Doomed: AMC Eagle (1979-1988)

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American Motors Corp had a rep for being, well, different.

Broke, too.AMC Eagle Blue

The lack of money tied into the different drummer-ness.

Oddities like the Ambassador and Matador, the Hornet and Gremlin … and of course, the hilarious Pacer. These were cars born of financial desperation, a kind of stamped steel “hey, look at me… please!  meant to get people talking.

Which they did. 

Buying was another thing.

AMC – formed when Nash merged with Hudson in 1954 – was perpetually in the role of the fourth Beatle – or Belarus among the George W. Bush-era “coalition of the willing.” GM, Chrysler and Ford utterly dominated the American car scene, with AMC scrabbling for the scraps. Chiefly by going weird.AMC ad pic

And cheap.

The company’s small, inexpensive cars actually did ok for awhile. The Hornet, for instance. And of course the Gremlin – which was a Hornet, just re-skinned and re-sold. 

But as the ’70s rolled along, AMC’s getting-dated designs (and in particular, their poor fuel economy relative to the tsunami of Japanese small cars like the Honda Civic CVCC) were becoming a harder sell. But AMC had not much more than fuzz in its corporate pockets with which to invest in new designs.   

Then along came an idea that might have saved AMC’s bacon. 

A car with four-wheel-drive.

It would do most of the things people expected (and bought) a 4WD truck to do – like get you safely home when it snowed.

But it would still be fundamentally a car and so, drive like one.

Bingo!AMC Eagle ad 3

This was prescient in the late ’70s – decades before anyone had heard of a crossover (or an SUV). Circa 1978, you had your pick of car – or truck. And almost all the cars available at the time – even economy cars like the Civic and VW Beetle – were rear-wheel-drive cars and thus, as helpless in the snow as Steven Hawking in the ring with Ronda Rousey.

Or, you could buy a truck – which wasn’t helpless in the snow (if it had four-wheel-drive) but which did handle like a blindfolded Lurch after drinking a six pack of Jack Daniels coolers… and also sucked gas and (usually) had less room in the cab than space in the bed. The trucks of the ’70s were not like the cowboy Cadillacs people are used to today, with softly padded, spacious interiors and all the amenities you’d find – and expect – in a comparably priced car.

Trucks back then were for the most part basic – and crude. You maybe got a heater. Usually, not AC. The floors were as likely to be sheetmetal as carpeted. They were great for work. Hauling pallets of bricks, taking a load of garbage to the dump. Not so great for hauling a bunch of kids to school. Women, in particular, disliked trucks (or at least, tended not to buy them) because of their crudity, their size and general unwieldiness.Roy Lunn pic

AMC’s idea was to take a car and add some of the attributes of a truck (such as 4WD and more ground clearance) while retaining the fundamental “car-ness” of the thing – in particular its road manners and easy-to-live-with qualities. The result would be a family vehicle, not a specialty vehicle. Mom could use it to cart the kids around – and not have to sweat the snow.

This car would be called Eagle – and it nearly saved AMC.

Project 8001 plus Four, as it came to be known within the company, was the brainchild of one man, Roy Lunn – who at the time was chief design engineer for AMC’s Jeep division. A former RAF pilot who had previously worked for AC Cars in Britain as well as Ford (where he helped develop the automaker’s first front-wheel-drive vehicle, the 1962 Taunus, which was sold in Europe), Lunn envisioned “a new line of four-wheel-drive vehicles with the ride and handling conventions of a standard rear-wheel-drive car.”

The prototype was put together with engineering help from Ferguson Formula (FF) Limited, a British company not well known outside the car industry but which had a major role in developing four wheel drive and all-wheel-drive technology for passenger vehicle applications. Lunn, being a Brit himself – and because he worked at Jeep – was very familiar with FF. The partnership seemed to make sense because of FF’s expertise, but also because it would reduce development costs as well as reduce the time necessary to develop the car itself.AME Eagle schematic

And time was of the essence.

Lunn knew that a new car – a revolutionary car – was needed.

Pronto.

But an existing car would serve as the donor platform for the prototype – another way to reduce development costs and get the thing done sooner rather than later.

Lunn and FF chose the homely Hornet for this role. The first prototype was based on the Hornet Sportabout wagon and featured V8 power in the form of AMC/Jeep’s 150 hp 304 CID/5 liter mill. This was the same engine used in the Jeep CJ, among others.

