Because of the popularity AMC enjoyed during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the company decided to broaden its lineup and compete more directly with the Big Three automakers. Thus, the 1965-1967 AMC Marlin fastback was developed. The following pages explain the AMC Marlin story.
It was the first day after the election of Roy Abernethy as president of American Motors. George Romney, who had gained fame at the helm of AMC for taking on the "gas-guzzling dinosaurs" of the Big Three with the compact Rambler, had just departed to take on the job of governing the State of Michigan. Responding to the change in leadership, a Kenosha, Wisconsin, radio station asked for a taped comment from Abernethy about the new challenges he was facing. During the interview, Abernethy made it clear that he wanted to get rid of Romney's image of AMC.
Abernethy came to Nash Motors in 1954 from Kaiser-Willys, where he had gone after a long and successful career with Packard. Everyone at AMC admired him for building the sales organization that sold all the cars produced during the Romney years, some of the best days the corporation had ever known.
What did Abernethy mean, exactly, by his comment about getting rid of Romney's image? Roy had once told a large dealer audience that his son had expressed the wish that American Motors would "get out of the right lane and build a sports-type car." Roy was dutiful, too -- to Romney -- and once quipped, "Well, I told my son he ought to know which side of his bread the butter was on."
But now, after Romney's departure, all was changed. Abernethy was at the helm, and he made no effort to disguise a strong feeling that the company would be much better off if it offered a line of bigger, more powerful automobiles and sports models to compete head-on with the Big Three. The "Romney image" was one of avoiding confrontation with the company's major competitors by building compact and small cars and seeking its own niche in domestic and international markets.
Abernethy thought George would never let him put a V-8 in the [Rambler] Classic. George did not believe the Ambassador should be bigger than the Classic, and he was against offering convertibles in the larger series. He also did not think a new V-8 was needed, but Abernethy decided to make a change.
The all-new Rambler Classic and Ambassador for 1963 had already been put to bed, and the tooling had been let for the all-new Rambler American that was due to follow for 1964. There was little Abernethy could do to change them, or to lengthen the Ambassador.
But there was 1965, and so Abernethy went to work. With support from chairman Richard E. Cross and the Board of Directors, he ordered major styling changes in all series, plus the addition of convertibles (for the first time) for the Classic and Ambassador.
The latter was also planned around a longer wheelbase to set it apart from the Classic and move it upmarket. Finally, he approved a change in the advertising theme, the goal being to pump a bit of pizazz into the AMC image. Thus, the entire lineup for 1965 ended up being known as "The Sensible Spectaculars" -- whatever that meant.
Richard A Teague's styling group got to work on developing a sporty fastback for AMC. Continue to the next page to learn about the development of the AMC Tarpon and Marlin models.
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The Development of the AMC Tarpon and Marlin
Richard A. Teague's styling group began developing an entirely new concept for AMC -- a sporty fastback. The development of the AMC Tarpon and Marlin models was the ultimate result.
Early in his career with AMC, Richard had learned that the company was just not willing to spend millions on all-new tooling, but its top brass was always willing to consider imaginative use of existing tooling and certain spin-off ideas. And just such an approach went into the creation of the Tarpon, which eventually lead to the Marlin.
The Tarpon was shown initially at the national convention of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit's Cobo Hall in January 1964. Although the general public does not attend such functions, AMC's public relations staff announced the car with almost as much fanfare as through it were actually going into production.
The Tarpon represented a unique approach to the fastback styling concept. A two-door hardtop, it was mounted on the Rambler American's short 106-inch wheelbase and measured only 180 inches long. A deep gold-flecked vermillion paint job set off the 13-inch aluminum wheels, both of which served to accentuate the Tarpon's sleek, low-slung 52.5-inch-high silhouette.
To present a frontal impression of fleetness, the special show model featured a deeply angled, compound curved windshield. Prominent from the rear were the wedge-shaped roof, large skylight rear window, and massive rectangular taillights.
