“Sporty” 4×4 Six Cylinder: 1981 AMC Eagle SX/4 Survivor

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The gas crisis subdued many an automaker, and that goes doubly for American Motors. By the late 1970s, its thirsty Jeep brand was hanging on for dear life. Without time to maneuver into better financial condition, the company cobbled up a four-wheel drive based on cars it was already selling. The first Eagle grafted Jeep’s four-wheel-drive system underneath a Concord body, then in 1981 the same trick turned the AMC Spirit – a sporty subcompact – into the AMC Eagle SX/4. Ok, “sporty” is a stretch. The marketing angle was all about looks, and with the 4×4 feature, AMC preened about creating a new niche: the off-road sports car. Here on craigslist is a 1981 AMC Eagle SX/4 survivor, brought in from Canada and licensed in Oklahoma, with an asking price of $12,500. We have Barn Finder Pat L. to thank for spotting this clean example with a 42 year history under one owner.

In 1981, the SX/4 was powered by GM’s 151 cu. in. Iron Duke four-cylinder, or AMC’s own 258 cu. in. in-line six. This car has the 110 hp six, coupled with an automatic, and after a carburetor rebuild, the car runs fine though the seller suggests new plug wires and a tuneup. To its credit, by 1981 AMC had redesigned its noisy, rough engine, substituting aluminum for iron and steel and improving torque, gas mileage, and maintenance intervals. The motor was billed as the “lightest six in the industry.” This Eagle’s odometer reads 76,271 km. The listing is confusing on this score, showing the reading at 108,000 and noting it has rolled over. The four-wheel-drive system (that’s what we’re all here for, right?) was Jeep’s Quadra-Trac always-on equipment, though customers could opt for Select Drive, a switch on the dash that could put the vehicle into two-wheel drive. This engine bay could use spiffing, but let’s give credit where it’s due: check out the underhood insulation. (Am I the only one who gets excited about original underhood insulation?)

Only the finest faux wood-grain graces the interior, and yes, the dash is wonky. Why is it that AMC’s glove boxes never fit right? Someone is going to write in and tell me this isn’t a survivor because its seats have been re-covered. Have at it! I left space down there for ya! The tires are old, and while this SX/4 has AC, it needs to be serviced.

Much of the underside is tucked away under skid plates, promising some protection while you’re on the rocks. Speaking of which, the SX/4 is cool and all – with its sort of “on tiptoes” appearance – but it’s not a sports car and it’s not a great 4×4 either. But I don’t care: this is one of the most charming cars I have covered in lo these many months, and if I had space and time, it would be mine.

Auctions Ending Soon


  1. Joe

    I have to disagree. AMC was a trailblazer with the Eagle brand as the first crossovers. Their six cylinder engines were among the smoothest and quietest in the industry. If Jeep was such a money loser, Chrysler Corporation would never have bought AMC to acquire it. Nobody in the industry at that time had any plastic glove boxes that fit right. One thing I can agree with is I’d like to have it too!

    Like 38
    • JustPassinThru

      It wasn’t that Jeep was losing money; it’s just that with the fuel panic of 1979, Jeep wasn’t bringing in the huge profits that AMC had begun to depend on, from 1975 or so.

      That was temporary, of course, and the 1984 introduction of the XJ brought in new levels of cash for AMC to lose in its other operations. Even the Renault Appliance, selling better than anticipated, was costing money on every unit sold.

      AMC was just too close to the edge at that point. Jeep remained a profitable subsidiary, but everything else AMC was in the red. They spent their resources and then millions of Renault’s capital, and still hadn’t figured out how to make money on cars – not Pacers, not Matador Coupes, not Renault Appliances. The Renault Premier would have fared no better – as the Eagle Premiere it didn’t sell, even with its Renault ties hidden by that time by Chrysler. Even as a later Dodge Monaco, it didn’t sell.

      This was a credible attempt to cash in on an area where AMC had actual market cred, and it did pay off. The introductory year, 1980, AMC actually posted a profit – the first in eight years and the last in its corporate history.

      Like 16
    • Lou Rugani

      Those Typhoon engines have seven main bearings and forged connecting-rods, a modern-day version of the bulletproof Nash Ambassador Six.

