Image courtesy OldCarBrochures.
AMC had tried before to counter the rising popularity of imported cars in the United States. The Metropolitan and the Rambler American each had their charms, but like Ford with the Falcon and Chevrolet with the Corvair, they didn’t do all that much to keep the can’t-seem-to-kill-it Beetle at bay. So on April Fools Day in 1970, 50 years ago today, AMC introduced essentially its last great hope against the tide of imports from Germany and beyond: the Gremlin.
Curious name, yes. Curious design, definitely. Curious mission, not at all. While the Rambler American continued to sell well through the Sixties and gave way to the all-new Hornet for the 1970 model year, they both ended up competing against other conventional American compacts like the Chevy II and the Plymouth Valiant. What AMC needed, AMC designers Dick Teague and Bob Nixon realized, was a car “for the free-thinking early 1970s,” quirks and all. Something that the Big Three wouldn’t dare to produce.
Nixon had proven his worth with small cars since joining AMC in 1959. His 1964 restyle of the American led to a 60 percent increase in sales for the compact, and his Tarpon concept car – seemingly everybody now agrees – should have remained on the compact car platform instead of going bigger when it entered production as the Marlin. So in the midst of the restyle of the American into the Hornet, he and Teague discussed a shorter Hornet and Nixon went to work drafting some design studies.
(That story about Teague designing the Gremlin on the back of an airline barf bag? Yes, he did sketch out the design while pitching the Gremlin to AMC Vice President Gerry Meyers on a flight in the fall of 1966, but he was relying on his recollection of Nixon’s designs, none of which he had with him at the moment.)
Teague liked the chopback design so much, he incorporated it into the AMX GT concept for 1968. Meanwhile, Nixon, Vince Geraci, and Dick Jones all went to work refining Nixon’s shortened Hornet sketches into the production Gremlin, at one point toying with the name Wasp.
The end result of their work: a reduction in wheelbase from 108 to 96 inches (one inch shorter than the 1968-1970 AMX) and 18 less inches in overall length, qualifying it as “America’s first subcompact,” according to AMC marketing materials. And they even managed to squeeze in a back seat. Still an inch and a half more wheelbase than a Beetle and just a hair longer overall. And, yeah, a little chunkier, but it also had a choice of two torquey straight-sixes, either one of which had multiples of horsepower more than the Beetle.
But rare is the car buyer who makes purchasing decisions based on wheelbase and overall length (and rarer still, the subcompact car buyer who makes those decisions based on horsepower). While the Deutschmark had appreciated versus the dollar throughout the late Sixties, the Beetle still remained an economical $1,874 in 1970. The best AMC could do with a standard-equipment Gremlin was $1,959, but by trimming away a few items – including the back seat and the lifting rear window – the company could get that price down to $1,879 for its base model Gremlin.
Mileage came up a little short of the Beetle’s as well – 23 MPG for the Gremlin versus 26 for the Beetle – but AMC noted that the Gremlin still got the best mileage of any American car and argued that the wider and more powerful Gremlin was better suited to American roads and American tastes. It was not an economy car, the company argued, rather an economical car.
Still, the Gremlin sold well among its target demographic – “folks who’d rather hold down costs than keep up with the Joneses,” according to the above filmstrip – and among younger buyers. Not as well as the Beetle, but enough to warrant AMC keeping the Gremlin in production for the next eight years.
Over that time, the Gremlin saw a number of production changes. The Gremlin X package, introduced for the 1971 model year, tarted up the subcompact with stripes and wheels. AMC’s 304 made it under the hood a year later, and for 1973 AMC made its Levi’s interior available as an option in the Gremlin. Sheetmetal changes came along in 1977, as did Audi’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder to goose the Gremlin’s fuel economy figures, and in its final production year, AMC even gave it a stripes-and-spoiler GT package.
AMC also experimented with a number of different takes on the Gremlin, from the 1972 Voyageur concept with cane-woven side panels and a slide-out “Grem-Bin” in the back, to the one-off, right-hand-drive Big Bad Orange-painted Rambler Gremlin proposed for the Australian market, to the give-it-more-glass 1974 Gremlin XP prototype, to the Gremlin G-II that previewed the sloping hatchback roofline of the Gremlin’s eventual replacement, the AMC Spirit. All of the above but the G-II now reside in the collection of Gremlin enthusiast Brian Moyer.
In the end, with total sales over its lifespan (671,475) just a little more than what the Beetle sold in one year during its Sixties heyday, the Gremlin didn’t take down the Beetle. Or, at least, it didn’t take the Beetle down its own; a slew of other subcompacts, including those from the Big Three and from Japanese carmakers, took away plenty of Beetle sales just as increasing emissions standards and safety regulations caused a no-good Seventies for Volkswagen’s air-cooled wonder.
