By JOHN MATRAS NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE LITTLE GUY. He’ll surprise you every time. American Motors surprised just about everyone in the fall of 1979 by introducing the 1980 Eagle line. No doubt about it, AMC was the little guy, a fourth among U.S. carmakers and embarrassingly leaning on Renault for support. But the 1980 Eagles—Concords raised three inches so a four-wheel-drive system could be slid underneath—not only made the press gaga, but sold at a rate to spell doom for the Pacer, which was mercifully executed for more Eagle production. In 1976, Roy Lunn, who had headed the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40 design team, was tapped to develop a four-wheel-drive passenger car for American Motors. Lunn went to Ferguson Research for a prototype using a viscous differential, a new concept. The rights to this concept were sold to Chrysler’s New Process Gear Division, and AMC worked with New Process to develop the production version for the 1980 Eagles. With Eagles flying out of Kenosha, Wisconsin, all through 1980, two smaller birds were added for 1981. Based on the platform of the Spirit, a successor to the Gremlin, the new Eagles were designated SX/4 and Kammback. The fastback SX/4 was pitched as a sports coupe with off-pavement capabilities while the Kammback was a go-anywhere, subcompact two-door hatchback sedan. Both were available with Pontiac’s “Iron Duke” four or AMC’s 258-cid inline six and a choice of either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. Unlike AMC's Jeeps, Eagles had independent front suspensions, but like the sedans they were based on, a live rear axle on leaf springs. Of the two little Eagles, the Kammback was the rarer. A surviving 1982 model is now owned by AMC enthusiasts Barbara and Victor Nave of Wolcott, Connecticut. Its angular stern bears strong resemblance to the truncated Gremlin. The deeply pocketed back seat lacks legroom, and the full-size spare camping out in the cargo area leaves room for little else. The seats do fold forward for additional luggage space. The Kammback’s front buckets are soft, and the large steering wheel has a skinny rim. A lever below the dash left of the steering wheel selects between rear- and four-wheel drive, but only when the car is stopped. The big six fires easily with an electronic-feedback carburetor riding herd on the traditional ohv engine. The six is perfectly civil, smooth and torquey, but strangled at higher revs. That’s not surprising, considering the medusa of hoses under the Kammback’s hood. A capable performer, the Kammback suffered in comparison to the more exciting SX/4 and the roomier big Eagles offered in both two-door and four-door sedans and a four-door wagon. The Kammback was axed after its second year. The SX/4 celebrated one more anniversary before becoming a footnote in automotive history. The big Eagles continued until Chrysler took over, and were then finally gone. But not before they made automotive history—and much needed profits—as the first modern American production automobiles with four-wheel drive.