The Best and Worst Subcompact, the AMC Gremlin

The first American-made subcompact car, the AMC Gremlin holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many Americans. For some, it is a beloved vehicle. For others, the April Fools’ Day 1970 introduction of the car feels a little too appropriate.

The car was introduced as a 1970 and a half model that was quickly designed to meet the demand for an inexpensive, reliable, small car that could compete with imports like the Volkswagen Beetle. Ford and Chevrolet also had cars in mind for this market, but didn’t release theirs (the Pinto and the Vega, respectively) until September as 1971 models.

AMC Gremlin

The speedy introduction meant little time to design the car and get all the kinks worked out. Bob Nixon and Richard Teague based it on a compact model called the AMC Hornet. One of the biggest changes that took the Gremlin to the class of subcompact was shortening the end of the Hornet and using an aerodynamic kammback shape for the rear end.

Teague proposed his new design to Gerry Meyers, VP of product development, with a quick sketch done up on the back of an airsickness bag during an airline flight. His unique pitch was successful and today the Gremlin is one of the most memorable cars of the 1970s.

The AMC Gremlin has played many roles throughout the years, including sustainable fuel test car. The Gremlin has been used in a wide variety of studies by universities, the EPA, and private companies to try out performance and safety of alternatives ranging from kerosene to ethanol to hydrogen. One experiment proved that a 1970 Gremlin could drive nearly 50,000 miles over a period of ten years on methanol.

Today, you’ll often see Gremlins on dirt race tracks. Their low price, sturdy body, and reliability are a draw for racers. These cars are easy to modify to enhance their performance, but they’re tougher to total than many of the other cars on the track.

Over the years, people have come to have a love hate relationship with the Gremlin. Popular Science named it as one of six cars with a role in taking “Small Steps to a Smart Future” while Time included it in the list of the “Fifty Worst Cars of All Time”

It had plenty of good things going for it, though. It was the fastest subcompact car of the time going from zero to sixty mph in under thirteen seconds (the VW Beetle clocked in at about eighteen seconds). It was sturdy and dependable with a reasonable price tag. Tom Cahill of Mechanix Illustrated once called it “the best American buy of the year.”

The mascot? A pointy-eared, pot-bellied gremlin: the mischievous sprite known for causing electronic and mechanical malfunctions.