American Motors' chief stylist Richard A. Teague began work on the Pacer in 1971, anticipating an increase in demand for smaller vehicles through the decade. The new car was designed to offer the interior room and feel of a big car that drivers of traditional domestic automobiles were accustomed to, but in a much smaller, aerodynamic, and purposefully distinctive exterior package. American Motors called it "Project Amigo" as a fresh design "featuring a body style not seen before, using the latest technology, and exceeding upcoming safety regulations."
Car and Driver magazine noted that "AMC said it was the first car designed from the inside out. Four passengers were positioned with reasonable clearances and then the rest of the car was built around them as compactly as possible."
The shape was highly rounded with a huge glass area, and was very unusual for its time. Road & Track magazine described it as "fresh, bold and functional-looking".
Development was under Product Group Vice President Gerald C. Meyers, whose goal was to develop a car that was truly unique: "everything that we do must distinguish itself as being importantly different than what can be expected from the competition." Even before its introduction, AMC's Board Chairman Roy D. Chapin, Jr. described "It will be a visibly different car, maybe even controversial ... It's an idea that represents a transition between what has been and what's coming. Today versus tomorrow." Popular Mechanics wrote: "This is the first time in the history of the American automobile industry that a car manufacturer has said in advance of bringing out a new product that some people may not like it."
A number of futuristic ideas were explored by AMC. But the automaker lacked adequate resources to build components from scratch and needed to use outside suppliers or adapt its existing parts and use its production facilities. Unique for a comparatively small car, the Pacer was as wide as a full-size American car of the era. American Motors did not describe it as "cab forward," but the Pacer's layout included wheels pushed to the corners (short overhangs), a relatively wide body, and A-pillars moved forward; the windshield was placed over part of the engine compartment. Contrary to myth, The Pacer was not widened six inches (152.4 mm) to make room for the rear-wheel drive configuration. The editor of Road & Track asserted that front-wheel drive, as well as a transverse mid-engined configuration, were among "various mechanical layouts ... tossed around by the idea people at AMC," adding that "it's unlikely they ever had much hope of being able to produce anything other than their traditional front engine and rear drive, using components already in production."
The introductory 1975 AMC advertising and literature proclaimed it as "the first wide small car." The width was dictated partly by marketing strategy—U.S. drivers were accustomed to large vehicles and the Pacer's occupants had the impression of being in a larger car—and partly by the fact that AMC's assembly lines were already set up for full-size cars.
Teague's low-drag design, which predated the fuel crisis and the flood of small foreign imports into the American market, was highly innovative. Its drag coefficient of 0.43 was relatively low for that time. Teague even eliminated rain gutters, smoothly blending the tops of the doors into the roof—an aerodynamic detail that, although criticized at the time for allowing rain onto the front seat, has become the norm in today's designs.
Also unique was that the passenger door was four inches (101 mm) longer than the driver's. This made passenger loading easier, particularly from the rear seats; and they would also tend to use the safer curb side in countries that drive on the right.
An entirely fresh approach was also taken by AMC engineers with the Pacer's front suspension and engine mounting. It was the first U.S. small car to isolate the engine and suspension system noises from the passenger compartment. The entire front suspension was mounted on a crossmember isolated from the frame extensions by heavy rubber bushings. It is also different from all other AMC cars with the coil spring between the two control arms, seated on the lower wishbone arm at the bottom and in the suspension/engine mount crossmember at the top. The rear suspension was also isolated, requiring a special tool to press the one-piece bushings in and out of the mounting brackets.
Other aspects of the Pacer were designed for ease of service, including the dashboard and instrument panel—using a minimum number of easily accessible screws and featuring removable cover/bezel without the need to disconnect the speedometer cable—and access to the light bulbs. The Pacer's design was ranked as equal with the new Aspen-Volare compacts as the most serviceable in the industry.
The Pacer became only the second American car after the Ford Pinto in production cars in the U.S. to feature rack-and-pinion steering. The system was mounted low at the front of the crossmember. The body was designed with the aim that structural lines protected it from hit damage, and AMC engineers claimed that they succeeded in more than 50% of the car surface.
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. government mandated major safety improvements for vehicles starting with the 1980 model year. These included 50-mile-per-hour (80 km/h) front-end crash testing, 25-mile-per-hour (40 km/h) side crash testing, and 30-mile-per-hour (48 km/h) rollover testing, as well as the installation of bumpers that would resist a 5-mile-per-hour (8 km/h) impact at the front and 10-mile-per-hour (16 km/h) at the rear. "Full-circle body protection was designed into the Pacer, starting with the energy-absorbing bumper mounts" through upper and lower box-section rails on each side extending back to the front pillars, as well as from the bases of the pillars behind the doors, the box-section members in the body floor curve up and back in past the rear wheel houses. The Pacer was designed from the start to meet the expected stringent safety specifications.
