There’s many, many things I love about AMC, America’s lovable loser of carmakers, but I think its truly defining trait has to do with its sheer inventiveness and cleverness in the face of its own perpetual broke-ness. AMC was the master of re-use and repurposing cars, like making the Gremlin by chopping the butt off the Hornet or making concept cars all about using the fewest parts or the cheapskate way they updated the Wagoneer face. But this largely-unknown half-assed attempted re-purposing of the AMC Pacer into a sort of baby Cherokee maybe the most AMC thing that AMC ever AMC’d.
These pictures of what seems to be a quite secret AMC Styling Department project were first published in 2017 by Hemmings Classic Car, and it’s from this publication that we get what little information there is on the project, which even old AMC employees don’t seem to really remember.
There’s a bit of mystery surrounding the “Lil” Chief. Although we have many contacts in AMC Styling and called more than a dozen former employees to find out what we could about the “Lil” Chief, we came up empty, because no one in AMC Styling remembers the vehicle; that’s never happened before. The only identification on the back of the photos is a single word and date: “Staff 9/20/79.” We know the photos are authentic. When we showed these photos to our designer friends, they recognized the attractive young lady seen in one photo; she was a secretary in AMC Styling. Apparently “Lil” Chief was a highly secret project.
This is all absolutely fascinating, as are the suspected reasons AMC Styling VP Dick Teague seems to have commissioned the project in the first place, which were threefold: meet demands for recreational vehicles, take some pressure off the Jeep plant by building more vehicles at the Kenosha plant, and to try and get more out of the investment in the Pacer overall.
What I find especially fascinating about this exercise is how shoestring it looked to be, which is most notable by the use of regular jackstands set under the car so it could use those big Goodyear Tracker A-T tires, the same one used on the Cherokee. Taking the time to figure out how to give the Pacer some lift was clearly not a priority here, at least not at this early stage.
The wheelarches have been enlarged and had those black flares added, and the whole front fascia and hood is very different from a normal Pacer, but that appears to be the extent of actual sheet metal changes.
A few variations consisting of easily added or removed parts were made, consisting of rear quarter window cover panels and two kinds of roof cargo boxes, one that may be body-colored fiberglass and incorporating a lone rectangular driving lamp, and one that looks to be black canvas.
Sure, it’s all sort of silly and absurd, but it does show what AMC was really great at: maximizing what they had into new and unexpected things.
I think the LIL Chief is actually kind of fantastic-looking, if ridiculous, but ridiculous is fun, and perfect for this sort of car. They managed to give the Pacer a pretty dramatically different look, especially with that more truck-like face, and the Pacer’s odd, wide, ovoid body actually kind of works here, providing reasonable interior room while remaining reasonably compact.
Really, this sort of predicts the coming of small 4x4 SUVs and crossovers like the Geo Tracker or Toyota RAV4 or Honda CRV that came out a solid decade to a decade and a half later.
In typical AMC fashion, they had a hazy but oddly accurate glimpse of what the future may hold, but lacked the resources or ability to really follow through, and all we have left are records of ghostly dreams like this crazy yellow thing, propped up on jackstands.