This Is The Story Of A Librarian And His Family’s Beloved AMC Gremlin
Photography by Neal Tyler
Orphan cars, those automobiles whose parent companies are no longer in business, can evoke a connection to the past harkening back to better days and simpler times. To the auto enthusiast, the primary purpose of such a car—transportation—becomes secondary. Preservation becomes the goal. Pride and joy take precedence over practicality, and over the years certain models have been loved in ubiquity while others remain overlooked.
Take the AMC Gremlin for example. Marketed as “the first American-built import,” designed mid-flight on a barf bag, and built on a shortened AMC Hornet chassis, the American Motors Corporation manufactured Gremlins from 1970 through 1978. The subcompact hatchback made its debut on April Fools’ Day, and its impact on the automotive world has been considerable ever since. It seems everyone in America over the age of 35 has known or still knows someone who drove a Gremlin, yet there are so few on U.S. roads today. Just under 700,000 Gremlins were built, and according to the Seattle Times, even Bill Clinton and George W. Bush drove Gremlins at one point.
And speaking of President Bush and Gremlins, the subject of this interview, Tariq Shah, happens to be an Afghan national—a member of the 500-year-old Roghani tribe—who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. Upon his arrival, he spent his first six months in Jackson Heights, NY before driving a Ford LTD to Kansas, where he earned one of his two Masters degrees. One is in Library Science (Emporia State University), the other is in World Geography (University of Peshawar). After graduating, he realized there were more grain elevators and corn fields in Kansas than there were jobs for librarians though, so on the advice of a friend who’d told him those types of jobs were in big cities, Tariq drove 1,900 miles from Kansas to Los Angeles and found not only work but love.
It was in LA where he met and fell in love with his wife of 40 years, Alita, and it was Alita’s mother who in 1976 had purchased a brand new Sunshine Yellow AMC Gremlin. And it was in the Los Feliz neighborhood of that city, some 40 years later, where my meeting with Mr. Shah took place. As my wife and I were walking by a newsstand near Vermont Ave., a few heads turned to watch a little yellow Gremlin pass by. My face, as well as those of the bystanders, lit up in a smile as the car rolled to a stop. “Holy shit, that’s a fucking Gremlin!” exclaimed one guy next to me. Even my wife, who’s not a “car person,” had to admit how cute it was.
Windows down and hearing the excitement around him, the Gremlin’s driver, Mr. Shah, was beaming with pride behind the wheel and before he had a chance to drive away, I cornered him. We exchanged pleasantries and phone numbers, chatted about the car a bit and I bid him farewell. A few weeks later, we set up a photoshoot and an interview; it was my first time getting to know anyone from Afghanistan, let alone anyone who drives a Gremlin regularly. To say it was a pleasure talking cars and world history, as well as meeting his wife, would be an understatement. We had a deep conversation and even struck up a friendship, all because of his orphan car, the little yellow Gremlin.
Marc Levitz: Before we talk about your Gremlin, tell me a bit about your family and what growing up as a kid in Afghanistan was like.
Tariq Shah: Our house was built in 1940 and it’s still standing. We farmed plums, peaches, persimmons, marijuana, and believe it or not, vodka flows like water even though you’re not supposed to drink. We traveled by camel or car, and some camels bite, by the way! We used to have 1,000 acres on our farm and before 9/11, the American hippie types used to hang out in Afghanistan and had a great time. Anyway, as a kid, we were a very advanced family, very educated. My grandfather was a doctor in the 1920s, my dad graduated from engineering college in 1936, and my grandfather sent my uncle to America where he graduated from Berkley and then went on to Oregon in 1946. So we were way ahead at that time. We had Readers’ Digest, National Geographic, Life Magazine in our house.
ML: Outside of the biting camels, that sounds like an ideal childhood. What else can you tell me about being raised in your country?
TS: Well, we were Sufi, and when I was in fourth grade my dad gave me my first gun—a .32—as a practice gun. We’d go to the mountains and shoot. We were trained since childhood. Later, when the Russians came, we took them on with shotguns, whatever we had. Only China would give us small arms at first, then America found out how resilient we were and so they started training the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. It was all CIA. Then they gave us the Stinger missiles. In guerrilla warfare we had 30/30 British rifles, they take 11 rounds per cartridge. We still have them in our home.
ML: I know I just said that sounds like an ideal childhood. Can I take that back? And what kinds of cars did you see and drive growing up there?
TS: I grew up with cars and every time my dad left for work—he was a civil engineer—if the car wasn’t working he’d leave the car and I’d take oxen to tie it up and take it to a garage. American cars were considered luxury items at that time in Afghanistan, and we were the only ones who had a car in the whole village. My family always had money. They weren’t Rockefellers but they were rich. All that money came from farms and trade. They’d take construction wood from Tashkent and sell it in Baku, and Azerbaijan where they didn’t have expensive wood. They’d bring back salt and our family always had rubles, and we used to play with Russian rubles from the Czar times in our home. If someone got sick in the village they’d come running to us to take someone to the hospital. Otherwise they’d take buggies. We had the first shortwave radio, too, with a 12-volt battery.