The low belt line and window design afforded the driver with outstanding visibility. The Pacer had laminated safety glass in the windshield. The articulated front wipers were hidden when in their parked position, and a rear wiper and washer was optional.
General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler persuaded the government that it was not financially viable to modify existing production cars to comply with the new regulations, and that instead each company would be put to the enormous expense of producing new, safety-compliant vehicles. Accordingly, the government requirements were reduced, which led to the deletion of several safety features from the production Pacer—for example the roll bar over the passenger compartment, and the bump in the roof that accommodated it. The design of the Pacer was strong for a small car, making it solid and heavy with protection features that included strong and massive bumpers, as well as wide B-pillars that factory information bulletins described their "roll bar like characteristics." Even with the Pacer's large glass area, passengers are not near the windows because they all bow out from around the occupants. The Pacer's wide stance also makes it stable and provides a unique feeling when inside the car, giving credence to the marketing phrase used by AMC that "you only ride like a Pacer if you're wide like a Pacer."
The editors of The Motor opined the "more you study both the general layout and the detail features of the Pacer, the more convinced you become that the men who dreamed it up and decided to make it actually do drive around in crowded cities and consequently realise from their own experience that the traditional big barges are less and less easy to navigate through our streets." Car and Driver road testers noted the Pacer's "smooth and quiet ride can probably be attributed to a front subframe that isolates the passenger capsule from engine, suspension and steering loads" making the car "eminently stable and controllable, with its rack-and-pinion steering and wide track."
The Pacer's remaining safety features were not strongly advertised, and seldom influenced a potential customer's purchasing decision. The car's extra weight—due in part to the safety equipment and the abundance of heavy glass—hurt fuel economy: production models tested by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave 16 mpg‑US (15 L/100 km; 19 mpg‑imp) in the city, but 26 mpg‑US (9.0 L/100 km; 31 mpg‑imp) or better on the highway (depending on driving habits and transmission), thanks to aerodynamic efficiency.
Originally, the car was designed for a Wankel rotary engine. In 1973, AMC signed a licensing agreement with Curtiss-Wright to build Wankels for cars and Jeep-type vehicles. (The agreement also permitted Curtiss-Wright to sell rotaries elsewhere.) Later, AMC decided instead to purchase the engines from General Motors (GM), who were developing them for use in their own cars. However, GM canceled development in 1974 for reasons that included durability issues, the fuel crisis, tooling costs (for the engines and also for a new product line designed around the rotary's ultra-compact dimensions) and the upcoming (late 1970s) U.S. emissions legislation. It was also thought that the high-revving Wankel would not suit Americans accustomed to low revs and high torque.
General Motors's change of plans left the Pacer without an engine. American Motors took a calculated risk and introduced the new model. The company's over commitment to the project resulted in entrapment with so much money and effort in the car's design. Engineers hastily reconfigured it to accept their existing straight-six engine. This involved a complete redesign of drivetrain and firewall to keep the longer engine within the body dimensions designed for the Wankel, but allowed the Pacer to share many mechanical components with other AMC models. Newsweek noted the "Pacer's primary competitive drawback is gasoline mileage: AMC offers only six-cylinder engines and the car gets only 18 miles per gallon in city and suburban driving vs. 23 mpg or more for some four-cylinder competitors."
The "outside of the box" thinking incorporated by AMC in the Pacer as the first "wide, small car" attempted to capture a revolutionary change in marketplace, but a radical departure from what was accepted by consumers as "good styling" was a risky strategy. Only the largest firms can stick with a radical element until it "grows," and the automaker’s dominance in the marketplace may eventually establish it as a standard feature. However, by the late 1970s the styling research axiom no longer applied that if a car with some controversial styling was liked by at least half of the potential market segment; then chances were good that this feature was a differential advantage for the manufacturer. The AMC Pacer incorporated many controversial styling and design innovations that led to its market failure after five model years.
American Motors created the Pacer by identifying emerging trends and design technologies, but it faced a small window of opportunity since a product that comes out either too early or too late can fail even if the opportunity was there initially. A further complication was the purchasing dynamics and the Pacer's design was focused on maximizing the internal sense of space, while the market focused on external dimensions. Many of the attributes the Pacer incorporated became the goal of all manufacturers in the two decades that followed.
With an uncommonly wide and short body for a small car, the Pacer’s design is still considered controversial while its powerplants did not contribute to fuel economy. Nevertheless, "the foresight by Teague and AMC was correct" with approaches to meet the evolving U.S. government regulations covering automobiles (such as the Highway Safety Act of 1970 and the new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).
