There are a bunch of usual suspects that come up on lists of iconic cars. The Mini, Jag's E-Type, Porsche 911, Bugatti Atlantique, etc. They're iconic because they represent the pinnacle of car design for their respective eras. Unlike "normal" cars, you never mistake them for anything else and they changed the way people thought about the automobile. The Mini made small cool. The 911 did the same for engines in the trunk. The E-Type finally brought phalluses into the mainstream. But, there's one icon that often gets overlooked and it just celebrated its 40th birthday: the AMC Pacer.
"Oh, come on," you're saying, "the Pacer? You're an idiot." Maybe, but what other car says "1970's" more than the Pacer? It looked, and still does look, like nothing else on the road. "For good reason," you may say, but I think that's not fair. It's shape and proportions are unusual, but that's a pretty car. And why it looks like it does is an interesting story.
The 1970's was a tumultuous decade for the auto industry especially in America. All of a sudden almost every aspect of car design was being influenced by regulations, oil shortages, and drastically changing consumer demands. Cars had to be cleaner, safer, thriftier. And there were a lot of conflicting signals about what was going to be wanted in the future. Japanese econoboxes were taking off. But, so were enormous luxo-barges. It was a time of transition where people were still stuck in their old habits, but knew that things had to change going forward. The thing is, we don't like sudden change. We talk about it, but really we want life to be exactly how it is today forever. Even if what's going on now sucks. Change is scary and has to happen slowly for people to be ok with it. But, life sometimes requires immediate action. And when you're not prepared, you can make bad choices that end in disaster.
The Pacer was an attempt at predicting the future. At the beginning of the 70's, no one knew how far the new regulations were going to go. Safety and emissions standards were fairly new concepts and the car companies were having trouble keeping up. They were basically retrofitting cars designed a decade earlier when there were little to no regulations. And the feeling was that things were going to get pretty draconian by the end of the decade. AMC decided that they would try and anticipate what the standards of the 1980's would be and build a car that met them now. This was pretty ambitious for a company that was a distant also ran to the Big 3. AMC's big trick had always been creating a new car by still making the same car.
Their VP of Style, Dick Teague, was a master at this. Need a subcompact? Hack off the back 30% of the Hornet and call it the Gremlin. R&D is expensive and time-consuming.
The Pacer, though, was going to be all new from the ground up. It was an awful risk. To mitigate this, Dick and his team, designer Bob Nixon and advanced styling director Chuck Mashigan, decided to design the car from the inside out. No matter how avant garde it looked on the outside, or was engineered, it would still feel comfortably familiar when you were in it. This would be their way of easing people into something new. And that was a good idea. On paper anyway. Speaking of which, I'm not sure how that philosophy carried into the first sketch.
When Teague got free reign he really ran with it. It sure looks futuristic, but the dos à dos seating is anything but familiar unless you were one of the unfortunate few who bought a Zündapp Janus. But, this was just meant to be an inspiration for "Project Amigo" (most perfect awesome name ever) as it was called in 1971.
They wanted something suitable for both urban and suburban environments. It should have a small footprint and be agile, but roomy enough for a family of 4. They started with 4 bucket seats sitting on a truncated Matador frame. Since they wanted a small car that felt like a big car, they would give it the interior dimensions of something full-sized. Now we're beginning to see why it came out so roly-poly. "The world's first wide small car," the ads would tout. This was going to be a new segment, one the Pacer would be the sole occupant of. Unfortunately, AMC's fear of increased crash standards pushed its width to absurd proportions. The head of Product Planning was convinced that the standards were becoming so severe that roll bars were going to become mandatory and insisted one be incorporated into the Pacer's design. That gave the car its bulge which would remain even though the roll bars never materialized. The first models are relatively sleek compared to the finished car which Bob Nixon hated. He felt management ruined the design which I imagine is a pretty common kvetch among car designers. But, here he's right.
They obviously went off of that original Teague sketch. Autos of Interest has a fascinating rundown on the design evolution of the car. The increasing girth is obvious. One feature that stands out on every iteration is that huge greenhouse back end. It's an epic ass made of glass and is unique to say the least. Or is it? One of automotive history's great myths is that Anatole Lapine, Porsche head of design from the 60's through the 80's, copied the Pacer's historic hinder when he penned the 928. And, looking at the two cars you can see a remarkable similarity in the shape and treatment of the windows and c-pillar.
The 928 is just sleeker and less bulbous. What gives? To find out, and this is an exclusive you will only read here on Oppositelock, I contacted Hans Lapine, Anatole's son, and asked him.
"This story has been almost becoming the truth since it has been printed so often. There is a little twist to it that might be disappointing to many," were his first words.
"And, it's only in the rear upper quarter panel."
