Friday, April 3, 2009

The AMC Gremlin and the Wonderfully Odd Legacy of AMC, and Designer Richard Teague.

The AMC Gremlin

With the exclusion of the Vega, the Gremlin is a car that unfairly comes to mind when descriptions of “bad cars” of the 70’s are mentioned. In reality the Gremlins unusual design is actually a success story of an innovative and resourceful small company using great design to bring a original car to production. To understand how the Gremlin came to be, and why it came to look like it did, it’s important to understand a bit of history of AMC and its most prolific chief designer, Richard Teague.

Famed AMC designer, Richard Teague

AMC came about from the last vestiges of heavily in debt, Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company. Formed in 1954, the hope was a merger would put them in a more competitive position with Chrysler, Ford and GM.

AMC president George W. Romney focused the company’s line up on compact cars like the Rambler & Nash Metropolitan; this in the mid-50’s when the big three were cranking out ever larger behemoths. American Motors planned on a future of smaller, fuel efficient vehicles long before most Americans saw the need. By refusing to follow the big three in the model year restyling game, and reaping the savings by avoiding retooling costs, AMC raised themselves out of the basement and became profitable. And although the Rambler took most of its styling cues from bits and pieces of the worst the Big Three had to offer, and never changing them (it won no awards in the beauty department), the company built a reputation of reliable, efficient automobiles in era of styling excess.

1958 Rambler/1955 Nash Ambassador

Problem was, reliable as the Rambler had established itself to be, boring & staid styling doesn’t always create brand loyalty or attract new buyers...

And while AMC offerings were great for a more mature buyer looking for solid no-nonsense machinery, the growing youth market of the 60’s, younger buyers of the baby boom era, had no plans to put a Rambler /AMC product in their future purchase schedule.

Enter in Richard Teague, a talented designer who had previously worked for Harley Earl/GM in the Cadillac design studio, on the Olds Rocket 88 in the 40’s and for Packard in the 50’s. His style was flamboyant and direct, and innovative stylist and problem solver. After working briefly as chief designer with Chrysler, Teague began work for American Motors in 1959 with then chief designer Edmund Anderson's team.

Teague’s job, an unfinished legacy began by Anderson, was to freshen up the look of their cars, rid them of their “granny” 1950’s image but keeping smaller cars a focus for American Motors and their market. But their progress and development on following through was always on a strictly reigned budget. AMC never had a large budget for styling or tooling, an important factor and major influence to how their cars were styled and looked the way they did.

1963 Rambler Classic

The ’63 Rambler Classic and Ambassador were the first cars to be redesigned by Teague and were the first newly styled cars for AMC in 7 years. Both cars benefitting from similar early 60’s post-fin designs that were neat, clean and spare compared to the tired, busy Ramblers of the past. A great example of simple minimalist style, nothing on the car is extraneous or unneeded. A no frills modern honest look, that holds up well today. Many parts under the skin were carryovers from the past model (to save tooling costs), but the overall design was a great improvement over the ancient look of the previous cars.

1963 Rambler Classic

The cars were popular, and sold very well to those looking for a modern looking reliable car. AMC moved many of the new Classics and larger Ambassadors to a slightly younger buyer, despite not having a V8 offered until late of the model year, an important missing option, as this was the time of the dawning of the pony car.

Early sketches/drawings of the Tarpon/Marlin concept

Teague had already set sights on the youth market with a concept car called the Rambler Tarpon. This car set the stage for pony car designs some two years before the introduction of the Mustang with a long hood and short deck fastback. A design successfully mimicked by GM, Ford and Chrysler later on larger cars like the Challenger, fastback Mustang and Galaxie models. The Tarpon would show Teague’s flair for wildly original concepts. His bold designs were very much ahead of their time, incorporating shapes and sheetmetal fairings that hadn’t been attempted before for production cars. Unfortunately his fresh styling was often curtailed by an ever tightening budget for development. These small budgets, unlike the large funding for design the big three had, put a strain on successful execution of his studios projects.

