As the 1960s ended, American Motors Corp. was the lone surviving independent automaker in the U.S., so company executives decided to embrace the obvious: AMC was very different from the Big Three. AMC proved that to be true, time and again.
Following in the footsteps of the Gremlin, AMC introduced the bulbous Pacer in 1975 with an advertising campaign that claimed, “When you buy any other car, all you end up with is today’s car. When you get a Pacer, you get a piece of tomorrow.” In four short years, however, tomorrow was oh-so yesterday. The final Pacer rolled out of AMC’s plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on December 3, 1979.
Forty years later, most of us living outside the Pacer’s circle of love consider it among the ugliest vehicles of all time. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but despite some favorable media reviews upon its introduction—words like futuristic, bold, and unique were bandied about—more people found the car strange at best and hideous at worst. Perhaps folks were confused that AMC chose to call it a two-door “compact,” when anyone looking at it can tell you, “There’s no way that thing is compact.”
The Pacer was nearly half as wide (77 inches) as it was long (171.5 inches on a 100-inch wheelbase), and with its large wrap-around windows, it quickly became known as “the fish bowl.” On hot summer days, however, it was “the boiling lobster pot.”
Among the Pacer’s many oddities was a feature that designers thought would be a handy benefit; the passenger door was four inches longer than the driver’s door, so passengers could get into the back seat easier.
Pacers were available with numerous upgrade options, including the X package with bucket seats, a floor shifter, and a sway bar, along with modest trim accents. That optional plaid upholstery was not only eye-popping but somehow appropriate. Under the hood, the original design specified a lightweight Wankel rotary engine, but development complications ultimately led to an overweight, low-output six-cylinder engine in production models. Even a bump in power in 1976 and the addition of an optional 5.0-liter V-8 in ’78 weren’t enough to make the Pacer a sales winner.
As you would expect, however, the car’s unconventional wide body made for an enormous interior, one that presumably could fit a television, a La-Z-Boy, and the entire cast of The Waltons with room to spare.
The Pacer received its moment in the sun in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World, taking center stage in the iconic scene in which Wayne and friends belt out Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. (Go ahead and watch, we’ll wait.)
Wayne’s robin-egg blue 1976 Pacer sold for $37,400 at Barrett-Jackson’s Las Vegas auction in 2016, but the average value for a ’76 Pacer in #3 (Good) condition is $4900 ($5000 for final-year ’79 models).
Once considered a nerd car, the Pacer has found new appreciation among collectors in the last several years, and not just as an obvious “Worst in Class” contender at every Concours d’Lemons. Those who love it, love it… and sometimes modify it—like this LS-swapped Pacer that was featured on Jay Leno’s Garage. (Shameless plug: You can also wear a Pacer. Check out Hagerty’s Pacer-proud Christmas sweater here.)
No matter how you feel about the Pacer, 40 years after the last one was built, the wide-bodied boat is not only immediately recognizable, it’s legendary.