The AMC Gremlin is a subcompact car that was made by the American Motors Corporation (AMC) for nine model years. During its manufacturing run from April 1970 through 1978, a total of 671,475 Gremlins were built in the United States and Canada.
The Gremlin was described at its introduction as the first domestic-built American subcompact car.
Responding to the introduction of competitors from Ford and Chevrolet, AMC advertised the car in its second model year as "America's first subcompact". The St. Louis-Post Dispatch states that to cite the Gremlin as “America’s first subcompact” is to overlook the Crosley and the Nash Metropolitan. The latter—a subcompact-sized "captive import", American-conceived and American-designed for the American market, and built in England with a British engine—has a claim to be "America's first subcompact.
AMC's designer Richard A. Teague may have come up with up the Gremlin's name. AMC apparently felt confident enough to not worry about the word's negative connotations. Time magazine noted two definitions for "gremlin": Defined by Webster's as "a small gnome held to be responsible for malfunction of equipment." American Motors' definition: "a pal to its friends and an ogre to its enemies."
The car was introduced on April Fools' Day 1970, six months ahead of subcompacts from Ford and GM. It was created to compete with imported cars from Japan and Germany; and although its appearance received some criticism, the Gremlin had an important advantage with its low price.
"With AMC's thriftiest six-cylinder engine and base prices below US$2,000, AMC's 'import-fighter' initially sold well: over 26,000 in its abbreviated first season" before the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega were introduced.
Instead, the new subcompact, designed by future Chief of Design, Bob Nixon, was based on the Hornet, a compact car (based on interior volume) with a wheelbase of . For the Gremlin, the Hornet wheelbase was reduced to and the overall length cut from 179 to 161 inches (4547 to 4089 mm). The Gremlin was AMC's "bold and innovative approach" to preparing for two imminent crises in the American automobile industry: reduced gasoline supplies, and an "alarming increase" in the sale of fuel-efficient imports.
From the seatbacks forward the Gremlin was essentially a Hornet, but the shortened wheelbase and reduction in overall length made for a minimal rear seat and cramped rear legroom. The cargo area was smaller than that of a Volkswagen Beetle (although folding the rear seat more than doubled the cargo area). The cut-off "Kammback-type" design was the butt of jokes such as "what happened to the rest of your car?" However, it allowed for interior space and was aerodynamically efficient so that other subcompacts, including the Chevrolet Vega station wagon, later adopted it.
The Gremlin was available in two versions: a "plain" two-passenger model with fixed back window, intended as the leading "import-fighter" with a suggested retail price of US$1,879; and a four-seater with flip-up rear window "hatch", at US$1,959. As with the Volkswagen Beetle that it was designed to compete against, the Gremlin's styling made it impossible to confuse it with anything else on the road.
For 1973, AMC introduced bumpers able to withstand a impact in the front and a impact in the rear, to meet new U.S. government mandated safety regulations. Gremlins also received the option of a Levi's interior trim package, which included spun nylon upholstery made to look like denim (fire safety regulations prohibited the use of real cotton denim). Details included removable map pockets, burnished copper denim rivets, and red Levi's logo tabs. One notable and widely appreciated change was the increase in legroom in the rear seats. The X package received a new tape-striping pattern that emphasized the Gremlin's rear wheel flares by kicking up over the flare itself. Gremlin sales improved again to 122,844 units, nearly 30% more than 1972. A 1973 Gremlin purchased by Consumer Reports was top-rated in a group of six subcompact models tested for the June issue. That car had relatively few sample defects and proved reliable over a long-term test.
In its final year of 1978, the Gremlin received a number of changes, but customers on a tighter budget could still get a standard six-cylinder base model Gremlin for under US$3,400. The biggest was inside: a revised instrument panel borrowed from the then-new 1978 Concord. The dashboard featured high-level ventilation, HVAC and radio switchgear within easier grasp, as well as a full-width flat top. The X's tape striping pattern was yet again revised to mirror that of the 1978 Concord Sport package design, with the stripe at the lower body side and curving over the wheel lip.
At mid-season, a "GT" package became available with a front spoiler and flared wheel openings as on the 1978 AMX. The GT added an aluminum overlay to the instrument panel, was powered by the 258 CID (4.2 L) I6 as standard, and had its own stripe scheme: a wide tape stripe, outlined by a narrow one, ran back from the front fenders and widened aft of the rear quarter windows. The package also included body-color fender flares and front air dam, as well as body-color bumpers, all of which combined to give the GT a modern, aggressive look, but fewer than 3,000 Gremlin GTs were built.
The Gremlin's body shape had not changed appreciably in its nine years of production, and more advanced subcompacts, lighter in weight, with more doors, better interiors and front-wheel drive, had appeared on the market. This probably explains the 52% drop in sales for the Gremlin's final year, bringing the 1978 total to 22,104 units.
The car's front-heaviness was generally thought to compromise the handling, although Mechanix Illustrated's Tom McCahill found it "fast and easy", and the ride was comparatively stiff because of the shortened rear springs.
In Hemmings, the specialist old-car publication, a Gremlin enthusiast describes the X-package model he restored to stock specification as having "a very stiff ride ... [and] if you try to take a sharp curve at high speed, the rear end will definitely want to get light with you. It has manual brakes, and you really have to push them hard in a quick stop. If you try to do several of them, the brakes will definitely fade on you. [With] power steering ... it doesn't require much effort at all, regardless of your speed, or even if you're standing still. Without power steering, it's a real bear because of all that extra weight on the front."
