The AMC Spirit was a subcompact marketed by American Motors Corporation (AMC) from 1979 to 1983 as a restyled replacement for the Gremlin. The Spirit shared the Gremlin's platform and was offered in two hatchback variations, each with two doors — marketed as sedan and liftback. Manufactured by AMC in Wisconsin and Ontario, as well as under license in Mexico, the Spirit was also marketed from 1981 to 1983 as the Eagle SX/4 with four-wheel drive.
The new AMC Spirit was largely a restyled Gremlin that had been manufactured from 1970 to 1978. Many engineering and equipment upgrades introduced on the 1978 Concord were now transferred to the sub-compact Spirit. The suspension system was revised with "soft-ride" mountings for the coil springs over A-arms in the front and the rear live-axle with leaf springs to improve ride and handling. Attention was also focused on sound-deadening, corrosion protection, and other engineering features included among others, lightweight aluminum bumpers, lock-up automatic transmission converter, and higher-compression six-cylinder camshaft and pistons for economy, performance, and emissions. The body received new styling and a liftback model was added to the previous two-door sedan. Richard A. Teague’s "more-conventional" design of the new liftback coupe “had a particularly graceful superstructure for such a short car”. A road test by Popular Science described the transition as AMC having the "cleverest engineers in Detroit" cementing their reputation of "getting $200 worth of looks for $100".
Using the Gremlin's 96 in (2,438 mm) wheelbase, the restyling from Gremlin two-door to Spirit sedan included larger rear quarter windows with improved outward visibility. The instrument panel introduced on the 1978 Gremlin was retained, with a wood grain overlay on DL and Limited models.
Riding the same wheelbase as the sedan, the liftback was identical to the sedan from the A-pillar forward and featured a sloping roof (compromising rear headroom) and a hatchback with a more shallow Kammback tail. The rear license plate hid the fuel filler cap. The Spirit offered a generous cruising range with its "fuel tank capacity of 21 gallons and probable fuel mileage of 25 mpg or more ... enabling the car's driver to travel over 500 miles between fill ups".
Standard equipment levels and convenience features were increased on the new Spirit compared to previous AMC Gremlins. The DL models featured upgraded trim inside and out, including color-keyed wheel covers, custom bucket seats in corduroy fabric or "sport" vinyl upholstery, wood accents on the dashboard, steering wheel, and floor gearshift knob, and fluorescent-display digital clock. The Limited model included leather seats and trim, air conditioning, AM/FM radio, adjustable steering wheel, dual remote outside mirrors, full length center console with armrest, and many more features.
The GT package was available on the Spirit liftback and included among other features, blacked out exterior trim, radial tires with styled wheels, black leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and console, tachometer and "Rallye" gauges, as well as a special "deep-tone" exhaust system. The package also had a rear spoiler, and other sporty features that offered AMC to have a competitor in design, style, price, size, and performance to the new-for-1979 Fox-based Ford Mustang. A separate GT "rally-tuned" suspension option included tuned front and rear sway bars, "Hi-Control" rear leaf springs with "iso-clamp" pads, special strut rod bushings, adjustable Gabriel "Strider" shock absorbers, as well as heavy-duty brakes and a quick ratio steering box.
The standard engine on both models was AMC's 3.8 L inline-6, with the 2.5 L I4, and 4.2 L I6 optional, while the 5.0 L V8 was offered as an option only on the liftback. 1979 would mark a (one-year) reprisal for 5.0 L V8 availability in the short 96 in (2,438 mm) wheelbase AMC chassis. The last time the two were available together was in the 1976 Gremlin. The four, sixes, and V8 could be mated to either a standard 4-speed manual transmission or an optional 3-speed automatic with floor shift, depending on trim and options. A 3-speed manual transmission was only available as a delete option on the sixes.
