How AMC Cars Work

The Ambassador 990 was the most expensive model in AMC's 1966 lineup.

AMC became a distinct make for 1966, as American Motors substituted this badge for Rambler nameplates on the full-size Ambassador and midsize fastback Marlin. The intermediate Rambler Rebel followed suit for '68, when the Javelin ponycar and two-seat AMX arrived as new AMC models. Rambler disappeared after the 1969 edition of the 1964-vintage American compact, which was replaced for 1970 by the AMC Hornet and Gremlin.

The 1966 Ambassador was a face-lifted version of the redesigned '65 Rambler model, one of the better efforts from the studios of AMC design vice president Richard A. Teague. Squarish but clean, it spanned a 116-inch wheelbase, four inches longer than the '64 Ambassador's. A new special edition for '66 was the DPL hardtop coupe, elegantly appointed with reclining bucket seats, fold-down center armrests, pile carpeting, and many other standards.


Ranked below were Ambassador sedans, wagons, and hardtops in 880 and 990 trim, plus a 990 convertible. All offered the long-running 232-cubic-inch Typhoon six or optional 287- and 327-cid V-8s. Only the 270-horsepower 327 required premium fuel. Most Ambassadors were ordered with automatic, but a few carried a three-speed manual transmission or AMC's "Twin-Stick" overdrive. A four-speed manual was also listed for 990s and the DPL.

The big Ambassador evolved nicely through the late '60s. Wheelbase was stretched two inches for '67, when semifast-back styling with more-rounded contours was adopted. The '68s were little changed save a slightly altered hood and a revised model sequence: standard, DPL, and SST.

New frontal styling with a more-sculpted hood, plastic grille, and horizontal quad headlights marked the '69s, riding a new 122-inch wheelbase and sporting standard air conditioning. A minor restyle for 1970 brought new rear fenders and taillamps to sedans and hardtops, and new roof panels and taillamps to wagons.

AMC made an unsuccessful first stab at the booming personal-car market with the radically styled 1965 Rambler Marlin, renamed AMC Marlin for 1966-67. This was a big fastback hardtop coupe, initially based on the midsize 1965-66 Rambler Classic, with the same 112-inch wheelbase and similar front sheetmetal. Teague penned sweeping, elliptical rear side windows so the C-pillars wouldn't look heavy, but the overall styling was somewhat clumsy nonetheless. The '66 changed only in detail: revised grille, standard front antiroll bar on six-cylinder models, and newly optional vinyl roof treatment.

The '67 Marlin was switched to that year's new Ambassador platform and ended up much better proportioned on its longer wheelbase. Teague helped with handsome lower-body lines of the same hippy sort applied to that year's Ambassador and Rebel.

Measuring 6.5 inches longer than previous Marlins, the '67 was perhaps the best of this school, but it arrived too late to save the day. Sales had been low from the start, and 1965-66 sales were 10,327 and 4,547, respectively. Marlin offered some sports-car features (optional four-speed gearbox, tachometer, bucket seats, and V-8s with up to 280 bhp) but lacked a sports car's taut, precise handling and manageable size.

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The 1970 AMC Javelin was available in a unique red, white and blue color scheme.

Replacing Marlin for 1968 was the smaller and far more popular AMC Javelin, a "ponycar" in the image of Ford's wildly successful Mustang. Beautifully shaped and exciting, the Javelin sold like hotcakes. Over 56,000 of the '68s were built, helping AMC out of a four-year sales slump.

With standard 232 six, a Javelin cruised at 80 mph; the optional 290 V-8 boosted top speed to 100 mph. An optional "Go Package" offered a 343 V-8 with four-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, plus power front-disc brakes, heavy-duty suspension, and wide tires -- good for eight seconds in the 0-60-mph dash and a top speed approaching 120 mph. On its 109-inch wheelbase, Javelin was a bit roomier, larger, and longer than the rival Mustang, Chevy Camaro, and Plymouth Barracuda. Its styling was arguably the cleanest of the lot.

