25 June 2013

Unique and memorable AMC Eagle was a pioneer

Over the past decade, the somewhat traditional SUV has given way to the “crossover utility vehicle.” Although the style and all-weather capability of SUVs have still been desirable, the relatively ungainly handling and ride have not. As a result, the market has become saturated with these new crossovers that provide a car-like driving experience with the security of a little more ground clearance and all-wheel drive. Although it would seem that this type of vehicle is a recent development, one company was about 30 years ahead of the curve.

That company was AMC, and the car was the Eagle. While Subaru was an early pioneer of all-wheel drive in cars, AMC still beat them to the punch. And really, it’s fitting that a company that brought us unusual cars like the Gremlin and Pacer would be the first with a new automotive segment.

The Eagle debuted in the 1980 model year, and was unlike anything on the market. Well, unlike anything outside of AMC. All Eagles were actually quite a bit like the other AMC stablemates. This is because the formula for making an Eagle was to take a contemporary Concord sedan, coupe or wagon; add a few inches of ground clearance; and install four-wheel drive. Later, some Eagles, specifically the SX/4 coupe and Kammback hatchback, would also be based on the Spirit. There was even a convertible; a very low-production model called the Eagle Sundancer that was built by Griffith. Regardless, every Eagle utilized the unibody chassis and independent front suspension of their fair-weathered counterparts, and in turn, had similar on-road handling and ride characteristics.

Unlike the standard AMC lineup, the extra clearance and four-wheel drive offered by the Eagle meant that even when the going got tough, you could keep going. The first iteration of four-wheel drive on the Eagle was a full-time system that utilized a limited-slip center differential to apportion power to whichever set of wheels needed it. It was a system that was also used in other AMC products such as the Jeep Wagoneer. This eventually gave way to the Selec-Trac four-wheel-drive system that allowed for selection between two- and four-wheel drive, mostly as a way to improve fuel economy when driving conditions were still good. This system was simple to use, requiring only the flip of a switch, and in its last iteration aboard the Eagle, allowed for shift-on-the-fly engagement. The responsibility of powering those four wheels initially fell to AMC’s venerable 4.2-liter straight-six. However, a four-cylinder from GM was later made available, eventually replaced by AMC’s own 2.5-liter four. That power was then funneled through either an automatic transmission, or a four or five-speed manual.

Aside from pioneering an entire segment of the automotive landscape, the Eagle also ha/d a couple of other unusual claims to fame. It was made the official vehicle of the National Ski Patrol, and it also participated in a number of SCCA ProRally events. It even had a cameo on the silver screen. Alongside other wonderfully ’80s automobiles like a black Toyota pickup and a heavily modified DeLorean, an Eagle wagon makes an appearance in an early scene of “Back to the Future.”

The Eagle is a delightfully odd vehicle, especially when considering its melting pot of source material. It’s not often that a combination of off-the-shelf parts results in such a distinct product. But sometimes a little bit of creative thinking creates something special, and the Eagle was just that. To think — had AMC only survived a few more decades, the Eagle might’ve been a smash hit. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and instead we’re simply left with a unique and memorable car from a unique and memorable company.

Author's Note:  In response to the many comments on this article, yes, Subaru did indeed have 4WD versions of their cars prior to the introduction of the AMC Eagle. And this does bring up a tricky part in crowning the earliest crossover. Precisely what defines a crossover is the key, one that admittedly isn’t the clearest considering how vague the term is to begin with. Going with the definition of it being a car-like vehicle with 4WD, the Subaru wagons of the ‘70s would have been ahead of the Eagle. The definition I was using was that of a car-like vehicle that has been given noticeably raised ground clearance, and 4WD, particularly full-time 4WD (at least initially), as most modern crossovers have. The Subarus used selectable 4WD, and as far as I could find, didn’t have noticeably increased ride height. The earliest point in 4WD Subaru history I could find mention of different ride height was when they added pneumatically adjustable suspension around 1984.

