The AMC Gremlin celebrated its 50th birthday recently, a fact which would have passed by without notice were it not for commenter Steve Biro. And since we’re talking Gremlin today, we may as well take a look at an oddball trim that’s as quirky as it is rare.
It’s a Levi’s Gremlin from 1976, and it comes standard with an invitation to the Pants Party.
Spirited small automaker AMC, like the other American car manufacturers, needed a car in the early Seventies to counter the invasion of small economy cars from abroad. Entries like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla caught American companies without a card to play as fuel economy suddenly became a concern of consumers. Using ingenuity and as few dollars as possible, AMC created the thoughtfully named Gremlin.
Gremlin’s development started in earnest circa 1968, after the debut of the AMX-GT concept. The Richard Teague design was based on the Javelin, but the pony car platform did not mix well with specifications for a subcompact car. The AMX name was used later, but the concept itself did not go to production. Instead, designer Bob Nixon used the same general principles of the AMX-GT, mating the design to a shortened version of the existing compact Hornet platform. Unlike Ford and GM, AMC could not afford an all-new platform for its subcompact. The Hornet’s wheelbase was shortened a full foot (to 96 inches).
Gremlin was introduced April 1, 1970, ahead of the Chevrolet Vega, and a year before Ford’s Pinto and the imported Dodge Colt. The most basic version had no rear seat and no window hatch, and asked $1,879. The standard version, with four real seats and an opening rear window, was priced at $1,959 ($12,900 adjusted), which made it a value leader. Engines ranged from a VW-sourced 1.9-liter inline-four to AMC’s 304 V8 (5.0L). Transmissions were of three or four speeds in manual guise, or a three-speed automatic. Earlier automatics were sourced from Borg-Warner, while later ones were Chrysler’s ironclad TorqueFlite.
The available options were unusual for an economy car, as was the choice in engines. Customers who found its looks acceptable were pleased with their unusual domestic hatchback. In its first full year of sales in 1971, AMC moved 53,480 Gremlins. 1973 was the first considerable update for the Gremlin, as new bumpers were compliant with federal 5-mile-per-hour impact rules. Interior furnishings saw a rearrangement, which spelled more legroom for rear-seat passengers. And more importantly, Levi’s was the hot new trim package.
The main appeal for the Levi’s package was the interior trim, which was actually a denim-look nylon, since cotton in a car interior was an impermissible fire hazard. On the doors were removable map pockets, allowing owners to show their friends some cartography. The seats were also complete with authentic Levi’s red tab logos. Real copper rivets completed the jeans look. These no doubt turned into little branding discs in the Arizona sun.
The added appeal of Levi’s and other trims meant a jump in sales to 122,844 in 1973. Late in the year, the Arab Oil Embargo occurred, so Gremlin sales kept going strong. It didn’t last long, and by 1976 sales were slumping for all domestic subcompacts. A new international economy car competition was afoot, one that was front-drive and considerably lighter. That year, AMC refreshed the Gremlin with a new grille and headlamp surrounds, plus revised fenders. New sheet metal in 1977 didn’t rescue the Gremlin from its sales slide, which meant 1978 was its last year. In 1979 Gremlin was replaced by the equally Hornet-based Spirit, which, unfortunately for AMC, was neither lightweight nor front-wheel drive.
Today’s ’76 Gremlin, in excellent condition, hails from the Pacific Northwest region. It’s rust free and has a three-speed manual and the 3.8-liter inline-six. That engine eventually became the 4.0L used by Jeep through 2006. This AMC asks $10,900.