Way way back when we first started this site, back in April of 2022 – a time now known as the BGS era (before Grimace Shake) – I had a post that was supposed to be the start of a series called Phoning It In, where we find some exciting examples of automakers, you know, half-assing it. Like with the hubcaps of the Porsche 914. But then, unsurprisingly for those who know me, that series ended up being not so regular after all. In fact, I just sort of forgot about it until today, when I realized there’s a beautiful example of automaker phoning-it-innery that you should know about: the right-hand-drive conversion of the AMC Pacer.
Right from the get-go, if anyone was actually, really thinking about it, you could see that the Pacer would be a quite poor candidate for an RHD conversion, at least if you were to do it the right way. Most of why are inherent design issues; unlike most cars built then or even now, the Pacer was quite left-hand-drive oriented, because the passenger’s side door was a solid four inches longer than the driver’s side, in order to facilitate easier entry and exit for front and rear passengers when parked at the curb. This is really clever thinking and very thoughtful design but only if the car is actually LHD: in a RHD car, it needlessly penalizes the passengers and makes the driver’s door longer and more cumbersome for no good reason.
Of course, British car reviews of the era noticed this and pointed it out:
Then there’s the fact that while the AMC Pacer was designed to be a small car by American standards, they really only meant that on the long axis. Part of the whole appeal of the Pacer was that it was a wide small car, something AMC played up heavily in Pacer advertising, especially targeting America’s booming six-foot party sub market segment:
Or, they showed the Pacer’s prodigious width by having the Pacer wear the skin of what looks like a Ford LTD, xipe-totec style:
Now, wide may be great in America where we love width, just on its own merits, but in the UK there’s many places with narrower roads and garages and in general cars are smaller. The Pacer, at over 77 inches wide, was almost half a foot wider than a Bentley Corniche! All that and it cost, at the time, only £1,000 less than a Jaguar XJ6.
And, you have to remember that gasoline wasn’t cheap in the UK, either, probably because renaming it “petrol” was a costly undertaking. The Pacer, which was designed for a Wankel rotary engine that never came, ended up having the robust-but-kinda-thirsty AMC inline-6 engine shoehorned in, making the two rearmost spark plugs less accessible than atonal music. That big 4.2-liter engine was well over twice the size of most British car engines at the time, and it got a dismal 15 to 18ish mpg.
Oh, but there’s more, there’s so much more! Arguably the whole thing about RHD cars is that the D is done on the R side, so you need the steering wheel re-located and the dashboard and instruments mirrored accordingly. AMC seems to have taken the most half-assed approach possible to doing this. A first clue can be seen here in this shot of the engine compartment, also from that same 1976 review:
So, the brake servo is still on the left, as is the steering column, and yet the steering wheel is on the right. How did they pull this off? With the cutting-edge Shakespeare-era tech of cogs and chains. That review in Autocar describes it like this:
“They have used instead a simple system of cogs and chain to take steering rotation from the original column on the left to the new wheel position on the right. Surprisingly, this system does not introduce slack or stiction and such shortcomings as the steering has – very low gearing (nearly four turns lock to lock) and overdone power assistance – are those of the original set up, though the conversion may have contributed to the almost total lack of caster action.”
“Stiction” is a funny word, it kinda sounds like what it is, the resistance of something stationary to become motile.
I haven’t yet been able to find pictures of the specific setup on the Pacer, but there are some examples of 4×4 truck RHD conversions on a mig welding forum:
Along with moving the steering wheel, you’ll need a whole new dashboard as well, and I’m happy to report that AMC seeming spared every single expense when it came to making one:
As you may guess, the reviews of the dash saw it for what it was: crap. Look:
“Of the regular controls, only the indicators are on a column stalk (the dipswitch is on the floor) and all other controls have been mounted on a flat panel protruding through cut-outs in varnished plywood facing. The idea was borrowed from Ford’s old Cortina 1600E but unfortunately neither the quality of the wood veneer or the workmanship is up to the same standard; the overall effect is one of cheapness.”
Well, to be fair, “cheapness” was sort of AMC’s mantra, so they can’t be too upset.
So, where the original US-spec dash was shaped, molded plastic, pleasingly asymmetrical and canting the instruments to the driver, the RHD version was a simple flat panel, with a relatively crude wooden facing. The main instrument cluster was still shaped to fit the original design, but in the RHD version just slapped on the flat panel, its angled rows of warning lights canted for no clear reason. The HVAC controls were all shunted to a box shoved up under the main dashboard, even though the dash panel sure looked like it would have had room for them. Even worse, the Pacer only had one side mirror that could be adjusted via a little joystick on the door, and that mirror and joystick were now uselessly on the passenger’s side, leaving the driver to have to roll down the window and adjust the mirror with a hand, like some sort of filthy animal.
Oh, and the windshield wiper orientation wasn’t flipped for RHD also, so there’s nice big un-wiped areas on the driver’s side glass. Bang up job, fellas.
As if all of this half-assery and phoning-it-in weren’t enough, there’s a huge, wonderful cherry for this shit sundae, and it has to with how AMC advertised the Pacer for the UK. AMC had designed and printed many, many glossy, full-color brochures for the Pacer in America. So what would be the least-effort way to adapt this to the British market? Maybe, say, they could have just flipped the photo negatives and re-touched where there was backwards text, and maybe added some ‘u’s to words like favourite or colour and added in proper UK pricing and metric units then re-printed the brochures? That’s the minimum, isn’t it?
Oh, girl, no no no. You have no idea. They did this:
Remarkably the AMC Pacer was on sale for a time in the UK with a rather rudimentary RHD conversion. Sadly British buyers didn't get their own brochure, but a special sticker was made for the cover of the US-market publication. #carbrochure #AMC pic.twitter.com/ghZSZfLa3D
— Car Brochure Addict (@addict_car) December 8, 2019
See that? Look closer:
A sticker. That’s it! One lousy sticker, assuring buyers that what they’ll drive home before getting trapped in their garage because the car is too damn wide and they can’t open those huge doors is, in fact, an RHD car.
Every bit of this conversion for the British market was the least possible effort. It’s really incredible. I can imagine the whole process ended with some AMC executive pulling on a jacket as they walked out a door yelling fine, fine, I’m sure it’s fine, yes, sure, go ahead run it and then immediately heading on a plane to some beach, the British Market Pacer project never to be thought of again.
I’m truly humbled by the intense, beautiful example of phoning it in displayed here. This, my friends, is the standard for which we should all strive to achieve during those times when achieving is the last thing we give a shit about.