American Motors’ Pacer Hemmings Motor News

18 May 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on American Motors’ Pacer Hemmings Motor News
American Classic Motors Road

A Piece of Tomorrow

Feature Article from Hemmings Classic Car

When it was first introduced, the automotive press loved it. Then, within a short time, they hated it. Now, collectors are beating the bushes looking for pristine original or good restorable examples.

No doubt about it, AMC’s Pacer has had a remarkable ride these past three decades.

To understand how such an unusual car came to be (and let’s face it, few cars of the modern era are weirder than a Pacer), you have to understand what the automobile business went through in the 1970s. The long list of independent American automakers-Packard, Crosley, Studebaker, etc.-had withered over time until, by 1970, only American Motors remained. AMC had prospered by offering products that were different from what the Big Three automakers sold.

Then in the 1960s, AMC president Roy Abernethy changed AMC’s course for a while, offering cars designed to compete directly against the Big Three. The result was disaster, and by 1967, AMC was close to bankruptcy. After a leadership change, the company survived, but out of the ordeal grew a strong commitment to a product policy AMC called its Philosophy of Difference.

Basically, this said that AMC should build cars that were different from the Big Three-otherwise, why should anybody purchase an AMC versus, say, an Oldsmobile? A big part of Rambler’s success was that it was the first compact car. The Hornet Sportabout was a great seller because it was America’s only compact station wagon, and the Ambassador was the only car with standard air conditioning. In each of these cases, being different was the key to success.

So when the time came to introduce another new car, AMC’s management and product planners had plenty of faith in their Philosophy of Difference.

In charge of planning was product group vice president Gerald Meyers. His goal was to develop a car that was truly unique, so obviously right for the times that buyers would flock to AMC showrooms. Said Meyers, Everything that we do must distinguish itself as being importantly different than what can be expected from the competition.

Otherwise there would be very little reason for somebody to consider American Motors products. ‘Me too’ is wrong for American Motors.

AMC had brought out America’s first compact car, the Rambler; America’s first hardtop station wagon, the 1956 Rambler Cross Country; and America’s first subcompact, the Gremlin. For 1975, they decided to bring out America’s first. er. wide small car, the Pacer. So you might wonder-why?

Meyers and his product planners considered the environment that people lived and drove in. We saw the Megalopolis-these urban sprawls that extend from Los Angeles to San Diego with no break. And congestion, pollution, noise, energy shortages.

From this we began to piece together the key ingredients for the Pacer. It wasn’t going to be just another car but a whole new method of transportation for the next decade.

The assignment to design this new transportation device was given to the Advanced Styling studio under Chuck Mashigan. Envisioned was a car with exterior dimensions small enough to be able to zip in and out of traffic easily, yet with as much interior room as an intermediate-size car. In other words, the interior size of a Chevy Malibu with the exterior size of a Vega.

Of course, it had to have beautiful styling too. It was a tall order.

Mashigan’s crew was up to the job. A 100-inch wheelbase-same as the original Rambler-was settled on. Experience showed it would provide sufficiently comfortable interior space for a family. To achieve the very compact exterior dimensions called for, the Pacer would have to discard conventional ideas of design proportions, i.e. the length of the hood compared to the size of the main body.

The large cabin area would be mated to a very short, severely sloped front end.

But the key to the Pacer’s interior roominess was its width. Car manufacturers traditionally keep vehicle width to the minimum needed for the intended market. Although length is a car’s longest dimension, increasing width adds considerably more to material expense because it runs the entire length of the car. In other words, one inch of width times fifteen feet of length equals a big increase in costs.

But width is also one of the most important ways to give cars a real improvement in interior room as well as a feeling of much greater spaciousness. Designers know that one extra half-inch of width can make a car seem very much roomier. Keeping that in mind, understand that the Pacer’s overall width of 77 inches was 3 inches greater than a Ford Granada, 5.3 inches more than a Plymouth Duster, and nearly a foot wider than Chevrolet’s Vega!

AMC actually parked a Chevy Nova inside a fiberglass replica of a Pacer body shell to dramatize the Pacer’s extreme width.

Yet the Pacer’s overall length was a mere 171.5 inches-more than two feet shorter than a Ford Granada-and that included huge free-standing safety bumpers. Conventional thinking was discarded as designers also specified asymmetrical doors-the passenger-side door was four inches longer than the driver’s-side door, for easier access to the rear seat. Both doors curved into the roof for even greater ease of entry.

