If there were ever an easy target for the peanut gallery, this is it.  Polarizing shape + negative name = turkey shoot.  It’s just too tempting.  And anytime a website compiles an ugly car list, you can bet your life the poor Gremlin will be in the top five.  Is this car really that offensive?  I mean, really? Why don’t we declare a momentary cease fire and have a look at the context surrounding this design…

American Motors was always the Detroit underdog, and its product history reflects this.  They couldn’t compete with the sheer volume of the Big Three, so they didn’t try to.  Instead, they were innovators.  Trail blazers.  They took the risks that a small company with little to lose could afford to take.  The Gremlin, introduced ahead of the Big Three’s subcompacts, was one of those risks.  I think we can all agree that the name gave it a handicap right from the start.  But as designers, we can evaluate the controversial shape in a more objective way.  What makes iconic small cars like the Beetle and the Mini so iconic?  A distinctive profile.  Even from 100 feet away, you can instantly recognize these cars.  AMC obviously wanted to field a subcompact that would stand out in a similar way.   In fact, the cover of one of their brochures directly compared the rear end shapes of the Beetle and the Gremlin.

Of course, when you make such a bold statement, most people are either going to love it or hate it.  That’s what happens when you play to win.  Frankly, I think the Gremlin deserves more flak for its front end. The carryover Hornet parts are painfully obvious, and the grille design almost comes across as incidental.  Throw in the bad fit and finish, and the Gremlin looks like it’s been in a schoolyard fight and lost.  The ’77 reface is more palatable, but it looks way too ordinary next to the distinctive hatch.

After eight years, the Gremlin was retired, and popular culture has been making fun of it ever since (Hans Moleman drove a green one on The Simpsons).  Still, the brochure cover I mentioned earlier indicates to us what might have been.  Suppose AMC had a little more time and a little more money back in 1970.  Maybe then the Gremlin would’ve been the iconic subcompact they had envisioned…