On the other hand, acceleration and top speed were better than other subcompacts of the era. McCahill ran the 232-engined Gremlin with automatic transmission from zero to 60 mph (0 to 97 km/h) in 11.9 seconds and saw on the Daytona Speedway straightaway. He summarized: "on a dollar for dollar basis, I rate the Gremlin the best American buy of the year". Road tests by Motor Trend magazine, also with the optional engine, recorded zero to in 12.6 seconds, whereas the Ford Pinto and the VW Beetle were both in the 18-second range.
Car and Driver magazine recorded a 0-60 mph time of 11.9 seconds with a Gremlin powered by the 232 cubic inch engine, almost a second faster than a fuel-injected Saab 99 sport sedan tested in the same issue (at 106.8 cubic inches, the Saab's four-cylinder engine was less than half the capacity of the Gremlin's six-cylinder, yet the Saab's suggested list price was over US$3,000, compared to the Gremlin's $1,959.)
The V8 cut the Gremlin's the zero to 60 time to 8.5 seconds, and Hemmings reports that a V8 Gremlin can more than hold its own against other small-bore V8-engined cars of the 1970s.
The Gremlin's engines were more powerful than any fielded by its main domestic competition. Its body structure was more sound. Its engines were smoother and more reliable, and the car had a cleaner recall record. The Gremlin's chief import rival, the Volkswagen Beetle, did not handle as well, and got similar gas mileage from about 40% of the Gremlin's horsepower, but it was packaged marginally better (both cars were the same overall size). Gremlin designer Richard Teague commented in Motor Trend that to compare the Beetle (whose basic design originated in the late 1930s) to the Gremlin in profile and body design was like "comparing a Ford GT40 to the Hindenburg".
Due to their inherent inexpensiveness, strength and the ease with which they could be modified for higher performance, many AMC Gremlins were used in drag racing. Some still appear in competitions: for example, at the 2006 World Power Wheelstanding Championships (not a race event, but a "wheelie" contest), Brian Ambrosini's specially modified 1974 Gremlin took second place.
Vehiculos Automotores Mexicanos (VAM) manufactured Gremlins in Mexico under license from AMC. The cars came with different trim, interiors, and model names than the equivalent AMC-made models. However, all engines built by VAM were of AMC design incorporating appropriate changes to deal with lower octane gasoline and the higher altitudes in Mexico. This included a unique version of AMC's straight-6 engine. The Mexican affiliate was so fond of the Gremlin that they continued to use the name for several more years after it faded in the U.S. — "they knew a good thing when they saw it".
The Gremlin was restyled with a sloping hatchback for 1979 and renamed the "AMC Spirit". The original "Kammback" body style continued in production until 1983 as the Spirit Sedan with larger rear side windows. The basic design was also used for the small AMC Eagle Kammback from 1981 to 1983.
American Motors launched the Gremlin into the U.S. market that was dominated by import cars. Its smooth ride, solid build quality, and unique (to some controversial) styling set it apart from the competition and it is remembered in automotive history as little piece of America that refused to back down. Like its chief competitor, the VW Beetle, the Gremlin soon acquired a loyal base of owners when new as a domestic alternative to the import models and when it began to appear on used-car lots, it was an excellent car for the first-time buyer on a tight budget.
In light of rising gasoline prices, the Gremlin offers a relatively economical alternative to muscle cars and the more massive American cars of its era — especially for buyers leaning toward the eccentric. AMC said the Gremlin got "the best gas mileage of any production car made in America," and its gas tank allowed or more between fill-ups.
Original Gremlins with the V8 engine, X package models, Levi's trim, and also the 1978 GT versions, are the most sought-after and command higher prices. However it has been said that scarcity makes any Gremlin in good condition worth preserving as a unique piece of automotive history. In the opinion of some, the Gremlin is a sought-after car for restoring and has perhaps "finally caught the imagination of what some may consider a car ahead of it's [sic] time as well as potentially "the silent sleeper of collectible cars
However, even though Gremlins share numerous parts and components with other AMC models, finding parts for a restoration project can be difficult. (This is exacerbated by the fact that many Gremlins were chopped up during the late-1970s and the 1980s to make dirt-track racers.) The body of choice on the dirt circuit was the Gremlin and AMC Eagle. The subcompact bodies fit Modified chassis and of special interest was the Gremlin's slab top and sides with a contour that was easy to duplicate in sheet metal.
Hemmings reports that an AMC enthusiast had to buy eight Gremlin parts cars before he could begin restoring his 1974 Gremlin X to stock. He estimated that he invested between $10,000 and $15,000, and about 2,000 hours of labor, in the finished car.
One AMC expert, who owns thirteen Gremlins, estimates that 90% of the surviving cars are modified because parts are so hard to find. Replacement panels are scarce, as are parts the Gremlin shares with other AMC models, e.g. body parts and exterior moldings. Parts for the interior are very scarce. Drivetrain components are easier to find, and performance parts are relatively plentiful, because many Jeeps had the 304 CID engine as an option.
There are numerous active AMC car clubs to assist Gremlin owners.
Also, a Gremlin appeared in the film Radio.