Introduced in showrooms on 28 February 1975, the Pacer was designed to attract buyers of traditional large cars to a smaller package during a time when gasoline prices were projected to rise dramatically. In its first year of production, the Pacer sold well, with 145,528 units. There was little competition from other American manufacturers, most of whom had been blindsided by the oil crisis. The increased demand for compact, economy vehicles was growing rapidly. However, Pacer sales fell after the first two years, though the car continued to be built through the 1980 model year. Similar to its mid-year introduction, on 3 December 1979, production of the Pacer ended at the Kenosha, Wisconsin assembly plant where it had begun five years earlier. A total of 280,000 cars were built. Increasing competition from the Big Three U.S. automakers and the rapid consumer shift to imported cars during the late 1970s are cited as the reasons for this outcome. Automobile buyers in the U.S. became adjusted to smaller and lighter cars, particularly the imports that offered better gas mileage presented, the AMC Pacer could not match the German and Japanese cars. Also the large glass areas increased the car's weight. With 22 miles per gallon the Pacer was unattractive for customers in the 1979 energy crisis. AMCs partnership with Renault brought the Renault 5 named "Le Car" to the AMC dealers. The design of the Pacer gave a little touch to the restyling of the Renault 5 to meet wished and requirements of the American Market.
The Pacer's unconventional styling was commonly cited in its lack of success. Other concerns included a lack of cargo space when carrying a full load of passengers (because of its short wheelbase). Cargo space could be increased to 29.5 cubic feet (0.84 m3) by folding down the back of the rear seat to form a flat floor. Drivers also cited a lack of power. The Pacer was heavy; Car & Driver wrote, "American Motors had already quoted a curb weight of 2990 lb. for the basic Pacer when we first wrote about the car, and that already seemed quite heavy; but when we weighed the test car (whose air conditioning, automatic transmission, power steering and so forth would not account for the full difference) it registered an astounding 3425 lb.", and the standard 232 cu in (3.8 L) I6, with a single-barrel carburetor and optimized for low emissions (all vehicles at the time carried emissions-reducing devices, including Exhaust Gas Recirculation); was relatively low-powered ("The Pacer comes with either of two AMC inline six-cylinder engines, both producing 100 bhp, but the larger 258-cu-in. unit delivering better mid-range torque"). In 1976, a "High Output" version of the 258 cu in (4.2 L) engine was offered, which helped performance at the cost of higher fuel consumption. By the time a 304 cu in (5.0 L) V8 was offered in 1978, the company had introduced a successful line of "luxury-compact" models (the AMC Concord). Additionally, gasoline prices remained high, limiting demand for V8-powered vehicles.
For increased cargo capacity, a station wagon body style was offered from 1977. The wagon version was only five inches longer (127 mm) and weighed only 76 pounds (34 kg) more than the coupe. It was also a less unusual-looking design with a squared-off back and straight, almost upright, rear side windows. Although front vent windows were optional on all Pacers, the wagon's rear side glass featured vent windows as standard. The broad and rear liftgate opened to a wide, flat cargo area with 47.8 cubic feet (1.35 m3) of space, significantly easing the task of loading cargo. The rear seat also folded flat to form a continuation of the cargo floor. Some wagon models featured simulated woodgrain trim on the lower body sides and the liftgate.
The Pacer started out as an economy car, and eventually became a small luxury car. The following information details some of the highlights.
The "X" Package: Available as the Pacer X from 1975–1978 in coupe form, this version was renamed Sport in 1978 and subsequently eliminated. The trim package consisted of vinyl bucket seats, sports steering wheel and custom trim, as well as a floor-mounted gear shift and front sway bar. The model received exterior chrome features, styled road wheels, Pacer X decals on the doors, and other package identification.
The "D/L" Package: A more upscale edition, the D/L was available for the entire run of the car and became the base model in 1978. The package originally included "Navajo design" seating fabric and a woodgrain instrument panel as well as some interior features that were otherwise optional. The exterior had additional chrome accents, different wheelcovers, and identification badging.
The "Limited": Available in 1979–1980, the Limited had leather seats, extra sound proofing, and deeper-pile carpet (18-oz. vs. the standard 12-oz) as standard, plus amenities that were otherwise options, including: AM radio, power door locks, power windows, and tilt steering wheel. The exterior had chrome accents, styled road wheels, and "Limited" badging.
The "Sundowner": Available through AMC dealers in California for 1975 only, the Sundowner was a basic $3,599 (suggested retail price) Pacer with options that listed for $300 included at no extra cost. In addition to the mandatory California engine emissions controls and bumper guards, the package included "Basketry Weave" fabric upholstery with coordinated trim on the door panels, plus remote control exterior mirror, rear window washer and wiper, styled road wheels with white wall tires, and a roof rack.
