On December 3, 1979, the last Pacer rolls off the assembly line at the American Motors Corporation (AMC) factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When the car first came on the market in 1975, it was a sensation, hailed as the car of the future. “When you buy any other car,” ads said, “all you end up with is today’s car. When you get a Pacer, you get a piece of tomorrow.” By 1979, however, sales had faded considerably. Today, polls and experts agree: the Pacer was one of the worst cars of all time.
By the end of the 1960s, AMC was the only surviving independent automaker in the United States. The only way to assure AMC’s future, company officials decided, was to embrace what they called a “Philosophy of Difference.” That is, they built only cars that offered buyers something brand-new. (During the 1960s, the company had tried to compete directly with cars produced by the Big Three–General Motors, Ford and Chrysler–and had nearly gone bankrupt as a result.) They also decided to build cars that would meet the stringent federal safety and pollution standards that they imagined would be in place in 1980.
Thus, the Pacer: an “economy car” that was, despite its designs on the small-car market, amazingly heavy (thanks to those crash-protection standards) and terribly fuel-inefficient. Most peculiarly, the Pacer was nearly half as wide (77 inches) as it was long (171.5 inches, on a 100-inch wheelbase). In theory, this meant that four adults and their cargo could travel in comfort; in practice, it meant that the car was goofy-looking and impossible to park. Contributing to the overall goofiness were the car’s enormous windows–more than one reviewer compared the Pacer to a fishbowl. Also, to make it easier for passengers to load packages into the back and drivers to climb in on the curb side, the left-hand door was shorter than the right one. (As a result, parallel parkers in Great Britain typically needed to crawl over the passenger seat to get out, because the driver’s-side door was so big that it would get caught on the curb.) The short, squat car was also woefully underpowered.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its bad reputation, the Pacer has also earned a spot in pop-culture history. A 1976 Pacer–robin’s-egg blue, with flames painted on the front fenders–starred in the 1992 film “Wayne’s World” and in the accompanying video for the old Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” More recently, the rapper Eminem featured a late-model Pacer in the music video for his 2000 hit “The Real Slim Shady.”