It’s Weird AMC Never Had A Real Van But It Almost Did

It’s Weird AMC Never Had A Real Van But It Almost Did

While I was doing a bit of research this week for this extended vans post, I realised something I don’t believe I’d ever realised before: AMC never made a van. How could that be? A major (well, you know, close) U.S. automaker not even trying to get a taste of that sweet, sweet municipal water department fleet-van pie? It makes no sense. I also didn’t realise how close AMC came to getting into the minivan game in the ’80s, either. I’ve got a lot of AMC van-related growing up to do, so join me, won’t you?

First, I should be clear that AMC did come close to having a viable, fleet-sales van. It even had a very well-known client here in America: the Post Office.

Yes, the Jeep DJ, also known as the Dispatcher, and also known as the Postal Jeep was the closest AMC ever really got to building vans, and it’s really not all that van-like.

Illustration: Willys Overland

These were really just Jeeps with a nearly cubical shed dropped on them, and were developed pre-AMC-era, even, and during the heyday of Postal Jeep production they were technically built by AMC military and contract-vehicle subsidiary AM General, so you could argue that even this wasn’t really an AMC van.

AMC did play with the idea of little, fun vans in their concept cars, including this absolutely delightful weirdo concept from 1977 that’s kind of a hybrid between a Pacer, Gremlin, and a custom van:

Photo: AMC

That was the AM Van, but, sadly, it never made it to production.

And, if we’re really honest, the sort of van that could have made it to realistic production under AMC would likely not have been anywhere near that cool. Perpetually cash-strapped AMC would have wanted some kind of van-like vehicle to sell to big fleets, but would not have wanted to put much money into developing it.

I’d say, based on what we know about AMC, if it wanted to make a sort of Ford Econoline competitor in the 1970s, I think it would have taken the cheapest possible approach, and one it had done before: hack up a Hornet.

A Hornet with its arse chopped off became the Gremlin when AMC needed a cheap compact to compete with Volkswagen. I think it’d have taken the same approach: swap the rear half of a Hornet to make a usable, cheap van.

Some AMC exec would likely have barged into the design studio, told AMC designers Dick Teague and Bob Nixon that the company needed a van, quick-like, and no, there wasn’t really any money it’d be putting into this, before stubbing his cigarette out on a drawing board and knocking off early for the day.

Bob and Dick probably would have dug out the old Hornet-into-Gremlin drawings, laid a sheet of vellum over them, and come up with something like this:

Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

It’d be all stock Hornet/Gremlin to the B-pillar, then a sheet-metal van body with a single side-hinged door at the rear. Or maybe it’d try to re-use the Hornet wagon’s tailgate back there? Possibly a pair of cut-down J10 pickup tailgates? I wouldn’t put any cost-cutting hackery past ’70s-era AMC.

It wouldn’t have been nearly as flexible or roomy as an Econoline, but I bet AMC could have undercut Ford and GM and Chrysler with these things and made a good dent in small business, delivery, and fleet markets.

Of course, this didn’t happen. There’s no evidence even such a thing was considered. But there is one AMC van that almost did happen, and there is evidence of that. Of course, it’s actually a Renault van, but AMC and Renault were partners, so it almost counts.

The van was the remarkably-designed Renault Espace, a front-wheel-drive minivan from 1984 that was arguably better-designed than the K-Car-based Chrysler FWD minivans that took over America in the 1980s.

Photo: Renault

Renault bought a controlling interest in AMC (mostly for their dealer network and Jeep, I suppose) and Renaults were coming into America via AMC dealers, as in the case of the famous American-ised Renault 5, the LeCar.

AMC even got so far as to work up a federalized Espace, with rectangular sealed-beam headlights, side markers, and all the other hallmarks of a U.S.-spec car:

Photo: Renault (via Hemmings, Other

Plans got pretty far along, with public announcements and even a 1985 Popular Science article comparing the upcoming AMC/Renault Espace to its minivan rivals from the Big Three:

Screenshot: Popular Science

I think the Espace fares pretty well in this comparison; while the RWD vans from Ford and GM can tow a bit more, they’re less space and fuel-efficient and, compared to Chrysler’s FWD minivan, the Espace offers about as much room with more towing capability, if a bit less payload. It certainly would have been competitive, I think.

Photo: Renault

The caption on that PopSci article mentions how some of the Espace’s seats can fold to become tables, which you can see in this brochure shot is pretty damn cool. Especially if you have all that sweet surveyor’s equipment.

This could have done wonders for 1980s AMC/Renault, but, sadly, it never came to pass. According to a 1985 Chicago Tribune story,

In piecing together information from a variety of industry sources, it was learned the Renault Espace also had been put on hold. This mini-van was shown at the recent Chicago Auto Show before its fall introduction. A French company named Matra does much of the work on the van for Renault. AMC and Renault are still negotiating with Matra on prices before a final import agreement is reached, so a 1986 target date looks uncertain now.

Things weren’t going well for AMC/Renault, and by 1987, Chrysler agreed to buy out Renault’s share in the company, which was the death knell for the Espace coming to America, as it would have competed directly with the Chrysler minivans.

So, we’re back where we started: we live in a reality where there are no real AMC vans. I’ll leave you to deal with this in your own manner.