AMC documentary delves into The Last Independent Automaker
Without a doubt, American Motors Corporation was forced to “think outside the box,” as former AMC designer Frank Pascoe tells us in the trailer for a new documentary about the defunct automaker. “We did some wild and crazy things there.” And Joe Ligo is ready to share the details.
Ligo’s still-in-production, six-part series, The Last Independent Automaker, is scheduled for a 2024 release. The Hagerty contributor and Emmy Award-winning producer unveiled his plans earlier this week.
“I think the story of American Motors is worth telling because it isn’t just about the cars. It’s really a story about people,” says Ligo, who owns a 1972 AMC Ambassador. “It’s a story about bold leadership, big risks, very human mistakes, and very human failures.
“For every nation that has a car industry, that industry becomes a reflection of that country, and American Motors is a mirror of America. The cars people drove reflect what the country was going through, economically, politically, and culturally. Connecting all those dots through cars is fascinating. Combining that with the stories and memories that people shared with us really makes this a great story. The story of American Motors is too good of a story not to tell.”
Starting in 1954, independent American Motors Corporation went toe to toe with the Big Three for more than a quarter century. Among its best-known cars were the Rambler, Javelin, AMX, Matador, Gremlin, and Pacer. In 1979, despite an economic downturn, AMC announced a record $83.9 million profit on annual sales of $3.1 billion, but soaring energy prices, rising American unemployment, and the influx of imported economy cars eventually took their toll. Even an influx of cash from French carmaker Renault couldn’t save the company, and in 1986, American Motors reported a $91.3 million loss.
“There’s an old saying in the car business that the best way out of any problem is to sell more cars,” historian Patrick Foster says in the documentary trailer. “When they were building 300,000 cars a year, they were profitable. When they got down to 180,000, they were losing buckets of money.”
On March 9, 1987, Chrysler agreed to buy Renault’s share in American Motors, as well as all the remaining shares. Within a year, independent AMC was no more.
Former AMC engineer Dave Perrine says that some circumstances surrounding the automaker’s demise may never be answered. “I’m sure there were a lot of decisions made behind closed doors—where the carpets were thick, and the chairs were soft, and the cigar smoke’s heavy—that we never knew about.”
Ligo’s documentary will chronicle AMC’s rise and fall in six 30-minute episodes, which will be released on public television and streamed online.
According to the project’s Facebook page: “More than 30 former employees were interviewed, including designers, engineers, assembly line workers, salespeople, and two CEOs. Their memories, combined with hours of rare archive footage and thousands of historical photographs, bring to life the story of an iconic company during a period of rapid industry change.”
Among those interviewed for The Last Independent Automaker was U.S. Senator Mitt Romney, whose father, George Romney, served as AMC’s president from 1954–62 before becoming Michigan’s governor from 1963–69. Romney later served as U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969–73.
“Over and over again, we came across stories in our research that resonated today,” Ligo says. “Union workers worried about robots taking their jobs. Salespeople complained about inflation making it harder to sell cars. Engineers explained how high gas prices caused them to redesign cars to be more efficient. This was 40 or 50 years ago, and the same things are happening now. It’s still relevant.”
In addition to Ligo, who serves as producer and director, the documentary’s creative team includes Foster, an author of 34 books and more than 800 magazine articles, and Jimm Needle, who has created digital content for dozens of Fortune 500 companies.
Ligo says his interest in AMC dates back to his teenage years.
“Like most kids, I started getting interested in cars right before I was old enough to get my driver’s license, and there was just something about dead automotive brands that attracted me,” he says. “Looking through old library books at pictures of Kaisers, Packards, AMCs, and other cars that weren’t around anymore really got me interested in learning why they disappeared. And there was something about American Motors that just drew me to those cars. After I found out how friendly and welcoming the AMC community was, I became a lifelong fan.”
Judging from the documentary’s trailer, the film promises to be an engaging, no-holds-barred narrative with a few surprises along the way. To illustrate the story’s many twists and turns, Ligo uses a barrage of on-screen words to make his point. The Last Independent Automaker, we’re told, is “a story of … cars, design, technology, economics, unions, pollution, style, opportunity, business, innovation, lawsuits, money, luck, prejudice, lies, power, robots, betrayal, and assassination.”
“We were fighting long odds, trying to beat the big guys,” admits Michael Porter, who was a member of AMC’s marketing team.
To do that, the automaker had to do things differently, says designer Vince Geraci. “American Motors is unique—unique—never to be replicated again. That’s a one-timer.”
In the end, however, “We got screwed, that’s all,” says autoworker Dave Furlin.
To complete work on The Last Independent Automaker, Ligo has created a GoFundMe page and is almost halfway to his $10,000 target. “Our goal is to produce something everyone will want to watch,” Ligo says. “Not just car guys.”