Doomed: AMC Eagle, 1979-1988

American Motors Corp had a rep for being, well, different.

Broke, too.

The lack of money tied into the different drummer-ness.

Oddities like the Ambassador and Matador, the Hornet and Gremlin … and of course, the hilarious Pacer. These were cars born of financial desperation, a kind of stamped steel “hey, look at me… please! meant to get people talking.

Which they did.

Buying was another thing.

AMC — formed when Nash merged with Hudson in 1954 — was perpetually in the role of the fourth Beatle — or Belarus among the George W. Bush-era “coalition of the willing.” GM, Chrysler and Ford utterly dominated the American car scene, with AMC scrabbling for the scraps. Chiefly by going weird.

And cheap.

The company’s small, inexpensive cars actually did ok for awhile. The Hornet, for instance. And of course the Gremlin — which was a Hornet, just re-skinned and re-sold.

But as the ’70s rolled along, AMC’s getting-dated designs (and in particular, their poor fuel economy relative to the tsunami of Japanese small cars like the Honda Civic CVCC) were becoming a harder sell. But AMC had not much more than fuzz in its corporate pockets with which to invest in new designs.

Then along came an idea that might have saved AMC’s bacon.

A car with four-wheel-drive.

It would do most of the things people expected (and bought) a 4WD truck to do — like get you safely home when it snowed.

But it would still be fundamentally a car and so, drive like one.

Bingo!

This was prescient in the late ’70s — decades before anyone had heard of a crossover (or an SUV). Circa 1978, you had your pick of car — or truck. And almost all the cars available at the time — even economy cars like the Civic and VW Beetle — were rear-wheel-drive cars and thus, as helpless in the snow as Steven Hawking in the ring with Ronda Rousey.

Or, you could buy a truck — which wasn’t helpless in the snow (if it had four-wheel-drive) but which did handle like a blindfolded Lurch after drinking a six pack of Jack Daniels coolers… and also sucked gas and (usually) had less room in the cab than space in the bed. The trucks of the ’70s were not like the cowboy Cadillacs people are used to today, with softly padded, spacious interiors and all the amenities you’d find — and expect — in a comparably priced car.

Trucks back then were for the most part basic — and crude. You maybe got a heater. Usually, not AC. The floors were as likely to be sheetmetal as carpeted. They were great for work. Hauling pallets of bricks, taking a load of garbage to the dump. Not so great for hauling a bunch of kids to school. Women, in particular, disliked trucks (or at least, tended not to buy them) because of their crudity, their size and general unwieldiness.

AMC’s idea was to take a car and add some of the attributes of a truck (such as 4WD and more ground clearance) while retaining the fundamental “car-ness” of the thing — in particular its road manners and easy-to-live-with qualities. The result would be a family vehicle, not a specialty vehicle. Mom could use it to cart the kids around — and not have to sweat the snow.

This car would be called Eagle — and it nearly saved AMC.

Project 8001 plus Four, as it came to be known within the company, was the brainchild of one man, Roy Lunn — who at the time was chief design engineer for AMC’s Jeep division. A former RAF pilot who had previously worked for AC Cars in Britain as well as Ford (where he helped develop the automaker’s first front-wheel-drive vehicle, the 1962 Taunus, which was sold in Europe), Lunn envisioned “a new line of four-wheel-drive vehicles with the ride and handling conventions of a standard rear-wheel-drive car.”

The prototype was put together with engineering help from Ferguson Formula (FF) Limited, a British company not well known outside the car industry but which had a major role in developing four wheel drive and all-wheel-drive technology for passenger vehicle applications. Lunn, being a Brit himself — and because he worked at Jeep — was very familiar with FF. The partnership seemed to make sense because of FF’s expertise, but also because it would reduce development costs as well as reduce the time necessary to develop the car itself.

And time was of the essence.

Lunn knew that a new car — a revolutionary car — was needed.

Pronto.

But an existing car would serve as the donor platform for the prototype — another way to reduce development costs and get the thing done sooner rather than later.

Lunn and FF chose the homely Hornet for this role. The first prototype was based on the Hornet Sportabout wagon and featured V8 power in the form of AMC/Jeep’s 150 hp 304 CID/5 liter mill. This was the same engine used in the Jeep CJ, among others.

The 4WD system, however, differed from what was usual in Jeeps and trucks generally in that it was full-time, rather than part-time — with (initially) a fixed torque split of 33 percent to the front wheels and 66 percent to the rear. The typical truck-type 4WD system could be disengaged — allowing the vehicle to be operated in 2WD — and when it was engaged, the torque split was usually close to 50-50.

The prototype (and the eventual production car) shaved weight and reduced complexity by eliminating the truck-type 4WD’s two-speed transfer case. The permanent or “full-time” AWD system also required no special action or know-how from the driver. There was no need to engage — or disengage — anything. Just get in — and drive.

