Wednesday May 30, 2018
Some cars are genuinely individual but in ways that are not entirely to be recommended. We are talking about the automotive equivalents of taking off all your clothes and dancing the twist in the tinned soup aisle of Asda or having Albert Steptoe as a sartorial role model for a crucial job interview. In other words, vehicles such as the AMC Pacer.
In fairness, the Pacer concept was quite timely when in 1971 the American Motors Corporation commenced plans for their first real ‘economy’ model since the demise of the Nash Metropolitan a decade earlier. Project Amigo was to provide a US-built alternative to compact European imports with space for a quartet of Raymond-Burr-sized adults and sufficient cruising capacity for use on the freeway. AMC initially considered FWD, a mid-engine layout and even rotary power plants, the last named to be bought from General Motors (GM). By 1974 GM had abandoned the idea of making a Wankel engine so when the Pacer was launched in February 1975, under the bonnet was the familiar 3.8-litre six-cylinder unit married to a three-speed manual column gear change.
When the Pacer made its bow, it would be fair to say that American motorists had never before seen anything like it. The three-door hatchback body, which devised by Richard Teague, AMC’s Vice President of Styling, featured a vast glass area and an overall appearance more akin to an alien spacecraft on a third season episode of Star Trek. However, once visitors to the AMC showroom were assured that William Shatner was not going to make a surprise appearance from behind a Matador, or a red-shirted extra was not going to be vaporised in the driver’s seat of a Gremlin they noted some of the innovative detailing. The right-hand door was nearly four inches longer than the left-hand door, for ease of passenger access and the Pacer was only the second US car to be fitted with rack-&-pinion steering; the Ford Mustang II was the first.
Above all, there were the new AMC’s dimensions. The overall length was 14ft. 3ins - medium by British standards of the day but still diminutive in comparison with most US cars – but the width was over 6ft 5ins. This was, as American Motors was eager to point out, ‘The first wide small car’ and the Pacer Salesman's Guide noted that you could ‘sit in the back seat without staring at your knees’. The wider passenger side door would also help you to exit ‘without looking like a yoga instructor’ and, above all, ‘when you get a Pacer, you get a piece of tomorrow’. Or, in other words, a US alternative to the European and Japanese imports that were now familiar sights on many a suburban driveway.
In April 1975 Car & Driver summarised the potential advantages; ‘made from proven components’ and ‘pleasing to operate’. It also observed that ‘granted you will not get eye-popping acceleration and sports-car handling’ and these proved to be considerable drawbacks. The AMC was slow, and not even the “X Package” – a floor-mounted gear lever, front bucket seats in place of the standard bench, a front anti-roll bar and a “sports steering wheel” really helped matters. At over 3,400 lbs, it was also cumbersome - and the optional power steering and front disc brakes were worth every cent of the additional $166 – and the fuel economy was a not impressive 16 mpg.
AMC introduced a station wagon version in 1977 and a 5.0 litre V8 in the following year, when the Pacer also gained a new, and reasonably vile, radiator grille, but those motorists who were in the market for a compact saloon were still more likely to consider a VW Rabbit or a Honda Accord. There was also an early attempt to sell the Pacer in the UK, with a RHD conversion effected by linking the steering wheel to the column via a chain behind the dashboard. One problem for British market cars was that the longer side door was now on the offside while reviews such as Motor’s ‘We test the Pacer - and wish we hadn't’ did not precisely enhance its prospects.
By 1979 the wonderfully chintzy” Limited” version - electric windows, wire wheel covers, adjustable steering, central locking and “Chelsea leather” trim and an AM Radio all as standard - represented the twilight for the Pacer and the last of 280,858 models were sold in 1980. For many years it was seen as an automotive joke, a car only fit for Wayne’s World, but now it is regarded as collectable and undeniably fascinating. And how could you resist a machine that was the star of this ultra-1970s TV commercial?