The "Levi's" Package: Introduced for 1977 to capitalize on the popularity of the Levi's Gremlin and Hornet, the Levi's Pacer had blue denim-like upholstery and door-panel trim, with small Levi's tags on the front seats. The copper buttons in AMC's other Levi's models were omitted, and a Levi's logo sticker was added to each front fender. The version, which could be combined with the Pacer X package, did not sell in large numbers and it was dropped for the 1978 model year.
Carl Green Enterprises (CGE) Pacers: these cars, modified by automobile designer Carl Green, had 401 cu in (6.6 L) AMC V8 engines plus flares, air dams, and wings. The CGE Pacers appeared in Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding, and Car & Driver magazines. Green also built two Pacer pace cars for B.F. Goodrich to use in the International Motor Sports Association circuit, and provided body kits for Amos Johnson's Team Highball racecars.
Pacers without the optional vinyl roof trim could be finished in several unique two-tone paint combinations, with front and rear scuff molding extensions on the body sides. The two-tone treatment was changed in 1977 to an "up and over the roof" accent paint scheme for the remainder of production.
For 1979–1980 a hood ornament and center chrome hood strip were added. Moving toward more luxury features, power door locks became available in 1978 and in 1979 power windows joined the option list.
For the 1976 auto show circuit, AMC developed a customized Pacer Stinger. The exterior featured a matte black painted lower body panels and yellow pearl paint that faded to a pale yellow on the roof. The back half of the car had over-the-roof matte black "bumble bee stripes" that continued on the tailgate. The Stinger was fitted with oversize radial tires mounted on Jackman Star (brand) aluminum racing road wheels, a side mounted exhaust, NACA duct on the hood, auxiliary Cibie (brand) driving lights, as well as a front spoiler and wheel well fender extensions. The Stinger's interior was in black with a floor-mounted shifter and front bucket seats with center console. Black and yellow stripes on the front and rear seats completed the "bumble bee" theme, while the black door panels had yellow side cushions.
American Motors was evaluating the Pacer as compact personal luxury model with the Crown Pacer concept car that was first shown at the 1978 Chicago Auto Show. Finished in all white with a white interior, the Crown Pacer included numerous features such as a large inbuilt sun roof, real wire wheels, full rocker panel bright trim, as well as color matched integrated flexible front and fear fascia and bumper covers with black rubber guards and impact (nerf) strips.
Some AMC Pacers were converted to plug-in electric vehicles.
Electric Vehicle Associates (EVA) of Cleveland, was best known for its Change of Pace model – a built-to-order adaptation of the Pacer that was priced at $12,360 in 1978. The company converted well over 100 units.
First available in the sedan version, power came from eighteen 6-volt lead–acid batteries to a 15 kW series DC motor with a stock three-speed automatic transmission. The EVA Change of Pace sedan weighed 3,990 lb (1,810 kg) and reached 55 miles per hour (89 km/h) with a 53-mile (85 km) range. Regenerative braking is used in conjunction with the standard hydraulic brake system which utilizes front-wheel discs and rear drums. Vehicle tests that focused on the electrical drive system including the batteries, controller, and motor "found that the Pacer performance is approximately equal to the majority of the vehicles tested in the 1977 assessment."
Later, a wagon version had twenty VARTA batteries housed in two-packs (front and rear), with a 26 kW (at 3,000 rpm) motor, and the car was complete in every detail down to a gas heater. The electric Pacer wagon was one of the more expensive cars at $14,000. The Lead Industries Association (LIA) sponsored a tour for government and industry officials that featured an EVA Pacer wagon. Consolidated Edison in New York City purchased 40 modified AMC Pacers from EVA. The United States Army also included EVA Pacers in its inventory of special-purpose electric vehicles.
A video documentary about the Electric Vehicle Association's electric Pacers is titled "A change of Pace." A fully restored wagon has had its original silicon-controlled rectifier (SCR) control replaced with a modern controller and the "hydraulically operated hybrid vehicle recharging system" removed because of its lack of efficiency to use compressed air from suspension travel to power a small generator to recharge the batteries.
American Motors exported the Pacer to several European nations. Jean-Charles, the AMC distributor in Paris, France, compared the rounded body of the new Pacer to the buttocks of an attractive woman in magazine advertisements. Cars exported to Europe were available in higher trim levels. Sales were not spectacular, however: as late as 1983, Belgian shoppers could still buy a brand new Pacer from stock.
The level of current European interest in Pacers is indicated by the number of European nations listed in the AMC Pacer Registry, the members' cars in the Swedish AMC/Rambler Society, a German Pacer enthusiast Internet site, and the fact that a former AMC dealer in Germany stocked an inventory of original parts up to the early 2000s. A private museum in the Netherlands exhibits a Pacer wagon.