The Tarpon's instrument panel boasted a complete array of dial instruments beneath a deeply padded safety hood. Emphasizing the sporty-car motif was a sports-car steering wheel made of spring aluminum, with a recessed hub and a rim trimmed with natural walnut.
Both Abernethy and Thomas A. Coupe, sales vice-president, were excited about the new design. However, both were guarded in saying so because they knew profits were generated by products in the field, not by ideas on paper or on turntables in special shows.
Abernethy emphasized that the Rambler Tarpon was a "styling study to highlight the advanced design work of the corporation's stylists who created the record-selling 1964 line of Rambler Ambassadors, Classics, and Americans."
Abernethy could see, however, that the Tarpon was helping to "change the Romney image," and so he authorized a limited showing of the car in selected major cities. Gene Swaim, director of automotive public relations for AMC at that time, recalls that the Tarpon traveled to Los Angeles for its first public showing. He and Tom Coupe were in San Francisco for a second exhibition when the tour was suddenly aborted. "We were told quite simply," Swaim says, "that the Tarpon was not the way to go."
As it turned out, the decision had already been made to bring out a larger version of the trim little Tarpon. As Dick Teague, now happily retired in Fallbrook, California, put it, "Abernethy had decided that instead of a 2+2 we would build a 3+3 sports-type car." So the stylists created a bigger fastback and called it the Marlin. Teague, incidentally, chose both the Tarpon and Marlin names.
Continue on to the next page to learn more about the AMC Marlin's many features.
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Features of the AMC Marlin
The new AMC Marlin was officially announced on February 10, 1965, and unveiled in dealer showrooms on March 1. There was an assortment of deluxe features offered on the AMC Marlin.
It stood 1 1/2 inches higher than the Tarpon, stretched 15 inches longer (to 195), and borrowed its 112-inch wheelbase from the Classic. And although basically a Classic with a fastback roof, the Marlin was marketed as a separate model and sported its own rear fenders, taillights, grille (basically a Classic grille with the vertical bars removed), and hood ornament.
With seating for six, the Marlin offered many deluxe features, among them standard power disc brakes, individual reclining seats, and AMC's 232-cubic inch, 145-horsepower six. For those who desired performance to match the intended sporty image, two V-8s were available: a 287-cubic inch unit rated at 198 horsepower, or a 327-cubic inch engine that cranked out 270 horsepower.
A heavy duty suspension and Twin-Grip differential were also on the options list. In basic form, the Marlin listed at $3,100, only slightly more than the Classic 770 hardtop, which went for $3,063 in six-passenger form and $3,089 for the 770H with bucket seats.
In the press release announcing the Marlin, Coupe was quoted as saying "the new car is designed for those who want a sporty fastback combined with roominess and comfort." That seemed almost an apology since surveys had shown that sports car lovers did not necessarily seek roominess and comfort as much as they demanded sleek looks and high performance.
Bob Nixon, now chief of Jeep design for Chrysler, worked on the Marlin, along with Vincent Geraci, Fred Hudson, Neil Brown, Don Stumpf, and Jim Pappas -- all under Teague's watchful eye, of course. Nixon was quoted saying that their assignment to create a sporty fastback on the Classic platform "was like trying to build a Corvette on a Buick sedan body. It just doesn't work." He dismissed the Marlin project as an "ugly embarrassment."
Geraci, now chief of product design and product identity for Chrysler, was a little kinder. "It was an exciting program," he said. "We took a 1965 body design and turned it into a sportier version. But enlarging the car from its original concept [the Tarpon] and raising the roof produced an adverse effect on overall appearance." He indicated that one of his major tasks, hard to stomach, was to provide sedan-type seating in what was supposed to be a sports-type car.
Continue on to the next page to learn about the mixed press reaction to the AMC Marlin.
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Press Reaction to the AMC Marlin
Press reaction to the AMC Marlin was mixed, with many writers praising its dual master cylinder braking system and the striking interiors. The San Francisco Chronicle called it an "extremely fine road car . . . cruises with the slightest strain at 80 mph." The Camden, New Jersey, Courier-Post said the Marlin was "beautifully styled with refinements not typical of fastback models."
