The AMC Pacer is a two-door compact automobile produced in the United States by the American Motors Corporation between 1975 and 1980.
Its initial design idea was started in 1971. The car's unusual rounded shape with massive glass area greatly contrasted with the three-box architecture with "square, boxy designs" incorporating upright grilles and slab-sides of the era. The Pacer was described as "the seventies answer to George Jetson's mode of transportation" at a time when "Detroit was still rolling out boat-sized gas guzzlers." The large amount of glass led Car and Driver to dub it "The Flying Fishbowl". The Pacer's "jellybean" body style is a readily recognized icon of the 1970s.
AMC's chief stylist Richard A. Teague began work on the Pacer in 1971, anticipating an increase in demand for smaller vehicles through the decade.
Car and Driver magazine noted that "AMC said it was the first car designed from the inside out. Four passengers were positioned with reasonable clearances and then the rest of the car was built around them as compactly as possible."
Designed to appear futuristic, the shape was highly rounded with a huge glass area, and was very unusual for its time. Road & Track magazine described it as "fresh, bold and functional-looking".
Development was under Product Group Vice President Gerald C. Meyers, whose goal was to develop a car that was truly unique: "...everything that we do must distinguish itself as being importantly different than what can be expected from the competition..."
A number of futuristic ideas were explored by AMC. However, the automaker lacked adequate resources to build components from scratch and needed to use outside suppliers or adapt its existing parts and use its production facilities. Unique for a comparatively small car, the Pacer was as wide as a full-size American car of the era. Contrary to myth, it was not widened six inches (152.4 mm) to make room for the rear-wheel drive configuration. The editor of Road & Track asserted that front-wheel drive, as well as a transverse mid-engined configuration, were among "various mechanical layouts...tossed around by the idea people at AMC", adding that "it's unlikely they ever had much hope of being able to produce anything other than their traditional front engine and rear drive, using components already in production."
The introductory 1975 AMC advertising and literature proclaimed it as "the first wide small car". The width was dictated partly by marketing strategy—U.S. drivers were accustomed to large vehicles, and the Pacer's occupants had the impression of being in a larger car—and partly by the fact that AMC's assembly lines were already set up for full-size cars.
Also unique at the time, the passenger door was four inches (101 mm) longer than the driver's. This made passenger loading easier, particularly from the rear seats; and they would also tend to use the safer curb side in countries that drive on the right. Ford used this design element in the 1990s Ford Windstar minivan.
Teague's low-drag design, which predated the fuel crisis and the flood of small foreign imports into the American market, was highly innovative. Its drag coefficient of 0.43 was relatively low for that time. Teague even eliminated rain gutters, smoothly blending the tops of the doors into the roof—an aerodynamic detail that, although criticized at the time for allowing rain onto the front seat, has become the norm in today's designs.
The Pacer was also among the first production cars in the U.S. to feature rack-and-pinion steering. The body was designed with the aim that structural lines protected it from hit damages, and AMC engineers claimed that they succeeded in more than 50% of the car surface.
In the mid-1970s the U.S. government mandated major safety improvements for the 1980 model year, to include 50-mile-per-hour (80 km/h) front-end crash testing, 25-mile-per-hour (40 km/h) side crash testing and 30-mile-per-hour (48 km/h) rollover testing, as well as installation of bumpers to resist 5-mile-per-hour (8 km/h) impact at the front and 10-mile-per-hour (16 km/h) at the rear. The Pacer was designed to these specifications, and also had laminated safety glass in the windshield.
General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler persuaded the government that it was not financially viable to modify existing production cars to comply with the new regulations, and that instead each company would be put to the enormous expense of producing new, safety-compliant vehicles. Accordingly the government requirements were reduced, which led to the deletion of several safety features from the production Pacer—for example the roll bar over the passenger compartment, and the bump in the roof that accommodated it. The Pacer's remaining safety features were not strongly advertised, and seldom influenced a potential customer's purchasing decision. The car's extra weight—due in part to the safety equipment and the abundance of heavy glass—hurt fuel economy: production models tested by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave 16 miles per US gallon (15 L/100 km; 19 mpg-imp) in the city, but 26 miles per US gallon (9.0 L/100 km; 31 mpg-imp) or better on the highway (depending on driving habits and transmission), thanks to aerodynamic efficiency.