The 4WD system, however, differed from what was usual in Jeeps and trucks generally in that it was full-time, rather than part-time – with (initially) a fixed torque split of 33 percent to the front wheels and 66 percent to the rear. The typical truck-type 4WD system could be disengaged – allowing the vehicle to be operated in 2WD – and when it was engaged, the torque split was usually close to 50-50.AMC Eagle badge

The prototype (and the eventual production car) shaved weight and reduced complexity by eliminating the truck-type 4WD’s two-speed transfer case. The permanent or “full-time” AWD system also required no special action or know-how from the driver. There was no need to engage – or disengage – anything. Just get in – and drive.

This anticipated what is common today in both crossovers and SUVs. But circa 1978, it was a radical concept.

A major advantage – in addition to relative simplicity and lighter weight – was that the system was designed to enhance both traction and handling.

Truck-type 4WD is great for traction – bullying across a muddy field, for instance. But it’s actually a handling liability when the vehicle is cornering on dry pavement. One potential issue with a traditional, truck-type 4WD system is a phenomenon called axle bind. With the 4WD engaged, the inside wheels may rotate at a faster rate in a curve than the outside wheels, causing premature wear of the components as well as driveline noise. Most truck 4WD systems advise disengaging the system on dry, paved roads for just this reason. AMC Eagles B&W

But with AWD, the paired wheels on a given axle (front or rear) are able to freewheel (rotate at different speeds) and thus, do not bind. The eventual Eagle’s system could also route torque front-to-back in a varying ratio (via a viscous-coupled single speed center differential) to the axles with the most traction. This further improved the vehicle’s lateral grip – during cornering.

It is among the reasons why so many modern AWD high-performance cars feature a similar system. 

The Eagle also differed from the typical 4WD truck in that it had an independent front suspension, which enabled each front wheel to articulate (move up and down) individually, another boon to handling as well as ride quality. If the left front wheel dipped into a pothole, the right front wheel was not affected.

In addition to the AWD system, the prototype also featured extra ground clearance and a 15-inch wheel/tire package specifically designed to optimize the vehicle’s poor weather tenacity.AMC Eagle interior

The results were very encouraging – and what would become the production car was greenlighted, with a planned unveiling set for 1979 (as a new 1980 model).

In between, a number of tweaks were made. First, a new car was chosen as the donor platform for the production model. This was the Concord, which replaced the aging Hornet in AMC’s portfolio, beginning with the ’78 models. The Concord was not actually new – in the sense of being a fresh/wheels-up design. Remember, AMC’s money troubles. It would be more accurate to describe the ’78 Concord as an updated car.

A more luxurious car, actually.AMC Eagle ad copy

Though it shared underpinnings (chassis) with the Hornet, it was no longer the Blue Light Special that the Hornet had been. It got more insulation (including acoustic sound absorption mats behind all interior panels) plush interior padding, much nicer trim and generally higher-rent materials throughout. There was more chrome outside – and you could order a padded vinyl roof. The suspension was tuned to deliver a “virtually noiseless, boulevard ride.” The object was to design a car that, while compact and affordable, would nonetheless be more upscale than the typical car in the class, as the Hornet had not been. AMC product planners believed this would undercut the Japanese imports – which were austere A to B transportation appliances – while providing a lower-cost (but still nicer) alternative to the Big Three’s offerings, none of which offered 4WD.

Another major change – at Lunn’s recommendation – was a change of powerplants.AMC Eagle engine

Instead of the 304 V8, the 1980 Eagle would use AMC’s 4.2 liter/258 cubic inch straight six. This was a well-regarded engine but even more important, it was a reasonably fuel-efficient engine. The 304 wasn’t. And in 1979 – with the Ayatollah running amok in Iran and gas prices shooting upward again – decent gas mileage had become a major consideration for American buyers. The 4.2 six was capable of delivering nearly 30 MPG on the highway if driven gently – while the 304 V8 struggled to get out of the teens.

The six was paired initially with a three-speed Torqueflite automatic (later models would be available with a five-speed manual transmission, too).

Surprisingly, the AWD system only added about 300 pounds to the Concord’s curb weight, which was still well under 3,000 pounds (2,822 lbs. for the 1980 sedan). So in addition to not-bad gas mileage and “goat-like” grip, the car also performed well relative to other passenger cars of the time. The first-year Eagle could dash to 60 in about 15.2 seconds.

