If I had a dime for every automaker who said they built the original crossover SUV, I’d have … let’s see … oh, I guess about 30 or 40 cents by now. Truth be told, the one company that can genuinely lay claim to creating the first modern-day crossover SUV is now out of business. That company is (or, was) American Motors Corporation, and the vehicle is the wonderful AMC Eagle.
Like many great vehicles, the Eagle was an act of desperation. In the late 1970s, American Motors was in deep doo-doo. Stung by two energy crises and sick of poor-running, low-quality domestic iron, American buyers were flocking to Japanese cars, which were small, fuel-efficient and exceptionally well-built. In 1977, AMC’s lineup consisted of the Gremlin (developed in 1970), Hornet (1970), Matador (1970/74) and Pacer (AMC’s newest car, introduced in ’75) — plus the Jeep lineup. Though AMC had once been known for their small cars, tastes were changing: Buyers wanted fuel-efficient 4-cylinders, but the smallest engine AMC could offer was a 232-ci (3.8-liter) cast-iron straight six.
Since AMC didn’t have a 4-cylinder engine — and since they didn’t have the money to develop a new small car — they knew they’d die unless they could come up with something new to offer the public. And so, like a resourceful prison inmate, they got creative with what they had at hand: They decided to mate the 4-wheel-drive system from Jeep with their unit-body passenger cars.
AMC had fiddled with the idea of a 4-wheel-drive Hornet in the past, having built a prototype in ’72 — and while it was durable (which, at the time, was the main concern about a unibody 4-wheeler) refinement was reportedly terrible. Revisiting the concept, AMC sent a Hornet to an outfit in Britain to be fitted with 4-wheel-drive. Testing was successful, and the Eagle began to take flight: AMC increased the ground clearance for better off-road performance; production versions would sit 3″ higher than rear-drive AMCs. This differentiated the AMC models from Subaru’s part-time 4-wheel-drive vehicles, which (prophetically) were designed for bad-weather traction rather than off-road adventure. Unlike contemporary 4x4s, the Eagle had an independent front suspension; the differential, a Dana 30 similar to that used in the Jeep CJ, was mounted on the left side of the engine block, with an axle tube extending under the oil pan to provide for equal-length half-shafts.
As the new 4×4 was being developed, the old war horses on which they were based were renamed and mildly restyled: The Hornet became the Concord in 1978, and the Gremlin became the Spirit in ’79, the same year the Matador was dropped. AMC had shed the past, at least from a marketing perspective, and the way was paved for the first true car-SUV crossover: the 1980 AMC Eagle.
Originally, the Eagle was offered in 3 body styles: A 2-door coupe, a 4-door sedan and a 5-door wagon, all based on the Concord. In 1981, AMC added the Kammback and SX-4, both based on the Spirit; the former had the original Gremlin’s tall profile, while the latter had a new roofline developed in ’79. AMC also (finally) got a 4-cylinder engine, sort-of: They contracted with GM to buy Pontiac’s 2.5-liter Iron Duke.
The Eagle originally had a full-time 4-wheel-drive system. In 1981, AMC added an optional part-time system called “Select Drive,” which disconnected the front driveshaft in order to save fuel. The system had a dashboard switch that worked by vacuum; an interlock meant two hands were required to operate it, and the car had to be stopped to switch modes. Shift-on-the-fly was offered in 1985.
Sales were modest — this was, after all, AMC — and they fell steadily through the 1980s. That was no surprise: Automakers were in the process of downsizing, modernizing and front-wheel-drive-izing their product lines, and the Eagles remained a throwback to the early ’70s Hornet and Gremlin on which they were based. (The rear-wheel-drive Concord and Spirit were dropped after 1983 as the Renault-sourced Alliance and Encore came online.)
When Chrysler bought AMC in 1987, they were quick to flush the outdated AMC-based cars from the lineup — and Eagle production wrapped up at the end of the year. Chrysler did keep the Eagle name alive as a sub-brand, selling rebadged Mitsubishi Colts (Summit and Vista), a Renault 21 (Medallion), a fantastic Diamond-Star coupe (Talon), a Renault 25-based sedan developed by AMC (Premier) and, eventually, an LH sedan (Vision). The brand was shut down in 1998.
That said, the AMC Eagle wasn’t a dead end. Not only was it the first car-SUV crossover, but it also proved the worth of a compact 4×4 wagon while establishing that unit-body vehicles with independent front ends could withstand the strain of off-roading. AMC would put this knowledge to use when they introduced the 1984 XJ Cherokee, a vehicle that would be a 15-year success story for AMC and Jeep.
It’s a delicious irony that a car far, far ahead of its time was based on some of AMC’s most outdated metal. One wonders whether AMC would be around today if it had had the development funds to create a new car. Nevertheless, next time some automaker lays claim to having the first crossover SUV, you can correct them. Find an AMC Eagle for sale