The Pacer was only available with left-hand drive, and the British importer converted it to right-hand drive by leaving the majority of the steering gear on the left-hand side of the car, and running a chain-drive behind the dashboard from the steering wheel (now on the right-hand side) to the top of the steering column. The car retained its unequal-length doors, designed for LHD markets, meaning that in the UK the longer door was on the driver's side, leaving the passengers to use the smaller door, which "in the typically confined British parking spot was virtually impossible". The Pacer was wider than a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and slightly longer than the then-current Ford Cortina.
The British motoring press adversely reviewed the car and AMC soon stopped exporting it.
The Pacer was produced in Mexico by Vehículos Automotores Mexicanos (VAM) starting in 1976. The cars were marketed as a premium-priced luxury car. The VAM versions came with different engines, interiors, and other components because vehicles made in Mexico had to have at least 60% locally sourced parts. The engine was an AMC design, but modified and built by VAM. A unique to Mexico 282 cu in (4.6 L) I6 engine was standard. It was designed to cope with low octane fuel and high altitudes. This engine featured dished pistons with a 3.909-inch (99.3 mm) bore and 3.894-inch (98.9 mm) stroke, as well as a unique head and exhaust porting design. The V8 engine, four-speed transmission, three-speed transmission with overdrive and the wagon body style were not available in Mexico.
The initial VAM Pacers were the equivalents to the U.S. AMC Pacer DL models except for a noticeably longer list of standard equipment and included some features of the U.S. Limited models of 1979 and 1980. The VAM Pacer had had no model or trim level, and U.S. derivatives such as the Pacer X, the base model, and the Levis Pacer were not available. The VAM Pacer's standard engine was the gross 200 hp (149 kW; 203 PS) 282 cu in (4.6 L) I6 with 7.7:1 compression ratio, 266 degree camshaft and a Holley 2300 two-barrel carburetor coupled to a steel intake manifold, and featured a T-150 three-speed manual transmission with heavy duty clutch and a 3.31:1 rear gear ratio. All VAM Pacers came with heavy-duty suspension (front sway bar with stiff springs and shock absorbers), power brakes with front disks, power steering (rack and pinion unit), larger radiator with coolant recovery tank, rigid four-bladed cooling fan, and electronic ignition.
Standard convenience features included a custom luxury steering wheel, column-mounted manual shifter, woodgrain dashboard trim, inside hood release, individual reclining front seats with adjustable headrests, center folding arm rest, fixed two-point seatbelts, two-speed electric wipers, electric washers integrated to the wiper arms, 140 km/h speedometer, courtesy lights, monaural AM radio with a single in-dash speaker, electric analog clock, heater with windshield defroster, lighter, dashboard ashtray, locking glove box, tinted windshield, plastic door panels with cloth insert and pull strap, dual rear ashtrays, folding down rear bench seat, trunk carpet, sound-insulating cardboard-type headliner (U.S. base model type), and round dome light.
The external appearance and equipment of the VAM Pacer consisted of a full bright molding package (wheel lips, top edges of the hood and fenders, window surrounds, rocker panels), bright rear panel between the taillights and the rear licence plate housing, protective side moldings, front and rear bumper guards, bumper nerfing strips, five-mile-per-hour bumpers with recovering shocks (only VAM car with this characteristic along with the Matador-based Classic line), five-spoke in-house VAM wheels, trim rings and full cover volcano center caps on the wheels, ER78x14 radial tires, driver's side manual remote mirror, radio antenna on the passenger's side fender, squared VAM logo emblems on the fenders, Pacer emblems on the fenders and bright rear panel and a two-step hood latch.
The concept of the VAM Pacer was entirely different compared to the AMC Pacer. The car was focused to be a high-end luxury car from its introduction to its end, while American Motors counterpart started as an economy car and import fighter. This was reinforced after the first 200 units produced when the three-speed automatic transmission joined the standard equipment list, which by default created the addition of an "Automático" emblem on the bright rear panel. The VAM Pacer became the most costly and luxurious VAM car at the mid-year discontinuation of the 1976 Classic line. The uniqueness of the model coupled to its level of luxury and price range practically made the car a flagship for the company, even though it was never officially considered as such. Probably the most unusual aspect of the 1976 VAM Pacer lies in its seat designs. VAM created a design based on AMC's Oleg Cassini interior for the 1974–1975 Matador coupe that used not just in the Pacer but in all three VAM Classic models for the year. The Pacer's seats incorporated a golden Cassini crest on the adjustable headrests and a pattern with copper buttons forming squares. Unlike the AMC Pacer, the VAM Pacer had a very short list of factory optional equipment. These included rear wiper and washer, rear defroster, reading dome light, trunk cover, remote-controlled driver's side mirror, luxury wheel covers and heavy duty cooling system (seven-bladed flexible fan and fan shroud). An universal air conditioning system was available only as a dealership option among a few others not present in the factory list.
