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The Happy Pacer

In March 2001, William R. Morad from Voorhees, New Jersey shared the story of his parents' Pacer -- a story with an unfortunately sad ending, but still containing some very fond memories of a beloved family automobile.

Say the words "AMC Pacer" to my four siblings or me, and you will conjure up an emotional treasure chest overflowing with fond memories and loving recollections. Amidst a collection of mundane and entirely ordinary used cars which my parents bought during their eighty-plus odd years of life, there stood two new car purchases that were so unusual they practically shouted out loud. The first was a 1957 Volkswagen Microbus, which provided enough memories for a story all of its own, and the second was a 1976 AMC Pacer.

I can remember my father shopping for a car in the fall of '76. Now that the last of his five children (me) had married and moved out of the house, it seemed as if there might be enough money for him to indulge in the luxury of a new car. He shopped different makes at several dealers, then announced that he really liked the Pacer. He bought a blue-and-white demo from Bill's Rambler on Route 30 in Somerdale, NJ.

Neither he nor my mother were phased by its unusual appearance; in fact they quite liked its big greenhouse low-slung beltline, and they would often exchange parking-lot pleasantries with other Pacer owners. For years, I can remember Dad complaining about the "new" cars in the sixties that lacked enough headroom to wear a hat; he liked the Pacer's spacious interior and compact exterior. I don't think he knew the car had been designed to use a rotary engine; it's 258 c.i.d. six was plenty peppy enough for him. My mother barely stretched an inch over five feet, but she liked the big passenger door that made getting in and out so easy.

At some point Mom and Dad became interested in RV camping, and they bought two other vehicles to further that hobby: a Toyota diesel pickup in the early eighties which they later traded in on a Ford Conversion van. But they kept the Pacer. They used it for much of their daily driving, and scrupulously attended to its mechanical maintenance, although Dad somewhat ruefully admitted that he hadn't ever washed it.

As the years went by, the Pacer became more and more unusual. There were not that many of them built in the first place, and as with any model of automobile, fewer and fewer of them stayed on the road. The grandchildren referred to it as the "bubble car", and were always delighted to see Grandmom and Grandpop arrive at family gatherings in the blue-and-white time capsule from the seventies.

Dad started parking the Pacer in the garage, so even though the paint became oxidized, the metal never developed any rust, and he continued to take meticulous care of its mechanics. Since my parents drove infrequently as they slipped into their seventies and then eighties, the car stayed in beautiful shape. In 1998, I had my own car in the shop for over a month after an unpleasant encounter with a deer at sixty miles per hour, and asked if I could use the Pacer in the interim.

What fun it was to drive that little car! Although its lack of any meaningful acoustic insulation meant for a noisy ride, its big, in-line six was smoother than any modern four-cylinder, and although the car lacked air bags, it felt safe to drive, because of the spectacular view. (I was amused to note just the other day that the Volvo Corporation, who has built an excellent reputation for making passenger cars safer, has just introduced a "new generation" concept car, with the cornerstone of its safety technology being driver visibility.) The somewhat clunky four-speed manual transmission and hefty clutch were reminders that the drivetrain on this car was from a different era, and the squishy-squashy suspension had the technological sophistication of an oxcart. But I couldn't help but feel good in this car. I could see so much of the road, and drivers everywhere would turn their heads in fascination to watch the funny little car go by. Older teens would sometimes snigger openly, as they associated the car with the movie "Wayne's World", but in an era where the richest man in the country started his career as a nearsighted computer geek, the car was so nerdy it was cool again. In parking lots, people would invariably ask, "How many miles are on it?" or "Do you want to sell it?" or "Is that a Pacer?"

I've bought new cars since 1976, and have owned some pretty nice cars. My BMW 7-series was richer by light years, my Z28 could have lapped it in the first eighth mile, my big Olds had more options and gee-gaws than you could imagine, but none of them gave me the same feel-good feeling behind the wheel as the Pacer.

Mom and Dad grew more elderly, and their children and grandchildren began to think of the Pacer as something they would like to inherit someday. Not only was it a car that had character, it was a remembrance of two unique people who didn't mind being unusual, and who really liked their little car. Several of the grandchildren in particular, really hoped to someday own that piece of nostalgia on wheels.

It would have been a shame if a car which engendered such great memories and such good feelings were the source of animosity between quibbling heirs. My family is grateful things didn't turn out that way. In the summer of 1999, Mom, Dad and the Pacer were taken from us, suddenly and together. The pickup truck that hit them was big, beefy and modern, and it was scarcely dented. The Pacer though, lacked the now-mandated side impact protection that newer cars have, and it didn't have airbags. It seems pretty clear that these modern safety features would have done little more than prolong their lives enough to cause them to suffer - that is if they had been of any value at all, given the type of crash and the ages of my parents.

I don't want to get anthropomorphic here, but the truth is I know many a flesh-and-blood human being with considerably less personality than that car, and it was a part of my parents' lives. It was fitting that the Pacer, a good and faithful mechanical servant to the end, should not have survived them.

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