American Motors Gets Into the Game
It had to happen sooner or later. In the late 60s, when everybody but everybody wanted a cool looking fast car, you had to figure that even American Motors would get into the game. Among the big three Detroit auto makers, AMC was…#4. AMC wasn’t even headquartered in Detroit. They were on the edge of the Midwest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And since they weren’t in Detroit, they felt no obligation to do things the way the big three did. American Motors may not have been in Detroit, but they knew how to build a nice car. And they weren’t dumb. They knew their customers well. And they had existed since the end of WWII by building small, economical cars that delivered trouble free performance and great gas mileage at a nice price. But then, the muscle car thing happened.
Overnight, all the flash and ash in the auto industry was focused on a new breed of mega horse power cruise missiles aimed directly tat the heart of the youth market. By 1966, every other auto maker had at least go fast packages in their showrooms and were working on more. But out there in Kenosha, AMC was still making sensible cars of sensible adults and waiting for all this muscle car foolishness to blow over. But the muscle car trend was not slowing down It was getting bigger year by year and there was no end in sight. There were some folks inside AMC that were dying to play this go fast game. They had already tested the waters with a couple of packages like the Rebel and the Marlin which, like most muscle car first attempts, were more image than performance. But in 1968, they revealed a car that was 180 out from anything American Motors had ever come up with They called it AMX. It stood for “American Motors Experimental” and it was definitely an experiment.
American Motors Experimental
The AMX was a rocket ship, pure and simple. Its straight line acceleration was awesome, thanks to its 390 cubic inch engine and tis short wheel base and heavy duty suspension made it handle like a race car. It was also the only high performance two seat automobile made in America other than the Corvette. Unfortunately, AMC never made enough of these cars for everyone to experience driving one. But, on the other hand than 20,000 built the MAX enjoys true collector car status today.
Among its owners, the AMX is one of the most beloved automobiles ever built. Fans are fiercely loyal to their cars and AMC. Comments Jeff Barfield: “These cars were more than competitive. They were the better cars and just as fast as anything else on the street. The AMX brought AMC out from behind its economy car image for the most exciting years in its history.
But the muscle car years were an exciting time for the whole auto industry and for muscle car fans. At the end of WWII, several small car companies held a pretty nice share of the US auto market. But, by the early 50s, most of the small car makers had disappeared except for American Motors. AMC, which had been created in 1954, had one corporate philosophy: small, economical cars are good. This philosophy had served them well through several years of selling no frills cars that hardly changed from year to year. AMC’s customers knew exactly what to expect from their Ramblers, Classics, and Ambassadors. And the cars didn’t disappoint them. By the late 50s, AMC practically owned this comfortable little economy car market until two things happened. The first was the Volkswagen. It wasn’t a big thing at the time but it was a direct assault on AMC’s little car dominance and a hint of things to come. The second was the recession that hit the country in 1958. Detroit was deep into chrome and fins at the time but when the American car buyer demanded smaller cars, Ford, GM, and Chrysler acted fast. Within two years, the big three rolled out a half dozen small cars that were as economical as Ramblers but looked young and sporty. These cars took a big chunk out of AMC’s private market segment.
By 1963, AMC no longer controlled the small car marketplace. At the same time, cars like the Mustang and the GTO were titling the playing field away from family cars towards exciting, youthful packages with lots of power. To make up for these losses, they needed something that would attract a whole new wave of younger buyers. But moving American Motors out of its old car niche into the swinging 60s was not going to be easy. Without a lot of development money, AMC was forced to create new cars from existing designs. In 1965, they introduced the car called the Marlin by grafting a swooping roof onto the full sized Rambler Ambassador. The car lasted until 1967. But its overall size and lack of performance didn’t turn on anyone. But help was on the way.
Help Is On The Way
New management was taking over at AMC and they had a secret weapon: a styling chief named Dick Teague, whose designs would give this car company the sporty car they needed. Inside Teague’s advanced styling department, there was a new car on the drawing board, which didn’t look very much like a Rambler. It had a fast back roof line and long graceful sail pillars. Its grill was deep set and its tail was short. Its hood had twin sculptures and it rested on chrome wheels and wide tires. “Richard Teague came up with the idea of a two seater performance car. Early in ’68 they came out with a Javelin. In mid year of ’68 they came out with a shortened up version with no backseat and they called this the AMX, which stands for American Motors Experimental.” Says one AMX enthusiast.