Hans is head of modeling and prototypes at Volkswagen. He didn't want to do exactly what his father did, and always thought making models was "cool and fun." Interestingly, when Hans was growing up, his family lived down the street from the Teagues. Anatole Lapine and Dick Teague both worked at GM in the late 50's and early 60's. They were in different design studios, but the men became close friends and remained so their whole lives. "They went to the same school with the same headmaster," is how Hans put it. That headmaster was the legendary Harley Earle. Earle was an overwhelming presence that injected his vision into everything and his leadership created a strong bond among his teams. This caused something of a revolt when his underlings moved out on their own. They eschewed his frippery like excess chrome and fins in favor of fresh, clean lines. Teague and Lapine were still neighbors, although Dick was now at Studebaker, in 1963 when one of the most influential concept cars of all time was built. Anatole was actually working in Bill Mitchell's experimental design department when GM hired Bertone to build a Euro Corvair.
The job went to Giorgetto Giugiaro and what he came up with blew people's minds. It was called the Testudo and right there is the Pacer and 928's bubble butt.
Anatole went so far as to steal the headlights, too. The Testudo was considered a harbinger of where automobile design was headed. A few years after its debut, two buddies with similar backgrounds, sensibilities, and influences were trying to solve the same problem; how to move their respective companies into the future. In an example of convergent evolution, they came up with the same solution: ripoff Giugiaro (it won't be the last time). "They were working on those cars at exactly the same time, '71 - '72," Hans explains, "they looked at the same stuff to get ideas and had learned the same things. I think when my father saw the Pacer, he said 'huh, you did what I did.'" And that's how a Porsche and an AMC came to look alike, at least in the upper rear quarter panel. Despite the gap in prestige between the kind of cars they worked on, Lapine always had a great deal of respect for Dick Teague. "It's much easier to design a Porsche than a [Rambler,]" he would say. His cars only had to appeal to some rich guys while Teague's needed to sell to the masses.
The outside wasn't going to be the only place the Pacer stood out. It was also supposed to have something crazy under the hood. A rotary engine. The Pacer had a stubby nose to keep it short for crowded cities. The only thing that could fit in that little engine bay was something small and the rotary was perfect. It was also light which the rest of a car made of glass is not. AMC didn't have the money to develop their own rotary, but GM had just bought a license from Wankel to build them and made a deal to sell some of these motors to AMC for the Pacer. AMC then spent $2 million on their own license to build the engines later when production of the car was in full swing. They really had high hopes for this thing.
They began taking fiberglass mockup Pacer concepts around the country to gauge interest and help finalize the design. It lost planned hideaway headlights and front wheel drive. These ideas were a little too cutting edge apparently. But, the visibility out all that window space was a big hit. The general reception was very positive and it seemed like AMC was on to something. A comfy two-door runabout with forward thinking design scored well with the focus group crowd. Engineers also came up with several other tricks to keep the car's nose short. There was a specially designed rack and pinion, only the second to come standard on an American car; a low-profile crossflow radiator; and a new front end accessory set-up. Everything was on track when GM dropped a bomb. Getting the rotary to comply with mileage and emissions standards proved to be utterly futile and they completely abandoned the project. For the giant General Motors, it was a minor setback. They had many projects in development and failure is part of the process. But, tiny AMC was now fucked. They had spent way too much time and money developing the Pacer to give it up. The company was always strapped for cash and they would not survive if they got nothing back on their investment. They toyed with the idea of buying rotaries from Comotor in France which would have been an epic fiasco as their Wankels had nearly sunk Citroën. Fortunately, importing engines proved too expensive. So, AMC did the only thing they could do. They figured out how to shove their ol' reliable inline 6 into an engine compartment designed around a motor a third the size and half as heavy. This pretty much flushed what was left of the original idea of something light and thrifty down the toilet. We all know about the current state of auto bloat with successive generations, but the Pacer experienced obesity between concept and showroom.
To get the 6 cylinder in there, they cut a giant hole in the firewall and pushed the thing in as far as it would go (TWSS!). This meant the back two cylinders were basically under the dash making maintenance a bitch, believe me. The old block also needed miles of vacuum hoses to help emissions. It was a mess under the hood. But, it worked. Barely. The smog choked 232 rated 100 horsepower (later downgraded to 90!) and the car now weighed over 3,400 lbs. (almost 200 of which was the 5,615 [!!!] square inches of glass). It was anything but spry. It also didn't get very good gas mileage, and when it went on sale February 28th, 1975, it started at $3,299, $500 more than a Pinto.
After all the compromises, AMC kept their expectations low and their fingers crossed. I almost get the impression that at first, everyone was giddily insane at the idea of this future-car that was going to revolutionize personal transport, and slowly but surely the dream was crushed in front of their eyes by the reality of circumstance and fear.