ML: What do you remember about the cars you had?
TS: Our second car, I was in the fourth grade when my parents had this car. It was a Morris Eight, and it was beautiful. It had leather seats and all kinds of stuff and it was a stick-shift. And in our country, like the English also, the steering wheel was on the other side. To start the car, you had to turn the key and had to pull this knob—the starter was a pull thing. Then you had to release the handbrake and you put in the first gear and slowly get off the clutch and the car would move. It had something like a ruby on the hood ornament. Then after that my dad bought a black ’51 Bel Air. It had lots of chrome and a short wave radio and was the quietest car, but the problem was we were farmers and we’d load the car with cement and fertilizer and stuff and we didn’t have paved roads. So every time we’d go on those rough roads it’d break the damn suspension. You know, Jalalabad, Afghanistan is in the mountains and has rough roads so finally my dad bought a Jeep Station Wagon. It was a seven-seater and it was very nice car. Painted like a Woodie and no problems.
ML: And now you drive a Sunshine Yellow 1976 AMC Gremlin?
TS: My wife’s mom had the Gremlin first; she bought it new in 1976 on Serrano and either Eighth or Olympic. And she would never let anyone drive it! She had no knowledge of cars at all, but she liked it. Always kept it in a covered parking garage and drove it to and from Ralph’s groceries and never took it on the freeway. Only once we took it to Indio and we literally opened the back hatch open to keep cool. After she passed away we inherited the Gremlin in 2005.
ML: What kind of shape was it in when you got it?
TS: When we got it it only had about 60,000 miles, but all the rubber parts were split and the hoses needed replacing. We’re still in the process of finding parts—somewhere I have the gas cap but I don’t know where it is at the moment—but we replaced it all so far with OEM parts.
(At this point during the conversation, Alita, Tariq’s wife, joined the conversation)
Alita: My mother used to call it the “second woman” because he’d spend all his free time with the car, fixing this or that. She also thought he was a terrorist.
TS: Ha! But in reality, all she’d ever let me do was change the tags while she was alive. Or maybe check the oil and water. I couldn’t wait to one day to get my hands on it. When I got the car there were some issues. The tires were cracked, some of the wiring was cracked. The mechanic my mother-in-law had was terrible and never fixed anything right, so I had plenty of small things to change. It needs the seats recovered and duct tape will only go so far, so that’s the next big project. Since I grew up on a farm tinkering with things I do most of my own maintenance on it. No computers or any of that here, so I can do a lot by myself.
ML: It’s always good to turn your own wrench. Your Gremlin is in such nice, original shape considering its age and use. It’s always been treated with kindness, it looks like.
TS: Actually one time someone broke into it at the library. We had staff parking but right next to our lot were a lot of drug addicts and whatnot, and we had trouble with them. One day someone on my staff came up to me and told me my car door was open. It was one of the few rainy days in LA, and when I went out to see for myself, the window was broken. Whoever did it also broke into the glove compartment and also took the parts I was gonna use later on to do some repairs. I had hoses, an oil filter, and some stuff and he or she took everything. The new window I’d gotten to replace the one that was broken but it wasn’t a correct fit, so it took me two years to find the correct glass to get the correct fit, during which every time I got on the freeway the wind would whistle and if it rained I put a little tape to cover the gap where the water would come in.
ML: Gonna quote Vincent Vega here. “What’s more chickenshit than fucking with a man’s automobile?”
TS: Yeah, I called everywhere and left my name and number to find the glass and you know, it’s dangerous to leave your windows cracked because someone can throw a cigarette or a flame or match, so in the summer when it’s hot, it’s better to leave just enough space so that the air goes through but little enough so that a cigarette won’t.
I’m afraid to park it outside because people hang around it and it makes me nervous.
ML: Gremlins have their own following. What car clubs, if any, do you belong to?
TS: We don’t belong to any car clubs, but where I worked there were a lot of LAPD and sometimes they’d come to train us in CPR or they have programs for the neighborhood kids, gangs and stuff. So a lot of police officers know us and whenever they’d see the car parked in the staff parking lot they’d always ask whose it was. So now that I’m retried and a lot of them know me and tell me jokingly that if I ever commit a crime they know how to find me!
ML: Well, a yellow Gremlin definitely stands out, even in Los Angeles. What else can you tell me about the paint? It’s called Sunshine Yellow, right?
TS: Yeah, and it was literally baked on at the factory so it’s got that extra shine to it. So many people comment on it. And according to people with more knowledge than I have, this is one of those cars that went through the whole process of having the paint baked on to make it closer to permanent. The shine stays forever. It was garaged when my mother-in-law was alive but now it’s been out for many years and it still looks great. I’ve never polished it. I just wash it and sometimes use the wax at the car wash. After all these years, the paint is still almost new.
ML: There aren’t a lot of Gremlins on the road these days. What’s it like driving such a rare car in a town known for rare and obscure automobiles?
TS: It’s a head-turner in its own way. Every time I’m driving, there’s someone looking, I always get a thumbs-up. It’s such a nice feeling. We get a lot of people stopping us and telling us they used to have one or that a friend used to have one and it finally died, you know? Even the people I work with always tell me not to forget them and they want me to put them in my will so they can have the car. It’s a very good feeling. People love the car! I love this car.