The 1977 VAM Pacer was almost the same as in the previous year on the outside but even more luxurious on the inside. The largest difference between both models was in the seat designs. The Cassini pattern was replaced with a more discreet luxury design with a "zigzag" placement of plain soft buttons on the upholstery forming diagonal lines. The AM monaural radio was replaced by an AM/FM monaural unit, three-point retractable seatbelts took the place of the hip-only units, the glovebox obtained its respective light free of extra charge. Mechanically, the 282 cu in (4.6 L) engine obtained substantial engineering upgrades in the form of an all-new head design with improved cooling system and Quench-type combustion chambers, a higher 8.0:1 compression ratio and a new two-barrel aluminum intake manifold while the rear differential gear ratio changed from 3.31:1 to 3.07:1. This upgrade gave the VAM Pacer an estimated 12 net horse power increase over the previous year, meaning improved fuel economy and an improved top speed without losing torque and towing capacity. The year of 1977 was the first in which a VAM car could be ordered with a factory air conditioning system, the Pacer being no exception. Units equipped with the A/C obtained the complete set of five dashboard air vents and also included a 55-amp alternator, a flexible seven-bladed cooling fan, a three-line radiator, and a fan shroud. The previously optional luxury wheel covers were moved onto the standard equipment list.
The 1978 model year VAM Pacers gained new hood and grille designs, which in Mexico were just a facelift due to the lack of a V8 engine. The only technical difference of the year was the replacement of the Holley 2300 carburetor in favor of a Motorcraft 2150 unit with a built-in altitude compensator despite having a slightly lower flow. This took away a small amount of power but allowed easier passing of emission certification and was more reliable in changing altitudes. New standard features included a hood light, a speedometer in both kilometers and miles per hour, door panels including a vertical stripe pattern over their top edges, a different AM/FM radio model, a new flat-faced luxury steering wheel design with an AMC logo, and new seat designs. The heater was improved in the form of air vents appearing to the left of the instrument cluster, the center of the dashboard above the ashtray and over the top right corner of the glovebox door regardless of the presence of the air conditioning system. The heater controls were revised, obtaining the VENT option in airflow selection, which was now a sliding lever instead of the five buttons used in the prior two years. The two remaining air vents, the passenger's side one over the top left corner of the glove box door and driver's side one integrated to the cover under the steering column, could only be obtained with the A/C system.
The 1979 VAM Pacer was exactly as the 1978 model in terms of appearance, with the exceptions of the previously standard wheel covers and a new hood bright molding with front ornament. All VAM Pacers were featured VAM's inhouse five-spoke wheels with trim rings and chrome volcano hubcaps with exposed lug nuts. New seat designs with a horizontally stripped pattern and Barcelona crests on the headrests as a luxury touch (the same ones used in the AMC Matador Barcelona models), a new steering wheel design with a soft rectangular center button, all-new door panels designs in plastic and vinyl with a rigid top pull strap and sliding locks with woodgrain accents. The headliner was changed to a cloth-wrapped unit. VAM started using for the first time the net rating system for measuring the output of its engines. This meant that the 1979 VAM 282 cu in (4.6 L) six-cylinder engine was now rated at 132 hp (98 kW; 134 PS) at 3900 rpm. The electrical system was revised with a new fuse box located under the dashboard on the driver's side. A total of 369 VAM Pacers were sold.
A new model was introduced in 1979, the VAM Pacer X, with a serious high performance focus. It featured a high-output version of the 282 cu in (4.6 L) engine with a higher 8.5:1 compression ratio, semiported head, centrifugal advance-modified electronic distributor for higher acceleration, a set of headers with two final outlets divided between the first three and second three cylinders (even though a final single exhaust was used through a Y-shaped portion) and the return of the Holley 2300 two-barrel carburetor. The output for this engine, code-named "4.6 SX" is estimated at 147–152 hp (110–113 kW; 149–154 PS) net at 4000 revolutions per minute. This engine made the Pacer X the second best performing VAM car of 1979, surpassing by a single tenth of a second the four-speed American Rally AMX (Concord AMX equivalent) with the standard 282 and in VAM's own acceleration tests.
The Pacer X was available in only three colors (black, white and wine red), carried body-colored bumpers and had most bright items deleted, was applied with unique thin golden stripes surrounding the door and side glass areas extending through the roof from side to side, used VAM's eight-spoke sports steel wheels painted in gold with blacked out volcano hubcaps, rear and side glass moldings were also blacked out and the lower front corners of the doors had "Pacer X" decals in place. In the interior, the Pacer X held its own design of reclining bucket seats, had a center console with locking compartment and ashtray instead of the armrest, a set of Rallye gauges (water temperature, clock, ammeter and oil pressure) instead of the in-dashboard ashtray, a 6000 rpm tachometer in place of the electric clock, three-arm spoked sports steering wheel with a cylindrical horn button with a VAM logo, floor-mounted three-speed automatic transmission, remote-controlled driver's side door mirror, and reading dome light. Air conditioning was standard in this model and most units included a tinted glass pop-up sunroof. The rest of the equipment was the same as the standard model: power brakes, power steering, front sway bar, stiff shock absorbers and springs, 3.07:1 rear gears, heavy duty cooling system, AM FM monaural radio, tinted windshield, light group, inside hood release, and three-point retractable seatbelts. The VAM Pacer X was a limited edition model of only 250 units and is the most collectible Pacer model in Mexico.