The AMX model was transferred from the Concord hatchback to the Spirit liftback body for 1979 and came with either the 4.2 L I6 or 5.0 L V8. The AMX featured a flush blackout grille with an AMX emblem, fiberglass wheel flares, rear spoiler, ER60x14 white-letter tires on 14x7-inch "Turbocast II" aluminum wheels, blackout trim, "GT rally-tuned" suspension, floor shift transmission, an optional hood decal, and other sporty touches.
Popular Science magazine compared the four-cylinder Spirit with the Chevrolet Chevette, Dodge Omni 024, and the imported Plymouth Champ describing the Spirit's "generous updating of the chassis and body have kept it fresh-looking." Although its imported engine and heavy chassis it was "no economy standout ... what is special about the Spirit is the luxury finish ... with the look of a high-priced car."
The 3.8 L I6 was dropped from the lineup, as was the 5.0 L V8, leaving the 4.2 L I6 as the only engine option, and the only engine available in the AMX. No major exterior changes were seen, except on the AMX, as its grille emblem moved to the center.
All AMCs, including the Spirit, received a new rust-proofing process called Ziebart Factory Rust Protection. This included aluminized trim screws, plastic inner fender liners, galvanized steel in every exterior body panel, and a deep-dip (up to the window line) bath in epoxy-based primer. AMC backed up the rust protection program with a 5-year "No Rust Thru" component to its comprehensive "Buyer Protection Plan".
The 1981 model year AMC Spirits received a new crosshatch grille with a single crosshair element. New optional "Noryl" wheelcovers were added. The leather-clad Limited models were canceled, leaving the DL as the top-rung model. The liftback still featured a GT package, available on both base and DL trims, with both engines. New options included power windows, rear window wiper and washer, power antenna, and tricolored "rally" stripes. The AMX did not return for 1981.
The 258 cu in (4.2 L) I6 was redesigned and made 90 pounds (41 kg) lighter, as well as smoother, higher low-end torque, more economical, and requiring less maintenance. The numerous engineering improvements and the substitution of aluminum for iron and steel made the venerable AMC engine "the lightest in-line Six in the domestic industry", at 445 lb (202 kg).
The 1981 AMC EPA fuel economy figures for the 49 states were 23 mpg-US (10 L/100 km; 28 mpg-imp) city and 33 mpg-US (7.1 L/100 km; 40 mpg-imp) highway for the 4-cylinder 4-speed, 20 mpg-US (12 L/100 km; 24 mpg-imp) city and 26 mpg-US (9.0 L/100 km; 31 mpg-imp) highway for the 4-cylinder automatic, 19 mpg-US (12 L/100 km; 23 mpg-imp) city and 28 mpg-US (8.4 L/100 km; 34 mpg-imp) highway for the 6-cylinder 4-speed, and 19 mpg-US (12 L/100 km; 23 mpg-imp) city and 26 mpg-US (9.0 L/100 km; 31 mpg-imp) highway for the 6-cylinder automatic.
There were four kinds of wheel treatments this year, they were the "Custom Wheel Cover", "Full Styled wheel cover (Noryl) which was standard on the Spirit DL, the "Spoke Styled Wheels" which were standard on the Spirit G.T. and the "Turbocast II Aluminum wheels which were optional on all models. Fifteen exterior paint colors were available in 1981. They were Olympic White, Classic Black, Quick Silver Metallic, Steel Gray Metallic, Medium Blue Metallic, Moonlight Blue, Autumn Gold, Sherwood Green Metallic, Cameo Tan, Copper Brown Metallic, Medium Brown Metallic, Dark Brown Metallic, Oriental Red, Vintage Red Metallic, and Deep Maroon Metallic. Interiors were available in Deluxe Grain vinyl in black, blue, beige, and nutmeg. Coventry Check fabric was available in black, blue, beige, and nutmeg.
