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Ahead of Its Time: The Funky 4x4 AMC Eagle Paved the Way for the Modern Crossover

With the overwhelming popularity of crossover SUVs in today's market, it's easy to think they've always been around. But there are a few vehicles which can be considered the pioneers of crossover or CUV market, and in North America the vehicle most credited with starting the trend is the AMC Eagle.

AMC Eagle Wagon in Snow

Part Car, Part Jeep

Looking at one today, with a squared-off station wagon body shape, elevated ride height and woodgrain paneling, you might be overcome with 1980s nostalgia, but the Eagle is a lot more than just a throwback to a different time.

AMC Eagle Wagon in Desert

It was way back in the 1970s to American Motors Corporation first began developing the Eagle, but the logic behind its creation is the same thing that many crossover buyers are drawn to in the 2020s.

AMC Eagle Wagon Brown

And that would be the combination of a smaller, more fuel-efficient car-based platform with the all-terrain, all-weather capability of a pickup truck or a full-size 4x4. 

AMC Eagle In Snow

An '80s Icon

To create the Eagle, AMC basically blended one its existing passenger cars, the Concord, with the hardware and engineering from its Jeep brand. And that hardware included an inline-six engine which powered the majority of Eagles (a four-cylinder was also available), as well as a four-wheel-drive system that included both permanent are part-time versions over the years.

AMC Eagle Cut Away

The Eagle was also lifted for extra ground clearance, and while its off-road capability wasn't as impressive as a traditional Jeep or something like a Chevy Blazer, it was capable of going places a normal passenger car couldn't dream of.

It went on sale for the 1980 model year and was sold through the 1988 model year, by which time Chrysler had completed its acquisition of American Motors.

AMC Eagle Ski Patrol

The Eagle was sold in a few different body styles, including two and four-door hatchbacks, a sedan and even a convertible—but it's the station wagon version that was most popular, and has the strongest spiritual tie to the modern CUV.

AMC Eagle SX/4

From the Niche to the Mainstream

While it proved to be a very successful formula for AMC (and later Chrysler after they bought out the company), the Eagle was always considered a fairly niche vehicle, usually aimed at buyers in remote areas with poor weather who wanted a smaller, more comfortable, more fuel-efficient vehicle that could get them wherever they needed to go.

It's actually surprising that no other automakers came out with their own versions of the Eagle in the '80s, and that's evidence that it may have actually been a little too ahead of its time.

AMC Eagle Brown with Wood

Nonetheless, the Eagle certainly laid the groundwork for later vehicles that blended car-dynamics and fuel economy with truck capability, including the Subaru Outback of the 1990s and the many AWD crossovers that would come after. 

AMC Eagle Wagon in Snow

It also used the same formula as all of today's sales chart leaders like the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V, which also use passenger car platforms adapted into a middle ground between a sedan and a traditional truck-based SUV.

Toyota RAV4 on Nitto Terra Grappler G2

Interestingly, the Eagle name continued to be used well after AMC was bought out by Chrysler in the late 1980s for a brand of passenger cars including the Eagle Vision, Eagle Summit—and best known by enthusiasts, the Eagle Talon (which was mechanically identical to the Mitsubishi Eclipse).

AMC Eagle Wagon Red

Given the undeniable charm and uniqueness, the AMC Eagle has, particularly in a time when all things 1980s are going up in value, prices for an Eagle today remain quite affordable, with clean examples still easily available for under $10,000.

AMC Eagle Wagon in Snow

And for that price you'll not only be buying one of the most unique and memorable American cars of the '80s but also one of the most groundbreaking vehicles of the last 40 years.

So the next time you're sitting in traffic surrounded by CUVs on all sides, think about the quirky little lifted wagon that helped get us to this moment. 

  • Now that you've heard why the Eagle is one of the most influential American cars of the '80s, learn why the Ford Explorer was one of the most influential of the '90s.
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