This anticipated what is common today in both crossovers and SUVs. But circa 1978, it was a radical concept.

A major advantage — in addition to relative simplicity and lighter weight — was that the system was designed to enhance both traction and handling.

Truck-type 4WD is great for traction — bullying across a muddy field, for instance. But it’s actually a handling liability when the vehicle is cornering on dry pavement. One potential issue with a traditional, truck-type 4WD system is a phenomenon called axle bind. With the 4WD engaged, the inside wheels may rotate at a faster rate in a curve than the outside wheels, causing premature wear of the components as well as driveline noise. Most truck 4WD systems advise disengaging the system on dry, paved roads for just this reason.

But with AWD, the paired wheels on a given axle (front or rear) are able to freewheel (rotate at different speeds) and thus, do not bind. The eventual Eagle’s system could also route torque front-to-back in a varying ratio (via a viscous-coupled single speed center differential) to the axles with the most traction. This further improved the vehicle’s lateral grip — during cornering.

It is among the reasons why so many modern AWD high-performance cars feature a similar system.

The Eagle also differed from the typical 4WD truck in that it had an independent front suspension, which enabled each front wheel to articulate (move up and down) individually, another boon to handling as well as ride quality. If the left front wheel dipped into a pothole, the right front wheel was not affected.

In addition to the AWD system, the prototype also featured extra ground clearance and a 15-inch wheel/tire package specifically designed to optimize the vehicle’s poor weather tenacity.

The results were very encouraging — and what would become the production car was greenlighted, with a planned unveiling set for 1979 (as a new 1980 model).

In between, a number of tweaks were made. First, a new car was chosen as the donor platform for the production model. This was the Concord, which replaced the aging Hornet in AMC’s portfolio, beginning with the ’78 models. The Concord was not actually new — in the sense of being a fresh/wheels-up design. Remember, AMC’s money troubles. It would be more accurate to describe the ’78 Concord as an updated car.

A more luxurious car, actually.

Though it shared underpinnings (chassis) with the Hornet, it was no longer the Blue Light Special that the Hornet had been. It got more insulation (including acoustic sound absorption mats behind all interior panels) plush interior padding, much nicer trim and generally higher-rent materials throughout. There was more chrome outside — and you could order a padded vinyl roof. The suspension was tuned to deliver a “virtually noiseless, boulevard ride.” The object was to design a car that, while compact and affordable, would nonetheless be more upscale than the typical car in the class, as the Hornet had not been. AMC product planners believed this would undercut the Japanese imports — which were austere A to B transportation appliances — while providing a lower-cost (but still nicer) alternative to the Big Three’s offerings, none of which offered 4WD.

Another major change — at Lunn’s recommendation — was a change of powerplants.

Instead of the 304 V8, the 1980 Eagle would use AMC’s 4.2 liter/258 cubic inch straight six. This was a well-regarded engine but even more important, it was a reasonably fuel-efficient engine. The 304 wasn’t. And in 1979 — with the Ayatollah running amok in Iran and gas prices shooting upward again — decent gas mileage had become a major consideration for American buyers. The 4.2 six was capable of delivering nearly 30 MPG on the highway if driven gently — while the 304 V8 struggled to get out of the teens.

The six was paired initially with a three-speed Torqueflite automatic (later models would be available with a five-speed manual transmission, too).

Surprisingly, the AWD system only added about 300 pounds to the Concord’s curb weight, which was still well under 3,000 pounds (2,822 lbs. for the 1980 sedan). So in addition to not-bad gas mileage and “goat-like” grip, the car also performed well relative to other passenger cars of the time. The first-year Eagle could dash to 60 in about 15.2 seconds.

For perspective, a 1981 Nova needed about 16 seconds — and it did not have 4WD.

Multiple body styles were offered, too. In addition to the wagon, you could buy a Concord sedan and a Concord coupe — all with the same tenacious 4WD system.

The coupe could be outfitted with a Sports Package that anticipated 4WD rally cars like the Subaru WRX and the Mitsubishi EVO by several decades. Though not a straight-line screamer (this was the late ’70s; nothing screamed) the Concord with the Sports Package hinted at what was to come. It had accessory fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, exterior black-out trim, a special wheel/tire package and graphics that touted the enhanced capability of its four-wheel-drive system.

AMC proved the point by entering the car in SCCA rally racing, where it did well.

The Eagle was an immediate monster hit.

So much so that AMC decided to shutter the Kenosha, Wisconsin assembly line that was churning out Pacers — which weren’t selling — and use it to make more Eagles, which were. AMC sold so many that first year (1980) that it bumped the ailing automaker’s total car production by almost 20 percent.

25,807 Eagle wagons were sold, buttressed by an additional 10,616 coupes and another 9,956 Eagle sedans.