This makes a total of 619 VAM Pacers produced for 1979. Unlike the AMC Pacer, 1979 was the last year of the line for Mexico.
A 1976 Pacer was driven by Gordon Olsen and Bob Stone in the 1979 SCORE Baja 1000 Pro Class race and finished Class 6 (production cars) in second place, behind a Ford Ranchero truck. With a high rate of drop outs, "anyone that officially finishes a Baja race is a winner." Although many questioned "What's a nice odd econo-car like you doing in an off-road race", the car was doing very well with Olsen swapping the lead with the V8 powered truck. However, an impact resulted in destruction of the Pacer's radiator giving the lead to the truck after 21 hours and 20 minutes of racing. The Pacer was sponsored by Costa Mesa AMC/Jeep and carefully prepared with the 258 cu in (4.2 L) I6 tuned to produce 200 hp (149 kW; 203 PS) as well as an automatic transmission, 15x8 aluminum wheels, higher ground clearance, a 36 US gal (136 L; 30 imp gal) capacity fuel tank, extra shock absorbers in the rear, and aluminum skid plates.
A 2005 Hemmings Classic Car magazine article said that in 1975 the Pacer was "sleek" and "audacious"; "it looked like the car of the future" and "the automotive press loved it." Motor Trend magazine, one of many that pictured the car on the cover, said it was "the most creative, most people oriented auto born in the U.S. in 15 years".
Consumer Reports said the Pacer "scored quite high in our tests. We would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who wants a fairly small car." The report concluded that the Pacer did "at least as well as the Dodge Dart, the Plymouth Valiant, and the Chevrolet Nova, the U.S. compacts we like best," and that "overall, the Pacer scored better than such domestic subcompacts as the Ford Pinto, the Chevrolet Vega, and AMC’s own Gremlin."
Small Cars magazine noted that "admiration was an obvious reaction" at the press preview, and that "the knowledgeable product writers knew without being told that they were privileged to be there to see something new in automobile design." Road & Track ran a cover story with design and engineering details.
Michael Lamm, writing in Popular Mechanics, commented on many "thoughtful touches that distinguish AMC's strikingly futuristic new Pacer". He said the ride was “not choppy as in so many short-wheelbase cars”, the rack-and-pinion steering gave "handling a feeling of precision ... sticking well in turns, with hard cornering generally solid and predictable”, the “tight turning radius" made parking "easy”, and the steering wheel was too big. Summing up, he said that with its "very modern styling, ample power and generous interior" the Pacer was "more car" than "the Mustang II or "GM’s sporty compacts (Monza, Skyhawk/Starfire)", and that its performance felt "strong—certainly on a par with most V8s."
Don Sherman wrote in the February 1975 issue of Car and Driver that it was "our first real urban transporter...There is, of course, the chance of monumental failure; it might be another Tucker ahead of its time or a pariah like the Marlin. But...with its high priority on comfortable and efficient travel and absence of Mach 2 styling, [it] at least seems right for the current state of duress. Consider this bold offering from AMC a test: Are we buying cars for transportation yet, or are they still social props?"
The April 1975, Road & Track road test described the Pacer's appearance as "bold, clean and unique...even when it's going 60 mph is looks as if it's standing still..." but noted that, even with the test car's optional front disc brakes, "in the usual panic-stop tests...our driver had one of his most anxious moments ever as the Pacer screeched, skidded and demanded expert attention at the steering wheel to keep from going altogether out of control. The histrionics are reflected in long stopping distances from highway speeds... [The car’s] engineering—old-fashioned and unimaginative in the extreme—does not match the perky design", which the magazine declared "most attractive to look at and pleasant to sit in."
In a follow-up road test in August 1976, Motor Trend wrote: "Since its introduction in January 1975, we have been quite smitten with AMC’s Pacer." The magazine criticized the performance and the absence of a 4-speed transmission. A 2-barrel carburetor was offered on the larger six at the end of 1975, as well as a 4-speed manual, but the testers noted that although "the 2-bbl Pacer was faster than the 1-bbl car by a fair margin, it did not 'feel' faster" (author's emphasis). They commended the car's comfort: "Even with its compact exterior dimensions, the Pacer is one of the most comfortable 4-passenger cars around...The wide bucket seats were firm, but very comfortable...Front passenger leg room is extraordinary even with the seat racked well forward, and the rear seat leg room exceeds such full-sizers as the Buick Riviera and Continental Mark IV."
