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HOW WE ROLL – 1977 AMC Gremlin

By Laura Roesch, Photography by Michael Booini

David Abernathy graduated from Rutherford High School in 1985 and bought a 1977 AMC Gremlin the same year. Back then, he saw the car as a mode of transportation. It was his dependable daily driver for almost 100,000 miles, with many upgrades along the way. David reflects on and details some of the work in our interview. I often hear “gearheads” say they wish they had the good sense to keep the car they had in their youth. It is a treat to talk with someone who still owns the car they bought when they were just 18 years old.

What is it about the Gremlin that made you keep it all these years?

My parents always drove AMC cars and I became a fan. Gremlins were plentiful and, with my Dad’s help, the Gremlin fit my budget. Many other kids drove Ford Mustangs, Chevy Camaros, and Pontiac Trans Ams. I took a lot of ragging about the car. “A little Gremlin,” they said! “It will never be anything,” they said. To me it was something! And it got me thinking and looking into AMC. I found out that Gremlins came with V8s, and I could drop a Javelin or AMX V8 motor right in! There was just something about the little car that made me want to keep it, maybe because I recognized that there were lots of modifications possible, despite what all the kids had to say. And here we are, all these years later.

Have you kept up with any of those ‘kids’ since and what do they think of the car now?

Oh, yes! I run into them from time to time. I especially enjoyed our 20th high school reunion. The subject of cars came up and someone said, “Do you remember the guy who had the old Gremlin?” Of course, I happily announced that I still had it and walked everyone out to the parking lot to see it. I asked them if they recall how they used to rag on me about the car; then I popped the hood. Back then, their cars would eat my grits. Now, I have over 300 horses sitting under that little hood. That was great fun!

How did you learn so much about AMC and the potential for modifications?

After high school graduation in June 1985, I attended Haney Vocational Technical Center. There, I met my friend, Frank, who was really into AMC cars. Frank owned a 1970 SST Javelin, a 1970 two-seater AMX, a 1972 Javelin AMX. He started schooling me on AMC and we have been friends since.

What was the car like when you bought it in 1985?

Then it was an automatic “straight six” 258 with a set of headers on it and a four-barrel intake manifold and a performance camshaft. It sounded pretty good to an 18-year-old; it had a real deep throaty sound to it. It was jacked up in the back with wide tires. The body was a little beat up and the interior was a bit of a mess as the previous owner used the car for hunting and fishing. Although it originally had the special-order “Levi” interior, the bucket seat frames were shot, the interior mismatched with different colors, the carpet faded and torn. The exterior color, midnight blue metallic, was
also faded.

What changes have you made?

In 1977, a V8 engine was no longer an option on the Gremlin, although AMC left the engine bay dimensions the same. My buddy Frank was replacing his 360 V8 in his Javelin AMX with a 401, so I installed his 360 V8 in my Gremlin. I added a true dual exhaust, so it has a distinctly different sound from the original straight six. The tires are 14” Cooper Cobras. The rims are off of a ’68 two-seater AMX. I have yet to locate a “Levi” (as in Levi jeans) interior, but Billy’s Trim shop locally did a beautiful job with the interior. I had the exterior painted a darker shade of blue, choosing a 1990 Corvette Medium Quasar Blue Metallic, as I thought it had a bit more eye appeal than the original color.

Is it your daily driver?

When I first got the car, it had 74,000 miles on it and I have driven almost 100,000 miles over the years. But I don’t drive it as frequently now. It is reliable, and I could drive it a long distance, but I am mindful that it is a 40-year-old car.

Does Kaylen (David’s significant other) drive it?

She says she doesn’t want to and it really isn’t designed for a small, petite person. The car has a ball joint front suspension, called independent front suspension, and it does not have A/C, power steering, or power brakes. All that is still original, although I installed a tilt steering column and assembly out of a Spirit AMX.

Built from 1970 to 1978, the Gremlin was American Motor Company’s effort to capture the market by manufacturing a U.S.-built subcompact car. The Gremlin predated the release of Chevrolet’s Vega and Ford’s Pinto and it competed with Volkswagen’s Beetle and Toyota’s Corona. The Gremlin’s designer was aware that its appearance might be considered “cute or controversial, depending on one’s perspective.” The car’s mascot, a cute little gnome-looking critter, was cartoon inspired and meant to be memorable to consumers.

Laura Roesch

Laura Roesch, born and raised on Florida’s east coast, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Radford University and a law degree from Indiana University School of Law. A retired judge, she is a voracious reader with a lifelong passion for books. She and her husband collect vintage cars and motorcycles. You may see her driving around town in “Maybelline,” a purple 1956 Chevy Belair–her favorite in their collection.

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