American Motors led the way in galvanized steel news for 1981, by applying one-side and two- side galvanized materials to all of the exterior body panels on all its models. AMC tied these applications into its warranty program and the Spirit was advertised as "One Tough American Economy car" highlighting its galvanized steel in every exterior body panel. According to Dale E. Dawkins, AMC's vice-president, "Every square inch of inner surface on exterior body panels is galvanized on our Spirit, Concord, and Eagle models." to support AMC's new "Tough Americans" marketing campaign highlighting the long warranty and rustproofing measures included in their cars.
For 1981, AMC introduced Eagle models (SX/4 liftback and Kammback sedan) based on both Spirit body styles.
Changes to the Spirit for 1982 were mostly mechanical. A new 5-speed manual transmission was offered as an option, and new low-drag front disc brakes were standard. Together, they allowed the 2.5 L Spirit to achieve 37 mpg-US (6.4 L/100 km; 44 mpg-imp) on the highway, according to 1982 EPA estimates. For automatic transmission equipped cars, the Chrysler sourced three-speed TorqueFlite ratios were more widely spaced to afford better mileage.
American Motors Company was always a company that took chances in the name of innovation and promoted the 1982 Spirit in an unusual television ad campaign. Trying to differentiate their cars from the competition, and to make a point that the "Tough Americans" come with Ziebart rust proofing and a 5-year rust warranty, the ads show a new Spirit dropped into 30 feet of salt water.
The Spirit sedan was deleted from the line in 1983, along with the 2.5 L I4 and the base model liftback. All 1983 Spirits were 4.2 L-equipped liftbacks in either DL or new GT trim. The GT package became a model separate from the DL for the Spirit's last year. Advertisements stressed the higher level of standard equipment in both Spirit DL and Spirit GT, which sold for US$5,995 and US$6,495, respectively. The Spirit GT version was compared to the liftback version of Ford's Mustang.
For 1983, AMC introduced the new Renault Alliance, which was a much more modern, space-efficient, fuel-efficient, front-wheel-drive subcompact car than the rear-drive Spirit, with its 14 year-old platform. The Spirit was canceled as AMC released the Alliance-based Encore hatchbacks for 1984.
An AMX version of the Spirit liftback was offered for 1979 and 1980.
It featured special color-matched fender flares and front air dam, 'Rally-Tuned' suspension with 1.06 in (27 mm) front and 0.75 in (19 mm) rear sway bars, high-effort power steering gears, adjustable Gabriel (brand name) 'Strider' shock absorbers, heavy-duty semi-metallic 10.8 in (274 mm) front disk brakes with ribbed 10x1.2-inch (254x30.5 mm) rear drum brakes, unique AMX grille, "Turbocast II" 14x7-inch aluminum road wheels with ER60x14 Goodyear "Flexten" GT radial RWL (raised white letter) tires, rear spoiler, special striping package, hood and door decals, console shifted automatic or manual transmission with 'Rallye Gauge' package (total of eight dials including an intake-manifold vacuum gauge), as well as simulated aluminum dash overlays with AMX badge on the glove compartment door.
Changes in standard AMX equipment for 1980 were black flares and air dam, standard 14x6-inch "Magnum 500" styled road wheels with the wider aluminum wheels now made optional, and no simulated aluminum dash overlays.
The biggest powerplant on the 1979 AMX was AMC's 304 cu in (5.0 L) V8 capable of doing the quarter mile in 13.4 seconds. For 1980, the only engine was the 258 cu in (4.2 L) I6. Still, it was the last car to wear the AMX name and has achieved popularity with AMC enthusiasts.
AMXs at the Nürburgring
In October 1979, the B.F. Goodrich tire company sponsored a pair of AMXs in the annual FIA Group One 24-hour race (for mildly modified production cars) held at Germany's legendary Nürburgring track. The 1979 304 cu in (5.0 L) V8-powered Spirit AMX was already homologated for European FIA Group One Touring Car races.