The problem for AMC was that the rest of its lineup wasn’t selling nearly as well.

Despite the almost 20 percent overall uptick, AMC’s total car production for 1980 was a mere 199,613 units. To put that in perspective, General Motors’ Pontiac division had sold that many Firebirds during the previous model year. And Pontiac was just one of GM’s six full-line car divisions.

One good car just wasn’t enough to pull AMC’s fat out of the fire.

At first, the car’s unique attributes buoyed sales and things seemed hopeful.

But the money coming in was not enough to do more than tread water. Needed major updates couldn’t be made because AMC couldn’t afford the R&D costs. It was the same problem that had been dogging the company since the ’60s. Despite tweaks — including the introduction for the ’81 model year of a new Kammback model (based on the AMC Spirit, which was based on the Gremlin) and an even sportier SX/4 (which was powered by a GM-sourced 2.5 liter four cylinder engine) sales began to wilt as the novelty factor wore off. It didn’t help that Audi and Subaru — which had money for R&D — were developing their own line of AWD-equipped cars. The first Audi Quattro appeared in 1980 — the same year as the Eagle — and just a few years later, Subaru would enter the fray with the XT.

This bled sales away from AMC’s aging original.

Just one year after its debut, sales of the Eagle wagon had dropped by almost half, to 10,371 units. The new Kammback made up for some of this but the overall total production (all body styles) was down to 37,429 cars for 1981.

Two years later (1983) this had slipped to 17,703.

The end, as the saying goes, was nigh.

Chrysler bought the browning husk of AMC in ’87 — and the last Eagle left the Brampton, Ontario plant on December 14, 1987. AMC itself went to sleep with the fishes the following year.

The astonishing thing, in retrospect, is that no other car company had the idea for what became the Eagle first. Or, perhaps they did — but it took AMC, desperate and rapidly losing its grip on the proverbial ledge — to pursue such a radical-for-the-times course.

Of course, it helped that AMC had Jeep going for it.

This was eons (in auto industry terms) before the Chrysler buyout in the ’80s (and before Fiat bought the remains of Chrysler in the 2000s … after Daimler Benz finished gnawing the bone).

Jeep was the first major automaker to successfully mass-market what are called “SUVs” today but which — back in the day — were just 4x4s. These included rough boys like the CJ series (the ancestor of today’s Wrangler) and 4×4 Cadillacs like the Wagoneer, with its car-like ride and on-road good manners.

Jeep continues to thrive today. Several of its current models are direct spiritual — and functional — descendants of the Eagle. Every major automaker now offers cars with all-wheel-drive.

Clearly, the Eagle was a fantastic idea. As the editors of Four Wheeler magazine wrote, it represented “The beginning of a new generation of cars.” Indeed.

It just wasn’t enough to save AMC.

Eagle Trivia:

* Base price for the 1980 coupe was $6,999; a wagon listed for $7,549. All Eagles came standard with power brakes and steering and could be ordered with a tow package (heavy-duty 3.54 rear axle ratio, transmission oil cooler and load-leveling shocks) rated for up to 3,500 lbs. All versions sat about 3 inches higher off the ground than a Concord sedan.

* The federal government classified the Eagle as a “light truck” — which exempted it from having to meet the bumper-impact standards that applied to passenger cars.

* The original 258 cubic inch inline six outlived both the Eagle and AMC, with production continuing (under Chrysler’s auspices) through 1990. It was an “undersquare” design, which meant that its bore (3.75 inches) was less than its stroke (3.895) which helped it make ample torque at low RPM, which was just the ticket for a car like the Eagle.

* AMC engineers were able to retain the Concord’s independent front suspension by mounting the front differential to the engine block via universal joints and half shafts, which allowed independent movement of each front wheel. This approach was adopted by other car companies developing AWD cars, including Subaru.

* Every Eagle came with a five-year “No Rust Through” warranty — unusual for the era. All exterior steel panels were galvanized, plastic rather than steel inner fender liner and aluminized exterior trim screws were used and the entire body was dipped in a special primer during assembly and treated with a Ziebart anti-rust protection package before it left the factory.

* Probably the rarest (and at the time, most expensive) version of the Eagle was the Sundancer — which featured a targa-style removable roof panel and a back window that could be folded down — the remaining structure serving as bracing as well as rollover protection. Conversions were performed by Griffith in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and then shipped to dealers. The targa roof added almost $4,000 (in 1981 dollars) to the car’s base price.

* AMC also toyed with a diesel-powered version of the Eagle, with the 3.6 liter turbo-diesel engines supplied by VM Motori, a subsidiary — ironically — of Fiat, which would eventually come to own Chrysler… which bought out what was left of AMC back in 1988.

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.

Copyright 2015, Eric Peters

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