Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The First Small W-I-D-E Car: Bubble-icious!

The cover of AMC's 1975 catalog, featuring the first Pacer.

In 1975, AMC wowed the automotive world with its earth shattering, groundbreaking, Pacer. Billed as the first small, wide car, the Pacer measured a full 77 inches wide, 6 inches wider than the company's Hornet and Gremlin, and the equal of their full-sized Ambassador sedan. Another unique feature of the Pacer was the use of asymmetrical doors; the passenger's door was 4 inches wider than the driver's door for easier access to the back seat. Its wheelbase was 100 inches, the equal of its spiritual predecessor of sorts, the spunky 1950 Nash Rambler convertible, the car Lois Lane drove in the original Superman TV show (and who didn't love the young Jimmy Olsen in that series, played by Jack Larson, lol!). 

Pacer's relatively short hood was a result of the planned use of GM's brand new rotary Wankel engine, a compact powerplant that was cancelled at the last minute by GM after the first gas "crisis" of 1973. Wankel rotary engines are powerful for their size, but thirsty, and after several years of development under license from Germany's NSU, their lack of economical gas usage and a failure to properly seal the rotors, GM called it quits. Mazda is the only manufacturer of Wankel rotary engines today, in their RX-8 sports coupe, and they're still considered thirsty for their size although the sealing problem has been overcome. AMC was stuck without a powerplant that fit under the short hood, and their inline-6 engines ended up with their last 2 cylinders practically sitting in the passenger compartment. For a longer write-up of the Pacer's development, I found this cool website.

Pages 3 and 4 of the brochure show the front and back of the wild new car, with interior shots as well. Both pages open up to a full four-page spread, below. On the left, in H8 Autumn Red, is the D/L model, and its optional "Basketry Print" fabric individually reclining bucket sets. Talk about distinctive! AMC really showcased unique interiors in their products, a tradition that went all the way back to the 1930s when Nash introduced their infamous "seats that fold into a bed." The H9 Silver Dawn base model Pacer on the right, shows the optional vinyl roof, separated by a body color "hoop" which was reminiscent of Nash's 1956 "Fashion Arch" styling, which allowed for a C pillar two-tone paint treatment also known as a "basket handle" to some. The Pacer's original bodystyle was eventually joined by a wagon version, which was just as wide and fishbowl-like as the hatchback, but which could be optioned with woodgrain sides—a plus in my book!

The four-page fold out showing the Pacer X model, and giving specifications and options. One quaint touch on such a futuristic new car was the option of good old-fashioned vent windows in the front doors. Oddly, under "power options" only power steering and power front disc brakes are listed. I would have thought power windows, door locks, and seat would have been available, and I think they were in later years.

Motor Max's 1978 Pacer from their "Fresh Cherries" series. This scale model features the facelifted model with its rather ugly raised front hood and grille, necessary for the 304 V8 that was made optional later in the production run, but it's nearly invisible under the plastic case, lol. The rest of the scale model is pure, bubblacious and curvaceous, Pacer. The notes on the back of the package states that slightly over 280,000 Pacers were sold in the six years of production, a large volume for AMC. 


  1. Personally, I loved the styling of the Pacer wagon the best. They achieved just the right balance with that design.
    Another solid AMC effort - too bad the wankel got scrubbed, I'm sure it would have contributed to alot more sales for the car. Who knows, AMC might have survived as an independent entity if the Pacer was a home run. I guess we'll never really know.

  2. Oh the Pacer! I loved that eccentric looking little car. A friend of mine in college had one and we always used to say "Should we take Julie's car or The Aquarium"? I never even noticed the difference in length between the doors....

    As far as rotary engines, my RX-7 back in the late 80s was a hot little car - I thought I was God's gift to gay boys of Dallas - loved that thing. But then I grew up and got a Volvo 940 which was my favorite car ever.

    Now I haven't owned a car in 13 years and don't miss them at all.

    Thanks for the Pacer Casey!

    Maybe the Karman Ghia will be coming soon if you haven't covered it already.

  3. Count me in with phantom X and Brian. I really like these cars and shake my head in the wankle debacle .
    I thought the Pacer had all the smart ,clean imaginative 'brushstrokes' of Dick Teague and his great staff. Utterly unique and yet clearly related .

    Thats an excellent point, Casey, on the Fashion Arch. Thank you for pointing it out ! Next time I see a Pacer, I will certainly think about that.

    Two questions: did the windows roll all the way down, or nearly so? It looks a little tight.

    Second, did they ever consider how great this car would have looked as a convertible?True, It would have had a sail panel about the size of a 41 Conti, but that wouldn't have scared me!

    Thanks for this Pacer post!


  4. From what I remember the front windows did not roll all the way down. There was a raised elbow "rest" at the top of the doors, about 3 inches high I think, to camouflage the fact the tops of the glass stuck up a bit. Those were tall windows!

    I was going to post a photo of the 70s Porsche 928's rear windows and hatch. I always thought it looked like a squashed Pacer—very similar pillars and wrapped rear windows, but much, much lower of course.

    as far as the roof goes, Teague was around in the '50s of course, so he remember when Exner was styling the "v-eed" roofs of his Imperial and when Earl added ribs to the roofs of wagon that were now low enough to see. Remember the facelifted Javelin of '71? it had a styled canopy roof with a painted strip going lengthwise so the Javelin's vinyl roof was really just two small patches. They sort of looked like vinyl T Tops. I always wondered if he had those '50s cars in mind when he did that.

  5. Brian, I don't remember any dealer stuff of the Karmann Ghia, but I must I have some somewhere. a great friend of mine has an absolutely mint restored one. it's perfect in every way and painted in Porsche Guards Red. I have hard copy photos of it, I'll dig 'em up one of these days and scan 'em.

  6. Ah! You answer my next question as to the reason of those odd 'rests" on the doors !

    You had me a' Googlin' the 71 Javelins roof. I was always taken by the way the sail panels flowed into the 71 rear fenders. Beautiful .The little spoiler at the edge. Very dramatic ! In fact, the roof, to me, was the best part about the refresh.
    But I now I am searching for a good picture of the painted strip you refer to.

    I will now go a flickr'n.



  7. I'm with Brian on liking the station wagon better than the coupe (or is that a sedan?). It's too bad they had to change the front end to fit the V8. But there was at least one model year for the station wagon that had the original front. I had occasion to borrow a Pacer for a week or so when it was just out in 75 -- it was a yellow X model with a three-speed and overdrive column mounted stick shift. I remember it cornered very well because of the wide stance (before that meant something else!). I drove it to Boston and back and it was a great highway car. I wonder how the Pacer would have looked as a four-door sedan (hint, hint). I wonder if that was ever considered? I just realized that the Pacer must be one of the last two-door station wagons (as opposed to two-door SUV).

    Paul, NYC

  8. Oops! I thought it was Brian singing the praises of the Pacer wagon and it was really Phantom. That's what happens when one is online at 1:00 a.m. on a school night!

    Paul, NYC

  9. The boy I had a crush on all through jr. high got a Pacer and I got to ride in it when I went back to visit him during high school. It was a really cool car!

  10. more memories. that's why I like writing about old stuff and old cars and all that. I think in the rush of everyday life,we don't look back enough. of course, I look back more than I look forward. it makes walking tough, lol.

  11. Speaking of Pacers and Gremlins:!5750999

    Well, a Hudson Hornet was in the first one ...

  12. That's AWESOME! I"ll have to work it into a post, I have a lot of AMC fans here! thanks, I don't normally check Jalopnik very often.