The AMC Pacer was launched amid a blaze of optimism from the American motoring press, who labelled it as revolutionary. Looking back some 37 years later, history paints a different portrait of the Pacer as a horrendous apparition that taints the proud tradition of American carmaking. But, was it really all that bad? Horatio Plot examines the facts.
The AMC Pacer Arrives
When I first went to North America aged sixteen in the summer of 1975, my parents and I were met at Toronto airport by my Dad’s cousin, the wonderfully craggy, frail, chain-smoking Cliff and his trusty 1965 AMC Rambler Cross Country. When we returned the following year Cousin Cliff had suffered a series of heart attacks, had a triple bypass operation, was still smoking and had ditched the Rambler for something he referred to as his “moon buggy”; the amazing bubble on wheels that was his brand new beige AMC.
It felt to me like I’d landed on Mars. The future had just arrived and its name was Pacer.
The Pacer is Launched
The Pacer was launched by AMC to an unsuspecting American public in the spring of 1975.
Into a sea of large, square and wallowy cars they floated a design so cutting edge it took the breath away. A small car that was wider than it was tall—two feet wider in fact—with a huge wrap around three-piece rear window that gave it the appearance of a spaceship. The car had 70% more glass area than the average car in its class. And along with the futuristic styling came the promise of technology to match.
The press fell in love with the car. Motor Trend enthused, “American Motors’ new Pacer is the freshest, most creative, most people-oriented auto to be born in the U.S. in 15 years.”
Car and Driver was just as fervent, stating, “American Motors has decided conventional looks are passé but comfort and room for four are here to stay. The result; our first real urban transporter.”
A Mood of Optimism?
There was no denying the mood of optimism as the Pacer was launched to the press by AMC chairman Roy D. Chapin Jr. in January 1975.
It was a moment also charged with trepidation as this was American Motors' last roll of the dice.
It was hope and fear all rolled into one after a topsy-turvy year in which AMC’s sales were down 50% on the previous year in a tough environment where sales across the industry were down 29%.
Backs Against the Wall
Everybody was doing badly, but AMC was doing the worst. The Arab oil embargo had actually meant AMC increased sales by 15% against an industry fall of 21% as customers scrambled for small cars, but then the company had been crippled by a three-week strike.
There was a bunker mentality at the Plymouth Road, Detroit headquarters as they mixed it up with the big boys.
And so, fighting for their lives, AMC threw everything at the project including the kitchen sink. So much so that they made a car that looked like the kitchen sink. In fact, one of its nicknames became the upside-down kitchen sink.
Not to mention the upside-down bathtub.
How the Pacer was Conceived
Conceived from the inside out the Pacer was designed to be small but roomy, as the company blurb said, “Because Pacer is the first wide small car, it’s also the first small wide car.” In other words, the car would offer the handling and manoeuverability of a small car while giving the benefit of the interior space normally only found in a large sedan. And in that respect it succeeded.
It would have succeeded even more if AMC had not had to change the engine shortly before production.
Less Room to Swing a Cat
The power unit was to have been a cutting-edge rotary Wankel engine purchased from General Motors. The car was designed around that engine. Unfortunately, GM withdrew, as the Wankel was proving neither reliable nor fuel-efficient, and in the wake of the 1974 Arab oil embargo, this was now an issue. The engine also produced high amounts of N0x gasses that would not comply with the new emissions regulations.
So AMC put their standard tried and tested 3.8 liter 232 cu.in. straight six under the hood. It was a tight fit but they squeezed it in. This change compromised the interior space and effectively rendered it a four-seater as it necessitated the use of a drive tunnel to get the power to the rear wheels which took up space in the rear seating area. The Wankel which would have been front-wheel drive would have needed no such tunnel. The car was still roomy but not as roomy as it might have been.
The engine change also fundamentally altered the nature of the car's dynamics. What was meant to be a nippy little go-anywhere kind of a car was turned into a heavy, slow kind of a car.
It was a personality change that would come back to haunt AMC.
Everybody Loves Ya Baby
The car was an instant hit with the public selling 145,000 units in its first year. They loved the looks, the visibility, the space, the sense of the future and the quirkiness exemplified by the uneven door lengths. The passenger door was 4 inches longer than the driver’s door to allow for easy entrance and exit; perfect for the urban Mom dropping the kids off. The doors were also hinged to move out slightly from the top as they opened, to make sure junior didn't hit his head. The people also loved the small turning circle which was due to the rack and pinion steering that utilised the extra width of the car to great effect. It was design features such as these that made for the initial success.
