By Roger N. Perry Jr. '45
The 1970 AMC Gremlin that once required two minutes to go from 0 to 60, now gets there in just four seconds and can cover a quarter mile in 11 seconds. The car, one of five modified by WPI students for the 1970 Clean Air Car Race, was then a hybrid vehicle outfitted with electric and gasoline engines. Today, after languishing for nearly three decades, it's back in the public eye, this time as a souped-up speed demon owned by Ron Enamait of Wimauma, Fla.
The Clean Air Car Race was a national event organized by students from MIT and Caltech to create public awareness of the growing problem of air pollution from automobile emissions. A total of 42 student teams from 36 colleges and universities accepted the challenge to develop a vehicle that would achieve a reduction in emissions during the weeklong trek from Cambridge to Pasadena. The team that modified the Gremlin was one of two from WPI to place first in their respective divisions.
In urban areas the hybrid car was driven by an electric motor powered by 26 lead-acid storage batteries. In open country, an internal combustion engine drove the DC motor, which then became a generator to recharge the batteries and power the drive train. The weight of the car, without drivers, was 5,600 pounds.
The team of WPI designers, builders and drivers included Steven Clarke '70, William Medeiros '70, David Nowack '71, Norman Sousa '70 and Kenneth Maymon '70. Their faculty advisor was Roger Borden, professor of mechanical engineering. Although plagued with overheating problems, particularly in the desert Southwest (at one point a plastic flashlight melted on the metal floor), the team amassed enough points to easily win the hybrid division trophy.
(For a comprehensive account of the Clean Air Car Race, see the Fall 1970 WPI Journal.)
"At the time of the Clean Air Car Race, I had just been discharged from active duty with the U.S. Army and didn't know anything about it," says Enamait, a graduate of the University of New Haven. "When I lived in Connecticut, I worked for about five years in the office of Moroso Performance in Guilford. One of the people I met there was the company's chief engine builder, Bob Rinaldi, who now builds engines for the prestigious Roush Racing in Charlotte, N.C.
"I told Bob about my plans to build a 'street rod' and he agreed to do the motor for me. A month or so after I left an engine block in his shop, he called to tell me he had the motor all done. So I had this race-built AMC motor and nothing to put it in.
Ron Enamait with his transformed 1970 AMC Gremlin and its specially designed 650-horsepower engine.
"I wanted something light for the best performance," says Enamait, "a car that wasn't going to give me suspension problems. All things considered, the Gremlin was at the top of my list. As I was looking through the local Bargain News, I spotted an ad that said, '1970 Gremlin, 3,600 original miles, best offer.' I called immediately and rushed over to look at it. When I first went into the garage, I went from being ecstatic to quite disappointed. This wasn't the cream puff just driven on Sundays by a little old lady I'd expected to find.
"The inside was pretty well gutted," he recalls. "The roof was caved in and there were air vents still attached to the rear quarter panels. Still, the sheet metal on the body was in great condition, like it just came out of the showroom. The owner told me he had planned to restore the car himself but never found the time. So after a few minutes of the requisite haggling, I bought it."
"When I purchased the Gremlin from the school back in the late 1970s, my intention was to regenerate it," says Paul J. Landino '76, who sold the Gremlin to Enamait. "My interest in the car began with the senior project I did at WPI on redesigning the motor controller of the Hybrid Car. This project actually inspired my interest in motor controls, which eventually led to my starting a business in AC motor controls. When I learned that WPI would consider an offer for what was left of the Gremlin, I took it home like an old friend."
Back home in Connecticut, Landino began outfitting the car with an AC motor drive system. The work slowed because of tight finances as he started his business. "I wound up selling off various pieces of the car and was left with the shell and the original tires and wheels. When the Gremlin had been in my garage for over 10 years, I decided the project wasn't going anywhere. As a long shot, I put an ad in the paper. Ron was my only caller," says Landino.
Enamait says he spent a year taking the car apart. When a job opportunity in Florida came along in 1990, the WPI Hybrid went along in the back of a U-Haul truck.
"When I got to Florida, I had a whole garage full of Gremlin parts, some from the 1970 car and some from a 1976 Gremlin I had acquired. The problem with the WPI car was that the cowl was really ruined during the conversion for the race and the roof was caved in. I started bringing parts of the two cars together to create one whole car. I bought a relatively expensive MIG welding outfit. My neighbor used to drop by every few days. He thought I was crazy. He just couldn't believe what I was starting with. However, I made a believer out of him after three or four months when something began to emerge that looked like a car again."
The July/August 1998 issue of American Motoring, the official publication of the American Motors Owners Association, featured a two-page article by Enamait on the resurrection of the former WPI Electric Hybrid from a first-prize-winning clean air racer in 1970 to the 650-horsepower "road rocket" show car it is today.
True performance-car buffs should appreciate this quote from the article that describes the changes under the Gremlin's hood: "The power plant was treated to a number of internal and bolt-on upgrades. Forged pistons, reworked 10.2 compression cylinder heads, Hooker Super Competition headers, a high-performance camshaft with Crane 1.7 ratio roller rocker arms, MSD ignition, a 250-HP nitrous oxide kit, an 800-cfm Holley double pumper carburetor, and a host of other 'enhancements.' The six-speed Richmond Gear transmission was the single most expensive upgrade and it generates the most interest and discussion at the local car shows."
The Gremlin in 1970 with the team that turned it into a hybrid vehicle.
"American Motoring publishes a lot of human interest stories about AMC cars and drivers," says Enamait. "So when I started pulling material together for the article, I decided I should find out more about the past of this car. As I was going through my wallet one day, I ran across the card on which I had written Paul's name and telephone number years before."
The two talked about the car on the phone and Landino gave Enamait the number of WPI's archivist, Lora Brueck, who sent him information about the 1970 race. "It really was an amazing event," he says. "It was particularly interesting to read about all the companies that contributed to the building of the WPI entries for the race.
"I work about 40 miles from my home and I drive the Gremlin to my office about twice a year," he says. "The mileage isn't very good. It probably gets 7 to 8 miles per gallon and I have to burn race fuel, which is 115 octane--that's $4 a gallon. So I don't drive it around town much. I usually trailer it when I go to shows.
"Every once in a while, I get the urge to take it into town, just for fun," says the "new" Gremlin's proud owner. "When I first put the car together, people thought I was a little bit crazy. Maybe I was. But right now, I can't go anywhere without drawing a crowd."
-Perry, longtime director of public relations at WPI, is now senior writer for Quest, WPI's development newsletter. His efforts to publicize WPI's entries in the Clean Air Car Race won the University the coveted Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society of America.
Last Updated: 7/7/99