The cars were the first-ever American entries in this grueling race (the Nürburgring is a 14.1 mi (22.7 km) circuit with 176 turns). They would compete against smaller-engined but more agile BMWs, Fords, Opels, VW Golfs, Renault 5s, and Audis.
Drivers Amos Johnson and his partner Dennis Shaw were the team principals in the North Carolina-based "Team Highball." Supporting drivers were factory Mazda driver Jim Downing (who would later co-develop the HANS device), actor James Brolin, Lyn St. James, and automotive journalist Gary Witzenberg. Two street-stock cars (both with AMC 5.0 L V8 and four-speed transmission) were supplied to "Team Highball" for Group One race modifications less than three weeks before shipment to Europe. The #1 Johnson/Shaw/Brolin car was given the faster set-up, with the objective of winning the race.
With very little prior experience of the track, and race practice cut short by fog, the team qualified the cars 20th and 21st overall.
In the race, the #1 car suffered broken front shock-absorbers and a slipping clutch, and the engine burned oil. Witzenberg reported the brakes and both front shocks "all but gone" in #2 — pumping the brakes dragged the front spoiler, but had little effect on speed. And since the AMXs were "rather crude" compared with the smaller, lighter cars they were racing against, they lost time in the turns. Nevertheless, Witzenburg said the cars "ran great", especially on the straights where they reached about140 mph (230 km/h).
After driving almost 2,000 miles (3,219 km), they finished first and second in class, 25th and 43rd overall out of a field of 120. They were also the fastest entrants using street tires - BFG T/A radials.
The preparation of the cars and the team's experience of the race itself were covered by a period documentary film, The Ultimate Challenge.
AMC Spirits also campaigned in International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Champion Spark Plug Challenge and Racing Stock Class events. With only limited support from AMC, mainly with some technical help, AMC Spirits were prepared by "Team Highball" and driven by Amos Johnson and Dennis Shaw.
Several AMC Spirits were entered in the 1979 World Challenge for Endurance Drivers. A Spirit driven by Joe Varde and Dave Cowart in the 6 Hours of Talladega finished in third place (an AMC Concord finished first, AMC Gremlin was second, and an AMC Pacer was fourth) out of starting field of 49 cars. Five other AMC Spirits were also racing on 1 April 1979. On 1 June 1979, an AMC Spirit driven by Dennis Shaw and Don Whittington won the 6 Hour Champion Spark Plug Challenge at the Daytona International Speedway covering 151 laps and a distance of933.162 kilometres (579.840 mi) averaging 155.101 kilometres per hour (96.375 mph). AMC Spirits also finished in 5, 6, 11, 29, 37, and 42 out of a total 62 starting cars.
The 1980 World Challenge for Endurance Drivers began with an AMC Spirit driven by Keith Swope and Mauricio DeNarvaez finishing in fourth place at Daytona's 6 Hour Champion Spark Plug Challenge on 29 June 1980. Eleven other Spirits placed out of the 72 cars that started in the race. A team consisting of Lou Statzer, Amos Johnson, and Dennis Shaw ran a Spirit AMX 84 laps in the GTX class at the 28th Annual Coca-Cola 12 Hours of Sebring on 22 March 1980.
Turbo pace car
An AMX Turbo Pace car was built to be one of four official safety cars in the PPG IndyCar World Series for the 1981 auto-racing season. There were two design proposals, both using the Spirit liftback body and designed by Richard A. Teague, AMC's Vice President of Automotive Design. One car was shown by PPG Industries featuring a white/red/blue/black painted production 1979 Spirit AMX with covered headlamps and integrated and smoothed front bumper and air dam unit.
The highly modified fastback car was constructed by Autodynamics of Troy, Michigan under contract from PPG Industries. The turbo-charged and fuel-injected 258 cu in (4.2 L) I6 was built by Turbo-Systems Inc. to produce 450 bhp (340 kW). The car is equipped with Goodyear Eagle GT low profile 245x50x16 tires on 16x8-inch "Gotti" aluminum alloy wheels.