For perspective, a 1981 Nova needed about 16 seconds – and it did not have 4WD.

Multiple body styles were offered, too. In addition to the wagon, you could buy a Concord sedan and a Concord coupe – all with the same tenacious 4WD system.AMC Eagle SX:4

The coupe could be outfitted with a Sports Package that anticipated 4WD rally cars like the Subaru WRX and the Mitsubishi EVO by several decades. Though not a straight-line screamer (this was the late ’70s; nothing screamed) the Concord with the Sports Package hinted at what was to come. It had accessory fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, exterior black-out trim, a special wheel/tire package and graphics that touted the enhanced capability of its four-wheel-drive system.  

AMC proved the point by entering the car in SCCA rally racing, where it did well.      

The Eagle was an immediate monster hit.

So much so that AMC decided to shutter the Kenosha, Wisconsin assembly line that was churning out Pacers  – which weren’t selling – and use it to make more Eagles, which were. AMC sold so many that first year (1980) that it bumped the ailing automaker’s total car production by almost 20 percent. 25,807 Eagle wagons were sold, buttressed by an additional 10,616 coupes and another 9,956 Eagle sedans.AMC Kammback

The problem for AMC was that the rest of its lineup wasn’t selling nearly as well.

Despite the almost 20 percent overall uptick, AMC’s total car production for 1980 was a mere 199,613 units. To put that in perspective, General Motors’ Pontiac division had sold that many Firebirds during the previous model year. And Pontiac was just one of GM’s six full-line car divisions. 

One good car just wasn’t enough to pull AMC’s fat out of the fire.

At first, the car’s unique attributes buoyed sales and things seemed hopeful.

But the money coming in was not enough to do more than tread water. Needed major updates couldn’t be made because AMC couldn’t afford the R&D costs. It was the same problem that had been dogging the company since the ’60s. Despite tweaks – including the introduction for the ’81 model year of a new Kammback model (based on the AMC Spirit, which was based on the Gremlin) and an even sportier SX/4 (which was powered by a GM-sourced 2.5 liter four cylinder engine) sales began to wilt as the novelty factor wore off. It didn’t help that Audi and Subaru – which had money for R&D – were developing their own line of AWD-equipped cars. The first Audi Quattro appeared in 1980 – the same year as the Eagle – and just a few years later, Subaru would enter the fray with the XT.

This bled sales away from AMC’s aging original. AMC ad copy 4

Just one year after its debut, sales of the Eagle wagon had dropped by almost half, to 10,371 units. The new Kammback made up for some of this but the overall total production (all body styles) was down to 37,429 cars for 1981.

Two years later (1983) this had slipped to 17,703.

The end, as they saying goes, was nigh.

Chrysler bought the browning husk of AMC in ’87 – and the last Eagle left the Brampton, Ontario plant on December 14, 1987. AMC itself went to sleep with the fishes the following year.

The astonishing thing, in retrospect, is that no other car company had the idea for what became the Eagle first. Or, perhaps they did – but it took AMC, desperate and rapidly losing its grip on the proverbial ledge – to pursue such a radical-for-the-times course. 

Of course, it helped that AMC had Jeep going for it.AMC Eagle working

This was eons (in auto industry terms) before the Chrysler buyout in the ’80s (and before Fiat bought the remains of Chrysler in the 2000s … after DaimlerBenz finished gnawing the bone).

Jeep was the first major automaker to successfully mass-market what are called “SUVs” today but which – back in the day – were just 4x4s. These included rough boys like the CJ series (the ancestor of today’s Wrangler) and 4×4 Cadillacs like the Wagoneer, with its car-like ride and on-road good manners.

Jeep continues to thrive today. Several of its current models are direct spiritual – and functional – descendants of the Eagle. Every major automaker now offers cars with all-wheel-drive.

Clearly, the Eagle was a fantastic idea. As the editors of Four Wheeler magazine wrote, it represented “The beginning of a new generation of cars.” Indeed.

It just wasn’t enough to save AMC.

Eagle Trivia:AMC Eagle ad copy 3

* Base price for the 1980 coupe was $6,999; a wagon listed for $7,549. All Eagles came standard with power brakes and steering and could be ordered with a tow package (heavy-duty 3.54 rear axle ratio, transmission oil cooler and load-leveling shocks) rated for up to 3,500 lbs. All versions sat about 3 inches higher off the ground than a Concord sedan.

