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Trail’s End: 1977 AMC Pacer Given a Four-by Facelift

Posted in Features on May 29, 2018
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Photographers: Duane ElliottJon Jay

The ’77 AMC Pacer was nothing short of quirky. The spaceship-esque car was 2 feet wider than it was tall, had a passenger door 4 inches longer than its driver-side companion, and had absurdly large windows earning it the name, “The Flying Fishbowl.”

Don Ashworth’s Pacer was vanilla-colored, lacking of factory comfort options, and ready for a new life. He imagined the car as a drab caterpillar as he sent it off to Carl Green Enterprises for its transformation.

Thus began the process that is known to the insect community as metamorphosis. Just like caterpillars cocoon themselves in silk as they morph into a butterfly, Carl Green took the Pacer into his shop where he planned to turn the wonky wagon into a 4x4 pickup.

The most drastic changes to the body were first on the docket as Carl took a reciprocating saw to the body of the Pacer. As he removed most of the car’s rear end, he made space for what would eventually be the pickup bed. The next steps involved melding the rear window and bulkhead from a Chevy LUV with some custom 18-gauge sheetmetal work to blend the Pacer’s roof with the bedsides. The Pacer’s original rear hatch opened wagon-style by a hinge on the roof. Since that was no longer an option, a pair of hinges from a Chevy van were worked into the floor of the bed to let the mini tailgate swing downward, just like a truck. To make sure the Pacer pickup could haul a pair of dirt bikes, Carl extended the bed by 2 inches and blended the extensions into the custom tailgate contours.

The Pacer now looked the part of a pickup, but it still needed to pull with all four wheels. Fred Torisi was the man for the job, sourcing parts from AMC/Jeep. To accommodate the Pacer’s wide body, Fred chose axles from the ’81 Cherokee Chief that offered a front track width of 62.5 inches, front disc brakes, and drum brakes in the rear. The rear axle was rebuilt with 4.09:1 gears and a limited-slip differential to enhance traction. The original 232ci six-cylinder engine gave the Pacer plenty of ponies but revved too high at highway speeds and threatened to send engine parts rocketing angrily through the hood. A Jeep SR-5 five-speed gearbox with a fifth-gear ratio of 0.85:1 took stress off the engine and even boosted the fuel economy. Returning to that 4x4 dilemma, a New Process 219 transfer case sent full-time power to all four wheels while adding a 2.62:1 low-range gear reduction.

To keep these new axles floating under the Pacer, leaf springs from beneath a Jeep J10 1/2-ton pickup were recruited, but tuning the suspension proved to be an experimental process—requiring the front axle to eventually be moved forward 1.5 inches, toying with the number and thickness of the leaf springs. The last mechanical modifications involved adding custom driveshafts with constant-velocity joints to the front and rear.

The real final touches were in the paintjob. The Corvette Yellow paint was complemented by maroon stripes on the lower body panels that faded into black, all giving the visual effect of lowering the vehicle. The Pacer pickup rolled out of the body shop on BFGoodrich radial All-Terrain tires and sharp 15x8 Shelby aluminum wheels—after nearly three years of work.

Today, Don Ashorth’s ’77 Pacer lives in Darryl Starbird’s National Rod & Custom Car Hall of Fame Museum an hour north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, appearing to sport the same paintjob, wheels, and tires as when we shot it in 1986. We hope it saw some time in the dirt before it came to rest in the showroom.

Have you seen this Pacer pickup in person? Or have you put your own unusual 2WD under the knife and given it a four-wheel facelift? Tell us about it (and also send high-resolution pictures) to editor@fourwheeler.com.

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