How AMC Cars Work

AMC Pacer, AMC Alliance, Chrysler Buys AMC

The 1985 Renault Encore was a hatchback version of AMC's Alliance.
The 1985 Renault Encore was a hatchback version of AMC's Alliance.

AMC's biggest '70s disappointment was the Pacer, announced for 1975 as "the first wide small car." It was planned for a lightweight Wankel rotary engine that GM was developing in the early '70s but quickly shelved. Designer Teague penned distinctive lines with acres of glass, a short nose, and a hatchback body that looked nearly as wide as it was long.

Unhappily, cancellation of the GM Wankel forced AMC into patchwork engineering alterations that seriously compromised the original concept. While the rotary would have provided decent performance and fuel economy, AMC had to use its relatively big and weighty six, to the detriment of both as well as handling.

With that and all its heavy glass, Pacer ended up quite portly for a subcompact, and its styling seemed frankly odd to many eyes (though doors wrapped into the roof were predictive of '80s design). By 1979, annual sales were down to only 10,000 or so despite the interim addition of wagons and an optional V-8, and Pacer was unceremoniously dumped after 1980.

An aging product line that didn't generate sufficient sales for funding more-modern replacements proved an increasingly vicious cycle for AMC as the '70s wore on. Eagle, for instance, owed much to Concord, which dated from the then decade-old Hornet. At decade's end, mounting losses were aggravated by a deep national recession that cut sales further, and AMC soon found itself the object of a takeover bid by Renault of France, which acquired a controlling interest by 1982.

Thus was born what some were quick to call "Franco-American Motors." Renault executives came in to run things alongside AMC officials, and the old Nash factory in Kenosha was retooled at great expense to produce an Americanized version of the European Renault 9 subcompact, which was aptly renamed Alliance.

Trouble was, acquiring AMC made Renault no wiser about the American market, and it had little more impact as a back-door "domestic" than it had as an independent import. Odd Renault products like the tinny-tiny Le Car and lumpy Fuego coupe didn't help AMC dealers very much. The Alliance did, but not for long. As a car, it was no more than adequate, and not really up to the huge task of improving Renault's second-rate image among U.S. buyers.

Still, Alliance seemed just what the doctor ordered: modern two- and four-door front-drive sedans with a 97.8-inch wheel-base and a thrifty, transverse 85-cid four-cylinder engine. And for a time it sold well: over 142,000 of the debut 1983 models. Bolstered by two- and four-door hatchback derivatives called Encore, sales zoomed to over 208,000 the following year.

But mechanical problems and indifferent workmanship were as evident here as on French-built Renaults. Once word got around, sales tumbled: to 150,000 for '85, then to 65,000 and finally to only some 35,000. AMC tried to stop the slide for '85 with an optional 105-cid/78-bhp engine and a brace of new Alliance convertibles -- Kenosha's first droptops since '68 -- but to no avail.

By 1987, with AMC's continued losses and several years of withering home-market sales, Renault was in financial trouble and ready to pull out. Fortunately, Lee Iacocca, the miracle worker who'd lately turned Chrysler Corporation from penniless to prosperous, was willing to take over, mainly to get his hands on AMC's lucrative Jeep business. Thus did America's last sizable independent automaker pass into history, transformed almost overnight into a new Chrysler division called Jeep-Eagle.

AMC's own products departed much earlier, dropped after 1983 in the rush to Renaults. The sole exceptions were the Eagle wagon and four-door sedan, which hung on until the Chrysler takeover, then disappeared with Alliance.

Before the end, AMC slipped the Eagle's full-time 4WD under the Spirit coupe and ex-Gremlin two-door bodies to create a pair of "Eaglets." The most interesting of these was the SX/4 Sport, Teague's pretty little fastback bedecked with foglights, distinctive striping, rear spoiler, and plush bucket-seat interior. Though pleasant and distinctive, it was no sprinter, and buyers continued to prefer "real" 4WDs -- like Jeep CJs and Wagoneers -- to these passenger-car pretenders.

Still, low production, a drivetrain unique among American cars, and status as AMC's last attempt at something different makes the short-lived junior Eagles a minor collector's item. Only about 37,500 Eagles of all kinds were sold for 1981 and less than half that number for '82 and '83; exact breakdowns aren't available, but the smaller ones probably accounted for no more than a third of each year's total. After 1983, the big Eagles carried on alone, virtually unchanged and garnering some 6000-7000 annual sales -- too paltry for industry statisticians to even bother with.

For 1988, Chrysler began to re-establish Eagle as an "upscale" brand aimed at would-be import buyers -- but with only inherited front-drive Renaults: the competent but dull midsize Premier (built in Canada) and the compact Medallion (imported from France).

The latter didn't last past 1989, but the former carried on with minor success through 1991 (and as the 1990-91 Dodge Monaco). Medallion gave way to rebadged designs by Mitsubishi of Japan, but Premier's successor would be an all-American Eagle, the exciting 1993 Vision, one of Chrysler's breakthrough "LH" sedans with "cab-forward" styling.

Chrysler's Eagle was no more successful as a niche make than AMC was in its later years and was dropped after 1998 -- proof that in the auto business at least, history can and often does repeat itself.

For more on defunct American cars, see: