I owe the AMC Pacer an apology.
Like many folks, I’ve mocked and dismissed the Pacer over the years. I wasn’t surprised when the Pacer was one of the bad guys in Cars 2. After all, who wanted one? Wasn’t it just a flop for American Motors? From a sales perspective, yes. While it sold more than 145,000 in 1975, when AMC put the pacer out of its misery in 1980, only 405 coupes, and 1,341 wagons were sold.
The Pacer’s success is the design path it blazed. Commercials back in 1975 hailed the Pacer as the first wide small car. Long before Chrysler started using the term, “cab forward”, the Pacer had stretched out the wheelbase to reduce overhang both front and rear. It had huge windows that gave great visibility. It was designed for safety standards that weren’t implemented until years later. The passenger door was four inches wider for better access to the back seat on the curb side. The Pacer’s roof had no rain gutters which is now the design standard. It was even supposed to have a rotary engine, although that was dumped at the last second when supplier GM dropped the project.
The engine was part of the Pacer’s downfall. The six-cylinder they plugged in to replace the rotary was heavy and only cranked out 90 horsepower. All that glass made for a hefty curb weight. The result was lousy gas mileage that people weren’t willing to accept in a small economy car.
And then there was the shape. Some people simply called it an upside down fish bowl. The problem with being ahead of your time is that people aren’t ready. While the Pacer’s looks were hailed by the automotive press as bold and futuristic, the public was unimpressed. Good sales the first year fell away. A station wagon that provided more room did little to help. Neither did option packages like the Pacer X (which was more appearance than performance).
By 1980 the Pacer was through. And while it’s easy to join the crowd and mock them, take a closer look next time you see a Pacer. Marvel at the futuristic design and the wide track. Sure, AMC didn’t have what it took to make the car successful, but let’s not call it a failure.
If you want to be the only one at the next car show with a Pacer, check out this buyer’s guide.