The British press was critical, and the cover of The Motor, a weekly automobile magazine, stated: "We test the Pacer – and wish we hadn't."
Popular Mechanics described the newly added 1977 Station Wagon body style as a "Styling Coup", and said: "who needs the coupe!"
By 1978 the luster had worn off the design, and as more sophisticated competitors were introduced the press began criticizing the lack of power and performance.
Collector of classic car publication Hemmings Motor News noted that small cars have always played a role in the U.S. automotive history, and that "among those produced during the late Seventies, the AMC Pacer was an economical giant, in a manner of speaking." Now old enough to be a "classic car", the Pacer has come to be regarded in some quarters as a 1970s design icon. According to Business Week, the 1970s were "infamous for disco, Watergate and some of the ugliest cars ever." Most cars in the U.S. from the early 1970s are noted more for their power than their styling, but they even lost their power by late 1970. Many automobiles began to lose their character and looked the same across brands and automakers, as well as focusing on "luxury" features such as vinyl roofs and non-functional opera windows. The "roly-poly" Pacer was one of the few of that era that had "real personalities" and it embodies a sense of "artful desperation" making it "stand out from the crowd and epitomize at once the best and worst of the seventies."
Nevertheless, in spite of their bad reputations, cars of the 1970s era such as the Pacer are becoming collectors' items. Business Week reported that the rising values of so-called "nerd cars"—ugly 1970s-era cars—prompted the CEO of a major collector-car insurance company to buy a Pacer which has "inexplicably appreciated substantially beyond the $2,300 that he paid for it in 2004." In 2002 he said: "In what can sometimes be a sea of automotive sameness, the AMC Pacer continues to turn heads even today", and he put the value of a "mint Pacer" at "between $4000 and $6000", saying that "the increased value is fueled solely by the heart."
The Pacer has been described as one of the formerly unloved cars from the 1970s that are enjoying a resurgence in both collectibility and auto restoration—especially among fans of cars from that era. The Pacer is one of several 1970s cars that were always thought of as cheap vehicles; therefore they were poorly maintained, which reduced their life expectancy. Also the heavy engines used in the car put more load on the front suspension than intended, which caused the rack & pinion steering to fail frequently on Pacers built in 1975.
One collector-car expert says you will pay just about the same, around $20,000, for a complete restoration, whether it’s on a $1,000 1978 AMC Pacer or a $5,000 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. When restored, the value of the Pacer may be about $4,000, compared with the Camaro’s $25,000.
Today the Pacer's originality, as well as its deficiencies, are appreciated, if not loved, by car hobbyists and serious collectors alike.
Although "automotive oddity" is a recognition that the Pacer gets for its contribution to history, some owners appreciate them and have also upgraded them with the modern AMC 4.0 Jeep engine as a "low-buck, dare to be different" automobile. A few owners have further modified Pacers into drag cars.
The classic vehicle publication Hemmings Motor News lists AMC clubs with over fifty national and regional AMC automobile clubs as of 16 April 2009. Pacers share the drivetrain as well as other parts and components with other AMC models, while new old stock (NOS), used, and reproduction parts are available from vendors specializing in AMC vehicles.
A 1976 AMC Pacer Hatchback was used in the 1992 movie Wayne's World, and again in the 1993 movie Wayne's World 2. The Pacer used in both movies was painted bright blue with flame decals, with stock steel wheels and wheel covers in the front, and aftermarket chrome-plated steel wheels in the rear. It featured a two-tone light blue-and-beige vinyl interior, as well as a licorice dispenser mounted in place of the overhead light in the headliner. The car is used throughout both movies, however, the car is seen the most in the first Wayne's World movie in the introductory scene, where Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) inserts a cassette tape into the stereo of the Pacer, and Wayne, Garth Algar (Dana Carvey), and his friends rock out and head bang to Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Modifications to the movie car included interior camera mounts, tow hooks welded to the front subframe, and the removal of the HVAC system. The rear wheel wells were modified to accommodate aftermarket speaker boxes, the aforementioned licorice dispenser was added, and an additional cup holder was added to the Pacer's dashboard. The car used an AMC 258 c.i. six-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission.
After sitting unused for over 20 years, the car was restored to the same specifications as in the movie. The body of the Pacer was stripped and repainted, the wheels were re-chromed, and the interior was re-covered, all to match the specifications of the screen car. Finally, a modern aftermarket head unit and speakers were added, and are the only aftermarket parts installed on the car, though the original licorice dispenser remains intact. OEM factory parts used to restore the car were all obtained New Old Stock (NOS). The car was sold for $37,000 at the 2016 Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction in Las Vegas, Nevada.