Remembering the radically designed AMC Pacer

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(December 5, 2019) Forty years ago on Dec. 3,1979, the last American Motors Pacer rolled off the assembly line. Now, before you say "Party on! Excellent!" in your best Wayne and Garth imitation, spare a thought for what the auto industry was facing, and what AMC was trying to do with its meager resources.

The Pacer was to be a radical design aimed at a future where tough crash standards (side, front, rear and rollover) came face-to-face with equally tough fuel economy requirements. AMC's CEO gave the company's head of design, Dick Teague, carte blanche to pursue a new type of family car, one that was robust, had exceptional visibility, returned good gas mileage, and yet was sporty and nimble.

From the start, Teague and his team pursued a long-wheelbase/short overhang design with large windows, a low beltline, a passenger-side door nearly four inches longer than its driver-side companion, and a shape that could best be described as "losenge-like." The details of the design changed as the car moved toward production, but the basic shape did not; they had found their style and stubbornly stuck with it.

The same couldn't be said for the powertrain. AMC investigated front-drive, front-engine/rear-drive, mid-engine and rear-engine designs, but settled upon a conventional for the time front-engine/rear-drive layout. The mid-engine layout would have put the transverse powertrain just ahead of the rear wheels, and placed the rear seat passengers behind it, facing the rear of the car. It was a radical layout, and one that would have had many engineering challenges to overcome.

The engine choices were equally interesting, centering around inline four- and six-cylinder engines, as well as a version of the General Motors Rotary Engine (GMRE), a legacy of Ed Cole's fascination with the Wankel rotary. For the first few years AMC planned to buy engines from GM, then begin making its own Wankels under license from Curtiss-Wright, itself a licensee of NSU. Over time, it would replace piston engines in all AMC and Jeep vehicles.

GM's cancellation of the rotary engine just as it was about to enter production put a monkey wrench in AMC's plans, and forced the last-minute redesign of the engine compartment to take the company long-in-the-tooth inline six. With a tiny carburetor that could flow little more air than a drinking straw, the 3.8-liter motor was woefully underpowered for a car that weighed 220 pounds more than a Mercedes E-Class of the same vintage.

Nevertheless, AMC sold 145,528 Pacers in 1975, of which nearly half were the sportier Pacer X model. It was a good start, but not one that would continue. Even though 1976 saw the inline six increased to 4.2-liter and give a bigger carburetor that increased power to 120 hp and a little over 210 lb.-ft. of torque, the bloom was already off the rose. Sales dropped to 117,244, and continued to slide.

1977 AMC Pacer station wagon

For 1977, a station wagon was added to the line, and it cleaned up the fat, "baby with a full diaper" look of the rear, but sales took a tumble. Just 20,265 Coupes were sold alongside 37,999 wagons. Things were looking bleak, especially since AMC needed sales to average closer to 150,000 per year for its five-year lifecycle in order to make a profit of any sort.

Even the addition of AMC's V8, which required yet more changes to the car, couldn't stem the tide of fleeing customers. Sales continued to drop with just 7,411 Coupes and 13,822 Wagons sold in 1978. Only 2,514 Pacer buyers ordered the V8. In 1979, the Coupe numbers had dropped to nearly one-third of 1978's numbers, and Wagons were down by just under half. Only 1,014 V8s were sold.

The 1980 models were built in 1979; 405 Coupes and 1,341 Wagons. Long before the final car rolled off the line in December of 1979, it was clear the Pacer was a bold but fatally flawed design. Too heavy, weirdly styled, low on power and for in terms in fuel economy, the Pacer was more oddity than trailblazer.