Still, the Gremlin went on to become one of the most memorable cars of the Seventies – not bad for a car introduced on April Fools, named after a mechanical fault and boasting built-in quirk.
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by Daniel Strohl.
Wooden It Be Nice?Dodge seems far more concerned with advertising its wood-bodied Coronet wagon’s easy tailgate loading, middle-row seats that fold for easier in/out from the back, and a combination of Fluid Drive and Gyro-Matic shifting.
In the beginning, it was a question of technology and recycling. A car chassis, with larger, truck-like capacity to haul people and stuff from the train station to the hotel, seemed like a good idea. These types of haulers were coachbuilt in the Teens and 1920s. Ford itself started building Model A station wagons in 1929 in low quantities—at least in part because of their hand-built nature (and the costs this added into the price). Tooling up for a steel body, when no one knew whether the concept would take off, seemed foolhardy.
But the idea caught on, and soon most American car companies offered station wagon body styles to accommodate growing families. Before the war, wood was by choice and convenience, and due to the ease of making quick design changes without incurring the high cost of fabricating body panel dies, it became the dominant body material in station wagons. More than that, wood-sided wagons possess a unique magnetic attractiveness that people are fascinated by.
After the war, for a while, it was by necessity: Materials shortages plagued manufacturers, just as American car companies were ramping up to deliver new models to a country starved of them for nearly four years. Metal was in short supply, but wood was still available in America’s plentiful forests. By 1952, the last wood-bodied wagons had been built: In the age of rockets, A-bombs, and V-8 engines, the idea of door latches squirming their way open due to torsional chassis flex, and the crashability of wood at ever-increasing highway speeds, was simply unacceptable. Metal replaced wood, and while wood-bodied cars never made any significant reappearance, simulated timber appliques continued to be used as trim well into the 1990s.
By the mid-1930s, most companies had a wood-bodied station wagon in their lineups, and they were advertised alongside coupe, sedan, and convertible models in due course. The idea of a woodbodied wagon was not new, or news, and so didn’t bear a great deal of discussion beyond the extra headroom, cargo, and passenger capacity, and perhaps an element of style. Very little was said about the materials themselves (save for Mercury’s details, designed to attach additional luxury to the upscale brand). In other words: they were just normal cars then. Woodies didn’t seem special until they’d gone away.
Starting in 1948, Packard combined woodie wagon style with a sedan, calling it a “station sedan.” The tailgate was wood, but the doors were all steel. It lasted until the 1951 models appeared.
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by Jeff Koch.
Another intriguing automotive mystery: Whatever became of the one-of-one 1965 Mustang concept created by Carrozzeria Bertone of Italy? Could it still exist?
First shown at the New York International Auto Show in the spring of 1965, the stunning Mustang Bertone was commissioned from the renowned Turinese coachbuilding firm by a magazine publisher: L. Scott Bailey, founder of Automobile Quarterly, the ritzy hardbound car periodical. (It ceased publication in 2012.) The designer was none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro, then just 27, a few years before he ventured out on his own to launch his own famous studio, Ital Design. In New York, the Italian Mustang took best of show honors, and it was a sensation at the London, Paris, and Turin motor shows as well. Then the car disappeared from view and it hasn’t been seen in public since.
Ford Motor Company reportedly provided the donor car, a new coupe with the 289 CID four-barrel V8, four-speed manual transmission, bucket seats, and console. From there, Guigiaro totally reimagined the Mustang theme, discarding the original body shell. Only two elements from the original Dearborn design remained: the fuel filler badge in the rear closeout panel, and the diecast alloy stallion in the grille. As the photo above illustrates, even the instrument panel was restyled to provide a more Italian flavor. The glass and greenhouse were totally revised as well.
The Bertone Mustang bears far more resemblance to familiar Giugiaro designs like the Iso Grifo and the Fiat Dino than to any Ford Motor Company product. Even the Ford wheels were exchanged for Bertone-designed Campagnolo magnesium castings. The quad headlights were hidden behind electrically operated grille doors, and as the story goes, the radiator and front bulkhead were sectioned to accommodate the Bertone’s slimmer profile, a good two inches lower than a production Mustang. According to Bailey, Italian stylists didn’t think much of the production Mustang’s styling, finding it too ordinary and sedan-like.
Wearing distinctive silver-turquoise metallic paint, the Bertone Mustang made its next appearance on the cover of Road & Track magazine in January of 1966, below. There would be one more appearance in print, also in Road & Track: a Bertone ad in the September 1967 issue listed the Mustang for sale with an asking price of $10,000, “one-third its actual cost.” From there, the Mustang has never been seen or heard from again, apparently. Before he passed away in 2012, Bailey attempted to track down the unique Mustang, but nothing ever turned up.
Article courtesy of Mac's Motor City Garage.