As a sort of modern equivalent, you could look at it as a Subaru Outback vs. a Subaru Legacy. I would consider the Outback a crossover, for its increased ground clearance, AWD, not to mention its “toughened” exterior styling. The Legacy on the other hand, is very much a car in style and ride height, but it still has AWD. Thus the Eagle, for its increased clearance and slightly tweaked styling (mainly fender flares) seems to me closer to a crossover than the Subaru wagons. I will also admit that the section of my article that started this debate was not written as clearly as I hoped it had been, but I hope that this comment clears things up somewhat as to how I came to my arguable conclusion.

30 Reader Comments

  • 1
    John Cinelli WV July 10, 2013 at 13:30
    Thank you, Joel, for this very much appreciated piece about a very much under-appreciated company (AMC). From its extremely talented chief designer, Dick Teague, to its many "first-to-market" innovations, the company deserves a lot more respect than it seems to get.
  • 2
    Tony Azcona Merrillville, Indiana July 10, 2013 at 14:22
    Neither Subaru nor AMC Eagle beat Land Rover's Range Rover (which came out in 1970 in England) which could be the first modern crossover from the field of those vehicles that are seen as trucks with 4 x 4 ability. Some would say Willy's wagon may be the first, and some would say Chevy did that in the 1930's....but those were based from existing truck designs where the Range Rover was specifically designed for daily use not based on an existing truck design. If the argument only applies to American vehicles, then AMC can have the "crown". If it an argument about all vehicles worldwide, then the Range Rover is the only winner.
  • 3
    Pete Ficarra ontario, ny July 10, 2013 at 14:43
    In the 80's I had a black Eagle wagon and a BLACK Ferrari 308GTB at the same time. The Eagle was a great old car for the winters here in upstate NY and the Ferrari was a thriller in the summers. Back then that Ferrari had a really cool Becker radio, ship to shore etc., but I wanted an Alpine CD (originality was not as big as now) so I placed the Becker in the Eagle where it stayed till I sold it. Somewhere there is an Eagle with a Becker radio I wish I still had. I still have a Ferrari Testarossa so I am not complaining but I do miss that radio!
  • 4
    Jon Booth Ferndale, Michigan July 10, 2013 at 15:04
    I truly enjoyed my 1987 AMC Eagle, one of my favorite vehicles, after my 1990 Pontiac 6000 AWD. Don't forget that Jeep vehicles were the products of American Motors after 1970, good and not so good!
  • 5
    Cam Hazel Park MI July 10, 2013 at 16:47
    Good article but a few corrections are needed: Suburu did have 4x4 cars before AMC did and AMC never made their own four cylinder engines. They always bought them from other companies.
  • 6
    Cam Hazel Park MI July 10, 2013 at 16:48
    Good article but a few corrections are needed: Suburu did have 4x4 cars before AMC did and AMC never made their own four cylinder engines. They always bought them from other companies.
  • 7
    Noel North Carolina July 10, 2013 at 18:04
    Thank you Joel for writing the story. Funny how the AMC brand is becoming more popular as time passes. They really do deserve more credit and respect than they have gotten in the past.
  • 8
    Dave P. Massachusetts July 10, 2013 at 18:41
    Too bad AMC styling was so unattractive, they might have survived longer.
  • 9
    Brian Rodekopf Independence Missouri July 10, 2013 at 19:05
