The last of the independents, American Motors Corporation reached deep into its bag of tricks to survive against the Beg Three
Today, many think of the American Motors Corporation in a stodgy and humble light, and that’s largely because its automobiles were engineered and designed on a shoestring, often with the penny-pinching or no-nonsense buyer in its sights. Yet many times over its 33-year history, these automotive Bad News Bears won the day, often by being more resourceful and sometimes by being more outrageous than their competitors.
AMC was born way back in 1954, memorializing the rushed marriage of the respected but failing Hudson and Nash-Kelvinator firms. Under the leadership of Nash-Kelvinator’s George Mason and later George Romney, Roy Abernethy and Roy Chapin Jr., AMC held out until 1987 before being absorbed by the Chrysler Corporation. Yet through a heartwarming mixture of luck, pluck and oddball smarts, not to mention grit, thrift and blind optimism, AMC cars remain vivid in our memories.
Way back in 1957, for instance, Rambler offered a factory hot rod well before the GTO and its ilk — the Rebel, a silver (with silver and black upholstery) mid-sizer sporting a 327-cid big-block V-8. Advertised as the fastest four-door car in America, it churned out 255 horsepower with a four-barrel carb and dual exhausts, and made the dash to 60 mph in a then-unheard-of 7.5 seconds.
Performance was a card AMC would play on and off throughout its life. But sensibly priced luxury and total economy, American-style, were original themes, too. The same year the Rebel debuted, the Ambassador, a re-skinned Rambler with a longer (117-inch) wheelbase, became the first mid-size luxury performance offering from an American manufacturer, boasting then-upscale touches such as an electric clock, front and rear ashtrays, coil-spring suspension and fully reclining front seats that cleverly folded into a bed.
The Rambler American of 1958, with its proletarian, single-barrel carburetor 195.6 cubic-inch six, was one of the first economy cars out of the gate even though it was essentially the old Nash Rambler restyled for the Jet Age.
Romney had spent much of his career advocating smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, including the compact 1950 Nash Rambler, before going on to coin the phrase “dinosaurs” to describe the gas guzzlers that were Detroit’s stock-intrade. He wanted to go at the Motor City’s Big Three with guns blazing, with different bodies and platforms, to keep pace with their annual model changes, glitz and the ephemeral fashion trends of the day. He felt the Rambler name lacked pizzazz and bore grandmotherly overtones, so he worked to deep-six it.
Having gained a firm toehold in the U.S. market (garnering 7.5 percent of all sales in 1960), Rambler stepped it up again in 1962, adopting safety as a key marketing precept and blessing all its cars with twin-circuit brakes, an eminently sensible feature found then only in rarefied Cadillac, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes cars. But safety alone wouldn’t sell, nor would quality or efficiency. At least that was the view of new AMC head Abernethy, who in 1962 replaced Romney, who’d left to become governor of Michigan.
Dick Teague, the talented head of design for AMC from 1962, would be instrumental in this new era, which — in a sign of the new, more aggressive, mass-market agenda — began with a bang and the awarding of Motor Trend’s Car of the Year Award to the entire 1963 Rambler line.
AMC was no stranger to quality engineering, and 1964 saw the introduction of the 232-cid Typhoon Six, which appeared in a special edition of the Rambler Classic. So robust was this evolution of the old Nash six that its block spawned not only the Great 258, the 4.2-liter block that followed, but the Jeep Power-Tech Six, which soldiered on until 2006. (AMC, in an act of amazing prescience, would buy Jeep from Kaiser in 1970.)
The Teague influence came into focus with the Marlin of 1965, a cheap (to engineer) but cheerful fastback model intended to meet the Mustang and other sporty compacts head-on. Originally intended for the smaller American platform, Abernethy ordered it to be built on the larger Classic’s platform, scuttling any chance it had of being sporty. At the same time, the Marlin dispensed with the Rambler name. A lessthan- rousing sales story in its day, the Marlin sent AMC back to the drawing boards, but its unique looks and comfortable accommodations find examples in top condition today drawing as much as $23,000.
Chapin Jr., son of Hudson President Roy Chapin Sr., assumed the executive vice presidency at AMC in 1966, while Robert Evans became chairman. From these command positions their touch was swift and sure, though resources remained tight. The humble American received big 290-cid V-8 power in the newly incarnated Rogue edition, which could be combined with a four-on-the-floor. In 1967, the Classic nameplate was retired in favor of the Rebel, the designation for all full-size Ramblers until the Matador launched in 1971.
In 1968, as the muscle car wars continued to heat up, the Javelin, a sporty coupe intended to compete primarily with the Camaro, entered the fray. Available with a choice of the 232 six or two different V-8s — a 290 or 343 — it came a lot closer to the heart of the market than the Marlin had, doubling Marlin sales in 1967, then quadrupling in 1968 with almost 57,000 sold. The Javelin quickly earned a name for itself in SCCA Trans- Am competition in the late ’60s and early ’70s, finishing every race it entered, a unique distinction among factory racers.
A modified version of the Javelin, the AMX, debuted six months later. A foot shorter (and sans backseat), it was offered to buyers with a choice of three V-8s (including AMC’s potent new 390), front discs, “twin grip” limited-slip diff and a promising 140 mph speedometer. Its handsome lines were perhaps the all-time high water mark for American Motors’ styling, while its performance — borne out by the more than 100 land speed records set by world’s fastest man Craig Breedlove before it even went on sale — was beyond question.
