I can’t really talk about this 6.6-liter V8, four-speed tribute 1974 AMC Gremlin 401-XR without talking about the original, and we can’t talk about the original without talking about the basic compact Gremlin … and we can’t talk about that until we get some AMC housekeeping out of the way, so we’ll start there.
American Motors Corp. began in 1954 with the merger of the Nash-Kelvinator Corp. and Hudson Motor Car Co. Dick Teague was chief stylist and held positions at GM, Packard and Chrysler before becoming VP of design for AMC. The company was big enough at one point to be called part of the “Big Four” American car companies. AMC plugged along from ’54 to ’88, which means if you’re younger than 40 years old, you might not even be familiar. If you’re under 30, this could be the first time you've read about an AMC.
AMC focused on small cars, saying they were nimbler than your Fords, Chryslers and Chevys. It consolidated the Nash and Hudson cars before starting to produce small, fuel-efficient vehicles decades before the oil embargo years. Its first AMC-branded car was the Marlin (1967), followed by the AMX (1968), Javelin (1968) and eventually the strange-looking Gremlin in 1970.
America was just getting out of the horsepower wars in the early-mid ‘70s, but some dealers were still holding on—dealers like the Randall brothers in Mesa, Arizona. When AMC started offering the 304-cu-in V8 for the Gremlin, they noticed it happened to have the exact same block dimensions as the 255-hp, 401-cu-in V8 AMC was already producing for the Javelin, Matador and others. A swap was hatched: AMC gave its unofficial endorsement and shipped 20 401s to the Randalls for installation in Gremlins, creating the Gremlin 401-XR. R for Randall, X for the trim that included body side tape stripes, body color front fascia, slotted road wheels with Goodyear Polyglas tires, bucket seats and "X" decals.
Only 20 were built, maybe 21 depending on who you ask, making them rare. But a handful tribute cars were built, even ones that came from the factory with the I6 like the one you see above. This was a Levi’s edition—jeans, is there anything they can’t do—meaning it came with denim-look nylon on the seats and doors, including a door storage pocket made to look like the back pocket of some 501s. Fire regulations prohibited using real cotton denim.
The Gremlin is funny looking, to be sure. It’s basically a truncated AMC Hornet. The brand played this up in ads, with one spot featuring a gas station attendant who remarks, “Where’s the rest of your car, toots?” That was back when it was apparently acceptable to call women “toots.”
Regardless, the 401-XR feels like a real muscle car. I’ve driven old Pontiacs, old Camaros and old Fords, and they sound the part, but with so much weight to lug around, all of that sound and fury is often for naught. This 2,600-pounder, on the other hand, moves, at least when you can get the gas pedal down.
The right pedal takes effort, real quadricep effort. And when trying to slip the clutch, it takes some practice to be able to work both pedals smoothly. Thankfully, this Gremlin has SO much torque — 345 lb-ft, to be exact — I didn’t have any problems with stalling out or chugging. The clutch pedal, despite having a long stroke and catching at the top, was easy to modulate and felt surprisingly crisp, even though the car is more than 40 years old. The brakes? Not as good. They felt like a 40-year-old economy car’s brakes, which makes sense when you think about it. There’s about 8 inches of travel, the last 1.5 of which actually slow the car. I only panicked the first few times.
Jeans, is there anything they can't do?
The four-speed shifter, too, feels ancient compared to anything from this millennium. The first-to-second throw is huge, as is the left to right. The two-to-three throw is extra hard to find, but the shifter doesn’t have a bunch of play once it's in gear. The whole experience, including how I probably looked driving it, was hilarious.
The Gremlin's AMC 401-cid V8 is loud. Like tractor-pull loud. When I flipped on the semi-modern radio, I had to turn it up to about three-quarters full before I could hear the DJ. Once I got used to the clutch, and could tune out the rumble, I was able to take off smoothly — and once in gear this car hauls ass. Like a lot of these screaming engines, your mind tells you to shift early, but this AMC mill just gets better as the revs crest 4,000 rpm. Shifting fast isn’t easy either, considering the slot machine-like throw on the shifter. And forget about heel-toe — it nearly takes two feet to blip the throttle.
AMC called it "the only real performance car available under $2,200." And that was probably true, in 1974.
This 6.6-liter V8 made just 255 hp.
Being a straight-six car, our Gremlin didn’t come with the upgraded suspension and larger brakes, but it's about as sprightly as a car from 1974 can feel. And the turning radius? All you need is a parking spot, maybe two.
On the power hard, either at launch or in a turn, the tires will spin. The rear end will slide slowly and predictably, with a some lean in the front and rear. Once I became more familiar, I could slide it a little, hold it and smoothly bring it back to true. It’s hilariously fun.
Here at Autoweek we talk about cars putting smiles on our faces all the time. And if anyone saw me, out driving the Gremlin 401-XR in mid-Michigan on a cold and cloudy March day, the first thing they would have said is, “What the hell is that?!” followed by, “Well, he seems to be enjoying it” and then, “Dang, that’s loud!”
Near expressway speeds in fourth gear, the little Gremlin still jumps when I hit the throttle. The factory-fresh cars from Randall would run 13.90s at 103-106 mph; upgraded, they would hit 12.30s and 117 mph. I don’t know what the top speed was or is, nor did I even approach it in a car that’s older than I am, but they were offered with a 160-mph speedometer, so take that for what it’s worth.
Better than a stick-figure family.
I haven’t driven a lot of cars from the Malaise Era, and never really wanted to. The golden years of the horsepower wars are much more my style. But there definitely were some gems from that time, and there aren’t many weirder than this AMC Gremlin X. I think that’s where it gets its charm. Again, there are only a few cars that literally bring a smile to my face, modern or otherwise. And for that, this 1974 AMC Gremlin 401-XR tribute car gets my blessing.
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1973 print ad for the AMC Gremlin (8.5 MB) Click here to download PDF
On Sale: 44 years ago
Base Price: $2,995
Powertrain: 6.6-liter V8, RWD, four-speed manual transmission
Output: 255 hp, 345 lb-ft
Curb Weight: 2,600 pounds (est.)
Pros: Power, noise, weirdness
Cons: Stiff pedals, vintage brakes