    I grew up in an AMC dealership, Packard, Packard/Studebaker prior to that, the AMC era was during the time i started driving in 68. Lots of memories of lots of really neat as well as GREAT automobiles, Packard Patricians, Carribean's & Clippers. Nash & Hudson's American's, Ambassador's, Metropolitans, the Grey Ghost, 57 Rebel's with 327 ci V-8 dual point distributor & Holley 4bbl carburetor. Classic's, Rebel's, Javelin's AMX's, Sc/Rambler's, Machine's, V-8 Gremlins, Hornets, Matador's... Cross Country Wagons & Sportabouts,,, and Yes,,, the Eagle and SX-4. Should i continue with the designer interiors by Cassini (Oleg Cassini), Gucci, Pierre Cardin? and who can forget the Levi Gremlin's and Hornets. Rambler V-8's (327's) powered many an inbord power boat of the 60's, 401's in International Harvester Travel All's & pickup's. Jeep's? CJ (Civilian Jeep) 5's, 7's Cherokee's, Wagoneer's, Grand's J-10's, J-20's,,, Chief's, Golden Eagles, Laredo's, Honcho's, 10-4's... Great times of the Good ole' days. I still have a few to remind me of what it was like,,, 66 Rogue, 67 Rebel SST Convertible, (2) 69 AMX's, Red w/ Red 290 4spd base, Big Bad Orange w/ tan 390 4spd GoPak factory air, 85 Grand Wagoneer. Dad still has a 51 Packard Patrician... Old habits die hard,,, so do great ole cars.
  • 10
    Bud Brick Illinois July 10, 2013 at 19:18
    Subaru did not introduce all wheel drive until 1981. AMC introduced the AWD Eagle in 1979. Eagle was the first true crossover.
  • 11
    Sherrie Aoki Alliance, Oh July 10, 2013 at 19:29
    I finally parted ways with my short-lived, unreliable lover...my winter car, yeah, right. I had an 86 AMC Eagle, 5-speed, with the switch in the dash to engage the 4x4. It was a lovely concept, but I ended up in a revolving door from the mechanic constantly replacing one thing after the next. Before I got the alternater belt replaced, I was calling her the "Screaming Eagle." You could hear us coming a good half mile away! My 10 year-old daughter was horrified to ride in it with me. However, I did totally impress her one morning on the way to school when I had to pull over for a quick pit-stop to reconnect the accelerator spring thingy under the hood, it would periodically fall apart and leave me with no pedal power. The first time this happened, after careful examination and following the cable, I eventually figured out the puzzle, on my own. Man, did I feel cool that chilly morning when I fixed it lickety split, just like a pit-row crew member. I don't miss that car much, way too many issues.
  • 12
    Rob Lonergan Toronto July 10, 2013 at 20:01
    As far as four wheel/all wheel C/O U Vehicles go, perhaps AMC did not beat Subaru to the punch but I would hazard a guess that Willys Jeep (that AMC owned in the '70's) and the four wheel drive concept was imitated by Subaru. I would also like to point out that AMC invented and pioneered the minivan concept cars as well. Chrysler has long been patting itself on the back for its revolutionary minivans and recently was still marketing them with an original and best themed ad program. When Chrysler purchased AMC and Jeep, they inherited the minivan concept as well from American Motors. Without the minivan keeping Chrysler afloat in the late 1900's, Chrysler would probably not have been around to require the government bailouts that were afforded to it and GM in the early new millennium. Without the cult and niche thinking of AMC's designers for the Gremlin, Javelin, AMX and Eagle (especially the SX/4) who knows maybe the Romney's wouldn't have had the financial ability to mount Mitt's campaign for US presidency. Come to think of it, Mitt's campaign and speeches did kind of remind me of a defunct old rambler! I had an '81 SX/4 through the mid '80's and was recently looking at old pictures of it...Style wise I think it would fit right in with today's car and body fashions. AMC may just have been too far ahead in time for its own good!
  • 13
    GORDON SILVA Bosstown July 10, 2013 at 22:03
    In 1979 I wanted an Eagle so bad I could taste it. I had been driving a '72 Cougar that I bought off of a cousin who drove it back and forth from Boston to LA several times. She left her dog to sleep in the car at night and he gnawed on the door panels etc and ruined them. One of my buddies (we were all around 22 years old) had just bought an AMC Concorde in two tone beige that was the laugh riot of our group. He bought if for the gas mileage trading in his Chevy Caprice Classic. I ended up buying an '80 Buick Regal that I had in total maybe 6 months of trouble free driving from. It was a lemon with a capital L. Whenever I see or hear about an AMC Eagle I think back to those days when I bought the Regal and not the Eagle and wonder what the hell I was thinking. I got stuck in the snow so many times in that Regal and had so many odd problems that I've never lived it down...I've always loved cars with high ground clearance, oh if I could buy a time machine and go back and by that 4WD machine.