      Like 1
  2. DualJetfire

    Noisy, rough engine? You mean the 232/258 7 main bearing iron block six that was used for thousands of cars from 1964 to 2001, almost FORTY years? And it never was aluminum, as far as I know. I drove mine across NC at interstate speeds without any noise or roughness. I had a sx4 with the 258 which got 30 mpg, would do at least 80 on the interstate and hugged the road better than any “sports car.” It did just fine in the sand hauling a sailboat and was the only thing on the road in the snow.

    Like 34
    • JustPassinThru

      The aluminum-engine experiment was of the earlier Nash/AMC inline six, which grew out of a flathead, and then was made for two years in aluminum. My old man had one, and the engine failed four years in. Casting problems – oil was actually seeping out fissures in the block.

      Plenty of 1962-63 Rambler owners swore, never again. AMC, to their credit, designed a new seven-main-bearing six – basically a Chevrolet clone, and hoping for similar durability. They were rewarded many times over, as it became THE Jeep engine. Not the 304 or 360 V8, but that six, reborn with fuel injection but otherwise the same but for displacement.

      Like 10
      • PaulG

        Correct, the only major aluminum part on this series of the 258 is the intake manifold. The “lightness” is due to the change in crankshaft design and plastic rocker cover, along with the intake. Block and head were still cast iron.

        Like 12
      • ramblergarage

        Chevrolet clone???

        Like 0
      • JoeNYWF64

        The ’80s & older pushrod Chevy strait 6s (& the rare 4 cyl variant of the ’60s?) have no timing chain(or belt of course) – just meshing gears.
        All other strait ‘6s have a chain or belt.
        & the mopar slant 6 has a chain too.

        Like 0
      • JLHudson

        Not basically a Chevrolet clone…..Chrysler acquired AMC for the new XJ and dumped everything else into Lake Michigan, except the CJ & SJ. Doing away with the CJ type would have been deemed as “un-patriotic” by many.

        Like 0
  3. Blake, does my opinion really matter ???

    wow, this is nice! A true survivor. The 0-60 times on one of these with the four banger must have been 3 weeks. I remember back then the advertisements bragging about the 0-55 times. I lusted after the SX-4 version of these back in my youth (which was like 2000 years ago it seams)

    Like 9
  4. BA

    I think these cars are way under valued but I’m also from Toledo Ohio so go figure. Seriously I rarely see the SX 6 cylinder for sale in even this good of shape so IMHO which is a little jaded I think it’s a bargain and has A/C!

    Like 12
    • Dave

      BA, How long have you been in Toledo? I was selling these at Valiton AMC/Jeep in the late 79’s to early 80’s

      Like 6
  5. B.B.

    Oh my goodness. Are these things really twelve grand now?

    Like 6
  6. Sam61

    Nice find….the owner, for the ask, should spend $75 for plugs and plug wires. I have an 87 Eagle wagon with 67,000 original miles out of West Virginia. New plugs and plug wires made a huge difference with how it runs. My mechanic did some “free” carb tweaking when did my steering box, pitman arm and high pressure line.

    Like 12
    • Smith

      We were a family of amc eagles my dad had a sedan two door my sister and I both had the sx4 mine was 6 cyl with 5 speed hers was 4 cyl with 5 speed and my aunt had 2 wagons and a cousin had an sx4 automatic they were going machines in the day 4×4 worked wonderful unless you had an oil leak which then the vacuum lines would swell other than that they were tough I did a lot with mine.

      Like 2
  7. Howard A. Howard AMember

    Enough time has passed since the last one, some may not have heard my “stories”. Those that have, too bad, some who are considering something may want to hear my “reviews”. I “had” a close friend,( 40 years) until political views( his) put the kabosh on that relationship, he bought a brand new( 82?) SX4, 6 cyl. 5 speed. The concept was good, right size, went through the snow, 3 foot deep mud puddles, not so much. Great heater/A/C, comfy, so-so gas mileage, but a very nice 4×4. This has the desirable automatic, and I’ll tell you why. Initially, the 5 speed was fine, then about 6 months in, it began to grind into 2nd. He took it in, they had it like for 2 months, got it back, now it ground into 3rd, and made a lot of noise. He took it back, this time, they had it a month, told him they couldn’t get parts, and he traded the car in. I always felt the SX4 and Eagle wagons were the last gasp of a once mighty( to me) car maker, and went downhill from here. Great find.