Javelin was face-lifted for 1969, mainly via an altered grille. A "twin-venturi" nose, revised wheel covers, and a new hood with simulated air scoops arrived for 1970. But sales failed to match the first-year total because of additional ponycar competition -- notably a sleek new Camaro.

An exciting mid 1968 newcomer was the AMX, a two-seat coupe created by sectioning the Javelin bodyshell to a trim 97-inch wheelbase. This car introduced a new 390-cid V-8 with forged-steel crankshaft and connecting rods. Output was a healthy 315 bhp and 425 pound-feet of torque. AMX's standard engine was a 290-cid V-8; a 343 was optional.

Tight suspension, bucket seats, and extra-cost four-speed gearbox made for a capable semisports car; the AMC also did well in competition. As with the Marlin, the most handsome AMX was the last, the 1970 edition looking more-integrated and "serious" than the others. But again, demand was always much lower than company management hoped, with production for all three model years combined failing to top 20,000 units.

As mentioned, Rebel switched to an AMC nameplate for 1968, though the basic car had appeared the previous year as a Rambler, taking over from the old Classic. It remained AMC's midsize, however, riding a 114-inch wheelbase and offering a variety of sixes and V-8s. Prices were competitive, starting at around $2500.

Sedans, hardtop coupes, and wagons were available in three series -- 550, 770, and SST. Rebel also offered AMC's sole 1968 convertibles, but few were built: just 377 in the 550 series and another 823 SSTs. They would be AMC's last factory droptops (not counting the later Renault-based Alliance models). The '69 Rebel line was trimmed to just basic and SST series. A wider track and a new grille, plus a restyled rear deck and taillights, were the only changes of note.

For 1970, Rebel sedans and hardtops were lengthened two inches to accommodate redesigned roof panels and rear fenders, and new taillights appeared. Series stayed the same, but AMC again went after the performance crowd with "The Machine."

A Rebel with a cause, this hardtop coupe packed the company's most-potent V-8, plus four-speed manual gearbox with Hurst linkage and a 3.54:1 rear axle. Providing easy exterior identification were a bold, functional hood air scoop, special red-white-and-blue paint, and 15-inch mag wheels with raised-white-letter tires. An 8000-rpm tachometer, dual exhausts with low-restriction mufflers, and a definite front-end rake completed this expensive package ($3475).

The Machine certainly looked like a hot performer, but Javelin won the competition laurels. Mark Donohue, piloting a Javelin, came within one point of winning the Sports Car Club of America's 1970 Trans-Am road series. The 1970 racing chassis was fitted with Javelin's new 1971 sheet metal and won Trans-Am in '71 and '72.

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The 1973 AMC Gremlin X was a sportier version of the oddly styled sub-compact.

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.

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The AMC Spirit (seen here as a 1982 version in GT trim) succeeded the Gremlin as AMC's most affordable car.

The AMC Gremlin was one "sow's ear" that Teague made into the proverbial silk purse. In fact, it was generally AMC's number-two seller in the '70s, after Hornet. Special trim options appeared almost yearly to help keep interest alive. Among the most popular was the X package, which typically delivered tape stripes, black grille, slotted wheels, wider tires, custom bucket-seat interior, sports steering wheel, and similar dress-up items.

Prices were reasonable, about $300 at first. The "LEVI's®" edition, new for '73, sported seats and door panels done up in blue spun nylon with copper rivets to look just like the cotton denim of Levi Strauss & Company, which happily collaborated on the package, even allowing use of its distinctive red jeans label. This was probably the most winsome Gremlin, and it may well be the most collectible.

Gremlin vanished after 1978 but lived on in Spirit -- the same thing with smoother, more-conventional styling. Joining the familiar chopped-tail two-door was a slick new hatchback coupe with a particularly graceful superstructure for such a short car. Both body styles offered three trim levels, and the AMX tag was revived for a special "paint-on performance" coupe in 1980.

Spirits moved via a standard 2.5-liter (151-cid) four purchased from Pontiac or, at extra cost, the long-lived AMC six. A heavy emphasis on quality made Spirits generally better-built than Gremlins, if not Big Three rivals. But there was no escaping the aged '60s-style design, and while the four was fairly thrifty, it had very little power; the six was quicker but thirstier.