  • 14
    LE Metz SE Texas July 10, 2013 at 22:46
    My hubs and I bought a new Eagle in 1981-we were living in Ohio at the time. It was great for winter driving; power windows, air, we thought we had arrived! it was a good car, but repairs were always a problem.-esp the CV boots. We moved back to Texas is 1986. A few months later as I was driving home from the next "big" town, a Trooper put his lites on for me to pull over. I was sweating bullets, wondering what the problem could be. All he wanted to know was what kind of car it was, where did it come from, and why did it look so strange!!!!(the 4 wheel drive). He checked it out and told me thanks. It lasted till about 1992 or so and we traded it off. Now I'm waiting for the 2000 ford van to die (hopefully a painful death!), but I also drive a 1982 Corvette CE and a 1999 Corvettew/supercharger-woohoo! thank goodness for getting older!
  • 15
    Bill Jones New Jersey July 10, 2013 at 11:35
    Eagle did not beat Subaru to the punch. Subaru debuted their 4WD wagons in the U.S. in 1975, 5 years ahead of the Eagle.
  • 16
    roguev8 USA July 10, 2013 at 12:06
    The Eagle wasn't AMC's only venture into something unique. Their predicessor, Nash Kelvinator, developed the first compact car. They even coined the phrase. It was the Nash Rambler, and debuted in 1950. It was a unibody in the days when the only other unibody was a Nash. Their advertisements used to state that "Someday, all cars will be built this way." They weren't lying. Today, nobody builds a car with a frame under it. It's not needed if the unibody is strong enough. The Rambler was very successful, and in its first major redesign in 1956, it became a six passenger car with a full coil suspension with the front coils mounted above the engine, similar to MacPherson strut. And they could get up to thirty miles to the gallon! It wasn't long before the Big Three were scrambling (pun intentional) to build their own compact cars. My dad traded in a '56 Chevy Bel Air for a '58 Rambler Custom Six wagon. There was a tremendous difference between the two cars. The Rambler was much more solidly built and was far superior mechanically to the Chevy. He had a couple more Rambers before his passing, and they were better, too. American Motors didn't always follow trends, it set them. Just my .02. Larry in PA
  • 17
    Bill Jones New Jersey July 10, 2013 at 12:51
    Eagle did not beat Subaru to the punch. Subaru debuted their 4WD wagons in the U.S. in 1975, 5 years ahead of the Eagle.
  • 18
    Bruce Madison Ohio July 11, 2013 at 16:56
    I believe when people talk about Eagle being first 4WD in America, it is true when CLARIFIED as being BUILT in America ! So those other 'foreign' cars can deal with it.
  • 19
    Bud Brick Roscoe,IL July 11, 2013 at 18:37
    AMC did in fact design and build their own 4 cylinder engine. The 1983 151 CID which was the base for their new 4.0 6 cylinder that Chrysler continued to use until 2006.
  • 20
    Alan Phillips United States July 11, 2013 at 21:16
    Still driving and loving my 1969 AMX. Long live AMC!
  • 21
    DaveV. Wolcott Ct July 13, 2013 at 15:14
    AMC pioneered a few things. My '68 Rebel had a full sized interior, yet was much smaller than the big Impalas, LTDs of the same era
  • 22
    Tom California July 13, 2013 at 11:42
    AMC is the king of misinformed opinion... They DID make a 4 cyl. but also had a purchased one with the same displacement. They DID make their own 327 prior to and completely different than Chevy's. They made a 360 that wasn't Mopar and a 390 that wasn't Ford They only share size and nothing else yet we AMCers routinely are told otherwise. Also note the article refers to CROSSOVERS. The Suby's didn't go from 2 to 4 wheel drive with the push of a button and were small compacts
