NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

A Case of the Gremlins

09 May 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

“Now that you did the Vega panels how about a retrospective on Gremlins — the ‘other’ sort of panel!”

So came the request from reader Ken Brodsky earlier this week. First off, I have to admit that I have a special place in my heart for AMC cars. My first car was a hand-me-down Javelin from my parents that became the first car I ever drove down the quarter-mile (at Orange County Int’l Raceway) and my first hot-rodding experience. I added a bigger carb and a better manifold, somehow shoe-horned in a set of headers, and had the Torqueflite tranny redone by Art Carr. I learned how to change the points and condenser (kids today are going “Huh?”) and how to bust my knuckles open on stubborn header bolts. I liked having something different and later became an official member of the National American Motors Drivers and Racers Association and flew their colors proudly during many a — ahem — clandestine midnight challenge. When the original 360-cid engine expired, I went out and got a 390-cid AMC engine out of an earlier model and bolted that it into the engine bay and had a real screamer.

So it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to entertain Brodsky’s suggestion, although I expected it to be a short tale. Let’s face it, the Gremlin wasn’t that popular of a street car (in eight years, just 671,475 Gremlins were sold, an average of just 80,000 a year) and, apparently, an even less popular race car. I thought right away of the only Gremlin Funny Car I knew, Lou Azar’s Funny Gremlin and Wally Booth’s Pro Stocker, and my list kind of ended there.

A quick bit of automotive background: For all of its styling woes, the Gremlin should get credit as the first true U.S. compact car as AMC rushed to beat Ford’s Pinto and Chevy’s Vega to the punch (all trying to counter the popularity of the VW Beetle), but that didn’t stop Time magazine from naming the 1970 Gremlin one of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time a few years ago. The Gremlin essentially was an AMC Hornet with the back end clipped off to give it an overall length of 161.3 inches (just two inches longer than the Beetle).

The truncated finish gave it the Kammback style similar to that of the Vega panel wagon but quite a bit less stylishly so (“one of the most curiously proportioned cars ever, with a long low snout, long front overhang, and a truncated tail, like the tail snapped off a salamander,” opined Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive critic Dan Neil for the Time article).

That didn’t stop either Azar or Booth from taking their Gremlins to the strip, though Azar admitted that his choice of body style was more for its match-race booking uniqueness.

Azar, who was based in Hialeah, Fla., looked high and low and finally a coast away for a Gremlin body before he came across Riviera Plastics in Garden Grove, Calif. Because the factory Gremlin had a wheelbase of just 96 inches, the body had to be stretched two full feet to fit the traditional 120-inch wheelbase of a Funny Car chassis, all of which was added to the hood area. Foy Gilmore built the car for Azar, and with its one-off nature, the car took almost a year to complete, and after Kenny Youngblood applied the Funny Gremlin lettering and stars-and-stripes motif, the car made its first runs in September 1971.

The car was powered by a 430-cid Chrysler Hemi, which Azar jokingly listed as “an experimental American Motors Hemi.” Although never one of the fastest cars out there, Azar did accomplish his goal of having a memorable and desired machine.

(Azar wasn’t the only one who really liked the Gremlin body style; Ed Lenarth, of Jeep Funny Car fame, planned to use one on the wild Mid-Winder sidewinder Funny Car he built, but the car, with Bob Hightower at the controls — and sans body — was heavily damaged in testing at Lions Drag Strip and a follow-up sidewinder dragster crashed at Irwindale Raceway, ending the project.) You can read more about the Mid-Winder in a column I wrote a few years ago here.

Azar eventually sold the car to fellow Floridian Paul Smith, who sold the car to the Virginia-based team of Donnie Plunkett and Frank Meinel, former Top Gas and Top Fuel racers, who ran the car for four years under the Mischief Maker moniker.

According to Plunkett’s son, Timothy, in a story posted on DragList.com about a decade ago, only three Gremlin bodies were made; Azar had two of the bodies and Shirl Greer the other (though Greer's sons do not recall him ever having this body). Similar to the tales of woe of the Kammback-styled Vega wagons, the Gremlin bodies were an aerodynamic liability. “The body was bad about forcing the car to spin around at the end of the track and go through the traps backwards,” he wrote. “The other two bodies were thought to be crashed. Lou wrecked one at Blaney, S.C. It pulled the chute through the blower belt, I assume, after getting flipped around. Shirl Greer told Frankie at 170-180 mph, the cars just started to spin around after the air picked up the back end of the car.”

Plunkett said the team bought the body not because of its uniqueness but because it was available for the right price when they moved away from Top Fuel because his dad did not like the idea of rear-engine dragsters that were becoming the norm due to the fear of the engine “following him” into the guardrail in case of an incident.

Determined to solve the Gremlin’s handling woes, the team designed a low-dollar wind tunnel in its shop using smoke and several squirrel-cage fans. They discovered, to no one’s surprise, that the air was wrapping around the back of the body, so they added a small spill plate near the beltline that was continually lengthened and eventually extended out to more than 20 inches.

“The car had some good runs but never made it that far through the field,” wrote Plunkett. “They usually advanced only one or two rounds, and most advancement in the upper rounds was off others’ misfortunes. They ran the southern NHRA divisional events but only went to the IHRA national events. They never went to the NHRA national events.”

When IHRA trimmed its Funny Car fields from 16 to eight cars in the late 1970s, and with nitro prices climbing and no sponsorships in the works, the car was sold to a fellow Virginia racer, who put a Model T body on the chassis and ran some lower classes. “The body is still thought to be somewhere in Bedford, Va.,” said Plunkett.

The senior Plunkett went on to drive for Elmer and Gwynn Hartsoe in their Chevy-powered Monza Funny Car for a short time, then later went NASCAR Late Model Sportsman car and NASCAR Late Model Stocker in the 1980s and 1990s.

Booth's jump from Chevrolet to AMC was a bit surprising because his big-block Camaro was actually the second-quickest Chevy Pro Stocker of the early 1970s (behind Bill Jenkins), reaching the semifinals of the Gatornationals and the quarterfinals of the 32-car field U.S. Nationals in 1971. After Chrysler’s domination, NHRA created a furor in 1972 by allowing a generous 400-pound weight break for sub-compact Pro Stock cars with wheelbases of less than 100 inches, which allowed the rise of cars like the Vega, Pinto, and, yes, the Gremlin. Booth had, in fact, spent the winter building a small-block Vega before AMC came calling and offered him a factory ride.

Again, the poor aerodynamics of the body were a hindrance, and Booth won just four rounds in 1972 and didn’t run most of the 1973 NHRA season. Booth, the team of Dick Maskin, and Dave Kanners joined Team AMC with a longer and more stable Hornet in early 1973, and Booth followed suit later that year and won the 1974 Gatornationals with his Hornet.

Other drivers to compete in Pro Stock with a Gremlin included Maskin, Bert Straus, Jessie Childree, Dave Gilbert, Jim Johnson, Rich LaMont, Dennis Peck, LeRoy Roeder, and Max Smith.

So as you can see, at least as far as drag racing is concerned, the Gremlins were appropriately named. They never enjoyed a great deal of success and caused a lot of headaches, but at least they were memorable. Next week I'll take a look at some of the other memorable AMCs from quarter-mile history.