Future Classic: Eagle Premier

click image for more pics of the Eagle Premier

By the early 1980s, American Motors Corporation was on the ropes. Its car line was seriously geriatric – the Eagle, Concord, and Spirit models were derivatives of the Hornet developed in the Bronze Age. AMC had turned to Renault for an infusion of cash in return for an entré into the US market for the French brand. The Renault Alliance, Encore and Medallion were US versions of the French automaker's vehicles distributed by AMC/Jeep dealers, laying the groundwork for the Renault 25-derived Premier. Originally badged Renault Premier, and part of the AMC portfolio, the car became the Eagle Premier following Renault's desperate sale of its AMC stake to Chrysler. AMC had an established brand and operation, a brand new plant in Bramalea, Ontario, as well as the money-making Jeep division, which is what Chrysler really wanted. It's ironic that 20 years later, the Jeep brand is reprising its role as a jewel within a struggling automaker. It's also ironic that while Chrysler acquired AMC for the Jeep brand, the Premier ended up supporting the '90s renaissance at Auburn Hills.

After the Chrysler merger, the Renault Premier became the flagship of the Eagle brand. While the Renault 25 gave some of its DNA, the Premier's floorpan and body are unique – only the doors are shared between the two cars. While analyzing who was buying Jeep vehicles, it was discovered that the Grand Wagoneer was sitting in wealthy people's garages, while the Cherokee was also holding court with more expensive euro iron. The Premier was an effort to give those Jeep buyers a car from an American nameplate, rather than turning to imports. Eagle's intent was to leverage the Premier's euro roots and capture the hearts of buyers looking at brands like Audi, Mercedes, Saab and Volvo. The exterior styling, while perhaps not pulse-racing, was a handsome effort by Giorgetto Giugiaro's ItalDesign. What better way to catch the attention of Europhiles than have your car shaped by one of the leading automotive designers?

The Premier's lines are clean, with suggestions of Audi, and if you squint, there's a passing resemblance to the Alfa 164. The testament to any design effort is how it holds up over time. While the Premier definitely looks like a product of its time, it's not mired in period gimmicks. The front and rear overhangs are larger than current fashion, and the edges are '80s-crisp. There's even some cladding on the ES models, while the entry-level Premiers escaped with none. We're not talking Grand-Am level bodyside abuse, though. Our concern with cladding is what kind of rusty surprises hide behind it. Road salt and guck trapped behind the plastic have a field day with metal, even with galvanized panels. The interior design was the work of AMC's Dick Teague and team. It's nowhere near as timeless as the exterior, but it's a solid effort, and again in keeping with the times. The spaciousness inside more than makes up for any quaint period detailing in the cabin; the Premier offered more interior room than anything else in its class, as well as a large trunk.

Chrysler had just about milked all it could out of the K-Car architecture that pulled the company back from the brink in the early '80s. The platform had been nipped, tucked, sliced, diced and julienned, and by the late '80s it had definitely run its course. The Premier, on the other hand, was quite flexibly engineered, and superior to anything in the Chrysler stable. The structure was stiff and light, always a good starting point. The longitudinal placement of the drivetrain was a carryover from the Renault 25, with the 3.0 liter PRV V6 hanging out forward of the axle. The longitudinal placement eradicated the front-to-back driveline lash that plagues all transverse-engined cars, making for a more refined car. Out back, instead of the beam axle found in Chrysler's other vehicles, the Premier was sporting an independent torsion bar rear suspension.

With a curb weight of 3,000 pounds, the 150-horsepower V6 offered good performance for the day. The Premier also had a 3-speed automatic transaxle with overdrive, something no other Chrysler yet had. The suspension design and rigid unit-body also allowed a superior ride/handling balance to the Chrysler sedans. Since the engine was used in many different cars from Peugot, Renault and Volvo (as well as niche cars like DeLoreans), there's lots of performance concoctions you can whip up. There were even factory-turbocharged PRVs from Renault. Hide one of those setups under the hood of a Premier, and you can have heaps of fun.

Despite being well received as one of the best driving domestic cars on the road (and a screaming bargain during its last couple years), the Premier is rumored to have been called "sales-proof" by Lee Iacocca. For some reason, Chrysler was not able to move the targeted 260,000. Production came to a halt in 1992 after just under 140,000 Premiers and Dodge Monacos had been born from the Bramalea plant. Some of the sales problem falls to teething pains – the first couple years of production had issues with electrical systems, brakes, transmisions, and cooling systems. Post-1990 cars were well-sorted affiars, and they also gained 4-wheel disc brakes and stainless exhausts. The real creampuff Premiers are the 91-92 models - those last couple years saw continued upgrades, as well as high content levels as production was closing out.

The real validation of the efforts of AMC came when Chrysler needed to re-engineer its own line of mid-size sedans. Chrysler had picked up a lot of talent from AMC that was used to working creatively with scant resources, and we can't help but think that those AMC people fueled Chrysler's ability to bring concept cars to production so quickly through the '90s. AMC had implemented a team approach to developing cars, a lot like the renegade Taurus team that Lew Veraldi assembled at Ford. Chrysler benefitted from AMC's development chops, as well as their ability to anticipate trends and expertise at nimbly steering such a large entity as an auto manufacturer.

The LH cars are directly descended from the Eagle Premier, and they were built in Premier's Bramalea plant, one of the newest and most modern in North America. Look under the hood of an LH, and what do you see? Gee whiz, a longitudinal powertrain! Francois Castaing came over to Chrysler from AMC, and he suggested using the Premier as a starting point for the new LH cars. There's not really any interchangeability between the two platforms, but the suspension geometry and packaging of the Premier was aped in the LH cars. The LH drivetrain and suspension mules were also Premiers. The original design proved to be very flexible, at one point offering a development platform that could be AWD, RWD or FWD.

While on the surface, the Eagle Premier may seem like just another ho-hum four door from a forgettable brand, it leaves its own legacy, as well as being the last car with direct roots at American Motors Corporation. The Premier and its Bramalea plant helped keep Chrysler relevant through the 1990s, and the "nothing special" stewardship of the Premier cars ensures that they're inexpensive to buy now. Perhaps it's hard for others to get fired up about an automotive stepchild, but we'd love a '92 Premier Limited. It's one of the best American cars of the last 20 years, able to hold it's own against luxury european marques, and being a caretaker of the last AMC car (Jeeps aren't cars!) would be a responsibility we'd relish.

Share This Photo X