* The federal government classified the Eagle as a “light truck” – which exempted it from having to meet the bumper-impact standards that applied to passenger cars.   

* The original 258 cubic inch inline six outlived both the Eagle and AMC, with production continuing (under Chrysler’s auspices) through 1990. It was an “undersquare” design, which meant that its bore (3.75 inches) was less than its stroke (3.895) which helped it make ample torque at low RPM, which was just the ticket for a car like the Eagle.AMC Rally car

* AMC engineers were able to retain the Concord’s independent front suspension by mounting the front differential to the engine block via universal joints and half shafts, which allowed independent movement of each front wheel. This approach was adopted by other car companies developing AWD cars, including Subaru.

* Every Eagle came with a five-year “No Rust Through” warranty – unusual for the era. All exterior steel panels were galvanized, plastic rather than steel inner fender liner and aluminized exterior trim screws were used and the entire body was dipped in a special primer during assembly and treated with a Ziebart anti-rust protection package before it left the factory.AMC Eagle Sundancer

* Probably the rarest (and at the time, most expensive) version of the Eagle was the Sundancer – which featured a targa-style removable roof panel and a back window that could be folded down – the remaining structure serving as bracing as well as rollover protection. Conversions were performed by Griffith in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and then shipped to dealers. The targa roof added almost $4,000 (in 1981 dollars) to the car’s base price.

* AMC also toyed with a diesel-powered version of the Eagle, with the 3.6 liter turbo-diesel engines supplied by VM Motori, a subsidiary – ironically – of Fiat, which would eventually come to own Chrysler… which bought out what was left of AMC back in 1988.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.

Copyright 2015, Eric Peters

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10 COMMENTS

  1. When I moved to Fraser CO (original “icebox of the nation”) in 2004 I was amazed to see an AMC Eagle used as a daily driver! Perfect car for a town who’s heyday was the 1970s.

  2. A story I heard was that the Grand Cherokee that Bob Lutz famously drove through the plate glass window at the Cobo Center was actually an AMC design. Work on it was still being finished up when the purchase by Chrysler happened.

    Unless I’m mistaken, the GC was the first unibody SUV. The Eagle still had a traditional frame.

    • The Eagle was a unibody, being based on the Concord, which in turn was based on the Hornet.

      Probably the first unibody SUV was the Jeep Cherokee “XJ” which went on sale in 1984 and was produced through 2001.

  3. My dad started buying AMC cars in the early 1970s. He never really liked large American cars because he said that they were too big. He, like myself was a shorter guy who didn’t like the long hoods, etc of the American cars. In any case, we started out with a 1973 Hornet Sportabout wagon with a 360 V8 and a 727 Torqueflite transmission. It was yellow with woodgrain siding. He called it the yellow jacket. The car could do a mean burnout. The top speed was bout 115 mph. The next year he bought a Gremlin with the 4.2. Much slower. One thing that the AMC cars shared was good handling for the time. The Gremlin actually cornered pretty well.

    The last car he bought was a 1977 Hornet Wagon. It, too had the 4.2L I6. It only got 14 mpg on a 60 mph trip. I don’t know how the 78 Concord or the 80 Eagle got better mileage, but that car was such a pig, we sold it a year later. Fortunately, we didn’t lose too much money. Got rid of it before the rattles set in.

    • I used to have a mid-1970s Hornet and it was an absolute pig on gas. Quite a contrast to the earlier Ramblers which were economical for their time. Blame the crude 1970s emission controls which amounted to strangling the engine and saying a Hail Mary. The late 1970s/early 1980s saw a little progress in that area and mileage improved a bit.

  4. AMC was a remarkable company, able to survive the big three for decades despite always being on the verge of bankruptcy. They built quirky, inexpensive cars for people who didn’t really care about cars. AMC actually kept the flathead six as an optional engine well into the 60s, a full decade after everyone else abandoned it, just because it was less expensive. Price is everything when your customer base wants an appliance instead of an automobile.

    • AMC used the flathead six as the base engine on the Rambler American through the 1965 model year. As far as I know this was the last automotive use for this type of motor, at least in cars available in the U.S. AMC had other engineering holdouts as well that were obsolete even at the time…

      The torque-tube drive introduced on the 1949 Nash continued on AMCs larger models through 1966. (Dropping the transmission on these cars is a real PITA!) The odd two-piece Nash axle shafts with their separate hubs were used through the end.

