It’s easy to get caught up in the hype and feel like we are at the pinnacle of technology today. In many ways, it’s true, but in others, we aren’t moving along as fast as we might think.
People familiar with old AMC cars, like the Pacer and the Gremlin, will recognize this right away. This car didn’t make it to production, but it definitely inspired the style of cars that followed in in the years later.
While AMC didn’t have the deep pockets of the “Big 3” automakers, several developments pushed them to produce this prototype.
First, air quality was getting downright lousy in major American cities. Smog, smoke, and other contaminants were getting to the point where kids couldn’t go outside on some days. This was especially true in cities like Los Angeles that were designed around the automobile. Congestion and gridlock on major routes only made it worse, as cars would sit and pollute while going nowhere.
This all led to legislation meant to clean up the air. Most people know about CARB, federal emissions equipment requirements, unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters, and the beginning of air testing for vehicles in many places. What is less known is that the federal government also provided funding for electric vehicle research, prompting automakers to start these efforts.
Finally, the 60s and 70s were a time when the United States found itself struggling with reliance on foreign oil. During the worst of it, people put up with shortages and long, long gas lines as some countries choked off the supply of fuel to push the U.S. political buttons. Electric car prototypes, which didn’t make it to production, did show the public that automakers and the government were looking for other options.
AMC and other automakers were experimenting with a variety of different drivetrain and engine options at the time, including GM’s rotary engine program that AMC planned to procure engines from. While none of the alternative power plants made it to production, it was definitely a time of innovation that led to the later success of electric vehicles.
What Made This Vehicle Unique
Like many other EV prototypes of the era, the Amitron was small and light. It had a much more aerodynamic shape than most blocky cars of the era, and was designed more for efficiency than for speed or utility.
What made this vehicle different from the other efforts was its two-stage battery pack. Lithium-ion batteries of the time were the best possible option for energy density, but chemistries of the day simply weren’t up to the task of providing high amounts of raw power or charging quickly when trying to use regenerative braking. To solve this problem, engineers decided to use a bigger lithium pack to charge a smaller nickel-cadmium pack that could handle acceleration and regenerative braking.
This put the Amitron ahead of other manufacturers’ prototypes, which couldn’t accelerate quickly or provide regenerative braking. The few that could used odd battery chemistries that were prohibitively expensive and/or had very poor longevity.
After The Amitron
After the Amitron, AMC did go on to produce other prototypes, some based on the Amitron. Most didn’t go onto any kind of mass production, but the overall shape and style of the Amitron did inspire the Pacer and Gremlin production gas vehicles.
AMC ultimately did produce a limited run of small EV Jeeps for the U.S. Postal Service, with several hundred put into service for a few years in the most polluted cities. The “Electruck” didn’t set any records with its 33 MPH cruising speed and limited range, but was a good fit for the USPS mission of delivering mail.
It would be decades before more serious efforts like the GM EV1 and Nissan LEAF came along, but the Amitron’s 150-mile range and advanced features did show automakers that a practical and usable electric vehicle was at least possible. That alone gives the little car a very good legacy.