  • 23
    Gary Steely Cleveland, Ohio July 25, 2013 at 15:38
    Just to straighten out the facts.. Subaru brought 4WD to the US market in 1975 in a unibody station wagon. In 1977 it added it's 4WD to the BRAT mini-pickup. In 1979 it added it's 4WD to the 2 door hatchback (as a 1980 model) here in the US. All of these were front wheel drive with a lever to engage the 4WD and all were manual transmissions. All before the 1980 AMC Eagle. In 1983 Subaru introduced the 4WD automatic transmission with a push button to engage the 4WD on the Tranny shift knob (I still have an '83 Turbo Brat with this option). However, kudos to AMC for their innovative designs and engineering, I still have 2 Gremlins (one w/Levi interior and factory V8 option), 1 Hornet and 1 Pacer.
  • 24
    Bud Brick Roscoe, IL July 30, 2013 at 20:49
    Willys-Overland introduced the first 4WD passenger car, the 1946 Station Wagon. Jensen introduced the first AWD sports car, the 1966 FF. AMC combined the two ideas for the Eagles, the first AWD utility passenger cars, hence the first true "crossovers". Subaru did introduce the first 4WD compacts. As stated, Subaru came out with their own AWD crossover in 1983, several years after AMC "led the way".
  • 25
    Malcolm Logan, UT August 27, 2013 at 11:53
    For all those claiming Subaru was first with AWD before AMC... you fail to grasp the main concept of the Eagle which was full-time 4WD. To reiterate, FULL-TIME FOUR WHEEL DRIVE, or what's usually called all-wheel-drive today. The early Subarus were PART-TIME 4WD and could not be driven on pavement with 4WD engaged unless you wanted to destroy your drive train in short order. AMC introduced Select-Drive simply for economy reasons, but the system was still full-time 4wd. If you didn't bother to switch to 2wd on the pavement there was never any worry. As far as I can tell, Subaru didn't offer full-time 4WD until 1985 or 1986. It's difficult to research exactly when because it seems everywhere you look online, all info is glazed-over to make it appear that Subaru had full-time 4WD (or AWD as they claim) in 1972.
  • 26
    Malcolm Logan, UT August 27, 2013 at 12:21
    Eagle = Full-time 4WD. Even with 'Select Drive' on later models, it was still a true full-time system. Subaru = Part-time 4WD until 1985/86 (no pavement driving in 4WD without damage). Increased ground-clearance and body effects are significant features which make the Outback wagon and sedan the first Subarus to really compare to Eagle wagons and sedans. Then came Audi Allroad and Volvo XC70. Btw - AMC did engineer and design their own 4-cylinder after using GM's four.
  • 27
    SKIP Texas October 20, 2013 at 20:59
    I bought a used (7,000 miles) 1982 AMC Eagle Wagon with select drive, 5 speed, 6 cyl in early 1982. Still have the car today with over 187,000 miles. It only goes to car shows these days.
  • 28
    Arnt Kaare Rolland Norway August 15, 2014 at 17:36
    Just bought a 1980 AMC Eagle. Had a 13,5 hour drive from the seller in Trondheim to Haugesund. The handling of this car impressed me!
  • 29
    Davea0511 Boise id October 30, 2015 at 15:26
    If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's a duck. Or in other words the AMC eagle was the very first crossover. These other contenders people insist are crossovers did not look like today's crossover at all. The AMC eagle how ever did in its shape and clearance. Vehicles are categorized by their look and feel for example there are a lot of fast vehicles out there but if it looks like a minivan it is not a sports car. There are other so-called sports cars who are completely gutless but they are still considered a sport car because of the look and feel.
  • 30
    FrankieG Hesperia, CA. December 26, 2015 at 02:55
    I picked up this 82AMC Eagle wagon 4x4 last year and it was totally complete. Runs great and has been the talk of my neighborhood. The locals always anxious to come over and share stories from the 80's when the car was very popular here in the desert/mountains... Great toy on the trails...

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