      Ball joints were not used at all in the front end until 1962, when a lower ball joint was introduced, but the upper trunnion was retained. Full ball joints did not arrive until 1970.

      Electric windshield wipers were not made standard until 1972. (Until then if you didn’t check the options list you’d wind up with vacuum wipers that would slow up or stop when you hit the gas.)

      3-speed manual transmissions with non-synchro first gear were used well into the 1970s. AMC was also still using a separate overdrive.

      It wasn’t all ancient history on AMC cars though, there were some features advanced for the time. Parent companies Nash and Hudson were early adopters of unibody (or “single unit construction” as it was called at the time). Nash pioneered fresh-air heating and ventilation with the 1938 “Weather Eye” system, and in 1954 was the first to have an integrated air-conditioning system that fit completely under the hood and dash. Dual-circuit brakes were introduced in 1962, well in advance of gunvermin requirements. 1964 saw the introduction of solid-state voltage regulators. Mid-1960s 3-seat Rambler wagons had no spare tire and came with run-flat tires. (Not particularly desirable, but a “feature” that is coming into vogue today, 50 years later.) The 1965 Marlin came equipped with standard power front disc brakes. Then of course there is the car that’s the current topic, the first mass-produced full-time 4WD car built in the U.S., although its introduction was really an act of desperation rather than one of careful planning and development.

      Not all AMC cars were appliances. There was the 1957 Rebel which introduced the Rambler 327 V8. It had a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds which was supercar territory at the time and still mainstream today. The Rebel was the fastest car from an American manufacturer that year, except for the fuel-injected Corvette. (Had AMCs planned electronic fuel injection worked out the Rebel would have beaten the ‘Vette.) Later came the AMX, the Javelin, the SC/Rambler, the Machine. Then of course there were misfires at producing “exciting” cars such as the Marlin and the Matador Coupe.

      AMC even came “this close” to building a true exotic – look up the AMX/3. (Unfortunately they got cold feet and only 6 prototypes were built.)

  5. Nash was actually a pretty innovative company in the immediate postwar period. Their “Airflyte” cars looked like something that dropped in from outer space compared to their contemporaries, and in 1949 the company went 100% to unibody construction. The 1950 Nash Rambler was the only really successful early 1950s compact. Nash merged with moribound Hudson in 1954 and AMC was born. (The original idea was to also fold in Studebaker and Packard to make one large company but that never happened.)

    Interestingly at one time in the early 1960s, AMC’s Rambler outsold Plymouth. By 1964 all their cars were based on a single platform, the compact American was a cut-down Classic which even used the same doors, and the Ambassador was just a better-equipped Classic. This cut tooling costs to a minimum, but the approach was abandoned due to a change in management when George Romney left the company to pursue a political career. AMC was faced with bigger tooling bills – and shrinking market share due to the Big 3 invading the compact and midsize space in force.

    Most believe that that AMC management made two huge mistakes in the 1970s that cost them the company: the Matador Coupe and the Pacer. Both required extensive tooling not shared with other models. Both flopped in the marketplace. They did not even make enough to cover the tooling costs. There was no money left to update AMC’s core models so they were left with turning out endless variations of the Hornet/Gremlin platform.

    I’ve read that development cost for the Eagle (that is, the cost to build the prototype) was about $50,000, which in the auto industry is way less than chump change. It’s a funky design in a lot of ways. The front differential hangs off the engine block! I’ve also read that when AMC Chairman Gerry Meyers first saw the prototype his reaction was “What the hell is this?” But the company had nothing to lose and no other options for fielding a new product, so to market it went.

    I have an Eagle wagon for winter duty. It’s a pretty remarkable car coming from a manufacturer that was on its last legs. It’s a shame AMC didn’t have the money to move the Eagle concept to a more modern platform. It’s also a shame they never put the fuel-injected Jeep six in that car. Today that’s the hot ticket for people wanting more oomph from their Eagle since the Jeep mill will drop right in.

    • Drove a couple of mid 70’s Matadors that were in the company fleet. Interesting car. Ugly to look at but very comfortable and fun to drive. Incredible 401 engine that would downshift to first and burn the rear tires bald when stabbed at 30 MPH. Unfortunately the car could not go a week without parts falling off, overheating in the summer and requiring a new set of brakes every few weeks.

    • This is a car I remember from my high school years. Always liked it; thought it was neat. The Jeep Wagoneer is another such.

      I miss those simpler, happier days.

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