The freedom to design a car totally from scratch can often be intoxicating. It doesn’t happen all that often, and even when it does the end result is usually far more conventional than the initial sketches. But those first brainstorming sketches can be truly amazing, like this one by Dick Teague in the early 70s.
The car shown here would eventually become the much-maligned AMC Pacer, but that result was still years away. At this stage, around June of 1971, every option was on the table. AMC’s goals were lofty: they didn’t just want to make a new small car, they wanted to rethink the entire problem of personal transportation. In fact, Product Group Vice President Gerald Myers said of the project,
“We saw the Megalopolis-these urban sprawls that extend from Los Angeles to San Diego with no break. And congestion, pollution, noise, energy shortages. From this we began to piece together the key ingredients for the Pacer. It wasn’t going to be just another car but a whole new method of transportation for the next decade.”
So, with this in mind and a few key criteria — it had to be roomy, it had to be safe, and incorporate the integrated roll bar they were expecting the US to mandate at any point — AMC’s gifted designer Dick Teague began to sketch.
The sketch shown here is one of these early design studies, and while the end result differs considerably, you can see the seeds of the design here. This early proto-Pacer is notable because of the extremely unusual layout: transverse mid-engine, driving the rear wheels, and with back-to-back seating for the two rows of seats.
Incredibly, this design had been tried before, on the Zündapp Janus. The Janus, which was introduced in 1957, is probably best known to most people today as the villain Dr.Z in the movie Cars 2. In reality, it was a 14 HP bubblecar that most closely resembled a pair of Isettas joined back-to-back.
Teague may have been aware of the Janus when he sketched this, but it’s possible he wasn’t thinking about it at all. In some ways, it’s a logical conclusion to the tricky issue of packaging a mid-engine: if it’s too hard to design a viable back for a car with the engine in the middle, why not just add a second front? The Janus did this literally, ending up with an almost mirror-image-halved car, while Teague’s early Pacer was more directional.
Oh, and that engine crammed in the middle there was supposed to be a Wankel, just to make absolutely certain this car would be as different as possible. The speedometer was probably to be marked off in decimeters or knots or something as well, just because.
Teague’s Pacer sketch absolutely feels futuristic, even today. It has a certain pod/spaceship sort of feeling and would fit in just fine to any number of Syd Mead paintings of lush space station interiors populated with sexy, long-haired people in jumpsuits, floating from a hover-tennis game to a hot tub full of beneficial boron-doped heavy water.
And while there’s certainly some impressive packaging challenges met, there’s some sticky issues, as well. Where is dedicated luggage storage? And, of course, people don’t seem to like driving back-to-back, for psychological reasons I’m still investigating. It’s not like the conventional layout allows anyone to be face-to-face, but at least everyone’s facing the same direction, and that seems to mean something deep in our psyches.
Still, despite these flaws, I really love these early Pacer sketches. The later renderings really help show what such a car could have looked like, but the raw first one is my favorite, because it shows such a raw elegance and the quality of the drawing is both careless and confident, all at the same time. That’s a lot to read into a single sketch, but this one actually feels like the germ of a new idea frozen on paper, as opposed to just another attempt to make the Hornet platform look a bit different.
In the end, AMC was still the cash-strapped underdog it always was, and the Pacer was saddled with AMC’s venerable and aging straight-6. It’s a great engine, but it’s long and heavy and totally counter to the advanced ideas the Pacer was supposed to embody.
The end result of the Pacer was a host of compromises, but you have to respect how radical they did manage to keep it despite all that. It still felt like something genuinely new, and even if that was all a lie under the skin, it made dramatic and favorable impressions from car reviewers of the era.
Today, of course, the Pacer is something of a joke, but looking back at these sketchy origins, I can’t help but to respect the daring of the car, of the possibility it offered, even if that possibility went undelivered.
The Pacer did get a bit of a secret comeback in the back of the Porsche 928. Porsche designer Tony Lapine has admitted that the Pacer was an influence in the design of the car, and I think he made a great choice in a car to crib ideas from.
Now we can only hope the next version of the Cayman will offer a rear-facing bench seat. I mean, why not? Tesla does it.