AMC Eagle: the original crossover?

Today, I’ll be testing the all-new Volvo S60 Cross Country, claimed by some, to be the world’s first crossover saloon. Only it isn’t, because that accolade probably belongs to the mighty AMC Eagle. And the AMC Eagle is quite possibly the most PetrolBloggy American car of all-time.

And yet it barely warrants a mention this side of the Atlantic. Quite frankly, this has to change.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I’ve read an awful lot about the AMC Eagle and now I want to own one. Badly. Seriously, this thing was way ahead of its time in the late 1970s. Part car, part truck and part 4×4. It confused the hell out of many Americans.

Indeed, in the MotorWeek review of 1982, the presenter declared the Eagle SX/4 to be “designed by committee”, before claiming it wasn’t really a car at all. It was built to “fill a special niche in the marketplace”, something the Germans have become postmasters at. No, not postmasters, pass masters.

Put aside seven minutes of your time. This is rather enjoyable.

American Motors didn’t do things by half. A whole flock of Eagles were made available to the American public, including – at launch – a two-door coupé, a four-door saloon and all-American station wagon. They were designed to fill the gap between the affordable all-wheel drive Subaru Leone AWD and authentic but expensive SUVs.

It was a sizeable gap, almost as large as that between the Eagle’s tyres and wheel arches. These jacked-up Eagles sat three inches higher than the AMC Concord upon which they were based. All came with 15-inch wheels and a Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive system. Crucially, they came with switchable two- or four-wheel drive.

Sure, the AMC Eagle looked a little ungainly, bordering on plain weird, but that’s no reason to dismiss it. In fact, AMC should be applauded for making the Eagle so affordable. This wasn’t some super-expensive 4×4 reserved for the upper reaches of American society. An entry-level Eagle would have cost the equivalent of £12,000 in today’s money, about the price of a good supermini.

In Europe, we’re a little obsessed with ‘firsts’ and pioneering all-wheel drive vehicles. The original Land Rover, original Range Rover, Audi quattro, Jensen Interceptor…all landmark vehicles. But why no mention of the AMC Eagle? It was the first American-produced four-wheel drive passenger car, but it doesn’t seem to get any credit. Come on, it took the Interceptor’s Ferguson Formula (FF) system to a huge audience.

The AMC Eagle Estate

The AMC Eagle deserves to be held up amongst the greats of the 20th century. A car not afraid to venture into unknown territory. Quite literally in some cases. No surprise to discover it sold in excess of 120,000 units in the first year.

Who cares what it looks like when it has the ability to climb (almost) every mountain and ford (almost every ford)? As Popular Science put it, the AMC Eagle was a proper mountain goat. And mountain goats don’t care about their appearance.

It also deserves respect for wearing its wood panels with pride, along with being the official car of the American National Ski Patrol. You can’t imagine the American National Ski Patrol (or the Canadian Ski Patrol for that matter) choosing a car that would run away in terror at the sight of a few centimetres of snow. AMC Eagle: the original Snow Patrol car.

AMC Eagle Wagon Canadian Ski

View one of the original TV adverts and say you’re not tempted.

People of Britain, PetrolBlog puts it to you that the AMC Eagle deserves as much respect as the Matra-Simca Rancho. But unlike the Rancho, the Eagle was a proper unsung hero of dirt tracks, steep inclines and wet roads. The original crossover? Depends on your definition and some will claim the Subaru Leone got there first. But for its switchable two- or four-wheel drive system, multiple body styles and lofty ride height, it gets the vote of PB.

PetrolBlog salutes the Eagle. God bless America.

Photos © AMC

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

7 comments

  1. July 30, 2015
    Ben

    Interesting find, never heard of it before. I think the 5 door estate looks pretty good.

    18mpg though!

    Reply
  2. August 3, 2015
    Darren Leslie

    Agree with Ben, the estate looks the business. Not sure on wood paneling mind you.

    Reply
  3. August 4, 2015
    Trev Nightingale

    I remember seeing those in my early 80s editions of the Observers Guide to Automobiles. Lovely looking things, and they seem undervalued in the US as well according to this ad: http://inlandempire.craigslist.org/ctd/5143403207.html

    Reply
  4. August 10, 2015
    Glen Smale

    My first thought before even seeing your headline was: this was a half-way vehicle between the traditional estate and the SUV we have today. Some adventurous soul in the design office obviously had an eye for the future.

    Reply
  5. August 11, 2015
    Paul

    Nice to see a shout-out for this pioneer! Around 2004 I had a 1979 Spirit, the non-4×4 coupe version, and it was wonderful how much attention it garnered, even in Canada. The 4.2 litre inline-6 (no typos there!) made something like 120 hp, and there was no weight over the rear drive wheels, so it was somehow a mix of underpowered on dry roads and overpowered on wet roads. A truly fascinating vehicle, thanks for the excellent write-up!

    Reply
  6. September 2, 2015
    Newman Dalton

    What a great article. Growing up in the US, I still remember lots of my friend’s parents driving these less than beautiful creatures around. All of the kids hated them. I mean for cars, there were Camaros and Mustangs and Celicas out there. For 4x4s, there were big mean looking Chevy Blazers and Ford Broncos. I mean there was some cool stuff. Some of the less fortunate of us (not me thankfully) ended up going on to drive Eagles in high school and parking them far away from the kids who got their parent’s VW Rabbits and Ford Tempos. By comparison, these were much cooler cars in the states anyway. So you were very right when you said it confused many Americans. I do appreciate that car now for what it is… but I think I’ll leave owning one up to other folks. I guess us American kids (I was one during the 80s) just never really warmed up to the Eagle. But this was a very very fun post. Nice to see this ground breaking vehicle through a different perspective.
    https://amanaboutcars.wordpress.com/

    Reply
  7. September 3, 2015
    Some overseas learning. | A man about cars
    Reply

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