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.