History Book – The Gremlin and a poll tax


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, March 30. You’re listening to WORLD Radio and we are so glad you are. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book.

In 2015, Islamic terrorists attack a college in Kenya. 

Plus, two decades ago, more than 100,000 people protest a controversial tax in London.

EICHER: But first, 50 years ago this week, a small American automaker goes fender-to-fender with foreign imports. It releases a competitive subcompact car—and succeeds—at least for a time.

Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: In the 1950s, Japan’s Toyota began exporting cars to America. While the first model was not very successful, it was strong enough to encourage other foreign auto producers to follow suit. Then in the 19-60’s, Americans swarmed to a cute import from Germany—the VW Bug. 

COMMERCIAL: Ever wish you owned a Volkswagen? 

The Bug’s popularity quickly ate into domestic U.S. auto sales. That worried the big three Detroit producers. But a small American auto company saw an opportunity and on April 1st, 1970, released its answer to the VW Bug:

COMMERCIAL: American Motors introduces the Gremlin…

BICKETT: This just tells you about American ingenuity. Dick Teague designed the Gremlin on the back of a barf bag coming back from a trip to California…

Scott Bicket is a car collector and enthusiast near Princeton, Illinois:

BICKETT: There was a problem. Gas was becoming more expensive. Kids that wanted to get a car, couldn’t afford the gas. So they got a smaller car with better gas [mileage] and it was an answer to a problem, and American’s fixed it. 

The AMC Gremlin provides more leg room and shoulder room for passengers than the Bug. It gets a little better gas mileage, and also offers more power than the popular import.

The first Gremlins cost less than $2,000 and are available in two-seat and four-seat models. 

BICKETT: When I get into my Gremlin and I drive it down the road, your head is going to be on a swivel. You’re going to look and you’re going to look again. “What is that? I haven’t seen one…” If I go to get gas, I’m going to be there for at least twenty minutes. It’s been over 50 years now, and it’s still not a car that anything compares to. You can’t look at it and go: “That’s similar to…” No it’s not. It’s not similar to anything.

AMC sells over 670,000 Gremlins during the eight year production run—making the once small car-maker, an industry leader.

[DOWN THE HIGHWAY by B.T.O.]

Next, March 31st, 1990. Protesters upset over the new “Poll Tax” fill the streets around London’s Trafalgar Square: 

NEWSCLIP: Good evening, more than 100 people have been injured tonight in serious rioting across central London. 

Before 1990, local governments across the United Kingdom were funded in part by property taxes called: “rates.” As these taxes were based on private property values, districts with a higher than average number of renters had to tax homeowners more heavily to fund community services. 

The Conservative government, led by Margret Thatcher, proposes the poll tax as a fair, flat tax on all residents in a community. It makes sense on paper, but enforcement proves difficult, and unpopular. While many homeowners benefit from the change, some have to pay more—and renters who hadn’t had to pay anything before, protest the change.

NEWSCLIP: Then the looting bega. Shop windows were broken and bottles grabbed.

The largest and deadliest protest occurs at the end of March, 1990.   

NEWSCLIP: Nearby, protestors climbed onto scaffolding, egging on people below.  

After the riots, many conservative government ministers join the Labor Party in calls to abolish the new tax. As it is a key element in Prime Minister Thatcher’s governing policy, she is determined to keep it. Party confidence in her leadership weakens and less than 8 months later, she resigns as Prime Minister. 

And finally, April 2nd, 2015. 

NEWSCLIP: A group of armed men have stormed a university compound in Garissa—a town in a Northeastern province of Kenya…

Just after 5 a.m. gunmen ambush two unarmed Garissa University College guards. They enter the classrooms and dormitories, and begin killing Christian students. Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta:  

PRESIDENT: I extend condolences to the families of those who perished in this attack. We continue to pray for the quick recovery of the injured and the safe rescue of those still being held hostage.

Al-Shabaab claims responsibility—citing persecution and military action against Somalia muslims as the motivation for the attack. The standoff lasts 15 hours before sharpshooters eventually kill the four gunmen. 142 students are dead, 79 wounded.

The Garissa campus re-opens a month later, with heightened security, but most students refuse to return. Instead, 650 transfer to Moi University in Eldoret to finish out their studies. They are warmly welcomed by fellow students.

STUDENT: Our message to our brothers as they come in is that not all is lost. The reason we are receiving them today is to give them hope, that together we are going to join hands to shake the limits of our destiny.

The Garissa University College massacre remains the second deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya’s history and it led to increased school security protocols nationwide.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book, I’m Paul Butler.


(Photo/Scott Bickett, Princeton, IL) 1974 Gremlin

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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