ML: You were an adult when Gremlins first hit the market. When did you see your first?
TS: The first time I saw a Gremlin I was still in Virginia. A new teacher and his wife bought the car and I got to see them driving around in it. I recall some old guy on the corner yelling, “Where’s the other half of it?!”
ML: Well, they were considered “subcompacts” and for marketing, the Gremlin was billed as “the first American import.”
TS: Yeah, back the 1973 oil crisis started the whole thing about subcompacts here. Foreign countries were very good at advertising small cars and at the time America didn’t have anything to compete with them. So they started building Pacers, Pintos, Chevettes, Crickets, and Gremlins.
ML: Tell me some of your favorite aspects about your Gremlin.
TS: I love driving it. It’s got very good pick-up around town, all things considered. It’s a six-cylinder, 232 C.I.D. When my family visits, we put five or six people in it and it still pulls them along with no problem. Plus, the A/C blows cold!
ML: That’s impressive. It feels solid on the road?
TS: Oh yes. It’s built so nicely, so compact. I love the way it feels. The chassis, the visibility. It’s like driving in a light house.
ML: What else do you enjoy about the car?
TS: Honestly, it never makes any bad sounds and it passes the smog check every time. After all these years, the engine is still nice and dry. Like I said, the only thing I have to concern myself with are the rubber parts mainly. Those parts have a commercial age and after a while they’re just not elastic anymore.
ML: As I understand it, the 1976 Gremlin was actually the cheapest car produced for the American market that year. And since they were built for the gas crisis of the early-’70s, I need to ask: how’s yours on gas?
TS: It’ll run on 87 gas no problem. It doesn’t need anything special. When the gas prices go up, all I do is go to the lowest price pump. And it gets about 25MPG in the city, and about 30 or so on the freeway.
ML: So what’s the worst part of owning a Gremlin?
TS: Without a doubt the hardest part of owning this car is finding parts. Some of them are available here in LA but 80 percent of the time they come from somewhere else. Luckily I’ve discovered that people in Minnesota had Gremlins when they were around so they kept them and so there are a lot of spare parts at places up there. Every time I need a part I go to Pep Boys and they actually have it, they put an order in for me and sure enough the part comes from somewhere in Minnesota.
ML: And on the roads in Los Angeles, with all of the potholes and what have you, how does it ride?
TS: You know, the shocks are so good and the seats are still very comfortable. It’s a very big space inside, and in a lot of these new cars the center console is in the way. Not in the Gremlin. I can spread my legs if I want to! On top of that, it drives so smoothly. It doesn’t have assisted brakes but it stops like it does even though it’s all drum. It really doesn’t need much effort to stop the car, and it feels safe in wet weather, too. It holds the road pretty well. And again, the visibility is so good. Really, it’s like a lighthouse. You can see things from all sides. Even your blind spot, if you just turn your head a little. It’s very safe to drive in that sense, and even the radio’s working. I’m just blessed with this car.
ML: How’s the turning radius?
TS: Well, it does has power steering and it works very well. You can just turn it like the old days with one finger. It’s fantastic. And even though there are a lot of kits available to change things like the brakes and stuff, I didn’t want to change anything. I want to keep the car in original shape. That’s what I love about it.
I’ve put on just over 20,000 miles since getting it, and the engine’s never been rebuilt. The only thing that’s been done is I had the valve cover repainted in the factory color. And changed some of the rubber parts. Everything else is original.
ML: I have to ask: what’s the fastest you’ve ever driven your Gremlin?
TS: Ha! I’ve gone 90 mph, well not 90 but 85! It’s got such good balance that even at that speed you don’t feel like you’re going that fast. That’s an attribute you only find in new cars or really large ones usually.
ML: Well, it is more or less half a Hornet.
TS: Yeah, it’s bigger than a Beetle and shorter than a Pinto.
ML: What’s the first thing you do when you get in? What’s your process to get it started?
TS: Pretty standard. First I take off the steering lock, the club, and then I turn on the ignition, I pump the gas a couple of times, I turn it on and I start it. It starts right away. Then I wait for it to idle smoothly and after a bit I put it in gear and it just drives.
ML: Seems simple enough.
TS: Yeah and sometimes I don’t even feel like it’s on either because there’s no noise coming from the engine. It’s still so quiet and calm. That’s another thing I just love about it. Even when people who pull up next to me on the street they’ll say, “man you can hardly hear your car.”
ML: Speaking of comments, I know you said it’s a head-turner, so what are some of the other comments you get when you take it out for a spin?
TS: A lot of times people will tell me to be careful because it’s one of only a few Gremlins running around. And plenty of people ask me if I want to sell it. People from Oregon, Nevada, wherever, they always ask me if I want to sell it. And I always tell them no. It’s a keeper for me. There’s no amount of money. We’re attached because of my wife, my late mother-in-law, and because of me: I love this car to death. I enjoy it thoroughly. No complaints. I’m driving the perfect car for me.