Classic Wheels: 1973 AMC Gremlin X

Rob Young '73 Gremlin

If any car can claim beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s the AMC Gremlin, which was built from 1970 to 1978. 

In the 1960s the American Motors Corp. sold quite a few cars, including the Rambler, but lagged behind the Big 3 (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler). It needed a subcompact to compete with the Ford Pinto and Chevy Vega, as well as imports such as the Volkswagen Beetle and Toyota Corolla. 

AMC lacked the financing to produce a new line of cars, so designer Dick Teague customized the Hornet, creating the Gremlin, with its wedge-shaped rear end. 

Philipstown resident Robert Young bought his 1973 Gremlin X on eBay 14 years ago for $3,999, plus $1,000 for shipping from California.

He was motivated more by nostalgia than appearance. “I had one as a kid,” he said. “They were different, and I wanted another one.”

Young said people are not shy with their comments. “One guy said, ‘Where’s the rest of your car, toots?’ ” Young said with a laugh, noting the question was not random — it was used in a Gremlin television ad.

AMC often used humor in its Gremlin commercials and even introduced the car on April Fools’ Day in 1970. According to legend, Teague’s initial sketch of the car was done on an air sickness bag. 

A Brief History of American Motors 

American Motors Corp. began in 1954 with the merger of the Nash-Kelvinator Corp. and the Hudson Motor Car Co. — the largest corporate marriage in U.S. history at the time. By 1957, the Nash and Hudson brands were replaced by Rambler and Metropolitan. Later AMC models included the Javelin, Hornet, AMX, Pacer, Matador and Ambassador. 

AMC purchased Kaiser Jeep in 1970 and in 1980 partnered with Renault to produce the Alliance and Encore. Chrysler purchased AMC in 1990 and it was folded into the Jeep-Eagle division. 

Reviews of the Gremlin have varied greatly. Business Week included it in a list of the ugliest cars of the past 50 years and Time dubbed it “one of the worst cars of all time.” 

At the same time, Consumer Reports gave the Gremlin the top rating among six subcompacts it tested and Mechanix Illustrated said it was “dollar-for-dollar the best American buy of the year.”

With its six-cylinder engine, Gremlin had the best fuel economy in its class. That, combined with reliability and sturdy construction, made it popular.

During its nine-year run, drivers in the U.S. and Canada purchased 671,475 Gremlins, with sales peaking at 171,128 in 1974. 

Some fans ended up in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton crisscrossed Arkansas in a Gremlin during his 1974 congressional campaign and George W. Bush drove one as a Harvard student. (He received an MBA in 1975.) His 1973 model had a quirky option: The interior was upholstered in denim, with metal buttons, copper-colored stitching and a red Levi’s patch. 

The Specs 

Manufacturer: American Motors Corp.

Production years: 1970–78 

Total Made: 671,475 

Assembly: Kenosha, Wisconsin; Brampton, Ontario; Mexico

Class: Subcompact

Body: Two-door hatchback

Engine: 258 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder; 304 cubic-inch V8;
401 cubic-inch muscle car

Transmission: 3-speed Chrysler Torque- Flite automatic;
3- or 4-speed manual

Purchase price: $1,879 to $2,299 ($12,912 to $15,798 today)

In Philipstown, Young says he likes driving the car and fielding comments, including those voiced at the Bear Mountain car show, where a Corvette owner refused to park next to him. “It’s just fun to drive,” Young said, despite the car having “no power anything.” 

His Gremlin originally featured a 304 cubic-inch V8, but the previous owner replaced it with a 401 cubic-inch V8 from an AMC Matador. 

“It has plenty of power,” Young said, noting he’s had it up to 100 mph. As for gas mileage, “if it gets 10 to 15 mpg, that would be a lot.”

The odometer reads 98,000 miles but Young wonders if the car has actually traveled 198,000 miles. The body, including the original orange paint, has no rust. 

Young’s Gremlin X is bare-bones; its radio is aftermarket and it has no air conditioning. But it does have a glove box and the rear window opens, which is not true of all models.

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