This was the final chapter in AMC's AMX story, but the car survives remaining as original and complete from its duties as a pace car. It is owned by a private collector in Florida and the AMX Turbo regularly appears at automobile shows.
Building on the AMC Gremlin's ease with which they could be modified for higher street performance, as well as their inherent inexpensiveness and strength, AMC Spirits were used in drag racing. According to Hot Rod magazine, "these little cars are very cool, and while they're not traditional muscle cars, they're plenty strong in terms of performance."
Using mostly AMC hardware, the AMC Spirit can perform exceptionally well as a street car and in multiple racing arenas (including quarter-mile e.t. of 12.8 at 110 mph (180 km/h)), with the finished vehicle costing only about $10,000. Some Spirits have been fitted with 360 cu in (5.9 L) AMC V8 engines and run the quarter-mile drag strip on an 11.88 dial. AMC Spirits in the Factory Street class have run e.t. of 10.62 at 126.27 mph.
AMC Spirits have also been heavily modified for pro class drag racing.
The AMC Spirit served as a test vehicle for alternative engine and fuel experiments.
The Automotive Stirling Engine (ASE) Program consisted of one large engine development contract and a small technology effort. This included a MOD 1 Stirling engine powered 1979 AMC Spirit engineering test vehicle built by Mechanical Technology to develop and demonstrate practical alternatives. In partnership with the United States Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and built under contract by AMC's AM General wholly owned subsidiary, the United Stirling AB's "P-40" powered Spirit was tested extensively for over 50,000 miles (80,467 km) and achieved average fuel efficiency up to 28.5 miles per US gallon (8.25 L/100 km; 34.2 mpg-imp).
The tests demonstrated that the type of engine "could be developed into an automotive power train for passenger vehicles and that it could produce favorable results." However, progress was achieved with equal-power spark-ignition engines since 1977, and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) achieved by automobiles in the U.S. did not stand still. The Stirling engine still showed a shortfall in fuel efficiency and concerns about the ability to mass produce it. There were also two things wrong with Stirling engine power: first was the time needed to warm up (because most drivers do not like to wait to start driving), and second was the difficulty in changing the engine's speed (thus limiting flexibility when driving). A 1980 AMC Concord was also fitted with a P-40 engine and used to inform the public about the Stirling engine and the ASE program.
The experiments showed the Stirling engine could be better to power an extended-range electric vehicle rather than serving as the primary power for an automobile. Although successful in the MOD 1 and MOD 2 phases of the experiments, cutbacks in funding further research and lack of interest by automakers ended possible commercialization of the Automotive Stirling Engine Program.
Mexican government-owned automaker Vehiculos Automotores Mexicanos (VAM) assembled sedan and liftback Spirits under license with AMC. To meet government regulations, VAM vehicles had to have at least 50% locally sourced parts. Mexican built "AMC's" came with different exterior and interior trim, as well as model names than their counterparts in the United States and Canada. For example, the Spirit 2-door sedan was called "Gremlin". The Spirit liftback models were called "Rallys" and came in SST, GT, and AMX trim and equipment versions.
A unique to Mexico was the vehicle called the VAM Lerma, which was based on the Concord's 4-door chassis with the Spirit's front and rear liftback body parts and unique rear quarter panels. All VAM engines were of AMC design, but built in at the Hidalgo, Mexico engine assembly plant. They featured modifications to deal with low octane fuel and high altitudes. These included different head designs and exhaust porting. An indigenous VAM engine was the 282 cu in (4.6 L) version of the AMC Straight-6 engine with an enlarged bore and wider dished pistons (3.909 in (99 mm) bore, 3.894 in (99 mm) stroke) as well as a unique head and exhaust porting design. The V8 engine was not available in Mexico.
The Spirit name was used by Chrysler Corporation that took over AMC in 1987, for a four-door sedan called the Dodge Spirit from 1989 to 1995.