Hot on the heels of the new Corvette, Ford introduced its 1955 Thunderbird to great fanfare and thunderous approval when the sporty two-seater premiered at the 1954 Detroit Auto Show. With its appealing shape, distinctive style and a 292-cubic-inch V-8 putting out either 193 or 198 horsepower, depending on transmission pairing, it was a huge success with 16,155 examples sold that first year. Compared to its crosstown rival the Corvette, which only attracted 700 buyers that same year, Ford hit a grand slam right out of the box. It seemed everyone wanted to own a new Thunderbird.
Ford’s brochure for the restyled 1958 Thunderbird zeroed in on the car’s spacious interior saying “…full fine-car room and comfort for four….”
In preparation for its upcoming restyle for the 1958 model year, how could Ford possibly update the car while ensuring its continued sales success? Shocking as it seemed at the time, the Thunderbird was stretched to accommodate five passengers instead of just two. Ford’s sanity was called into question, but clearly its marketing staff knew what they were doing. As shown by the following production figures, overall three-year sales of the new “Squarebird” were nearly 374 percent higher than the combined three-year production run of the ever lovable “Little ‘Bird.” The public loved the restyled Thunderbird and flocked to Ford showrooms throughout the country to get one of their own.
Early Thunderbird sales
For 1959, the saying “Thunderbird is in fact, America’s most wanted, most admired car” was surely true. By year’s end 67,456 examples had been produced, which was more than the 1955-’56-’57 models combined.
Throughout its existence, Thunderbirds have always been blessed with fantastic styling, cutting-edge design, and all-around inviting characteristics that are as distinctive as they come. Yet, as much as I appreciate the Little ‘Birds of 1955-’57, they never really did much for me–that is, until I saw a black ’57 fitted with blackwalls on American Torq Thrust wheels. Talk about transforming a car from a pretty little thing to menacing street fighter; all it took was a simple tire and wheel change. Now that’s the tough expression that I like, and should an early ‘Bird ever find its way into my garage, that’s how it’s going to look, except mine will be refinished in a rich navy blue with an interior covered in red leather, lowered slightly, with a solid lifter cam and dual Smittys’ out back for a little music; it will most probably be the smaller ’55 model. All else will remain the same. Oh, and a Sun tach will be strapped to the steering column.
The jet-aged inspired look of the 1961-’63 “Bullet ‘Birds” remains quite radical to this day. I mean, who in their right mind still doesn’t go “wow” whenever the back end of one of these dramatic machines comes into view? The 1964-’66 models are equally stylish in their own way, especially the Landau versions with their little extra dash of classiness. And unlike many enthusiasts, I sincerely believe that the 1967-’69 Thunderbirds are without question matchless in their styling, as unique as any car ever made. I’ve been wanting to own one ever since I first saw a brand-new gold four-door model parked on the streets in Brooklyn back in 1967, and still hope to someday.
Its rear view was the car’s calling card with a matchless beauty distinctively all its own. The nine vertical hashmarks on the quarterpanel’s rear most area were only on the 1960 models.
But my all-time favorite Thunderbird has always been the Squarebird. For some reason, these cars press my button like few others can, perhaps, because Detroit’s class of ’58 is one of my favorite years in terms of styling. The cars were lower and wider, and the idiosyncratic four-headlamp front ends gave them a distinguished appeal that few other model years can ever hope to achieve. And right in the midst of these restyled gems sat the new four-seat Thunderbird.
That extra seat in the rear is what made the 1958-’60 Thunderbirds far more desirable than the earlier two-seat models. With its individual bucket seats and finely crafted console, it combined the positive attributes of a sports car and luxury car in the same package.
In order to truly appreciate what the 1958-’60 Thunderbirds are all about, you have to stand back and look at them as individual models, and not compare them to the cute early ‘Birds or the sleeker Sixties models. They are their own creation, endowed with inimitable shapes and exclusive design elements not seen on any other car of the era.
While the shape of the Squarebirds may appear to be a little bulky and somewhat awkward from some angles, once you get beyond that and start seeing all the not-so-subtle styling contours as their own objects, you will quickly appreciate the car as a sculptural masterpiece of Fifties Detroit design.
Its small fin wraps around the rear tail lamp pod, then flows into the bumper. The continuity of the line isn’t broken, as the bumper completes the framing of the three-round tail lamps as it curves back under, then it wraps around and becomes the end point for the aforementioned side spear. Simply outstanding!
Any of the three Squarebirds would be a joy to own; however, it’s the 1960 model, with its three-taillamp rear that’s on my top-10 list of must-have American cars. In fact, the very car featured here, which I had the pleasure to drive a few years ago, is the ideal combination of perfect colors—Acapulco Blue Metallic and tan interior. For Squarebird lovers, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Clearly Ford’s advertising for “America’s most individual car” was spot on when they stated: “New Ford Thunderbird seats four—now it’s twice the fun to own one!”
Article courtesy of Hemmings, written by Richard Lentinello.