Against all odds, though, the Pacer was something of a sensation upon release to an unsuspecting populace. It really didn't look like anything anyone had ever seen before. "Suddenly, it's 1980!" proclaimed Motor Trend, "[the] new Pacer is the freshest, most creative, most people-oriented auto to be born in the U.S. in 15 years." I wonder what came out in 1960 that got them all riled up.
Road and Track was also kind pointing out its smooth ride and spaciousness. Consumer Reports, uh, reported only 17 manufacturing and dealer-prep defects. Stellar when compared to the VW Rabbit's rather scary 34. American Motors thought moving 100,000 cars the first year would be a resounding success. They ended up selling 145,000. The pudgy Pacer was hip. For a generation raised on The Jetsons, here it was, a space pod from the future.
But, it wasn't long before the space-bloom was off the space-rose. After the rotary debacle, the revised piston-powered car was rushed into production resulting in flaws. The exhaust manifolds were poorly cast and quickly cracked. The heavy engine required soft motor mounts which weren't up to snuff. This caused the engine to sink and rest on the rack and pinion which then leaked. The interior was paneled in cheap plastic that reacted to sunlight like the flesh of a ginger and looked like a jigsaw puzzle assembled with all the care of a stoned baggage handler. People also began to second guess its unconventional looks. It was called, most famously, a fishbowl, a toaster (?), a raindrop in overalls, fat, strange, ugly, a cancerous testicle. Horrible things no car with such good intentions deserved to be called. By the end of 1976, sales had tailed off. It seemed that everyone who wanted a Pacer already had one, and everyone else was scared off by its issues. AMC did work out the kinks, but the car had gained a stigma. It was crap. And, weird crap at that. What was once novel was now bizarre. It also wasn't too practical. It was only a two-door and had no trunk to speak of. So, Dick Teague worked his magic, and the Pacer Wagon was introduced in 1977.
He took a car that was inherently unrevisable and revised it. He used the car's width to his advantage and squared off the back creating a gigantic cargo area. The Wagon invigorated sales and salvaged the whole Pacer concept. It outsold the coupe almost two to one for the rest of the car's life which would be brief. Sales went from 58,000 in '77 to 21,000 in '78. That year, they tried giving the car a facelift by raising its hood. This completely destroyed the spaceship effect and was a sign of desperation.
It was said it was done to accommodate a V8 which was now an option. The big engine finally brought performance up to acceptable levels, but made it even less miserly. City MPG was something like 11. However, I've actually fit the original sloped hood over a V8 in a Pacer. I think the high hood was a cop-out. People were used to seeing a hood in front of them, but when they took the Pacer for a test drive, the hood disappeared and that was disconcerting. Thus they gave them a hood to look at. Anyway, it didn't help and just 12,000 Pacers were sold its last two years before whimpering out of production in 1980. Its assembly line was needed to build a car people actually wanted, the first crossover, the Eagle. That car, a more than a decade old Hornet with a tried and true Jeep 4-wheel drive unit underneath, was much more prescient than the visionary Pacer.
The market for the Pacer that AMC thought would exist never arrived. Economy buyers went for cheaper, and better made, Japanese cars like the Civic and Corolla, or they bought a Rabbit, or a Chevette. People who wanted pseudo luxury in a small package found a Mustang II Ghia. The poor Pacer found itself an orphan. The fat kid sitting alone in the cafeteria no one wants to be seen with.
And after all that I think it's an icon? For sure. Despite the fact that it's a whiffed attempt at being ahead of its time, the Pacer has lived on in popular culture and collector's garages. It's constantly turning up in movies and on t.v. Often the butt of a joke, but still. Everyone knows what it is.
They'll call it a Pinto a lot of the time, but they basically know what it is. And it really was't all that bad. Build quality was never top notch, but that drivetrain was basically bulletproof. Once you replaced the motor mounts, rack, and, most annoyingly, the exhaust manifold, you had a great and, yes, fun car. It's so comfortable and squishes along with a ride you expect from a 70's American car. The wide track and cab forward design actually lets it handle pretty well for something with the body roll of a rhinoceros. In 1977, they gave it a four speed that, when paired with the torquier 258 I6, made for a really good driver. Plenty of people loved their Pacer. Conway Twitty, Brigitte Bardot, and Richard Petty all owned Pacers.
Pacers were even sold in small numbers in Europe. Predictably, it found its most success overseas in France.
Today, nice Pacers fetch in the low 5 figures and prices are going up. Beyond that, like I said at the beginning, it's quintessentially 70's. Driving around in that glass bubble is so groovy, man. You have to respect what a bold decision it was to bring it to market. I've owned 10 of them over the years and finally people are catching up to me and it. Long may it reign as the definitive American car of its age.
Shortly after the Pacer's demise, Dick Teague did finally design a real automobile of the future that was almost completely new. And it did redefine the motorcar. Its influence is all around us today. The XJ Cherokee/Wagoneer, the first compact SUV.
For more of my musings on odd old cars, check out my Kinja: