Our 1976 Pacer: The Worst Car Ever
by John Delach
We took delivery of our red Pacer on a cold night in early March of 1976 from an American Motors Dealer (AMC) located on Metropolitan Avenue less than three miles from our Middle Village home. After a flurry of last minute salesman mumbo jumbo, attempted add-ons and proposed warranties, we finally signed the paper work, made the deposit and were handed the keys.
Before we left the dealer’s lot, I handed Mary Ann the paperwork bundled in an AMC folder to put into the glove compartment. Mary Ann flipped the opener and the glove box proceeded to fall to the floor. Even though Mary Ann quickly re-seated the box in its proper place; we should have quit right there and then.
We’d traveled no more than a half-mile in our spanking new Pacer when the heater motor went bang in a puff of blue smoke. The smell of burnt electrical equipment filled the air confirming the death of the Pacer’s heater. The dealer deftly pronounced his “mea culpas” and managed to find a replacement for our new car and sent us home in a well-used Matador courtesy loaner. For the next week all the king’s horses and all the king’s men tried to replace our heater. Airplane mechanics call planes that are in constant state of repairs, “hanger queens.” This was our first realization that our Pacer was a lemon and a garage queen.
“Why a Pacer?”
It was different, quirky and neat. The contours from every direction were curved making for a friendly look. From head on, it looked like a big dog except for floppy ears. The grill’s horizontal bars looked like a smile and, it seemed to say, “Hello.” Huge windows, lots of light, wide, big doors and a hatch back providing even more light; Mary Ann and I fell for this curious car. In other words, we were young and stupid.
Several design flaws soon became apparent. We knew the passenger side door was four inches longer than the driver’s side door to facilitate back seat entry from the curb side. What we didn’t realize was the problems a door this big could cause. The Pacer was short but wide, intentionally so to retain roominess. But that passenger door turned out to be a weapon that would cover a wide swath of territory capable of striking unsuspecting people, other cars, garbage cans and trees. It also could dig into lawns if the surface was too high. We quickly discovered that our Pacer was terribly under powered making acceleration from a dead stop onto a highway a frightening adventure. Climbing hills was a losing crap shoot and we quickly learned to move into the slow lane sooner rather than later. Lastly, lack of power and all that glass negated any chance that its puny A/C could be effective. Despite the inadequate engine power, with all that weight, miles-per-gallon were horrible.
It was only when I set out to write this piece that I discovered why the engine was so awful. It seems, the then AMC chairman, Roy D. Chapin Jr. had become enamored with the Wankel Engine then all the rage. He committed AMC to equip all its vehicles including the Jeep division with this rotary engine at the time the Pacer was being engineered. This grand scheme never worked out leaving the Pacer left with a hand-me-down GM six-cylinder engine.
Our Pacer suffered numerous breakdowns, big and small. One of the more curious defects involved the internal handle on the driver’s side used to exit the car. A simple steel device common to almost all automobiles; you pull the handle toward yourself with your left hand to close the driver’s side door. A basic tool, one we should expect to be free of failure. Not our Pacer, on two different occasions, this handle and its replacement broke in two as I pulled on it. I recall those visits to an AMC dealer, once in Queens and once in Manhattan. Both seemed to be expecting me, had the handle in stock and neither asked what had happened.
Under big problems, I submit the following: One Sunday night we were returning home from Mary Ann’s mother’s home in Flushing on the Long Island Expressway. I was in the left lane as we passed Flushing Meadows Park when, with no warning, the engine quit. Somehow, I kept my wits, shifted into neutral, turned the key and the engine restarted.
It turned out this was just the first of several stalling repetitions. That’s probably when we decided to rid ourselves of this cursed car.
We replaced it with a 1981 Ford Escort station wagon. I recall the sales man making conversation asking about the Pacer:
“My brother-in-law needs a car; do you think this Pacer would be right for him?”
I replied: “It depends on how you feel about your brother-in-law.”
For the record, he didn’t question my reply.
We also heard from the new owner who found a gasoline credit card receipt buried under the folding back seat. He called us in desperation…Mary Ann took the call. He asked if it was a bad car. She could think of nothing to tell him that would offer comfort.
My friend Geoff Jones and his wife also had a baby blue Pacer that worked alright until it wouldn’t start on the day they were trading it in. Geoff explained: Our local mechanic decided it was the solenoid but he didn’t have a new one in stock. He did have a bunch of old parts and found one that he thought would work a few times. It worked, allowing us to drive it to the Jeep dealer. The sales man took the keys and one of their shop guys went out to drive it into their lot. We held our breathes until the Pacer started. We completed our purchase and we left the dealer as quickly as we could.
It was a lemon but I kind of loved that car. xoxo
As I recall Tony Demas had a Pacer though I never heard him give any reviews. Reminds me of a 1979 yellow Jaguar sedan we bought used for my wife. It spent so much time in the neighborhood service station being repaired that our neighbors thought it belonged to the station owner. After we sold it we got a call one day from a prospective buyer. The woman’s voice said they had a relative that worked for the DMV who had given them our names as the prior owner and wondered if it was a good car. After I said “Lady, that car is as lemon as it’s color”, she yelled out “Harold, you have to talk to this guy!” It was a good looking car.
John, I didn’t know you fell for the Pacer scam, Not sure what your motivation to buy but ours was probably more ridiculous than yours. We saw “Sleeper” the old Woody Allen movie “Sleeper, thought the Pacer looked like the car of the future in the flick and since we needed a new car that was our choice. All in all we had a better experience than you aside from the final day’s stumble. Her bad day was while on the way to an important real estate presentation, and all dressed up. It had rained the previous night and at some point in her drive to the meet a deluge of dirty water poured out of the interior light right over her head. Glad I was not around to see that. I never knew it had been slated for the Wankel. That engine sounded like a great idea since it had so few parts there was little to wear out. They didn’t count on the parts that did wear being the “points” on the triangular shaped piston which left the car gasping for properly mixed fuel. I’ve never since purchased any car that was making its maiden voyage so to speak. I don’t want to be a test pilot for anything. Geoff
WOW! Glad my family had a Gremlin and then I owned an Arrow.
The Chevrolet Vega and the Ford Maverick complete the trio of shame.
I had a Ford Maverick — my excuse was being a poor graduate student and the price of the car — free — as it was handed down to me from a lucky family member.
The car was a total piece of garbage and a bear to drive. It had an old fashioned standard shift — 3 on the steering wheel — very difficult, always felt like it was a strain to shift — nothing like a fluid four on the floor.
One very cold February night, well after midnight I was driving back home from a party, and the shift lever came right off in my hand, as I was shifting into 3rd gear, unfortunately. I quickly calculated that I only had a mile or so to go and there was only one traffic light and no stop signs. I didn’t know how low a mph I could get down to before the car would start bucking and stall, and I didn’t want to find out. I also realized that at that late hour the traffic light actually would be flashing red. Because of the angular shape of the intersection I would be able to see if anyone was coming and with any luck could probably sail through. Once through that light, I could safely get home, as it was a main street where the speed limit was 30.
Well, the luck was with me until it wasn’t. Clear sailing as I approached the intersection – no one was coming in either direction. Hooray! But then, oh no! There was a car ahead of me, must have just turned onto the street. And this rule follower broke all Boston tradition by coming to a complete stop at the flashing red. If he only had done a rolling stop! I had no choice but to slow down, and once I hit 15 mph the car started bucking and stalled. I was able to coast through the intersection and come to a safe stop on the side of the road. If only I had been in 2nd gear. But then I had a mile walk in 10 degree Boston weather. It would be a lie to say it was snowing, however – but it was cold.
The 70s were a truly disastrous decade for American cars.
All the best, Aron
I love the replies and I love your comment: “It depends on how you feel about your brother-in-law.” A very enjoyable read.