The rear hatchback door opened up to reveal a large luggage area, which could be expanded by folding the rear seat down. Equipped with a standard 90hp, straight-six engine, the Pacer was a trifle underpowered, but a larger 95hp, straight-six (also with a one-barrel carb) was offered. Mid-year brought a two-barrel, 120hp version of the six, which provided more adequate go.

The unusually large 22-gallon gas tank assured an over 500-mile highway range in that fuel-short era. The Pacer was also the first AMC car to feature rack-and-pinion steering. This, combined with Pacer’s wide stance, made for a car with exceptionally good handling, and an isolated front crossmember helped provide a smooth, quiet ride.

Visibility was astonishing. The Pacer boasted one of the largest window areas in the business, 5,615 square inches, and a very low belt line. In fact, the belt line was so low that the door windows could not roll down fully-a raised door panel was fitted so passengers didn’t have to rest their arms on the edge of the door glass.

Development costs were high, $60 million, or five times what AMC had spent developing the Gremlin. The new Pacer was introduced to the public in February and March 1975. American Motors bragged, 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.

Pacer came in three models-base, sporty X and luxury D/L. Base models, beginning at $3,299, were really plain, with dog-dish hubcaps, bench seats, and cheap interior trim, but the upgraded models were really nice. The X package added $339, while the D/L was only $289 extra.

A three-speed manual transmission was standard, with overdrive or automatic optional.

But it was the styling that everyone talked about! Pacer was completely different from anything else on the road, with body proportions that at first were difficult for the brain to absorb. It was sleek, it was audacious, it looked like the car of the future. The automotive press loved it.

Car and Driver magazine called it . our first real urban transporter. Motor Trend declared, Suddenly it’s 1980, and called Pacer . the freshest, most creative, most people-oriented auto to be born in the U.S. in 15 years. A later issue described Pacer as . one of the most comfortable four-passenger cars around. Small Cars magazine said of the press preview, Unlike some unveilings, there were no cheers or applause from the gallery.

There didn’t have to be. Silent admiration was an obvious reaction. the knowledgeable product writers knew without being told that they were privileged to be there to see something new in automobile design.

The public loved it too, and Pacer became AMC’s fastest selling new car ever. The auto industry was heading into a major downturn in 1975, caused by a gas crisis and inflation, but Pacer managed to turn things around for AMC.

The biggest complaint made by the press was the lack of a manual four-speed transmission option, but AMC introduced one in April 1976. However, for all the good feelings about the new car, by mid-1976, Pacer sales began to falter.

There were problems. The Pacer was viewed as a small car but its gas mileage, roughly 16 to 20 mpg, wasn’t as great as many people expected. Its width made it harder to park than other small cars, and its acceleration was never a strong point-a Pacer equipped with the 95hp straight-six was clocked at 0 to 60 mph in 14.7 seconds.

Road Test magazine went so far as to describe Pacer as . a sort of Sophia Loren body with a cleaning lady’s character and performance.

All of this was the result of a fundamental problem with the Pacer’s design-the car was too darn heavy. All that width added weight. In addition, at the time the Pacer was being designed, new federal safety rules were being debated. Not knowing how stringent the new rules might be, AMC decided to engineer in extra body reinforcements, making it very sturdy but also heavy-about 3,200 to 3,400 pounds for an average-equipped car.

Too, the Pacer had been planned around a lighter, more powerful GM-built Wankel rotary engine. When the General canceled that program, AMC had to scramble to stuff its existing heavy straight-sixes into Pacer’s smallish engine bay. They fit, barely, but it was not what the Pacer was designed for.

A great-looking station wagon version debuted for 1977, and that helped to prop up sales for a while. A front-end restyling for 1978 plus the addition of an optional

V-8 should have re-ignited sales, but they didn’t. By now, the press had turned against the Pacer and were badmouthing its lack of power and performance.

For a while, there was a chance that a new Pacer would appear. AMC showed an idea car named Concept II that looked like a smaller, lighter Pacer. Vice president of design Dick Teague also talked about a new four-door version of the existing Pacer and even mentioned a taxi version, but it was all for naught.

Sales continued to fall for 1979, by which point it was obvious what Pacer’s fate would be.

The AMC Pacer came to the end of the road in December 1979, after a small run of 1980 models had been produced. In all, over 350,000 Pacers were built in its short six-model-year run. At one time, they had been a piece of the future, but that future was over.

This article originally appeared in the March, 2005 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.

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