Pacer Equipment Options
The Pacer was a little sparse on equipment though with an extras list that would make even present-day Audi or BMW blush. Automatic transmission was an extra $299 and air conditioning $399.95—more than a tenth of the base price of $3,299. An 8-track AM/FM radio was $239.
Ah, where would a 70s car be without an 8-track.
The “Announcement Package 1”, of a tinted window and power steering was $139 and “Announcement Package 2” of a front sway bar, steel belted radial tires and power front disc brakes was $203.45. So in order to get your Pacer up to scratch, you had to part with the best part of $1,300, taking the price up to about $4,600.
Some of those extras were vital. The huge glass area made the air conditioning and the tinted glass essential while the power brakes, given the car's weight, were a necessity in order to stop the Pacer without developing thighs the size of Steve Austin.
He Ain't Heavy...He's My Brother
The engine was just one element that led the “Flying Fishbowl” as Car and Driver nicknamed it, to weigh in at over 3,200 lbs. All that glass added to the weight, as did all the much-hyped safety measures. AMC wanted to stay ahead of the game and so incorporated a lot of features that were expected to be required over the coming few years, such as a roll bar, which gave rise to the huge, thick B pillars—the ones just behind the driver’s door, and the massive doors designed to take side strengthening beams.
The car lobby won the day however and the new regulations were not as draconian as at first feared. However, this meant that AMC was left with a car that was heavier than it needed to be.
So it was wide but small . . . and heavy.
Downhill All the Way
In the second year, around 120,000 Pacers were sold but the cracks were beginning to show. The engine was slow and unresponsive, the car taking over 14 seconds to get to 60mph, and it only clocked around 16mpg, less if you used the air conditioning, which you did because of all that glass. It was hard to park because of the width and weight, and mechanical faults were beginning to show through. The electrics were proving unreliable and there were reports of the steering seizing and failing due to the extra weight and strain imposed on the steering rack by the heavy engine.
Pacer sales in the third year dropped like a stone to around 20,000 and then to below 8,000 in the forth, 1978. The writing was well and truly on the wall.
To address the lack of power the car was given a larger, even more uneconomical straight six as well as a V8 but when the second energy crisis hit in 1979 as a result of the Iranian revolution, the Pacer was officially fighting a lost cause.
Production ceased in December 1979 with sales continuing into early 1980.
AMC itself struggled on for eight more years under different management arrangements with Renault, the French manufacturer, before finally selling out to Lee Iacocca’s Chrysler.
The Cultural Impact of the Pacer
In the years that followed the legacy of the Pacer started to take shape. Derided and loved in equal measure, the Pacer began to carve a unique place for itself in American automotive history.
The Pacer gained fame, almost a re-birth, in the 1990s when it featured as Wayne and Garth’s light blue ”Mirthmobile” in Mike Myer’s Wayne’s World, taking a starring role in the famous "Bohemian Rhapsody” scene.
Rapper Eminem also used a Pacer to perform donuts in a car park in the video for “The Real Slim Shady”.
Homage to the Pacer can also be found in 2011’s video game Driver, San Francisco.
The Pacer represented an effort to create something different. The concept was great; it was just the execution that went awry.
So we are left still waiting for that truly great urban vehicle that will carry us around like Neil Armstrong on acid, casting aside those common enemies of traffic congestion, noise, pollution and energy shortage.
For one moment in time, the Pacer nearly did all that. It very nearly was tomorrow's car.
As the brochure said, “When you buy any other car, all you end up with is today’s car. When you get a Pacer, you get a piece of tomorrow.”
Nearly, but not quite.
The Legacy of the Pacer
Like all brilliant engineering concepts that burn brightly before burning out, the Pacer has been thrown onto the scrapheap of heroic failure.
Sometimes it seems we are too conservative for our own good. It is one of the ironies of capitalism that the very freedom to experiment with a fresh idea sometimes provides the agent for its demise, for in the end everything is determined by profit and loss. It is the first rule. Something cannot merely exist because it is aesthetically beautiful or conceptually brilliant; it has to make money.
It is the price we pay.
The Pacer should have been given wings and been set free to fly. But as with other great but ultimately commercially flawed concepts such as Concorde or the Hovercraft, instead of having the courage to push on and build something greater, we let it crash upon the altar of capitalism.
And so instead of leading us into our Utopian future where we all zip around like the Jetsons, the little car just faded away.
As for Cousin Cliff, he outlasted his Pacer and lived, still smoking, to be 100.
Many thanks to David Dunnebier—63cpe—for the kind use of his photos. Check out David's Photostream for loads of other great Pacer pictures.