Originally the car was designed for a Wankel rotary engine. In 1973, AMC signed a licensing agreement with Curtiss-Wright to build Wankels for cars and Jeep-type vehicles. (The agreement also permitted Curtiss-Wright to sell rotaries elsewhere.) Later, AMC decided instead to purchase the engines from General Motors (GM), who were developing them for use in their own cars. However, GM canceled development in 1974 for reasons that included durability issues, the fuel crisis, tooling costs (for the engines and also for a new product line designed around the rotary's ultra-compact dimensions) and the upcoming (late 1970s) U.S. emissions legislation. It was also thought that the high-revving Wankel would not suit Americans accustomed to low revs and high torque.
General Motors's change of plans left the Pacer without an engine. American Motors took a calculated risk and introduced the new model. The company's over commitment to the project resulted in entrapment with so much money and effort in the car's design. Engineers hastily reconfigured it to accept their existing straight-six engine. This involved a complete redesign of drivetrain and firewall to keep the longer engine within the body dimensions designed for the Wankel, but allowed the Pacer to share many mechanical components with other AMC models.
The "outside of the box" thinking incorporated by AMC in the Pacer as the first "wide, small car" attempted to capture a revolutionary change in marketplace. However, a radical departure from what was accepted by consumers as "good styling" was a risky strategy. Only the largest firms can stick with a radical element until it "grows", and the automaker’s dominance in the marketplace may eventually establish it as a standard feature. However, the styling research axiom no longer applied by the late 1970s that if a car with some controversial styling was liked by at least half of the potential market segment; then chances were good that this feature was a differential advantage for the manufacturer. The AMC Pacer incorporated many controversial styling and design innovations that led to its market failure after five model years. American Motors created the Pacer by identifying emerging trends and design technologies, but it faced a small window of opportunity since a product that comes out either too early or too late can fail even if the opportunity was there initially. A further complication was the purchasing dynamics and the Pacer's design was focused on maximizing the internal sense of space, while the market focused on external dimensions. Many of the attributes the Pacer incorporated became the goal of all manufacturers in the two decades that followed.
With an uncommonly wide and short body for a small car, the Pacer’s design is still considered controversial while its powerplants did not contribute to fuel economy. Nevertheless, “the foresight by Teague and AMC was correct” with approaches to meet the evolving U.S. government regulations covering automobiles (such as the Highway Safety Act of 1970 and the new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
Introduced in showrooms on February 28, 1975, the Pacer was designed to attract buyers of traditional large cars to a smaller package during a time when gasoline prices were projected to rise dramatically. In its first year of production, the Pacer sold well, with 145,528 units. There was little competition from other American manufacturers, most of whom had been blindsided by the oil crisis. The increased demand for compact, economy vehicles was growing rapidly. However, Pacer sales fell after the first two years, and it was available through the 1980 model year. Similar to its mid-year introduction, on December 3, 1979, production of the Pacer ended at the Kenosha, Wisconsin assembly plant where it had begun five years earlier. A total of 280,000 cars were built. Increasing competition from the Big Three U.S. automakers and the rapid consumer shift to imported cars during the late 1970s are cited as the reasons for this outcome.
The Pacer's unconventional styling was commonly cited in its lack of success. Other concerns included a lack of cargo space when carrying a full load of passengers (because of its short wheelbase). Cargo space could be increased to 29.5 cubic feet (0.84 m3) by folding down the back of the rear seat to form a flat floor. Drivers also cited a lack of power. The Pacer was heavy; Car & Driver wrote, "American Motors had already quoted a curb weight of 2990 lb. for the basic Pacer when we first wrote about the car, and that already seemed quite heavy; but when we weighed the test car (whose air conditioning, automatic transmission, power steering and so forth would not account for the full difference) it registered an astounding 3425 lb.", and the standard 232 cu in (3.8 L) I6, with a single-barrel carburetor and optimized for low emissions (all vehicles at the time carried emissions-reducing devices); was relatively low-powered ("The Pacer comes with either of two AMC inline six-cylinder engines, both producing 100 bhp, but the larger 258-cu-in. unit delivering better mid-range torque"). In 1976, a "High Output" version of the 258 cu in (4.2 L) engine was offered, which helped performance at the cost of higher fuel consumption. By the time a 304 cu in (5.0 L) V8 was offered in 1978, the company had introduced a successful line of "luxury-compact" models (the AMC Concord). Additionally, gasoline prices remained high, limiting demand for V8-powered vehicles.
For increased cargo capacity, a station wagon body style was offered from 1977. The wagon version was only five inches longer (127 mm) and weighed only 76 pounds (34 kg) more than the coupe. It was also a less unusual-looking design with a squared-off back and straight, almost upright, rear side windows. Although front vent windows were optional on all Pacers, the wagon's rear side glass featured vent windows as standard. The broad and rear liftgate opened to a wide, flat cargo area with 47.8 cubic feet (1.35 m3) of space, significantly easing the task of loading cargo. The rear seat also folded flat to form a continuation of the cargo floor. Some wagon models featured simulated woodgrain trim on the lower body sides and the liftgate.
