Is the term “murdered out,” played out? Maybe this “Murder Gremlin,” is more of an homage to the Street Outlaws “Murder Nova”? Either way, “Murder Gremlin” is probably not on the list of keywords you typically use when searching online for your next project, so you might have missed this blacked-out, LS1-powered AMC on Kijiji, Canada’s equivalent to Craigslist. As soon as we read the words ‘LS1’ and ‘daily driver,’ we knew we had to talk to owner Mauro Petti to find out more about this unique build.
First, a little Gremlin history. American Motors Corporation never had all that much money to develop new products, especially compared to the Big 3, and when it came time to kick out an affordable subcompact for the ’70s the company realized the most cost-effective thing it could do was slice the rear end off of a Hornet coupe and create a uniquely-styled hatchback it dubbed the Gremlin. Initially available in both two-seat and four-seat configurations, the unusual car also borrowed elements from the AMX-GT concept car that had done a similar slice-and-dice magic with the Javelin platform at the end of the 1960s.
The Gremlin’s almost-unchanged front clip borrowed from the Hornet with a hood long enough to stuff a straight-six engine, a 304-cubic inch V8 under, and, eventually, a 401-cubic inch V8 (in partnership with Arizona’s Randal AMC to create the 401-XR model). A decent performer on the street, the Gremlin found its true calling in the world of motorsports where NASCAR, IMSA, and NHRA Pro-Stock teams took advantage of the car’s low-mass design and cavernous engine bay.
It was this reputation as an easy-to-mod outlier that attracted Petti to the Gremlin. “When I was 16 years old, my first car was a Gremlin, so I’ve always had an emotional attachment,” he says. “I also loved the fact that it was a nice lightweight car that could swallow a big engine.”
It took Mauro five years to find a reasonably rust-free shell on which to build his murdered-out machine, and when he picked up the car he was already in possession of the 5.7-liter LS1 motor he intended to stuff up front.
“I had the entire design already planned out in my mind. To me, the Gremlins have always been cool, even though everyone else thought they were ugly. I already had a drag car, and this was supposed to be a street car. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too,” he laughs, “but I have been using it as my daily driver for the past seven years.”
Mauro’s online posting quickly makes it clear just how much actual planning went in to making this very reliable, and very fast, Murder Gremlin a reality. Originally a 304-equipped car, when it arrived in Petti’s garage it was engine-free, which made it easier for him to get to work on the vehicle’s chassis. The A-arms, lower control arms, and strut rods have all been modified, as has the front cross-member in order to improve handling as well as properly cradle the LS1. The rear end is an 8.8-inch positraction unit lifted from a Ford Explorer, with leaf springs out back working together with front double-adjustable Viking coilovers. Stopping is done via S-10 pickup truck brake calipers at the front and Explorer binders at the rear, linked to the master cylinder by way of stainless steel braided lines, and it alternates between a set of black-painted Eagle Talon and Chrysler Intrepid rims.
By now, you might have caught on to the fact that not only is Mauro a Gremlin fan, but he’s also a talented fabricator and outside-the-box thinker. A lot of that has to do with there being almost zero aftermarket support for the little AMC.
“I had to make my own floor pans and shape them to the rotted ones I cut out – there were a couple of small holes in the corners about the size of a fist,” he tells us. “There’s no real parts availability for the Gremlin, but I actually design and manufacture some parts myself and sell them whenever I need money to go racing, so I was definitely comfortable going my own way with the car. I also bought some CalTrac bar plans online and customized them so that they would fit the back end.”
Even the body work on the car steps outside the standard AMC template. “I’m a truck mechanic by trade, so truck parts have made their way into the design,” Petti explains. “I like the redundancies and hardness of that type of gear. The front end features Freightliner headlights that give a huge boost in visibility while maintaining the look of the front fender pockets, and I’ve gone through all of the car’s wiring.”
The Murder Gremlin’s LS1 was sourced from a 2000 Chevrolet Camaro, and is backed by a 4L60E automatic transmission. Mauro estimates that it’s putting out just under 400 horsepower, based on the 12.6 second ET it ran at 110-mph when he had 3.73 gears in it (it now features a set of 3.27, which added a couple of tenths to the time).
“On the street, with Mickey Thompsons, it just crushes the starting line,” says Petti. “With a stall and a cam it’s likely a high-11 car, but it really gets out in front of people so well that they panic and give it to much gas, and they can’t catch me while they’re spinning.”
It kicks a lot of straight-line sand in a lot of drag race faces, and the car has gotten a ton of attention over the seven years that Mauro has owned it – and he says it’s been universally positive. “I really wasn’t expecting the reactions. I’ve always loved the HOT ROD attitude of ‘dare to be different’, and every time I take it to Woodward, or to the drag strip, I get people running over to talk about it with their thumbs up, because it’s different from the sea of Mustangs and Camaros. It still surprises people at the drag strip.”