1981 AMC Eagle Limited Coupe: Who The Heck Ordered This?

Well, realistically, who else but AMC could take so many dissimilar parts and turn it into a fully functional vehicle. Whitewalls, opera windows, stand-up hood ornament, two-tone paint, landau vinyl top…and so on.

1978 Concord, spotted at the annual car show in Bishop Hill, IL, July 2014.

The entire car itself was built in much the same way, at its core a 1970 AMC Hornet with a four-wheel drive system. In 1978, the venerable Kenosha-built compact went upscale and was renamed the Concord, with available color-keyed wheel covers, landau top, and opera windows.

The Eagle first appeared in 1980, and generated much interest in AMC showrooms. This coupe, a sedan, a wagon and the Gremlin/Spirit based SX/4 rounded out the lineup. As time wore on the lineup was pruned, with only the station wagon remaining by 1988, the final year. I’ll likely do a more detailed post on the Eagle at some point, but for today, let’s focus on this Eagle coupe – a real oddball, even by AMC standards. According to the old listing, the car had a mere 50,000 miles on it at the time. And though you would think perpetually cash-strapped AMC would have used Jeep 4×4 components, they developed a new system for the new car. Unlike a CJ with transfer case, it was an all-the-time 4×4 system.

Per my buddy Sean Flanagan: “The Eagle used 3 different transfer cases. All similar to the Jeep counterpart. 119 transfer case was a full time viscous coupling. 128 transfer case was full time with an open differential in place of the viscous coupling.129 was full time 4wd or 2wd with a viscous coupling. The 129 was named Selec Trac. The first number in the case model number is the transfer case gearing. So a 119 is a single speed, 219 (QuadraTrac) a 2 speed (low range).” UPDATE: I’ve since been informed that the Eagles never came with a 2-speed transfer case. I think I’ll be doing a more elaborate post on the Eagle some time in the future, haha.

Not to mention floating-pillow leather seating, woodtone trim in abundance…and a four speed manual! What dealer ordered this car with this equipment? Two door body style, plush Limited interior and…envelope please…manual transmission? Had to have been special ordered, otherwise this likely would have sat on the lot for months. Unless some salesman had a three martini lunch and filled out the inventory order immediately afterward. If so, I imagine he was canned shortly after this came off the truck.

This car was identified as a 1980 Eagle in the auction, but the bold checkerboard grille identifies it as an ’81 or newer. The car was in Janesville, Wisconsin at the time, not very far from AMC’s home base in Kenosha.

Behind that grille lies the time-tested AMC/Jeep 258 six. Not the most efficient engine for the early eighties, but stout and stone-reliable. It survived for years after AMC itself was absorbed into Chrysler Corporation, remaining available in Cherokees through the ’90s. I believe the last car with it was the outgoing 2001 Cherokee.

When these cars were new, they were essentially in their own category, a car with Jeep on- and off-road traction and Jeep-like capabilities. As time wore on, and people who gobbled up SUVs in the ’90s and bitched about the handling and ride advanced, auto manufacturers started adding the tall bodies and AWD/4×4 systems onto passenger car platforms (it wasn’t because it was cheaper to do so, honest!) and resulted in the silver silvermist and beige beigemist, tortured sheetmetal mobile objects commonly seen cutting off motorists, ass-end up in a ditch during snow storms, and tailgating you on the way to work this morning.

Yup, AMC did it first. Not that it really helped the Wisconsin auto manufacturer in the long run!

10 Replies to “1981 AMC Eagle Limited Coupe: Who The Heck Ordered This?”

  1. safe as milk

    nice timing! i just saw the wagon version out and about in the recent nyc snow storm. i did a double take but some of these vehicles are still doing there thing. it looked great! just the right amount of patina. i had to grab a few shots: https://flic.kr/p/2f8DYhP

      • Rycakes

        I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a weird attraction to these things. Especially the wagon version. Haven’t seen one in years. Thanks for sharing the photos!

      • nightfly

        “Don’t Follow Me – You Won’t Make It.” You couldn’t have planned that bit any better!

        The wagon body makes the thing look properly-proportioned, at least. The coupe shown above looks too tall, as if AMC had sliced a car lengthwise, left about eight inches on the chassis, and then stuck a different car on top of it. (The two-tone color scheme only adds to the effect.)

  2. MrGreenMan

    A little while back, there was a Nissan model car, and then I think before that a Chevrolet, which had this look: slightly higher, but still a car.

    The thing that saddens me about the CUV craze is the loss of the three-box look.