Motor Trend, which had named the 1963 Rambler its "Car of the Year," observed cautiously, "A very well balanced car that rounds out the various types of personal performance sports cars on the market." The Indianapolis News opined that "American Motors Corp. shook the car buffs out of the bushes with the Rambler Marlin, newest mid-year model to be offered to sports-minded motorists."
It remained for Automobile Quarterly, the hardbound no-advertising publication that usually limits itself to praising the virtues of limited-edition classic cars of earlier eras, to take the Marlin to task with a vengeance. Malcolm J. Brookes called the Marlin "the ugliest vehicle yet to come from Detroit." He berated its "disagreeable shape," its "inadequate rear-view window," poor location of the steering wheel and stoplights, front seats that were too soft, and poorly designed pedals.
Well, it wasn't that bad -- the 10,327 Marlins produced in 1965 helped generate a profit of $5.2 million for the corporation that year, despite a three-week strike by the United Auto Workers in AMC's fourth quarter Worldwide, Rambler sales came to 412,736 units. (Of this total, by the way, Ambassador convertibles accounted for 3,499, Classic ragtops for 4,953 -- hardly resounding proof that open models in all series would help overall sales.)
As American Motors moved into its 1966 fiscal year, the company appeared headed for trouble. Sales of automobiles were weak industrywide, and losses loomed at AMC. In June, Robert B. Evans was named chairman of the board, replacing Cross, who continued as a director and chairman of the executive committee.
The 1966 Marlin bore only minor changes. Public relations was hard put to stimulate excitement with such changes as modification of the extruded aluminum grille, sway bar added to six-cylinder models, and a black vinyl-covered roof as an option. In a ploy to stimulate sales, the price was lowered to $2,601 by deleting previously standard features, such as the power brakes, and the Rambler name was taken off the back of the car.
It didn't matter, as only 4,547 Marlins were built for the model year. Total AMC car production likewise sank -- to a disappointing 279,225 -- and the company reported a loss of $12.6 million for the fiscal year. As the year ended in September, Roy D. Chapin, Jr. was promoted to executive vice-president and general manager of the automotive division.
The Romney image was indeed fast disappearing.
The following year, the 1967 AMC Marlin went through a restyling. Continue on to the next page to learn more about the changes.
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Restyling of the 1967 AMC Marlin
In the 1967 fiscal year, a rather strange thing happened to the Marlin -- it grew even bigger, built now on the Ambassador's 118-inch-wheelbase chassis. The restyling of the 1967 AMC Marlin was even stranger when one recalls that the company had already decided to drop the fastback after the 1967 model year.
In the 1967 fiscal year, a rather strange thing happened to the Marlin -- it grew even bigger, built now on the Ambassador's 118-inch-wheelbase chassis. The move was even stranger when one recalls that the company had already decided to drop the fastback after the 1967 model year. In any case, overall length increased by 6.5 inches to 201.5, and at 78.4 inches the car was four inches wider, all of which contributed to a larger interior.
"Even with bucket seats, there's plenty of room for six swingers," proclaimed the sales brochure. Featured was all-new sheetmetal below the beltline, a new "black anodized grille harboring twin rally lights," a cleaner rear deck, and a new emphasis on luxury: "The flair of a fastback, the luxury of Ambassador." All for $2963, a $362 increase from 1966.
Among the luxury appointments were "thick, loop-pile carpeting; upholstery fabrics covering coil spring seats; padded acoustical ceiling with the soft look of suede; padded instrument panel from door to door"; and, "The luxury of a new suspension system and wide road stance that tames the wildest backcountry roads, gives you a civilized ride."
Upholding the sporty side of the Marlin were "options you take for granted in a sports fastback: sports steering wheel; Typhoon V-8 performance; four-on-the-floor; vinyl or fabric buckets that recline; electric tachometer; power disc brakes."