In a similar transformation, the compact Hornet became the Concord for 1978. Reflecting AMC's limited new-model development funds, it wasn't all that different structurally or mechanically, but it looked more "important" and, like its line-mates, benefited from an urgent stress on workmanship prompted by the growing success of Japanese imports. Concord was AMC's volume seller from the time it appeared. By 1980 it boasted a thriftier standard engine, cleaner looks, more comfort and convenience extras, and a broader antirust warranty.

Not to be overlooked are three early-'70s Hornet developments. One was the SC/360, a performance-oriented two-door offered only for 1971. As the name suggested, it packed AMC's 360-cid small-block V-8, rated at 245 bhp with standard two-barrel carb or 285 bhp with extra-cost four-pot induction.

Acceleration was quite vivid, and a large functional hood scoop, heavy-duty suspension, styled wheels, fat tires, tape stripes, and Hurst four-speed were either standard or available. But as had so often been the case, AMC was a day late and a dollar short: only 784 were built, making the SC/360 one of the '70s rarest production Detroiters and thus something of a collector's item.

A more sensible and successful innovation was the Hornet Sportabout, a graceful four-door wagon with a one-piece tailgate. Another '71 newcomer, it would prove uncommonly long-lived.

Even lovelier was the new-for-'73 Hornet hatchback coupe. Offering vast load space, it could be quite sporty with an optional X package. Needless styling gimmicks made some versions quite tacky by the time the Concord came in, and the hatchback was discontinued after '79. There was also a special AMX model with this bodyshell, a limited 1977-78 offering.

Concord spawned a novel offshoot for 1980, the four-wheel-drive Eagle, reviving a name that AMC owned via the Jeep takeover and, with it, the dregs of Willys-Overland. A natural for a firm with AMC's particular, but limited, resources, Eagle was essentially the Concord platform equipped with a new full-time 4WD system called Quadra-Trac, whose transfer case apportioned driving torque between front and rear wheels via a center differential with clutches running in a slip-limiting silicone compound.

Eagle arrived with Concord's three body styles and a nominal 1.3-inch-longer wheelbase. Its ride height was greater too, thanks to larger tires and the required extra ground clearance for the differentials. The drivetrain comprised the firm's well-known 258-cid six (a stroked 232, first offered for 1971) mated to three-speed Torque Command automatic transmission (actually Chrysler TorqueFlite). Power steering and brakes and all-season radial tires were standard. Eagles flew with prominent (and necessary) wheel-arch flares made of color-keyed Krayton plastic, and a Sport-package option offered black extensions and other trim, plus Goodyear Tiempo tires.

Predictably, the Eagle drove and felt much like any Concord. AMC didn't intend it for off-road use, stressing the safety advantages of 4WD traction for everyday driving, particularly in the snowbelt. A full range of luxury and convenience features was offered, but there was no V-8 option for the sake of fuel economy -- and the government's corporate average fuel-economy (CAFE) mandates. The Spirit/Concord Pontiac-built four became available for '81.

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The 1985 Renault Encore was a hatchback version of AMC's Alliance.
The 1985 Renault Encore was a hatchback version of AMC's Alliance.

AMC's biggest '70s disappointment was the Pacer, announced for 1975 as "the first wide small car." It was planned for a lightweight Wankel rotary engine that GM was developing in the early '70s but quickly shelved. Designer Teague penned distinctive lines with acres of glass, a short nose, and a hatchback body that looked nearly as wide as it was long.

Unhappily, cancellation of the GM Wankel forced AMC into patchwork engineering alterations that seriously compromised the original concept. While the rotary would have provided decent performance and fuel economy, AMC had to use its relatively big and weighty six, to the detriment of both as well as handling.

With that and all its heavy glass, Pacer ended up quite portly for a subcompact, and its styling seemed frankly odd to many eyes (though doors wrapped into the roof were predictive of '80s design). By 1979, annual sales were down to only 10,000 or so despite the interim addition of wagons and an optional V-8, and Pacer was unceremoniously dumped after 1980.

