Open your heart to an underdog. The AMC Pacer may have a face only its mother could love, but there is far more under the skin with this fantastic slice of everyday Americana.
Once the toast of America’s automotive press – celebrated as ‘bold’, ‘futuristic’ and ‘unique’ – the Pacer’s fortunes were fast to change. Now found in various derogatory lists showcasing the ‘worst’, ‘ugliest’ and ‘most disappointing’ cars of all time, the little AMC has entered the cultural status chamber as an automotive disaster. Unfairly so, we reckon.
Built by the long-defunct American Motor Corporation (AMC) for only five years between 1975 and 1980, the humble Pacer can be regarded in two minds. The more cynical viewpoint casts out the lumpy shape as a mere gimmick, offering a range of weird features no one asked for – or could use.
Yet, bestow the design with some merit and it takes on a different shape – it’s a staple of 1970s American culture, a microcosm of where the world was at that time. AMC even produced an electric version to respond to the various fuel-crisis scandals that stalked our decade that taste forgot. The Pacer may have been weirdly shaped, but it wasn’t without thought; even if the passenger door was larger than the drivers…
However, over time the quirky design traits betrayed the model’s mantra. What once seemed futuristic began to look out of place and downright strange. Falling out of favour with a new wave of car enthusiasts hooked on Japanese imports, its gravitational pull to the automotive sin bin has provided no favours. Vast swathes of Pacers have been crushed, scrapped and shredded. Thusly, they are now exceedingly rare.
While its rivals of the day – the explosive Ford Pinto and outstandingly crap Chevy Vega – found new fortune on the dragstrip, transformed into muscle cars on a budget, the Pacer looked somewhat ungainly no matter how hard you tried. For those seeking true horror, a wood-panelled wagon was also available to assault all five senses simultaneously.
As a final insult, the Pacer waffled like an alcoholic slug. For a vehicle designed to tackle the fuel crisis head-on, an average of 25mpg was enough to leave cash-strapped families contemplating the sale of organs or entire children. Handling was solely rivalled by a downhill wheelie bin, whereas steering feedback was about as on the ball as a dead seal. Top speed for the base model was just over 80mph, with a 0-60mph sprint (if you could call it that) in little under 15 seconds.
However, it’s easy to get hung up on the Pacer’s ailments. For sheer hilarity and something different, the car takes some beating. An appearance with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey in 1992 cult movie Wayne’s World brought its disfigured face back to the forefront of popular culture, aided by a Queen soundtrack and overkill flames, from which point public affection changed dramatically.
No longer a clunker worth running purely into the ground, the AMC Pacer transformed into something of a status symbol. It’s now sought by collectors and admired through rose-tinted glasses by those who remember them first wallowing up the street, and in consequence, finding a solid example could yield you a firm investment. Especially in V8 or Vam Pacer X form.
With its inline 3.8-litre six-cylinder engine providing 90bhp, and a three-speed manual transmission, you could be forgiven for thinking the challengingly styled Pacer isn’t worth time of day. However, a bit like Marmite, don’t knock it before you try it...