Sunday, September 02, 2007

Gremlins and Hornets and Pacers, oh my!

The sweetest car anyone in my family has ever owned was a 1966 Ford Mustang. It looked a lot like this one, although it was a sort of dark maroon, not red.
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My dad bought it new in 1966, when I was a little bitty kid. I loved that car. We all did. Or so I thought, until only about a year later when my dad traded it in for a station wagon. I don't remember if my sister and I actually cried when our father said he was trading in the Mustang, but I do remember that we kissed it good-bye before he drove it away.

"Ah," you may be thinking, "the family man sells his sporty car to buy a station wagon to suit his growing family. That's kind of admirable." But you'd be wrong. There's nothing to admire. Because A) there were only four of us. We fit into the Mustang just fine. And B) the station wagon he bought was an AMC Rambler. That's right. My father traded a 1966 Mustang, one of the most beautiful cars ever made, for a piece of junk that looked a lot like this:
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We lived in San Diego, California, at the time, and we were going to drive cross-country that year to visit my grandparents in Michigan. I guess somebody told my dad that he should get a station wagon for the trip. Since we were in a Rambler, though, we barely made it over the Arizona border before it broke down. We spent a couple of days in Prescott, Arizona, waiting around until it was fixed.

But that was really only the beginning of my family's long nightmare. You see, my father had been struck by a dreadful mental syndrome. From around the 1930s through the 1970s in America, a lot of men were car company guys. There were self-described "Ford guys," "Chevy guys," even "Dodge guys." A Ford guy would only buy Fords, a Chevy guy would only buy Chevys, and so on. To our great sorrow and dismay, however, my dad inexplicably became an "AMC guy."

From that point on, he only bought AMCs. And since he liked to get a new car every couple of years, and since Southern California culture pretty much required that he and my mom each have a car, from 1967 through 1976, he bought six of them. At one time or another, my family actually owned at least one of each of the models shown in this picture, from left to right, a Gremlin, a Pacer, and a Hornet.
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Today, people look at those cars with a certain amount of nostalgia. The very oddity of their looks gives them a quirky appeal. I can see that. I saw it when we owned them. But one thing I vividly remember about them is their absolutely atrocious quality. People today can't imagine how awful American cars, and especially, especially, AMCs were in the 1970s. They broke down all the time.

When I got my license, our Gremlin became sort of "my" car. I drove it all the time. And it was an adventure. I'd be driving along, and "HSSSSSS!" the radiator hose blows out. I'd step on the brake, and "Whoa!" the power assist to the brakes goes out. Off the top of my head, I can also remember the power steering, the alternator, the carburetor, and even the battery going bad. This was mostly within the first year or two, mind you, while the car was still under warranty.

My favorite breakage was something a little different though. As you can kind of see in this picture,
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the Gremlin was a hatchback, but it didn't have an actual "fifth door." Only the glass part opened. And it was a solid piece of glass in a thin metal frame with supports glued directly onto the glass. Not only that, the way the latch was designed, you couldn't close it gently. You had to give it a little slam in order to engage the latch.

"But wait," you say, "didn't that obviously increase the likelihood that -- " Yep. One day my mom came home from the store, took her groceries out of the back, and closed the hatch just like always. CRASH! The glass was in a thousand pieces in the back of the car. Simply craptastic.

That's not to say my memories of the Gremlin are all bad. Eventually, after we'd had a long succession of defective parts replaced, it became fairly reliable. And I had all the usual high school experiences in it. No, not that experience -- that would have been a remarkable feat in a Gremlin, especially since I was already over six feet tall when I got my license -- but all the rest of them. I can't hate the car I drove to my senior prom, for gosh sakes. But they just don't build 'em like that anymore. And we should all be very, very glad they don't.


  1. Nuts!

    I bought a 1972 Gremlin new, and I couldn't kill it! Normal maintenance? Wazzat? 10 k-miles between oil changes, even longer between drain-and-flush - belts and hoses break (NOT the fault of AMC; try blaming Firestone or Goodyear for those!) That's when I fell in love with the beastie! Runs for over 30 minutes, in traffic, without ANY coolant! BTW - Chrysler still makes that engine - cast iron block and heads and all - as the fuel-injected 4 liter 6 that goes in the Cherokee. They standardized the crank and cam on the median of the two offered by AMC: 232CID and 258CID (3.8 & 4.2 liter). My Gremlin had the 4.2L, with power everything and air conditioning so good that ice formed on the rear-view mirror in the dead of summer! So don't knock my baby! One of the two best cars I ever owned (the other was the one that saved my life - a 1964 Rambler American... is there a pattern here?)

  2. Thomas,
    10k miles between oil changes? We never managed 10k miles between major repairs. But I suppose it's possible we just happened to get a lemon -- or six.
    The air conditioning was very powerful though. And it only broke once.

  3. my amc eagle and my 1980 vam rally never broke down they have been my daily drivers since new and with a regular maintenance on it, i wonder what kind of care did you take of your gremlin?

  4. The same kind of care I take of my '86 Honda and my '96 Dodge, which in their combined 42 years probably haven't broken down as many times as the Gremlin did in its first 3.


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