An aging product line that didn't generate sufficient sales for funding more-modern replacements proved an increasingly vicious cycle for AMC as the '70s wore on. Eagle, for instance, owed much to Concord, which dated from the then decade-old Hornet. At decade's end, mounting losses were aggravated by a deep national recession that cut sales further, and AMC soon found itself the object of a takeover bid by Renault of France, which acquired a controlling interest by 1982.

Thus was born what some were quick to call "Franco-American Motors." Renault executives came in to run things alongside AMC officials, and the old Nash factory in Kenosha was retooled at great expense to produce an Americanized version of the European Renault 9 subcompact, which was aptly renamed Alliance.

Trouble was, acquiring AMC made Renault no wiser about the American market, and it had little more impact as a back-door "domestic" than it had as an independent import. Odd Renault products like the tinny-tiny Le Car and lumpy Fuego coupe didn't help AMC dealers very much. The Alliance did, but not for long. As a car, it was no more than adequate, and not really up to the huge task of improving Renault's second-rate image among U.S. buyers.

Still, Alliance seemed just what the doctor ordered: modern two- and four-door front-drive sedans with a 97.8-inch wheel-base and a thrifty, transverse 85-cid four-cylinder engine. And for a time it sold well: over 142,000 of the debut 1983 models. Bolstered by two- and four-door hatchback derivatives called Encore, sales zoomed to over 208,000 the following year.

But mechanical problems and indifferent workmanship were as evident here as on French-built Renaults. Once word got around, sales tumbled: to 150,000 for '85, then to 65,000 and finally to only some 35,000. AMC tried to stop the slide for '85 with an optional 105-cid/78-bhp engine and a brace of new Alliance convertibles -- Kenosha's first droptops since '68 -- but to no avail.

By 1987, with AMC's continued losses and several years of withering home-market sales, Renault was in financial trouble and ready to pull out. Fortunately, Lee Iacocca, the miracle worker who'd lately turned Chrysler Corporation from penniless to prosperous, was willing to take over, mainly to get his hands on AMC's lucrative Jeep business. Thus did America's last sizable independent automaker pass into history, transformed almost overnight into a new Chrysler division called Jeep-Eagle.

AMC's own products departed much earlier, dropped after 1983 in the rush to Renaults. The sole exceptions were the Eagle wagon and four-door sedan, which hung on until the Chrysler takeover, then disappeared with Alliance.

Before the end, AMC slipped the Eagle's full-time 4WD under the Spirit coupe and ex-Gremlin two-door bodies to create a pair of "Eaglets." The most interesting of these was the SX/4 Sport, Teague's pretty little fastback bedecked with foglights, distinctive striping, rear spoiler, and plush bucket-seat interior. Though pleasant and distinctive, it was no sprinter, and buyers continued to prefer "real" 4WDs -- like Jeep CJs and Wagoneers -- to these passenger-car pretenders.

Still, low production, a drivetrain unique among American cars, and status as AMC's last attempt at something different makes the short-lived junior Eagles a minor collector's item. Only about 37,500 Eagles of all kinds were sold for 1981 and less than half that number for '82 and '83; exact breakdowns aren't available, but the smaller ones probably accounted for no more than a third of each year's total. After 1983, the big Eagles carried on alone, virtually unchanged and garnering some 6000-7000 annual sales -- too paltry for industry statisticians to even bother with.

For 1988, Chrysler began to re-establish Eagle as an "upscale" brand aimed at would-be import buyers -- but with only inherited front-drive Renaults: the competent but dull midsize Premier (built in Canada) and the compact Medallion (imported from France).

The latter didn't last past 1989, but the former carried on with minor success through 1991 (and as the 1990-91 Dodge Monaco). Medallion gave way to rebadged designs by Mitsubishi of Japan, but Premier's successor would be an all-American Eagle, the exciting 1993 Vision, one of Chrysler's breakthrough "LH" sedans with "cab-forward" styling.

Chrysler's Eagle was no more successful as a niche make than AMC was in its later years and was dropped after 1998 -- proof that in the auto business at least, history can and often does repeat itself.

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