Love it or hate it, the AMC Pacer is an automotive legend

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.

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    I loved the Gremlins better. I had 2 of them back in the day. I traded one of them for $100.00 and a Telephone. Yep, that’s right. They were tough Cars.

    We had one well my mother and father did we took it to Disney world from Tennessee they sold it as soon as we got back they hated it

    We met a nice couple with a Gremlin at a car show near Everett, WA where they live. A tan wagon with a Corvette engine. Leno did an episode with them and their Pacer. He loved it but became concerned with its speed and original breaks.😳😄

    My father thought this was a great car…he also bought a Chevy Vega. Love my father, but he was not great with picking out cars.

    We had one when I was a kid. most of the knobs and handles broke off of things. When I went to High school I found and old Motor Trend magazine and it was reviewing the Pacer. Theirs had problems with handles falling off or breaking too. The car was great, though keeping the AC on at stop lights was a problem. And finally the A frame broke damaging the structure causing it to die from now being unsafe. or I would have restored it!

    I met an actor in 1970s Brooklyn. His only role that I’m aware of was saying “Hey, this car has jeans” in a Gremlin ad.

    My favorite was the 1969 AMC AMX-2 but as odd as the AMC pacer looked. It was a pretty good running little car 🚗

    I had a 76 model in 1980, drove from Oklahoma to Washington DC and back. Loved it. Comfortable and a lot of fun. In the end had some unusual electrical issues. But, I miss that little bubble car.

    I bought my 76 pacer X in 1980 for $1,200.00 inline 6, 258 cu in 3 spd on the floor, had to change out pressure plate, clutch and throw out bearing, electronic ignition box, then the distributor plastic internal part, constant vapor lock due to fuel running above engine and last, rack and pinion steering was a pleasure to drive when it ran. Rear lower window started rusting and internal plastic started deteriorating do to sun damage.

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