During the Pacer's production and marketing, the car went from initially being promoted as an economy car, to becoming a small luxury car. The following information details some of the highlights.
The "X" Package: A "sporty" edition Pacer. The Pacer X was available from 1975-1978 on the coupe version of the car. The title changed to "Sport" in 1978 and was eliminated after that. The trim package consisted of vinyl bucket seats, sports steering wheel, custom trim, as well as a floor mounted gear shift and front sway bar. On the outside it received exterior chrome features, styled road wheels, and "Pacer X" decals on the doors and other package identification.
The "D/L" Package: A more upscale edition of Pacer, the D/L was available for the entire run of the car becoming the "base" model in 1978. This package was more "luxurious" including, originally, a "Navajo-design" seating fabric and a woodgrain instrument panel as well as a few interior features that were optional without it. The exterior received additional chrome accents, different wheelcovers, and identification badging.
The "Limited": Available in 1979-1980, the Limited model was an elegant farewell for Pacer. Inside, leather seating, extra sound proofing, and deeper-pile carpet (18-oz. vs. the standard 12-oz) was standard, as were many amenities that would have been options: AM radio, power door locks, power windows, and tilt steering wheel, to name a few. The exterior offered many chrome accents, styled road wheels, and exterior "Limited" identification badging.
The "Sundowner": In 1975 only, a Sundowner Pacer was available through AMC dealers in California. This marketing promotion consisted of the basic Pacer with a US$3,599 suggested retail price. This package included options listing for US$300 at no extra cost. In addition to the mandatory California engine emissions controls and state-required bumper guards, the Sundowner package included a "custom interior" featuring Basketry Weave fabric upholstery with coordinated trim on the door panels, remote control exterior mirror, rear window washer and wiper, styled road wheels with white wall tires, and a roof rack.
The "Levi's" Package: Attempting to capitalize on the popularity of the Levi's Gremlin and Hornet, AMC introduced a Levi's Pacer for 1977. This option added blue denim-like upholstery and door panel trim, with small "Levi's" tags on both front seats. Missing were the traditional copper buttons found on the other AMC Levi's seating. The package also included a "Levi's" logo sticker for each front fender. It could be combined with the Pacer "X" package. Not well promoted, the Levi's Pacer did not sell in large numbers and was gone for the 1978 model year.
Carl Green Enterprises (CGE) Pacers: AMC Pacers were modified by Carl Green, automobile designer. These cars included 401 cu in (6.6 L) AMC V8 engines, as well as flares, air dams, and wings. The custom cars appeared in magazines such as Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding, and Car & Driver. Carl Green also built two AMC Pacer pace cars for B.F. Goodrich to campaign in the International Motor Sports Association circuit, as well as provided body kits for Amos Johnson's Team Highball racecars.
All Pacers without the optional vinyl roof trim could be finished in several unique two-tone paint combinations that included front and rear body side scuff molding extensions. However, the top and bottom two-tone treatment was changed in 1977, to an "up and over the roof" accent paint scheme for the duration of production.
1979-1980 saw a hood ornament and center chrome strip down the hood. Power door locks were available in 1978; however it would be 1979 before power windows would join the option list.
AMC Pacers were converted to plug-in electric vehicles.
Electric Vehicle Associates (EVA) was best known for its Change of Pace models a built- to-order adaptation of the Pacer that was priced at US$12,360 in 1978. The company converted well over 100 units. First available in the sedan version, power came from eighteen 6-volt lead–acid batteries to a 15 kW series DC motor with a three-speed automatic transmission. The EVA Change of Pace sedan weighed 3,990 lb (1,810 kg) and reached 55 miles per hour (89 km/h) with a 53-mile (85 km) range.
Later, a wagon version had twenty batteries housed in two-packs (front and rear), with a 26 kW (at 3,000 rpm) motor, and the car was complete in every detail down to a gas heater. The electric Pacer wagon was one of the more expensive cars at US$14,000. The Lead Industry Association (LIA) sponsored a tour for government and industry officials that featured an EVA Pacer wagon. Consolidated Edison in New York City purchased 40 modified AMC Pacers from EVA. The United States Army also included EVA Pacers in its inventory of special purpose electric vehicles.
