If there is a sales phenomenon in today’s motoring world, it has to be the vehicle type commonly known as a ‘crossover’. This name is given to vehicles that offer the versatility of a boxy station wagon, higher than normal road clearance, sedan-like ride and handling and, more often than not, some sort of all-wheel drive system.
In the 1970s, Subaru predicted a demand for this type of vehicle and added a part-time 4wd setup to their compact little wagon. It proved to be very successful; particularly with people who lived above the winter snowline, or in places where traction was a problem.
But it was the (now defunct) American Motors Corporation that developed the first genuine ‘crossover’. Named ‘Eagle’ this line of vehicles offered sedan levels of comfort, the grunt of a low-stressed 258 six-cylinder, automatic transmission, power steering, reasonable rough-ground clearance, and full-time 4wd - courtesy of a British-designed, Chrysler-built system.
The Eagle was based on the AMC Concord platform. To accommodate the extra driveline bits, the wheelbase was lengthened slightly and the body was raised by several inches. Plastic flares where added to fill the gap between the 15-inch rubber and the higher wheel openings.
Released in 1980, early sales of the Eagle proved to be a reasonable success story for the ailing AMC. And it needed to be. At the end of the 1970s, sales of its Jeep models were starting to decline, as talk of an international oil shortage gathered pace. Buyers still needed power; but not necessarily in the form of a full-sized, truck-framed vehicle like the Wagoneer.
32,000 Eagles were sold in 1980, and sales peaked at 43,000 in 1981. However, even though offered in sedan and hatchback form - and in a variety of attractive trim levels - sales in later years began to wane. While the Eagle had filled a niche, it was AMC's own actions that would put the Eagle back in its nest – the 1984 release of the very compact, and capable, XJ Jeep Cherokee.
Sales of the XJ Cherokee exceeded AMC’s wildest dreams. And the increased number of shoppers in dealer’s showrooms had an unexpected spin-off. Many people – who thought the XJ was too small – opted for the full-sized (22 year-old design) Jeep Wagoneer. The Eagle couldn’t compete with its beefier siblings and sales fell to a point where production was not economically feasible.The last Eagle was hatched December 1988.
In retrospect, the concept of the Eagle was twenty years ahead of its time. If it was available today, with a sizeable amount of updating, it would probably capture more buyers than it did in the 1980s.
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