"You only ride like a Pacer if you're wide like a Pacer"

If you're among the many who laugh at AMC Pacers, let us introduce you to "Weird" Harrel Lamkin of Ruston, LA. He drag-raced a 550-hp Pacer from 1987 to 1996, turning 10-second quarter miles at 124 mph. As he said, "I wanted to build a Pacer no one would dare laugh at. I think I succeeded."
And lest you think that Lamkin is but one weirdo, Roger Scott's "Racer Pacer" was clocked at 152 mph in a closed-highway race in Nevada in the mid-1990s. If that's not enough speed to claim a little respect, know that Pacers ran in IMSA road races in the 1970s and four-wheel-drive Pacers have even conquered the Baja 1,000.
Of course, that neglected used Pacer that's been sitting at the end of your neighbor's driveway with a "For Sale" sign in the window for a decade bears little resemblance to these fire-breathing monsters. It's also a far cry from the original idea for the Pacer, the brainchild of Dick Teague, one of the most significant Detroit designers of the 20th century.
Teague had worked for Kaiser, Packard and Chrysler, before settling at American Motors in 1959. There he designed the Javelin and AMX, and the fabulous AMX II and AMX III mid-engine exotics, among other more pedestrian models.
He conceived the Pacer in 1971 as a rotary powered, front-wheel drive, hatchback coupe-which is why it had such a short, wide engine bay. AMC was going to buy its Wankel engines from GM and eventually planned to build its own, but two things happened to upset the apple cart. First, Mazda started having terrible problems with rotor tips going bad, leading to excessive oil consumption, and ended up swapping thousands of its rotaries under warranty, something AMC couldn't possibly afford to do. Then the 1973 gas crunch doomed the thirsty Wankel and GM dropped its project in 1974. AMC was left with a brand-new 1975 model without a powerplant.
AMC did what it could. It shoehorned its 232-ci six-cylinder into the Pacer body (the last cylinder is under the dashboard) and changed the configuration to rear-wheel drive. The car was launched in 1974 with the odd slogan, "You only ride like a Pacer if you're wide like a Pacer."
Despite the development problems, the car was still eye-catching. Its surface area was 37 percent glass, with a long hatchback. The compact was the width of a full-size van, at 77 inches, but with a wheelbase of just 100 inches. An unusual passenger door was four inches longer than the driver's, to ease access to the diminutive back seat. Inside, the Pacer displayed the worst of 1970s design: fake wood on the dash, bizarre cloth upholstery and uncomfortable ergonomics.
But the novel shape made it a big hit and 145,528 were sold in the first year, half of them the X-model, technically a performance package.
Ah yes, performance. The big problem was, there wasn't any. The base car had 100 horsepower and weighed 3,300 pounds. A bigger 258-ci six added 20 horsepower in 1976, but to little benefit. The Pacer was able to handle the 55-mph speed limit, but that was about it.
A lack of performance wasn't the only problem. The huge glass area meant that the Pacer's occupants tended to become parboiled by the sun, making air conditioning an essential option that most cars didn't get.
Sales started downward, sliding to 117,244 in 1976 and 58,264 in 1977, even as AMC introduced a wagon variant that did little for sales other than to cannibalize those of the coupe. In 1978 AMC's 304-ci V8 found its way into the Pacer, but struggled to produce all of 125 horsepower. A cheesy Mercedes-style grill didn't help sales, which dropped to just 21,331, of which 2,514 were V8s.
A "Limited" package with leather, power windows and locks, and cruise control was introduced in 1979, but the Pacer still found only 10,215 buyers. The 1980 Pacers were actually 1979 models, just 1,746 in all.
The cars are such curiosities that many survive, though most are in fairly wretched condition, and many can be found for under $1,000. Though not really collectible, they can be fun cars to drive, as Pacers elicit the sorts of "thumbs ups" from passers-by usually reserved for more desirable vehicles. Thank the flamed blue Mirth Mobile in Wayne's World for that.
If you're going shopping there are a number of specific things to look for. Apart from the windshield, no new glass is available, so a Pacer with broken windows either needs a parts car or should become one. Rust is a big enemy: check the front wheel wells, floor panels, rocker panels, lower door edges, rear quarter panels and the complete rear below the trunk lid, as there are no splashers around the rear wheels.
Inside, heater and ventilation controls are vacuum operated, so if they don't function, they're a bear to fix. Original seat material is difficult to source, but of course anything else used will be an improvement. Engines are durable but tend to leak oil and crack exhaust manifolds. Ignition modules can fail but they're cheap. Brakes can be rebuilt for $89.95 at any corner brake shop, and the rack-and-pinion steering (a first in a cheap domestic car) tends not to develop problems.
Best of all, any AMC engine will fit in a Pacer. So drop a 390- or 401-ci V8 in your Pacer, bolt on some speed gear and fit the optional disc brakes. The big back window will let you see who you blew away, after they snickered at you at the light.

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