American Motors exported the Pacer to several European nations. The AMC distributor in Paris France, Jean-Charles, compared the rounded body of the new Pacer to another attractive rear-end shape in its magazine advertisements. Cars exported to Europe were available in higher trim levels. According to some reports, the Pacer sold well in Europe and even Brigitte Bardot is said to have promoted the car in Paris.
The level of current European interest in Pacers is indicated by the number of European nations listed in the AMC Pacer Registry, the members' cars in the Swedish AMC/Rambler Society, a German Pacer enthusiast Internet site, and the fact that a former AMC dealer in Germany stocked an inventory of original parts as recently as the early 2000s. A private museum in the Netherlands exhibits a Pacer wagon.
Unlike AMC's other models, the Pacer was only available with left-hand drive. The British importer for the Pacer converted the car from left-hand to right-hand drive by leaving the majority of the steering gear on the left-hand side of the car, and running a chain-drive behind the dashboard from the steering wheel (now on the right-hand side) to the top of the steering column. However, the car retained its unequal-length doors, designed for LHD markets, meaning that in the UK the longer door was on the driver's side, leaving the passengers to use the smaller door, which "in the typically confined British parking spot was virtually impossible". The Pacer was wider than a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and slightly longer than the then-current Ford Cortina. Because of its large size by European standards the notion of the Pacer as a 'compact' car simply didn't work in the UK and Europe, and neither did the idea of such a car having (as its smallest engine option) a 3.8-litre straight-6 (at the time the usual family saloon car in the UK had an engine capacity of around 1.5 litres, with European-class compacts commonly having engines of 1 litre or less).
The British motoring press adversely reviewed the car and AMC soon stopped importing it.
The Pacer was produced in Mexico by Vehículos Automotores Mexicanos (VAM) starting in 1976. The cars came with different engines, interiors, and other components because vehicles made in Mexico had to have at least 50% locally sourced parts. The engine was an AMC design, but modified and built by VAM. A unique to Mexico 282 cu in (4.6 L) I6 engine was standard. It was designed to cope with low octane fuel and high altitudes. This engine featured dished pistons with a 3.909-inch (99.3 mm) bore and 3.894-inch (98.9 mm) stroke, as well as a unique head and exhaust porting design. The V8 engine was not available in Mexico.
All Pacers built by VAM came with the following standard equipment: power disk brakes, power steering, handling package, slot wheels with ER78x14 radial tires, reclining front seats, and a radio. Only the coupe model was available. The Mexican Pacers also had different interior trim and seats that featured high-design upholstery that was not available in the U.S. models. For 1979, a total of 250 luxury and performance "Limited edition X" models were built using a modified 282 six-cylinder with an automatic transmission, air conditioning, sunroof, as well as other options.
In 1975, the AMC Pacer was sleek and audacious; unlike anything else on the road and it looked like the car of the future. "The automotive press loved it." Motor Trend" magazine was one of many putting a picture of the car on its cover and titled its article "Suddenly its 1980: American Motors' new Pacer is the freshest, most creative, most people oriented auto born in the U.S. in 15 years".
Consumer Reports reported on the new Pacer and it "scored quite high in our tests. We would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wants a fairly small car. Their research was summed up that the Pacer did “at least as well as the Dodge Dart, the Plymouth Valiant, and the Chevrolet Nova, the U.S. compacts we like best”, but the Pacer has less passenger and luggage room than those larger cars, thus “overall, the Pacer scored better than such domestic subcompacts as the Ford Pinto, the Chevrolet Vega, and AMC’s own Gremlin.”
Reviewers were positive about the Pacer's styling, and Small Cars magazine described the press preview that "admiration was an obvious reaction...the knowledgeable product writers knew without being told that they were privileged to be there to see something new in automobile design." Road & Track magazine ran a lengthy "American Motors Pacer: Surprising new car from the smallest of the Big Four" cover story with the design and engineering details.
Automotive journalist and historian, Michael Lamm, writing in Popular Mechanics, discovered many "thoughtful touches that distinguish AMC's strikingly futuristic new Pacer". He described the Pacer’s smooth ride and “not choppy as in so many short-wheelbase cars”, its rack-and-pinion steering “gives handling a feeling of precision ... sticking well in turns, with hard cornering generally solid and predictable”, and the “tight turning radius makes parking easy”, but the only problem is that the steering wheel is too big. He summed up with, its "very modern styling, ample power and generous interior" the Pacer was "more car" than "the Mustang II or "GM’s sporty compacts (Monza, Skyhawk/Starfire)", and that its performance felt "strong—certainly on a par with most V8s."
