering, power brakes, a remote control mirror, electric windshield wipers and washers, air conditioning, tinted glass, an AM push-button all-transistor radio, a block heater, a roof rack, rally stripes, full wheel discs, bucket seats and a twin-grip differential. In addition, there were seven complete option packages available. 

American Motors workers caught Gremlins in the factory anddeep-dipped them in rustproofing before triple-painting the little rascals in any of 13 colours, including Classic Black, Frost White, Matador Red, Hialeah Yellow Bittersweet Orange, Bayshore Blue, Sea Foam Aqua, Mosport Green, Tijuana Tan and Sonic Silver. If those weren’t enough, the ultimate hues were borrowed from cousin AMX and left the factory floor wearing Big Bad Blue, Big Bad Green and Big Bad Orange.

The 1970 1/2 AMC Gremlin was 161 
inches long—only 2.5 inches longer 
than a VW Beetle—
and rode on a 96-inch wheelbase.


The smallest AMC offering got off to a good start in an abbreviated model year, racking up 12,618 builds in Brampton, many of them headed south to the United States. Things would get even hotter in 1971 as 26,348 Gremlins scampered out the doors of the Brampton, Ontario factory, scooting all over the continent for fun and frolic with their new owners.


The subcompact that looked like a sports car, loaded like a wagon and turned on a dime turned out to be the single best-selling model AMC ever built. Though it has been more than three decades since the last Gremlin rolled out the factory doors, they’re still occasionally seen on the nation's highways and byways. This writer spotted one yesterday and that made him grin from ear to ear. “Long live Gremlin!” he was heard to shout as he waved and honked from behind the wheel of his Ambassador wagon. 

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2006 All rights reserved.









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