Tarpon show car/1966 Marlin production coupe

The Tarpon was a hit on the show circuit, and prodded management to OK the car for production. The Tarpon became the production Marlin, but due to budget restraints, the Tarpons dimensions had to be metered down by Teague to a Rambler size chassis as a pillarless fastback, and proportions on the final car suffered, especially when AMC finally realized the production car, to compete in the pony market, needed a V8. But all the budget tinkering to the cars proportions left it out of the pony car running. Generally the Marlin was generally considered a flop in sales and in execution. When it was realized that American Motors had lost a great opportunity to trump Ford and others with a pony car of their own, Teague temporarily received more leeway with a proposed new pony/muscle car to compete with the Camaro and Mustang. That car, the Javelin, was a more direct and focused attempt for AMC to take their fair share of the muscle car market. With a bold and sleek design Teague hit his stride in styling. The car had all the elements of beauty that most AMC products never possessed. And with an choice of V8 power, AMC made sure it didn’t duplicate the mistakes of the Marlin.

AMX concept model

The Javelin was a qualified design, image booster and sales success for AMC, and sold well giving the cluttered muscle car market of the late 60’ssomething fresh and new with affordable muscle and strong muscular looks to match.

1968 Javelin and AMX

But despite the success of the Javelin/AMX and growing sales overall, AMC, couldn’t make enough profits on their current offerings and looked ahead for what it saw to be a change in the future car market. Ever the economy car focused manufacturer, they could see that the muscle car era wasn’t going to last forever, and couldn’t deny the erosion of their bread and butter economy/Rambler car sales from the increasing popularity of smaller foreign cars like the VW and Japanese imports.

But the Ramblers design was aging and wasn’t planned to continue into the next decade. GM and Ford were gearing up for an introduction of new small subcompacts for the 70’s and, AMC, seeing an opportunity, wanted to beat them to market with their own.

So it was given to Teague set out a new design in place for production, ahead of the others scheduled release of 1971. But here again Teague, and Bob Nixon his studio lead was faced with severe hurdles to cross. By 1967, American Motors had very little funds for new car development, much like it had always been, and any new model would have to borrow heavily from a sister models tooling (the new Hornet, replacing the Rambler) and be based on a similar platform. The new subcompact had to have a youthful design to appeal to the market the foreign cars were having success with, it had to be small enough in length to qualify as a subcompact (on the Hornet chassis), but more importantly to its design as AMC had no money for any new engine development (and no 4cyl) this new subcompact car had to have a hood/front end long enough to accept the traditional AMC inline six. Considering this, the time constraints and the usual bare bones styling and tooling budget to work with, the Gremlin as it was proposed to be, would’ve been quite a challenge for any group of skilled & talented engineers, much less a design studio.

AMX-GT, early Gremlin concept?

Teague had previously presented ideas of a “kammback” rear onto very attractive concept renditions of the AMX, so it wasn’t too far a jump in his design philosophy to lop off a large part of the Hornet rear after the rear wheels, and viola, the birth of the Gremlin. It was a natural design move; there was really no other place for size to be removed to meet specifications of a subcompact and still fit the inline six in front. The car had some very serious development work on acceptable passenger space, and as the rear was going to be severely truncated (the first models did have some issues with rear passenger space), how it was to incorporate a door or glass rear hatch to facilitate access to the rear storage area, as there would be no trunk.

The overall design was clean, if not abrupt, and there was no denying it was original and had a playful and youthful sense of style few others cars had at the time. The front and middle of the vehicle being fairly average, Hornet styled fare, but the rear quarterlight glass playing opposite to the severely canted rear end was quite unique.

More importantly the car met the specifications it needed for AMC to meet tooling, engine and size concerns, and also beat the other car makers subcompacts to market with uniquely designed product. Introduced in 1970 (on April Fools Day!), the Gremlin was months ahead of the Vega and Pinto for ’71. And despite jabs at its odd looks, it sold well for AMC, and as the car was running with tried and true AMC parts from years past. it had no major issues in reliability. The car went on for 8 years with only minor changes and updates in front fascia and rear end.

1973 Gremlin in Plum

**As an interesting note, the Cowboy, a pickup truck concept version of the Gremlin/ Hornet was proposed along the lines of Chevy’s El Camino & Ford’s Ranchero but wasn’t considered for production.

Standout models included the X performance offering a quick and punchy V8 and the Levi (denim jeans interior with orange stitching) optioned interior models. Unlike many “economy” cars of the era, Gremlins are still seen scurrying about. They are rare, but seen. Plenty of fans swear by them and there are plenty of clubs and owner association groups that love the uniqueness and fun style of this car.

Modern concept Gremlin drawing by Steve Stanford of Hot Rod magazine

For all of you AMC lovers, don’t despair, a history of the funky Pacer & Matador are forthcoming…