Automotive journalist and author Don Sherman wrote in the February 1975 issue of Car and Driver that it was "our first real urban transporter...There is, of course, the chance of monumental failure; it might be another Tucker ahead of its time or a pariah like the Marlin. But...with its high priority on comfortable and efficient travel and absence of Mach 2 styling, [it] at least seems right for the current state of duress. Consider this bold offering from AMC a test: Are we buying cars for transportation yet, or are they still social props?"
Road & Track magazine's April 1975 road test review described the Pacer's appearance as "bold, clean and unique...even when it's going 60 mph is looks as if it's standing still..." but noted that, even with the test car's optional front disc brakes, "in the usual panic-stop tests...our driver had one of his most anxious moments ever as the Pacer screeched, skidded and demanded expert attention at the steering wheel to keep from going altogether out of control. The histrionics are reflected in long stopping distances from highway speeds... [The car’s] engineering—old-fashioned and unimaginative in the extreme—does not match the perky design", which the magazine declared "most attractive to look at and pleasant to sit in."
In a follow up road test in August 1976, Motor Trend wrote: "Since its introduction in January 1975, we have been quite smitten with AMC’s Pacer." Their only major gripes were the lackadaisical performance and the absence of a 4-speed transmission. A 2-barrel carburetor was offered on the larger six at the end of 1975, as well as a 4-speed manual, but the testers noted "the 2-bbl Pacer was faster than the 1-bbl car by a fair margin, it did not feel faster" (author's emphasis). Motor Trend described that: "Even with its compact exterior dimensions, the Pacer is one of the most comfortable 4-passenger cars around...The wide bucket seats were firm, but very comfortable...Front passenger leg room is extraordinary even with the seat racked well forward, and the rear seat leg room exceeds such full-sizers as the Buick Riviera and Continental Mark IV."
The British press was critical with the cover of The Motor, a weekly automobile magazine, announced: "We test the Pacer - and wish we hadn't."
Popular Mechanics described the newly added 1977 body style in an article titled "AMC Pacer Station Wagon is a Styling Coup!", noted that its "pleasing design" and asked: "who needs the coupe!"
The Pacer received a facelift and an optional V8 engine in 1978, but retained the heavy-duty crash protection making its body bulkier and heavier than it would otherwise have been. By this point, the luster wore off the unique design and the press began badmouthing the Pacer's lack of power and performance as more sophisticated competitors were introduced.
Now old enough to be a "classic car", the Pacer has come to be regarded in some quarters as a 1970s design icon. According to Business Week, the 1970s were "infamous for disco, Watergate and some of the ugliest cars ever."
Nevertheless, in spite of their bad reputations, cars of the 1970s era such as the Pacer are becoming collectors' items. Business Week reported that the rising values of so-called "nerd cars" - ugly 1970s-era cars - prompted the CEO of a major collector-car insurance company to buy a Pacer which has "inexplicably appreciated substantially beyond the US$2,300 that he paid for it in 2004." In 2002 he said: "In what can sometimes be a sea of automotive sameness, the AMC Pacer continues to turn heads even today", and he put the value of a "mint Pacer" at "between US$4000 and US$6000", saying that "the increased value is fueled solely by the heart. This trend is all about a fascination with '70s things almost because they were so bad." (Author's emphasis.)
The Pacer has been described as one of the formerly unloved cars from the 1970s that are enjoying a resurgence in both collectibility and auto restoration — especially among fans of cars from that era. The Pacer is one of several 1970s cars that were always thought of as cheap vehicles; therefore they were poorly maintained, which reduced their life expectancy. Also the heavy engines used in the car put more load on the front suspension than intended, which caused the rack & pinion steering to fail frequently on Pacers built in 1975.
One collector-car expert says you will pay just about the same, around US$20,000, for a complete restoration, whether it’s on a US$1,000 1978 AMC Pacer or a US$5,000 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. When restored, the value of the Pacer may be about US$4,000, compared with the Camaro’s US$25,000.
Today the Pacer's originality, as well as its deficiencies, are appreciated, if not loved, by car hobbyists and serious collectors alike.
Although "automotive oddity" is a recognition that the Pacer gets for its contribution to history, some owners appreciate them and have also upgraded them with the modern AMC 4.0 Jeep engine as a "low-buck, dare to be different" automobile.
There are many active AMC car clubs that welcome Pacers. The classic vehicle publication Hemmings Motor News lists AMC clubs with over fifty national and regional AMC automobile clubs as of 16 April 2009. Pacers share the drivetrain as well as other parts and components with AMC models, while new old stock (NOS), used, and reproduction parts are available from vendors specializing in AMC vehicles.