Greenhouse on Wheels or Classic Underdog?
By any criteria in which it’s judged, the AMC Pacer is an odd-looking car. It’s important in that it was the first mass-produced car utilising the ‘cab forward’ concept – putting the passenger space much further forward in the car than was typical at the time, but it was wide – and we mean really wide, wider than a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow – it had asymmetric doors, a short, stumpy bonnet and so much glass it resembled a greenhouse on wheels. Add in no discernible air-con and you can see why the Pacer finds itself, some would argue unfairly, on lists of the world’s worst cars of all time.
History of the AMC Pacer
The now-defunct American Motors Corporation produced the Pacer for five years between 1975 and 1979, and it was marketed as “the first small wide car”. The May 1976 edition of Car & Driver called it ‘The Flying Fishbowl’ and it was easy to see why. Round cars were a novelty in the 70s (it wasn’t until the early 90s that they became common) and the gimmicky Pacer suffered for it.
As obviously nonstandard as it was, it was lauded at the time for its innovative attitudes to passenger comfort but the cons outweighed the pros. Some owners actually reported clouds of volatile petro-chemicals pouring out of the dashboard when the air-con was switched on and with so much glass it made passengers feel like they were under a school bully’s magnifying glass on a hot day. It was a wholly unpleasant experience.
The Pacer’s design, on the whole well-executed, was not without thought. It was originally slated to contain AMCs own rotary engine but as costs escalated out of control, they turned to General Motors who sold them their own Wankel rotary engine. Lots of car companies, even today, source tech and mechanics from other manufacturers so this wasn’t a particularly unusual arrangement but there were problems. Serious problems.
Firstly, the twin-rotor engine needed to fit into the engine bay of the Pacer which was a colossal struggle in itself and secondly, while the engine was in development, the US government introduced tough emission standards and after footing a $200m development bill, GM killed the project stone dead.
During this time, AMC were haemorrhaging money and were basically left with no choice but to get the car into showrooms by squeezing their admittedly decent but much heavier inline six into the bay but it came at a cost. The net result was a car with awful mpg and bizarre looks, it quickly became a laughing stock. AMC couldn’t afford to upgrade their other models and so they took investment from Renault and then the company was acquired by Chrysler who didn’t want the Pacer or any of its siblings, they wanted the Jeep brand which AMC bought in 1970.
The AMC Pacer is one of those oddities that was mostly derided when it was new but as the years have passed, it has enjoyed a cult-like resurgence both as a doer-upper and as a highly collective piece of Americana. Remember the car in Wayne’s World where they sang Bohemian Rhapsody? An AMC Pacer. Everyone roots for the underdog and the AMC Pacer, along with Wayne and Garth, are the underdogs.