    I’d buy this car today. It sits a little higher up, which is starting to become a safety requirement as I find that, now that everything’s shaped like a delivery van, even a Taurus seems low to the ground, but it remains at heart still a car.

    Does everybody really want to hear their cargo rolling around, or, worse, have no ability to isolate something with a bad smell away from the passenger compartment?

  3. Compaq Deskpro

    Faux period correct luxury, midsize, coupe, no storage or backseat, pretending to be an SUV but has few of the utilities associated with it

    BMW X4?

  4. JustPassinThru

    You knew I’d jump in with this one, Tom. As the former CC Jeepophile and off-brand historian, I must.

    The AMC Six, later the Jeep Six, was last used in 2006, with the last TJs. It was phased out in stages, but it just couldn’t survive the upcoming emissions standards – and the JK Wrangler was designed with the Chrysler V6 as the “big” engine option.

    Robust it was. But the long route it traveled, couldn’t have been written by a fiction author on drugs. It was the replacement for the flawed, short-lived Rambler aluminum six; and – not many people know this – it wound up in Jeep products right from its second year.

    The J-Series (later SJ) models, Wagoneer and Gladiator, were intended with – as an only engine – the Jeep Tornado Six. That was the old Continental-designed flathead six, with an aluminum OHC head, chain-driven, grafted on. It was a slick piece of work, but rushed and costly – and Willys-Jeep’s engineering abilities were not on a par with GM or even Fiat.

    So, as might be expected, it failed. It was troublesome, given to head-gasket failures and other issues I don’t recall.

    Rambler to the rescue. American Motors and Kaiser Jeep had been tightening their relationship over the years. The last two independents, after Studebaker retreated to one Canadian assembly plant. Jeep’s parent company, Kaiser Industries, was quietly buying a position in AMC stock.

    And as a quick-patch answer to the failed OHC, the Rambler six went right into Wagoneers from 1965 on. Along with it, the AMC 327 V8…a first. That was the engine that David Potter had been drawing up for Kasier-Frazer, before Henry Kaiser threw in the towel on passenger-car making.

    All this was significant, in that Henry Kaiser never gave up the dream of owning a car company. While Rambler was saving his J-Series proto-SUVs, Kaiser was probably planning a move on AMC.

    All for naught. Kaiser died in 1967. One reason Kaiser-Jeep wound up sold, along with Kaiser Steel, Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Cement, Kaiser Broadcasting…was, estate taxes.

    And Kaiser Industries’ share in AMC was used to pressure AMC management to purchase Kaiser Jeep. At the time, it was seen as a boneheaded move, not unlike the later Matador and Pacer debacles.

    But it was the right move at the right time, of course. Kaiser Industries, in later unwinding, sold their interest in AMC slowly in the open market.

    So…given that convoluted history…it was no surprise that AMC sixes would become the backbone engine of Jeep Division; nor any surprise that four-wheel-drive would be stuffed under the most-modern surviving car of AMC’s line…their only surviving line, actually. It had to happen – there was nothing else to try, sort of disorganized diversifying, the way Studebaker did twenty years earlier.

  5. George Denzinger

    I have an adjacent history with these cars. Several family members have owned AMCs and many of my friends had them too. My brother had an Eagle sedan for 17 years; this in Western Pennsylvania with the rugged winters and the relatively strict state inspections. It was a labor of love, although he mostly kept it because he was mostly broke during the years his kids were growing up. It’s not easy being a freelance graphic designer in a small town, especially after the advent of the internet and cheap graphics software.

    He really thought he needed the all weather capability, in reality the hilly terrain of Western Pennsylvania was the selling point for my brother. Both of his kids were heavy into swimming competitions, they all took place during the winter months and usually in equally remote school districts far from home. In that regard the Eagle was an essential tool.

    The car finally gave out after 17 years of active duty. During the time it was their main car, it was relatively trouble free, but had lots of niggling issues. There was the whole thing with the plastic valve covers that would leak oil on a spectrum from a little bit to profusely. He retrofitted it with a steel one from an older AMC six. There were a couple of other issues, but it’s so far back in time I really don’t remember. There was very little with the drive train that went wrong. After a certain point, the body suffered from the normal rust you get in that part of the country. Also, into it’s teenage years, the upholstery and interior panels started to sag and fail.

    IIRC the engine finally gave out around 300K miles and it was no longer worth the effort. He replaced the Eagle with a used Mercury Sable, then a cherry Chevy Celebrity Classic with the V6 & automatic given to him by an elderly neighbor and later a used Honda Civic. He never liked another car as much as the Eagle.


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