    Like 7
    • JLHudson

      One of the problems with the manual transmissions, as i heard, was the hydraulic clutch release. Check out the SX/4 “Strike Eagle”.

      Like 0
  8. Tim

    I’m from Toledo also and have a special place in my heart for jeeps and AMC. That old Jeep plant under the Willis/Overland/Knight smoke stacks was a site to see. Many of family members worked for Jeep.

    Like 12
  9. Claudio

    The amc eagle that started my love affair for awd , as a 30 y.o. Father and hard worker, i needed a cheap station wagon to lug around the kids and the tools for my security trade , in came an eagle awd , i had 4 in a row and loved them for our sometimes crazy canadian winters .this thing is a rare sighting and would draw lots of attention at a car show

    Like 7
  10. eric22t

    sweet sweet ride, cousin had one is powder blue. we roamed all over the state in any weather. just about time to find another. tho i would be ok with a clapped out motor. i’m thinking an obd1 4.0 w/ asian warrner auto would spry it right up

    Like 5
  11. CJM

    These were good cars. Dash is warped from the heat. The glove box doors seemingly never fit perfect but this one is worse than normal. Price is way too high given the condition. Like double what it should be!

    Like 2
  12. chrlsful

    right motor, wrong model. Gimmie the wagon. Auto is ok too. Some say “the late model’ or ‘earlier’ I think the former as to the qudra-trac? (you’d wanna shut it off if possible, no?)
    A ubiquitous model here in the NE usa even yrs after produced, they liked them for the sno. Neighbor had 1 & did his paved drive (when having a short storm) w/a lill plastic blade on frnt. 8^ 0

    Today the above ina wagon, a pacer wagon and the AMX would B a nice line up (just unfamiliar w/the company. It seemed like IH ‘light trucks’ it was a mish mash of the others but that was 50 yrs ago).

    Like 0
  13. Bobby

    My brother just sold the twin of this in similar condition for 4 grand haha.

    Like 0
  14. JoeNYWF64

    Is that a Ford automatic floor shifter?!
    Looks like 1 used in a ’65 mustang, but dechromed.

    Like 0
    • JustPassinThru

      AMC may have gotten it from Ford; but it’s factory.

      Eagles didn’t have column shifts, if I recall correctly. Space reasons – all that extra driveline, along with the miles of vacuum hoses, ate up room.

      Like 0
  15. Ed

    I was the Service Manager at an AMC/Jeep dealership from 1980 to 1994. Worked on these cars every day. Bought myself a copper coloured 1981 SX/4 258 with 4 speed trans and full time 4WD. It was a great car. I used to take my small city’s snow plow driver to work in this car when the snow was high. Almost every one of these cars had valve cover leaks (the ones with the plastic cover). Later on, AMC came up with a new plastic cover and a better means of attaching/sealing it. A lot of these cars suffered from “carbon knock” when the carb was out of adjustment. With the engine running, it sounded just like a rod bearing was out of it. Combustion area cleaner fixed that problem. The new 5 Speed trans introduced in 1982 had some teething problems. In cold weather, the gear lube thickened; this caused the shifts to be difficult and would grind gears. The first fix was drain and refill with 1/2 90 weight oil and 1/2 ATF. It worked, but not all that great. All in all, these were OK cars…they all came with “Ziebart rustproofing”…the Limited Edition wagons were better, they had comfy leather seats and electric windows/locks. The SX/4 hydraulic clutch WAS a common failure item. Using silicone hydraulic fluid in a new clutch master and slave fixed that problem permanently. We sold a LOT of these cars back in the early to late 80’s. I really cannot ever remember any of our customers stating that they hated these cars. One guy liked his so much he shoehorned a 360 V8 into a 1982 wagon. I would like to find a reasonably nice SX/4 again but they are hard to find and the ones that are out there have bad suspension rust in the front in the snow and salt northeast where I am from.

    Like 0

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