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November 21, 2021

The AMC Gremlin, One of the Ugliest Cars of the 1970s

When the AMC Gremlin was introduced in 1970, it was ugly. It was also under $2,000. It looked exactly like what it was: someone took a hacksaw to a Hornet, pushed it to the front of the production line and crossed their fingers that the American public wouldn’t notice the gas guzzling rust bucket for what it actually was. During its manufacturing run from April 1, 1970 through 1978, a total of 671,475 Gremlins were built in the United States and Canada.

The idea for the Gremlin began in 1966 when design chief at American Motors, Dick Teague, and stylist Bob Nixon discussed the possibility of a shortened version of AMC’s compact car. On an airline flight, Teague’s solution, which he said he sketched on an air sickness bag, was to truncate the tail of a Javelin. Bob Nixon joined AMC as a 23-year-old and did the first formal design sketches in 1967 for the car that was to be the Gremlin.

Ford and General Motors were to launch new subcompact cars for 1971, but AMC did not have the financial resources to compete with an entirely new design. Teague’s idea of using the pony car Javelin resulted in the AMX-GT concept, first shown at the New York International Auto Show in April 1968. This version did not go into production, but the AMX name was used from 1968 to 1970 on a shortened, two-seat sports car built from the Javelin.

Instead, Bob Nixon, AMC’s future Chief of Design, designed the new subcompact based on the automaker's Hornet model, a compact car. The design reduced the wheelbase from 108 to 96 inches (2,743 to 2,438 mm) and the overall length from 179 to 161 in (4,547 to 4,089 mm), making the Gremlin two inches (50 mm) longer than the Volkswagen Beetle and shorter than the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega.

Capitalizing on AMC’s advantage as a small car producer, the Gremlin was introduced on April 1, 1970. The April 6, 1970, cover of Newsweek magazine featured a red Gremlin for its article, “Detroit Fights Back: The Gremlin”. The car was available as a “base” two-passenger version with no rear seat and a fixed rear window, at a suggested retail price of $1,879, and as a four-seat hatchback with an opening rear window, at $1,959 (about US$13,000 in today dollars).

From the front of the car to the B-pillars, the Gremlin was essentially the same as the AMC Hornet. Although it was only fractionally longer than the contemporary Volkswagen Beetle, Time said the length of its hood over the front-mounted engine made “the difference seem considerably more”, adding that the car “resembles a sawed-off station wagon, with a long, low hood and swept-up rear, and is faintly reminiscent of the original Studebaker Avanti.” As with the Volkswagen, the Gremlin's styling set it apart from other cars. Time said, “like some other cars of less than standard size, the back seat is designed for small children only.” The Gremlin’s wider stance gave it “a stable, quiet and relatively comfortable ride—for the two front passengers”, for whom, by small-car standards, there was more than average interior width, seat room, and legroom. The six cubic feet of luggage space behind the back seat was less than in the rear-engined Volkswagen Beetle, but with the seat folded the cargo area tripled to 18 cubic feet (509.7 l).

The upright design of the tail, which enlarged interior space, was aerodynamically efficient. Later, European and Japanese manufacturers similarly created different body styles on one compact car chassis by extending or curtailing the trunk (e.g. Volkswagen's Jetta and Golf models).

Designed and named by Teague to look either “cute or controversial - depending on one’s viewpoint ... for many, it seemed perfect for the free-thinking early 1970s.” American Motors executives apparently felt confident enough to not worry that the Gremlin name might have 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 Gremlin’s hatchback design was also needed to make the car stand out in the competitive marketplace, and according to Teague: “Nobody would have paid it any attention if it had looked like one of the Big Three” automobiles.

AMC promoted the Gremlin as “America’s first subcompact”. AMC marketed the Gremlin as “cute and different,” a strategy successful in attracting more than 60 percent of purchasers under the age of 35.


  1. My father ordered a Gremlin when they first came out. It arrived at the dealership with stripes, and a cost 32 dollars higher for those stripes. When Dad said he wouldn't buy the vehicle, they ate the cost of the striping.

  2. HEY!!!!! I like the Gremlin!!!! However, the AMC 1974 Matador IS an extremely ugly vehicle and surely no sane person would be seen driving or riding in one of those monstrosities.




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