That’s right, it’s a Gremlin– without a doubt one, of the ugliest, least respected, aerodynamically-challenged cars ever produced on American soil. Wisconsin-based AMC had never been known for beautiful design or muscle, and so their entry into the muscle car market in the 1970s was seen as a classic tale of– a day late & a dollar short. When AMC signed Wally Booth to head the AMC Pro Stock effort, despite that there were virtually no aftermarket components for AMG engines, he and engine-building partner Dick Arons transformed the brand’s staid grocery-getter reputation from the ground up into that of a genuine performance powerhouse– all from scratch. Needless to say, everyone on the racing scene quickly took notice, as the red-headed stepchild to America’s “Big Three” automakers worked tirelessly with the little they had, and started to kick some serious tail.
From AN AMERICAN LONGSHOT – THE AMC FACTORY PRO STOCK EFFORT–
“The AMC engine was no different than any other in that it had its share of problems,” Dick Maskin (cyllinder head guru) said. “It obviously wasn’t designed to be a race engine but it won a few races in its day. It won some NASCAR and on the Trans-Am circuit. The engine was pretty good and they had some special blocks for those programs that we got our hands on. The cylinder heads were the largest problems. We just started making our own with AMC’s blessings with their suppliers and tooling. We basically didn’t have a motorsports center, we had a guy that we’d call and it wasn’t any sweat for them to issue a part number.”
Wally Booth began with a Tom Smith-built Gremlin X while Maskin and while Maskin and original partner Jim Gilbert started with one, they were the first to convert to a Hornet. The aerodynamic difference between the two body styles was as clear as night and day. Neither were sleek air-cutters, but the Hornet did have an advantage and that came to light in an April 1973 test session when identical engines were ran in each car.
“The Gremlin was about three and a half miles per hour and a tenth of a second slower than the Hornet,” said Booth. “After that, I ordered a new Hornet from Smith that we debuted at the Spring Nationals in June, and we started to run better.”
The AMC team had worked tirelessly to bring the combination up to speed and their first victory came at the 1974 Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.
“There had been some personnel changes at AMC,” said Booth. “Swaim and the other people backing the program had been shifted to other parts of the company, and it was all but official that they were going to put their resources elsewhere. The Gatornationals win absolutely saved the program, and Swaim’s replacement, Bob Wheat, was instrumental in capitalizing on the win. He had been hired to promote racing, and after the Gatornationals, he finally had something to promote.
“It certainly would have been tragic if it had ended then since we had gone from nothing to the winner’s circle in just slightly over two years.”
Cylinder head technology, now Maskin’s money-maker, was discovered to be the key to making the AMC cars run quickly. Booth drove his Hornet to the top qualifying spot at the 1975 U.S. Nationals.
The following year, Maskin reached four winner’s circles (Springnationals, U.S. Nationals, Fallnationals, World Finals) and finished runner-up once en route to a third place finish in the championship point standings.
That season was the one that almost didn’t happen for the AMC team as Booth said that NHRA tech director Jack Hart had notified him that their cylinder heads would be illegal for 1976. Since much of his funding had fallen through, he raced Pomona with a Vega that he’d leased from Andy Mannarino. He lost in the first round at that event. That early loss would come back to haunt him, as well as an early departure in Gainesville. Booth lost the championship that year to Larry Lombardo by six rounds.
The program reached its highest point in 1976 when Booth met Dave Kanners (driver for Maskin) in the final round during the NHRA Finals at Ontario, Ca. Booth won.
“Between myself, Wally and Dick, we made a lot of progress in the five years we had to work on the program,” Maskin said. “Wally won a lot of races and was fast. At the end of the deal, we were fast, too. We made it to the finals a few times but never won a national. We did win some points races though. The glory day was the final round when Wally beat us in the finals. We were low et and top speed of every round.”
“The energy crisis came along and we lost most of our backing. I had another sponsor, who was going to give me a great deal of money as well. I lost a couple of hundred thousand dollars of sponsorship in two phone calls. We continued on self-funded because we already had everything there.”
Booth and Maskin ran a few more seasons and finally closed up shop in 1979. Maskin went on to create Dart cylinder heads and Booth returned to his engine building business.
“I was racing some on my own money that year,” Booth said. “I was running over 160 mph in test at Orange County (Int’l Raceway) two weeks before the Winternationals which was real good at the time. We broke my good motors during those tests though, and I showed up at Pomona with garbage under the hood. At that point I felt like I was done, but I ran the rest of the races anyway to meet my obligations with the sponsors. After the year was over, that was it. I retired from racing.”
um wanted to let you know that amc gremlins were actually ahead of there time. do a little research on them and you can discover so unique design cues that were light years ahead of the big 3. Keep up the good work.
OK, partypants– fill me in on what you know about the Gremlin….
The Gremlin was über-cool at the time, and those Levi seats had red tags to boot.
The only problem was if you were delegated to the back seat your knees would be digging into your chin, that is if you fit back there in the first place.
And next to the Duster’s google-eyed twister, Gremlin had the best logo character.
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The Gremlin was like a Hornet kicked in the butt.
My parents bought a Gremlin X Levi edition with the six banger.Got great gas mileage and actually rode good for it’s size.It did out weigh both the Vega and Pinto.
My folks also owned a Hornet and a Hornet Sport about wagon with rally pack (V8,twin grip,rally wheels and stripes).It was a wagon my mother honestly loved.
I think all of those cars including the Gremlin shared the basic same design on the inside,which was a sporty dash and gauges.
I can remember going to King’s Island near Cinn. Ohio with my Mom,Grandmother,brother,and sister all in the Gremlin.
Oh,I rode in the spacious cargo area.
The police would be thrilled about that seating arrangement these days !
Love AMCs. Wally Booths first Gremlin he built himself and his second Gremlin was built by Ron Fournier of Race Craft in Detroit, Then Wally ran the Hornet built by Tom Smith of Wolverine Chassis for 6 years. Maskin NEVER won a National event, The events listed in this story were won by Wally Booth.