Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, compact hatchbacks? You were the hottest thing around until everyone got extremely parched and sunburnt and decided they were done with this shit and couldn’t wait for fall. It’s time to revive the good souls of the AMC Gremlin and the Ford Pinto and let you all decide who shall reign supreme.
(Welcome to Who Ya Got, a new series where you get to vote on famed car rivalries, some more notable than others.)
Today, we’re kicking things off with two of my most favored hatchback tragedies in car history, the much maligned AMC Gremlin and Ford Pinto. Both experienced a charming rise in popularity, only to fall from grace in some particularly spectacular fashions.
In The Red Corner: AMC Gremlin
The Gremlin was introduced to the world on April 1, 1970 and saw a formidable amount of popularity before it became the butt of everyone’s favorite car-related jokes. Here was the progenitor of the compact hatchback craze—both the Pinto and the Vega were yet to be released. People wanted small, economical cars. AMC was here to deliver.
AMC kinda... tossed the Gremlin together. It were originally just going to re-release an updated version of the Hornet before realizing that people actually dig things that are totally, all-around new. So, AMC chopped down the Hornet down to a more compact size and reworked it into a suave new wedge shape.
From Ate Up With Motor:
Structurally, the AMC Gremlin was a Hornet shorn of 12 inches (305 mm) of wheelbase, trimming its overall length by 18 inches (457 mm). At 161.3 inches (4,097 mm), the Gremlin was only 3 inches (76 mm) longer than a Beetle, although the AMC looked significantly bigger. It was only fractionally narrower than the Hornet, although it was around 200 pounds (90 kg) lighter. The similarity allowed a great deal of commonality: The Gremlin shared its big brother’s front suspension, steering, brakes, although the rear leaf springs were shortened, most of the rear legroom was extracted, a fold-down rear seat was added to increase its cargo space.
All early Gremlins used the same inline sixes found in AMC’s bigger cars, either the 199 cu. in. (3,258 cc) version with 128 gross hp (95 kW) or the 232 cu. in. (3,801 cc) version with 145 hp (108 kW). Standard also were a three-speed manual transmission with a non-synchronized low gear and four-wheel drum brakes.
The Gremlin, though, wasn’t really a hatchback in the sense that we traditionally think. AMC didn’t have money to develop a structurally sound hatchback, so the rear of the car didn’t actually open (unless, of course, you splurged on the optional flip-up rear window). You could access cargo space back there, you just had to fold down the seats.
The starting price for the Gremlin was $1,879 (today, roughly $12,401.98), which set it pretty on par with other economy cars of the era.
So, where’d the tragic reputation come from? The wheelbase was so damn short that only pint-sized drivers could comfortably sit behind the wheel. While it could clock a 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds, the fact that the Gremlin was basically a repurposed Hornet meant that it wasn’t really designed to handle that well. It was nose-heavy, and the shortened rear springs saw the car jump around if you braked too hard or went around a corner too fast—y’know, the things that make you feel like a race car driver.
It also wasn’t economic in terms of anything but its production cost. It could get up to 25 mpg if you were an exceptionally conservative driver. But if you drive like a normal person and not a grandma, your fuel economy would drop to a meager 20 mpg.
It took a few years for the Gremlin to really kick it into gear. It wasn’t until 1972 that it had a V8 (coincidentally, the year of an OPEC embargo that raised the cost of gasoline and made V8 engines the very opposite of a hot commodity), and the snazzier trim packages didn’t come until ‘74—which couldn’t stop its drops in sales. By its last year in 1978, AMC only sold 22,104 Gremlins.
If it had been introduced a few years earlier, the Gremlin could have written itself a more favorable page in the history books, but by its release in 1970, people were just expecting a little more out of their cars than the Gremlin had to offer.
In The Blue Corner: Ford Pinto
Now entering the ring on September 11, 1970: the Ford Pinto! Lee Iacocca wanted a car that could compete with all those damn economy cars rolling in from Japan and Germany, and he wanted it to cost under $2,000. And what Lee Iacocca wants, Lee Iacocca gets.
While the Pinto wasn’t the product of a chopping down of any of Ford’s other vehicles, it did fall victim to an expedited development cycle—what was typically 43 months was supposed to be completed in a mere 25 in order to have the car in showrooms by 1971, Hemmings reports. Not ideal!
There were three different versions of the Pinto available: a two-door fastback sedan with a trunk, a three-door hatchback, and a two-door station wagon. The idea was to create a car that was changeable and functional, so anyone could get out there and give ‘er a try.
The Pinto was a sub-compact car which was also known as the Mercury Bobcat on some markets. It was sold as a hatch, a 2-door estate and a coupe. It had a Kent engine that received much praise, A arm suspension and drum brakes that were seen as a deficiency. With a unibody construction, the car was available both an automatic and manual transmission. with a live axle rear end.
You could get yourself an entry-level Pinto for a mere $1850 (roughly $12,210.57 in today’s currency), making it cheaper than the Gremlin, but not by a huge amount.
The car hit the market... and then things just kinda started to go wrong Crash tests over 31 mph saw the Pinto leaking fuel, and an infamous Mother Jones article discussed the car’s tendency to burst into flames when involved in a rear-end collision. There were burn injuries. There were lawsuits. There were recalls. There was an awful lot of over-exaggeration about how bad the Pinto actually was (it was actually safer than the Vega, Gremlin, Datsun, and Beetle in the NHTSA fatality rate study in 1975-76; the other cars just weren’t bursting into flames on contact).
All in all, though, it’s an example that Ford could have probably done better. People were expecting more out of their cars in 1971—the days of fiery explosions being deemed acceptable were long past. If Ford was serious about competing with international subcompacts, it probably needed a serious rethink once the first lawsuits started rolling in.