The Gremlin by American Motors Corporation was an ingenious idea from designer Dick Teague, supposedly sketched on a napkin. American Motors didn’t have the resources to design a sub-compact from scratch, so Teague basically chopped the back off the company’s Hornet sedan and shortened the wheelbase 12 inches to 96 inches. The car was a creative and well executed way to create new products out of existing ones.
Most Gremlins were fitted with the 135-hp, 232-cid six-cylinder engine and came with a three-speed floor shift or column-shift automatic transmission. The Gremlin was launched in April 1970, with a flat Kamm-back tail that originally lacked an opening rear window in the two-seat option. Only 872 buyers opted for the two-seater, while 27,688 went for four seats and the liftback. The 21-gallon tank gave the car a useful 500-mile range.
Sales tripled in 1971, but again very few buyers chose the two-seat version, so that body style was cancelled for 1972. That same year, a performance variant debuted in the Gremlin X, which carried a 304-cid V-8 with 150 hp. The Levi’s Gremlin package appeared in 1973, bedecked in denim from front to back. The larger 258-cid six-cylinder engine was offered in 1973 and 20 mpg was possible, which was good mileage for the era. Sales rose to nearly 125,000 units, with fewer than 12,000 of those equipped with the V-8.
The news was even better for 1974, when without significant changes, more than 170,000 Gremlins found buyers. AMC introduced the Pacer in 1975, and Gremlin sales plunged to 56,000, while more than 90,000 buyers plunked down their money on its circular sibling. Gremlin sales continued to decline, though it was still a moneymaker. The Gremlin received a four-speed transmission and a front end restyling in 1977 before hanging it up after the 1978 model year.
AMC Gremlins have gone from endangered species to virtually extinct in the past few years, though they have a loyal following nonetheless. They were a very practical subcompact for more years than anybody would have guessed in 1970, and the fact that they are instantly recognizable, visually distinct, and simple and robust makes them an terrific candidate for a first collector car.