AMC spent $40 million, a million man-hours and three years on its new 1970 Hornet compact, which revived a time-honored name not seen since the last Hudsons of 1957. It bowed as two-and four-door notchback sedans on a 108-inch wheelbase (two inches up on the predecessor American) with a choice of two sixes and base or SST trim. First-year sales were 92,458, a strong showing that helped AMC's sagging finances. Still, Kenosha lost money that year -- $58.2 million on sales of over $1 billion.
April 1970 brought the clever Gremlin, America's first sub-compact. With AMC's thriftiest six and base prices below $2000, this import-fighter initially sold well: over 26,000 for its abbreviated first model year. Gremlin related to Hornet as AMX did to Javelin.
Sheet metal was similar ahead of the B-posts, but Gremlin wheelbase was trimmed to 96 inches to match a severely truncated rear body with lift-up wagon-style rear window. Though this styling proved controversial, designer Teague insisted it was the only way to go. "Nobody would have paid it any attention if it had looked like one of the Big Three," he said.
With Hornet and Gremlin, AMC gave up trying to be a "full-line" automaker slugging toe-to-toe with the Big Three, returning to its original role as a "niche" marketer specializing in small cars. But the transition took a long time, and it wasn't until model-year '79 that AMC fully returned to the formula it had found so profitable in the late '50s and early '60s.
In a way, it was strange that this tiny outfit would have ever tried to match the giants model-for-model, but president Roy Abernethy and even market-wise chairman Roy D. Chapin, Jr., were somehow persuaded to abandon the course pursued long before by George Romney.
An important development toward more specialized products was the February 1970 acquisition of Toledo-based Kaiser-Jeep Corporation, which instantly made AMC the nation's leading builder of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Though uncharted territory for AMC, Jeep's long experience in the field would prove valuable, eventually finding its way into the passenger-car line.
Though it took nearly a decade to complete, AMC's market reorientation was evident as early as 1971. The jazzy Rebel Machine and slow-selling AMX were dropped, though the latter's name was applied to a new top-line Javelin.
The ponycar was given heavy -- and not altogether successful -- sheetmetal surgery on an inch-longer wheelbase, with crisper lines highlighted by pronounced bulges over the front wheel openings in the manner of the contemporary Chevrolet Corvette. Inside was a reworked dash curved inward at the center, as in Pontiac's then-current Grand Prix, so as to bring minor controls closer to the driver.
Javelin stumbled along in this form through 1974, a vestige of the past. Annual production never broke 30,000 in this period, reflecting the general fast decline in ponycar demand after 1970. AMC decided against a direct replacement -- reasonable, considering the only such cars still selling in decent numbers by then were the Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird.
Still, Javelin remained faithful to the cause. For example, the big 401-cid V-8 introduced for '71 was optionally available through the end, though with diminished power both on paper (with the 1971 industry switch to more realistic SAE net power ratings) and in fact (due to detuning for lower exhaust emissions).
Another AMC nameplate, Ambassador, disappeared after 1974. Continued with only minor trim and equipment changes in its final years, the firm's full-size was ultimately done in by lack of interest.
Sales had never been great, and though its aging 1967 design was more sensible in some ways than that of concurrent Big Three rivals, the lack of change increasingly weighed against it. The crowning blow was probably the Middle East oil embargo of 1973-74, which triggered America's first energy crisis and temporarily crippled sales of most all full-size cars.
Another holdover fared only slightly better. This was the midsize Matador, a renamed, restyled Rebel appearing for 1971 as a continuation of that basic 1967 design. Offered in the same three body styles through 1973, it was pretty ordinary stuff and failed to generate much showroom traffic. In later years, AMC tacitly acknowledged the line's near on-road invisibility with a series of humorous television commercials that asked "What's a Matador?" Few buyers apparently cared.
An attempt to perk up Matador's staid image arrived for 1974, when the notchback hardtop coupe gave way to a completely different pillared fastback that AMC boldly announced would race in NASCAR. Designer Teague gave it smooth, curvaceous contours and an unusual front with the hood shaped to form the upper portions of huge headlamp nacelles.
Despite special "designer" interiors (then a favored AMC marketing ploy) and sporty options like the X package, the fastback provided only temporary relief and Matador sales remained underwhelming. Like Ambassador, the midsize suffered in the aftermath of the first energy crisis. By 1978 it was quite passé, even the coupes, which had been progressively hoked up in the interim. After that, it was adios, Matador.