Roy Chapin Jr.'s quirky cars are remembered

April 02, 2006|By JASON STEIN - Wheelbase Communications

It's interesting what people are remembered for.

If you don't know Roy Chapin Jr., it's a good bet you know his cars.

Gremlin, Hornet, Javelin and Pacer.

Even more than 30 years later, the mention of those names in car circles is enough to provoke a chuckle or two.

Some still collect the American Motors Corporation cars and proudly call them timeless classics. Others would prefer to quite literally look the other way. Chapin Jr., the gentlemanly and highly intelligent son of one of the pioneers in the car industry, kept a business afloat with them.

In the annals of time, Chapin might be eternally linked with those quirky derivatives, which helped AMC stave off bankruptcy when financial pressure made it tough for the automaker to compete in the United States. During his decade-long stint as chairman of AMC, Chapin used a bunch of creative marketing methods and product initiatives to stave off bankruptcy at the fourth-largest auto company in the United States.


He presided over the company's acquisition of Jeep Corporation. He was instrumental in the collaboration of AMC and Renault.

But, from New York to New Mexico, everyone still remembers the Pacer and Gremlin.

Those subcompact and compact cars with the round shapes, bulbous tops and odd exteriors are the stuff of legends. Chances are your neighbor owned a Gremlin. Wayne and Garth drove a 1976 Pacer in the 1992 film "Wayne's World." And eBay Motors still sells loads of them every year.

Chapin would have never believed it.

Born in 1916 as the last remaining son of an American auto pioneer - Chapin's father was a key figure in the launch of Olds Motor Works and was a founder of the Hudson Motor Car Company - Chapin had the industry in his blood from the very beginning.

A 1937 graduate of Connecticut's Yale University, he began his career in the auto industry working for Hudson as an engineer and a company test driver. Because Hudson did not have its own closed track for testing, he used Detroit's east side streets to make sure the cars were performing well.

In 1954, Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator to form American Motors and Chapin stayed on as the company's treasurer. Within a decade he climbed the corporate ladder, first as vice president and later as executive vice president, and by 1967 he was promoted to chairman and CEO.

AMC had a market share of less than 3 percent, sales were sliding and red ink was everywhere. The company needed a boost.

Chapin noticed that imported cars from Volkswagen sold for much less than his AMC Rambler, so Chapin slashed prices and watched as showroom traffic and customer enthusiasm increased.

Chapin began the 1970s by overhauling AMC's product plan, acquiring a big name and unveiling vehicles that would become cult classics.

AMC launched the Hornet, a small car designed to compete with other compact cars of the day and, in February 1970, AMC bought Kaiser Jeep for $75 million. Chapin knew it had potential and he knew that AMC needed a truck-based vehicle. AMC's engineers and designers quickly overhauled Jeep and expanded its lineup, creating a valuable asset within the company.

But the blockbuster came on April Fool's Day in 1970. It was dubbed the "Gremlin." And no one forgot its name.

The wheelbase was a short 96 inches and it had a sloping hatchback called the Kammback. Some models had Levi's denim on the bucket seats and door panels.

The Gremlin was followed by the Javelin and then the Pacer, a car that was mostly glass and unlike anything that had ever been unveiled in the United States.

AMC even had the marketing guts to match. The company's slogan in 1971 was, "If you had to compete with GM, Ford and Chrysler, what would you do?"

The public seemed to find it appealing, but AMC was ultimately doomed.

Growing competition from Japanese small cars was taking its toll on AMC and Chapin's Wall Street connections couldn't keep the company afloat. In 1979, Chapin turned to Renault for help and the French automaker eventually took control of the company.

As for Chapin, he was out and retired to a ranch in California.

"I love this business and never really considered doing anything else," he said in an interview after his retirement.

He sat on the sidelines as Renault eventually sold out to Chrysler, which eventually merged with DaimlerBenz.

He watched as Jeep became one of the most successful truck products in American history.

And although he died in 2001, he no doubt would have been intrigued as eBay buyers, car collectors and Hollywood idolized his little 1970s creations and made them larger than life long after he was gone.

It's interesting what people are known for, isn't it?

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