Not everyone in American Motors management thought the AMX or sporty cars in general were such a good idea. But when AMC’s dealers saw the car for the first time, they went wild and the decision was made. For the first time in tis corporate history, American Motors would make a car for someone single and under 50. In Kenosha, you could feel the ground shake.
The 1968 AMX
The 1968 AMX was introduced in the middle of the model year just like the Mustang’s mid year debut four years earlier. Like the Mustang, its new fresh design attracted a lot of attention. The AMX was a two seater and it was built on a very short 97″ wheel base. These two physical characteristics immediately branded the AMX a sports car. But the way this car accelerated placed it squarely in the muscle car ranks. “That car was a real giant killer,” says Jeff Puras, “They make massive torque. That’s a 390 in there and 426 foot pounds of torque and they’re light. They’re about 3000 pounds. Horsepower to weight! That’s what it’s all about. Good ol’ muscle car.”
The AMX’s base engine was the rather unremarkable 225 horse power 290 cubic inch V8. Definitely not a muscle car power plant. At least not in stock trim but Teague and the other designers knew a car like this deserved a real thumper. So the AMX’s engine lineup also included two other choices. There was the middle weight 343 cubic inch engine which made 280 horse power but the go big or stay home engine was AMC’s top of the line 315 horse power 390. The 390 boasted a lot of go fast parts which were usually found on full on racing engines like a forged steel crank shaft and rods and 315 horse power was exciting enough but the engine also made tons of torque. With this much torque, the 3097 pound AMX was nothing short of scary. This little car flattened your eyeballs on acceleration, which was a joy for long suffering AMC fans and a rude surprise for a lot of unsuspecting muscle car owners, who thought they might want to race this little Rambler. “They went from six cylinder Ramblers and Metros to ‘Hang on boys, here we go. Anybody that’s in that other lane will show ‘em what a Rambler can do.” The 390 engine was the central ingredient in the AMX go package. This option included heavier duty shocks and springs, power disc brakes, red line tires, a twin grip differential and a heavy duty cooling system. Teague’s styling and all this hot rod hardware made the AMX an instant winner with the young people: exactly the market AMC’s new young thinking management wanted to reach. By the end of 1968, AMC had made 6725 numbered editions of the little car. The novelty of a two seater and the fact that there were so few on the street ensured that everywhere the AMX went it drew a crowd.
The performance world also came under the American Motors attack as Craig Breedlove set 106 new high performance and endurance records with two very patriotic looking red, white, and blue 1968 AMXs. And in a sure sign that the car had arrived, Playboy chose it to be the official ride of their Playmate of the Year for 1968. In 1968, you couldn’t get much more chic than that. For 1969, American Motors knew they were riding a winner.
AMC might have spent the better part of its life in the slow lane. But once they got into the fast lane, they made up for all that lost time in a hurry. The 1969 AMXs were almost clones of the 68s but they were so rare that very few people had actually seen one anyway. The American Motors muscle car most people had seen was another advanced styling department masterpiece called the Javelin.
American Motors Answers the Mustang With the Javelin
The Javelin was American Motor’s answer to the Mustang. It had been introduced in early 1968, six months before the AMX and had out performed all its sales expectations in its first year, selling over 56,000 cars. The Javelin sat on a 109″ wheel base and was a true four seat pony car. By 1969, you could order the same equipment on the Javelin from comfort and convenience to engines and transmission. But the difference was, you could take two more friends cruising with you. In true American Motors fashion, to save costs, the AMX and the Javelin shared a lot of sheet metal and other components. The Javelin contributed its windshield, doors, rear deck lid, and rear bumpers to the AMX’s cause. This platform engineering caused a lot of Javelin owners to refer to the AMX as a Javelin without a backseat. The 1968 AMX had taken a few hits in the press for its Rambler like economy car interior. So, for 1969, AMC loaded the car’s insides with all the nice muscle car stuff: lovely leather seats with head rests were now available, the instrument panel was upgraded with a larger 8000 RPM tach and 140 mph speedometer. The four speed cars now came with Hurst shifters and the automatic transmission cars now had consoles. And in what must surely have been a response to a ’68 owner’s suggestion, there was now a grab bar for the passenger to hang onto when the driver wanted to hang it out a little bit.
