There are cars you restore -let’s say a ’46 Ford -- because you admire the lines.
Or because they remind you of youthful indiscretion -a ’58 Chevy Impala hardtop comes to mind.
Perhaps it calls to you because of the freedom it represents. Who can look at a T-bucket and not consider the spirit of the original hotrodders?
And then there is the Gremlin.
The little car was introduced by AMC on April Fool’s Day 1970, nearly six months ahead of Ford’s Pinto and Chevy’s Vega, competing sub-compacts.
How AMC was able to rush the $2000 car into production was simple. It essentially truncated the existing AMC Hornet by slicing the rear end off and creating a flip-up glass hatchback. It used much of the Hornet’s original hardware, including its thrifty engine, doors and interior trim. Although the styling was controversial -Gremlin jokes abounded -the little coupe became AMC’s best seller of the decade.
“But, I guess if I was picking a car to restore, this would not be high on my list,” says Tim Wilkie. “But I really do like the darn thing.”
Wilkie’s attachment to the 1971 American Motors icon is a personal one. His dad bought it new from a dealer in Twin Falls, Idaho, and owned it until the day he died.
It was the ubiquitous daily driver every family had in the 1970s.
He used it to get from his farm to the city, piling up the miles over dusty road and farm lanes.
“All he did was change the oil and the air filter,” says Wilkie. “There was so much dirt on the engine you couldn’t even see it.”
He drove it and drove it until the day one of Wilkie’s cousins slammed the rear glass window a bit too hard and the glass shattered.
So the car was backed under a machinery shed to sit.
Oh, but it was still being used.
The farm cats apparently viewed the vacant rear window as an invitation to take up residence.
“They lived in it, urinated on the carpet, had litters of kitten in there,” he says. “It was an awful mess.”
After his dad died, his mom decided to sell the farm, and offered the rolling stock to the kids.
“My brother got the Farmall tractor,” he says, “and I got the Gremlin.”
The car made the trip from Idaho to a suburb of Portland, Oregon via a trailer.
“Somewhere in the Columbia Gorge the wind got the sunroof canvas and shredded it,” he says.
So with no rear window, a tattered sunroof and years of kitten...um...effluent to tackle, Wilkie dove into the project.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, he says. The body was straight and the engine was good, and it had never been damaged.
The car was delivered as a sporty Gremlin X package, which meant it had the optional 3.8-liter six cylinder, three-speed with floor shift, alloy wheels, roof rack and engine-turned trim on the dash.
“There’s no one making pieces for these cars, so getting some of the stuff I needed was kind of hard,” he says. “Some pieces, like the door trim, were common to other cars, so they are still available if you look long enough.”
But other pieces -the missing rear window glass for example -are almost impossible.
“I found one in a wrecking yard but the guy wanted $150 for it,’ he says. “I tried to offer him less, but he said if he couldn’t get his price, he’d take it out back and smash it with a hammer.
“I paid the money.”
Wilkie also replaced the worn out original shocks, took a round out of the front coils and eventually swapped the transmission for a 1974 gearbox with synchromesh into first gear.
“Without the synchro, it’s awful to drive in the city.”
He also added a Holly 390 carb that sits on an Offenhauser intake manifold.
The engine has never been out of the car, and the dry Idaho climate was kind to the original paint.
The result is a car that is dwarfed by other American iron, yet draws a disproportionate amount of attention at shows and cruise-ins, simply because it is rare.
“I just had a lady come up to me and say that 30 years ago she’d never give this car a second look,” he says, “but now she says it is the cutest thing here.”