All in all, the '67 Marlin really was a handsome car, helped largely by the curvier styling and "Coke-bottle" flanks, which blended in more smoothly with the fastback roofline. It was "the best looking Marlin we built," says Teague. Alas, the new styling didn't help sales, which plummeted to a miserable 2545 units.
Early in January of 1967, Abernethy was out of American Motors. The directors chose Chapin as chairman and chief executive officer and made William V. Luneburg president and chief operating officer. Evans remained as a director. Other management changes were made as well, and AMC hired a new advertising agency, Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc. But all these moves, plus the sale of the Kelvinator applicance division to White Consolidated Industries, failed to stem the tide of huge losses that were accumulating. In the calendar year, only 229,058 cars were produced, and AMC reported a horrendous loss of $75.8 million.
To hype sales, the '67 Marlin appeared on the Ambassador chassis. Most thought that the longer hood and curvier flanks blended better with the fastback roofline.
The Marlin was gone. Abernethy was gone. The Romney image was only a memory.
Output of the Marlin reached 10,327 units for the second half of '65, but tumbled by half to 4547 for the entire '66 model year, and then to only 2545 for '67. But AMC had a better sporty-car idea for 1968-the Javelin was on its way.
And, by September 1988, the Kenosha assembly and stamping operations will be gone, too, ending an 86 year tradition that began in 1902 with the Jeffrey Motor Company. Having taken over AMC in 1987, Chrysler-like the rest of the industry-was reacting to dwindling sales and production overcapacity, and had said late in 1987 that at least one plant would have to be closed. Kenosha, the oldest automotive plant in the industry, and less efficient because of its multistory layout, ended up as the scapegoat. But the venerable Kenosha plant leaves holding its head high-it builds the highest quality cars within the entire Chrysler empire.
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Marketing the AMC Marlin
In marketing the AMC Marlin, American Motors took full advantage of the broader interest the car would gain because of its mid-year introduction, with less competition for attention.
An impressive advertising and merchandising program launched the new car in the spring of 1965. In addition to ads appearing in 2,400 newspapers on announcement day -- March 19 -- full-color spreads were published in Life, Saturday Evening Post, Look, and other major magazines. Marlin television commercials were seen on the CBS Danny Kaye Show, and 72 radio commercials were heard on the NBC Monitor programs. The Marlin appeared in color on the covers of several car-buff magazines, including Motor Trend.
Millions of Americans saw the Marlin for the first time on display in major U.S. airports. Arrangements to lease airport lobby space for the large turntables on which the Marlin rested were handled by E.B. (Barney) Brogan, Rambler advertising manager (who a few years later was to leave AMC for a similar position with Toyota).
Some AMC executives objected to the heavy concentration on the Marlin, pointing out that the public was virtually unaware that 1965 also saw the introduction of all-new Ambassador and Classic convertibles (a radical departure from the staid image the company had at the time), and on the upgraded Ambassador, which for the first time since 1960 rode a longer wheelbase than the Classic.
During this period, AMC stylists also came up with two glitzy show cars bearing the Rambler name. One was the Black Marlin. It toured the 1965 auto shows -- along with some very attractive young women, who were decked out in sailors' outfits. The car was, not surprisingly, painted shiny black, perhaps to remind onlookers of the real black marlin, one of the large, slender deep-sea fishes found in the Pacific.
The second model, the Tahiti, made its first outing at the Detroit Auto Show early in 1966. Its custom appointments included "bright South Seas floral upholstery," with matching throw pillows. It was finished in a brilliant fireflake blue.
Two somewhat minor promotions associated with the 1966 Marlin are of interest to today's literature collectors. One was a unique three-dimensional color postcard. When held to the light at a certain angle, the card (made with the Xograph process) shows a very lifelike white and blue Marlin parked next to a red Ambassador 990 convertible.
The other promotional piece was a 1966 Marlin plastic miniature model, which was available in a variety of single and two-tone color combinations. These models today command premium prices, not only because they are attractive but also because of their scarcity. This came about because, as the 1966 model year neared its end, hundreds of dozens of cases were given to children's hospitals, orphan's homes, etc., but because there just is no dealer interest, thousands were left.