The AMX already owned one of the more unique images of any American car. But now, AMC decided to really go all out with a splash of color. Taking a page from Chrysler’s play book, the AMX was offered in ten new colors, including three special shades called “big bad blue,” “big bad green,” and “big bad orange.” These colors were more than big and bad, they were rare. Only 742 big, bad ’69 AMXs were produced and with the 8293 other AMXs sold that year, 1969 was a great year for the little car. As the 1970 cars rolled into view, once again American Motors brought back the AMX largely unchanged. A little re-styling was done to the nose and tail and the car was lowered one inch overall. But the car’s classic profile was too distinctive to change. For its third year, the AMX remained the Corvette’s only competition in the two seater market. By now, though, this car was more at home in the company of ground pounders like the Cobra Jet Mustang and the big block Camaro. The AMX’s two engine options for 1970 were the top of the line 325 horse power 390 and an all new 360 cubic inch power plant that made 280 horse power. The AMX’s new hood featured a classy looking hood scoop, which fed cold air into the engine. All the group 19 performance options and the AMX was converted over to an all new ball joint front suspension for better handling.
Meanwhile, AMC’s other pony car, the Javelin, continued to be a favorite with muscle car and racing fans. AMC had hired Roger Penske and Mark Donohue away from Chevrolet and was making a full assault on the Trans Am racing series with the Javelin. At season’s end, the team had won three races and placed second in several more. AMC leveraged its racing program into a signature series car this year, making 2500 1970 Mark Donohue Javelins. And the program was positioned to go into 1971 with full momentum, which is more, unfortunately, that can be said for the AMX. 1970 proved to be the last hurrah for the two seater but the name plate lived on for a few years more as a Javelin option package.
After three years, American motors had proved its point with the AMX and created a revolutionary automobile, turned on the whole muscle car world, won races and re-energized the car company that desperately needed a host of excitement. But once again, the world was about to play a dirty trick on AMC. The muscle car was becoming a target for environmental and safety lobbies. It was on every insurance company’s hit list and gas prices were headed for the stratosphere. None of this was good news for the AMX. The death blow came as sales dropped to just 4116 cars in 1970. This was the last straw. Not even Dick Teague could sell another year of the two seater to AMC’s management. But there was some good news. Finally, American Motors won the Trans Am series. The Penske/Donohue Javelin took the 1971 title over Mustang and in three years of close but no cigar racing.
For the next four years, the AMX would become the top of the line performance option to the great little Javelin. It had served so well for three years in the AMX’s shadow. The ’71 Javelin’s major face lift would re-shape its front fenders and lengthen the car almost three inches was an excellent platform for the AMX name plate. Even though it was part of another car, performance and image would continue to be the hallmarks of the AMX. For $498 extra the AMX added new T stripe graphics, a mesh grill, the duck tail rear spoiler and interior appointments to the already swanky Javelin.
The Javelin AMX’s base engine was now the low compression 245 horse power 360. The 390 had been bored to 401 cubic inches this year and was the ultimate AMX engine. But as the 70s progressed and America moved farther away from high performance cars, the ax finally fell. AMC’s resources would now be spent developing cars for a different world like the Gremlin and the Pacer. The AMX had been a radical car, even for the 60s and it came at a time when you had to get radical just to get noticed. Today, the AMX remains one of the rarest muscle cars. In fact, that very quality is why people love them so much. “I kinda grew up with these cars in high school and it’s nice to go to a car show and have something that nobody else there has,” says Jeff Youngskin, “everybody has Camaros or Mustangs or Novas and I’m usually the only one at the car show with one of these.” Adds Jeff Puras, “Wherever you go you have to explain what the cars are and a lot of the time it’s a blank look.” Joe Pakiela says: “It’s not a cookie cutter, it’s not a belly button car where everybody’s got one. We go to car shows, sometimes with 7000 cars and 2 AMXs.”
AMX Fans aka Muscle Car Fanatics
Among today’s muscle car owners, AMX are without a doubt the most fanatic. “I bought it brand new in January 1969, out of the service a few months, saw it in the showroom and had to have it. It made vroom vroom sounds and drove it home the next day. I’ve had it ever since, this car’s my buddy.” Confesses Puras. “I bought this car when I was a senior in college so I actually bought it just as 1970 started. I was engaged to Barb at that time and I still have them both. They’ve both been good to me, too.” Says Mel Valentine about his best girl and his best car. She adds: “I was hoping I’d hold up as well as the car did. We had a 25th anniversary party for it and we had our 25th anniversary and I said, ‘Are we going to have a party for us?’ And he said, ‘Why?’” The story of the AMX is not really a car story. It’s a story about a sensible car company that, for a brief moment in the late 60s, went off the deep end and made one of the most memorable cars of the muscle era. This is what happens when the car guys win one from the bean counters.
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