AMC doesn’t get enough respect, and that’s a damn shame. It may not be turning out cars anymore, but the American Motors Corporation practically invented the crossover with its lifted wagon known as the Eagle. Yet the kind-of-innovative Pacer and funky-looking Gremlin find themselves at the butt of many jokes and the rest of this dead automaker’s lineup has been almost completely forgotten. Well, today we’re going to talk about an obscure version of a forgotten car. Let’s go!
If you’re looking for a little more context on the history of AMC, this post on Allpar by Chad Quella gives a pretty comprehensive rundown. The short story is that the company formed in 1954 and sold cars into the 1980s. Many critics weren’t easy on AMC’s powertrain and chassis development, and its cars had reputations for being inferior to what GM, Ford, and Chrysler were churning out those days. Sad, I think the AMC Concord and AMC Spirit were kind of cool looking. I wonder what they’d look like if they were combined, though? GM had the wildly successful Chevy Citation in the early 1980s, so an AMC five-door hatchback could’ve been just the ticket. Oh well, AMC never made one of those. Except, technically, it did. Enter: The VAM Lerma.
VAM, or “Vehículos Automotores Mexicanos,” was a Mexican state-owned auto manufacturer that initially got its start assembling Willys and Jeeps for Mexico. Club Rambler Mexico seems to have more information on it if you can read Spanish or run a translater. Later, it entered into an exclusive relationship with AMC and started building regionalized versions of AMC vehicles. The AMC Matador? A few tweaks, and for Mexico, it was called the VAM Classic. The subcompact AMC Spirit became the VAM Rally. Other changes abounded too, the VAM cars got a special lower-compression version of the straight-six found in most AMC vehicles of the era.
At one point, every car in AMC’s lineup was a derivative of the chassis used on the Concord. The width between the Concord, Eagle, AMX, Spirit, and other cars in the AMC stable were all the same. AMC’s cars shared a lot of parts between them all, for better or worse. So, VAM got creative.
It’s unclear why, maybe designers were inspired by the then-new VW Dasher, but they created a five-door hatchback out of the Concord sedan (called the VAM American in Mexico). Since everything was the same width, it was easy. VAM removed the rear off of the American/Concord sedans and coupes and then added in the back hatch and glass from a Spirit/Rally. The result was a three and five-door hatchback called the Lerma. It came in two trims, the 610, and the more high-brow 620.
It looked great — the Concord was an aging design, but the addition of a sloping rear hatch, I think, made it look more modern. Dare I say it, the 610 three-door hatchbacks with its silver-trimmed C-pillar looked reminiscent of an early 1980s Japanese or European car, like a Datsun B210 or Rover SD1. True, the Concord’s body-on-frame, rear-wheel drive, the straight-six design were behind as the industry started to shift to unibody and front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder designs. But the Lerma’s sharp design might’ve made you forget that.
According to a forum post, AMC was aware of the cut-and-weld process that created the Lerma. It seems that there may have been a split-second consideration of creating a five-door or three-door shape for the Concord stateside, but AMC didn’t think there was any point in creating a new body shell for a car that was kind of on its way out. The cut-and-weld process to create the Lerma was fine in Mexico, but wouldn’t have been cost-effective or offered the same level of refinement compared to a scratch-molded body panel.
Heck, even in Mexico, the Lerma was expensive. The whole back of the car was essentially hand-made, blowing up labor costs, raising the price. The Lerma’s costs made it as expensive as some luxury cars like the Mercury Grand Marquis while offering much less. VAM didn’t move that many, unfortunately.
But it seems the Lerma was a source of national pride for Mexican enthusiasts when it was new. Google translate is rough, but this Spanish-language article talks about how VAM engineers were excited to create a unique model for the Mexican market, rather than tweak an American AMC for Mexico again.
The Lerma went out of production in 1982, and then VAM later folded in 1986. AMC got bought up and folded into Chrysler up not much later, in 1987.
Shame, The Lerma’s a cool-looking hatch.