For a time, performance development, competition credentials and loud paint jobs kept on coming. A red-white-and-blue SS/AMX was created in association with aftermarket performance gurus at Hurst with the drag strip in mind, while a similarly patriotic Hurst SC/Rambler version of the American — with Sun column-mounted tach, T10 four-speed with Hurst linkage and rear torque links from the AMX — was also offered for sale. (Two were even built with 4WD and competed in the Baja 500.) Rare in their day and scarcer now, both are highly valued by collectors, with a 1969 AMX 390/340 SS Fastback Coupe in top condition worth $122,000.
In 1970, Mark Donohue and Roger Penske’s Sunoco Racing Team jettisoned Camaros to campaign Javelins. While the AMC performance reputation grew, the Rambler name was retired in the same year, though it would live on for a time in Australia and South Africa.
As the new decade kicked off, AMC appeared to have gotten off to a good start, with Chapin Jr. cementing the Jeep deal and the Hornet sedan arriving in 1970 to replace the compact American. A pleasant-looking, modern design, it would soldier on in one form or another until AMC’s end. The radical-looking but conventionally engineered (and peculiarly named) Gremlin subcompact was extracted from the same design, by the notably cost-effective expedient of lopping off the Hornet’s rear end. Beating both the Vega and Pinto to market, its six-cylinder engine made it unique in the low-price field and, along with the Hornet (soon to be available as a hatch and a wagon), it would provide the bulk of AMC sales in the ’70s, as the company’s larger and performance models went slowly into the night. Expect to pay around $13K for an excellent Gremlin today.
While the Jeep purchase quickly proved an astute one, AMC’s handle on the larger car market seemed to be slipping from its grip, though it could hardly be blamed for not making its large cars large enough. The Javelin grew in 1971, following the Mustang down Fatso Lane, while AMX became the name of an unremarkable trim line for the now-bloated sportster.
The bulky new Matador sedans were deeply boring to look at, though a traffic-stopping Matador coupe would appear in 1974. Its curvy and not altogether handsome lines were meant to help it on the track, and they did. But though it was featured in a popular James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun, in which it turned into an airplane, and although Car and Driver anointed it as the best-styled car of 1974 (as a point of reference, 1973’s Hornet hatchback received similar plaudits from the magazine), the huge coupe appealed to few customers and can fairly be said to have short-circuited AMC’s upmarket ambitions. Having no body panels in common with its brethren, it was large and strange and a costly bridge too far. Thank goodness for Jeep, whose Wagoneers, SJ Cherokees and CJs kept AMC ticking over.
It was around this time the resources-poor company began experimenting with designer associations. An improbable red and green Adolfo Gucci interior was available to adorn Hornet Sportabouts, while Javelin buyers might opt for a Pierre Cardin trim whose black seats featured white, purple and red stripes that extended up the door panels and around the headliner. An equally lurid Oleg Cassini interior option did nothing to prevent the Matador coupe’s near-instant decline, and for those of a certain age, the optional Levi’s denim Gremlin interior remains the butt of jokes today.
The Pacer of 1975 was, with its asymmetrical doors, perhaps the boldest of all AMC’s alchemical sleights of hand. With a 100-inch wheelbase, for a short car it was unusually comfortable for four on days its massive glass area hadn’t allowed the car to reach broiling temperature. It was aerodynamic for its day, with rack-and-pinion steering and many forward-thinking safety features, and it was W-I-D-E at 80 inches. But it was heavy — close to 3,500 pounds fully dressed — with the corporation’s boat-anchor-heavy 232-cid six pressed into service at the last minute when a GM-promised lightweight, rotary engine failed to materialize. Sales were surprisingly strong, double what AMC expected in 1975. This stroke of fortune was offset by declining interest in the Gremlin and Hornet and the cancellation (Ambassador, Javelin) or utter failure of everything else (Matador). AMC’s days as a full-range carmaker were numbered. Soon enough, Pacer sales tanked, and while it was a well-intentioned car on many levels that is viewed nostalgically today, with prize examples selling for more than $13,000, it became in its own time an object of ridicule. The Pacer was the last car to be fully developed by AMC; a wagon followed.
Last-gasp exercises saw AMC spiffing up the Hornet for 1978, rebadging it the Concord, and a refreshed Gremlin — now known as the Spirit — demonstrated again how much designer Teague could accomplish with nothing. Chapin Jr. retired that year, to be succeeded by Gerald Meyers, who immediately began negotiations with Renault to develop a new line of cars. Strong sales of Jeeps kept the lights on, while AMC’s forays into four-wheel-drive passenger cars, called Eagles, broke important new technical ground that won cultish, lifetime fans, but too few of them.
In 1980, Renault purchased 25 percent of AMC and began selling its 18i, Fuego and LeCar at AMC dealers, while together the new partners developed the Alliance. Renault’s association with AMC did leave us the enduringly popular, right-sized Jeep Cherokee, which helped usher in the SUV era, but it was too little, too late. AMC was circling the drain. In 1987, Chrysler bought the ailing firm and after briefly flirting with the Renault/AMC-derived line they’d call Eagle, flushed away the lot, leaving only Jeep to meet the new millennium. The last of the independents was gone, but not forgotten.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine