Things looked bright at AMC in 1974-75, as the Gremlin was coming off a record sales year, the Matador coupe had debuted to good sales, and the new Pacer was generating considerable public interest. Like most of AMC’s history, however, the 1970s were a rollercoaster of highs and lows, and 1976-78 were brutal years.
Once initial demand for the Pacer wore off, it was a slow seller. The same was true of the Matador coupe, although the company had not invested as much in that product as the Pacer.
AMC lost almost $73M in ’76-’77 and only strong Jeep sales helped the company eke out a small profit in 1978. Wide recalls also hurt in 1976.
All that drained resources to develop new cars – so it worked with what it had on hand while pursuing international partners (it found one, Renault, in early 1978). With the Hornet and Gremlin dating back to 1969, some sort of new cars had to be forthcoming.
Not-So-New New Cars
The “new” AMC cars were 1978’s Concord and 1979’s Spirit, reworked versions of the old Hornet and Gremlin. The Matador (sedan and coupe) and Pacer were phased out when their cycles were over, and the Concord was given the Spirit’s new front-end treatment in its sophomore year.
The Spirit was arguably more different from the Gremlin than the Concord had been from the Hornet – it came as a Gremlin-like kammback 2-door sedan and a new fastback hatch.
Underneath, there was almost nothing new about them, but the parts customers saw – styling and interiors – were either new or freshened; AMC knew where to spend the money. The fastback was also used for a new AMX, with a V8 option in 1979.
The Spirit was not cutting edge – and it suffered from the cramped rear quarters and relative lack of space as the Gremlin – but it was cheap and durable, and Dick Teague’s reworked styling looked good – AMC was rewarded with ~53K Spirit sales in ’79 and 70K plus in 1980.
Ultimately the Spirit and the Concord would be outshone by the 4WD Eagle (introduced in 1980), which borrowed bodies from both; but the Spirit was a good earner for AMC until new cars developed jointly with Renault could be put into production.
A Very Rare Spirit
While the fastback looked mostly “new-ish,” the Kammback Spirit was clearly a Gremlin derivative. But even there, AMC gave it all-new front styling and revised the greenhouse into a more open and bright arrangement. AMC’s Mexican partner, VAM, continued to label the Spirit Kammback as a Gremlin.
The Kammback had more room, but the fastback outsold it by a huge margin – more than 18:1. Likely because from the rear, it looked just like a Gremlin and there were loads of used Gremlins for sale cheap.
This was less true of the Eagle Kammback – but the Kamm-tail variant was also rarely chosen by SX/4/Kammback buyers (production of the two is often listed a single series in two styles, but the badges were different – SX/4 labels were for fastbacks).
As such, the Kamm was dropped after 1982 (only 119 were made that year, and 520 Kammback Eagles), while the fastback body continued into ’83.
Originally, the ’79 Spirit carried over the Gremlin engines, including a VW-sourced 2.0L four which originated in the VW LT Van (never sold in North America) but also used in the Porsche 924. It also brought back the 304 V8 for the Spirit AMX.
This particularly Spirit is a very rare Kammback owned by Preston Rose (see more on Instagram at @presty_roosevelt).
In 1980, when this car was built, the engine lineup was trimmed to AMC’s 4.2L six and Pontiac’s 2.5L “Iron Duke” four, replacing the old VW unit.
AMC was working on a new four, but sourcing from VW and GM was a matter of expediency – CAFE compliance and customer expectations of decent mileage from an “economy” brand depended on it. This was particularly true in 1980 when the Spirit was up against the similarly-priced and very new-and-efficient seeming Chevy Citation, among others.
Preston’s car was seen at the Hooptiecon event in June, 2019, (presented by The 24 Hours of Lemons) at New Jersey Motorsports Park. His 1980 Spirit is powered by an Iron Duke four which is also mated to a GM 3-speed automatic. AMC’s use of sourced components didn’t end with engines.
A new 2.5L AMC four debuted in the 1984 XJ Cherokee and the ’84 Eagle but by then, the Spirit had been dropped in the fall of 1983.