“I have a saying that I’ve stuck with as a designer,” said retired AMC and Chrysler designer Vince Geraci. “There’s a fine line between unique and strange. In the styling world, you want to be unique, but you don’t want to cross over to strange. I think the Marlin, for its time, was unique.”
Geraci would know. During his 28 years at AMC, he had a hand in designing both the Gremlin and Pacer – two vehicles that straddled, if not crossed, that fine line – as well as the fastback Marlin, a car that, despite some shortsighted decisions and meddling from AMC management, still caught the eye of a small legion of fans. Those fans are now planning a 50th birthday celebration for the unique Marlin, a celebration that will honor Geraci for his involvement in the car’s development.
The Marlin’s story begins with the Bob Nixon-designed Tarpon show car that AMC unveiled at the Society of Automotive Engineers convention in January 1964 in Detroit. A sporty fastback design atop the Rambler American concocted to appeal to the youth market of the time, it generated a good amount of enthusiasm for the ho-hum conservative automaker that primarily concerned itself with building staid economy-oriented family sedans. Yet when AMC management – led by new president Roy Abernethy, who favored building larger cars to compete directly with other Detroit manufacturers – decided to put the fastback design into production, they wanted the V-8 and full complement of seating that a larger car offered.
“Abernethy was a salesman, he came up through the sales ranks, and so being a salesman, he wanted AMC to have a full line of vehicles,” Geraci said. “He definitely wanted the Marlin as a regular part of the lineup, not as some sort of halo car.”
Thus the project left the small-car studio that Nixon helmed and became a priority for the large-car studio that Geraci led. Geraci – who joined AMC in 1959 after four years with Chrysler in the De Soto, Plymouth, and Imperial studios – set about adapting the fastback roofline to the intermediate-sized Rambler Classic. At about the same time, Plymouth announced its Barracuda fastback, followed a couple weeks later by Ford’s announcement of the Mustang. The sporty youth market was suddenly getting hot, and American Motors needed to act swiftly to take advantage of it.
“There was an urgency there, definitely,” Geraci said. “We were hustling. The Tarpon had whetted their appetite for something exciting.”
Geraci said he and his team – John Star, Dick Jones, Jack Kenitz, and clay modeler Keith Goodnough – considered a number of proposals, mostly to work out the shape of the side window, but they never benchmarked any other vehicle in their design process. As he told Patrick Foster in 2004, his team largely focused on the shape of the quarter windows, which could make or break the overall roof shape. Whereas Nixon’s Tarpon used quarter windows that kicked up to meet the roofline, Geraci’s team went with an elliptical shape repeated in trim just aft of the window opening. Geraci even stepped in to design the Marlin’s jumping-fish and script logos.
AMC management wasn’t finished imposing its will on the Marlin, though. While Geraci and his team had a low – almost flat – roof ready to go, he said Abernethy stepped in and asked Geraci to raise the slope of the rear roof by an inch and a half to create more headroom in the backseat.
“It bothered the hell out of me,” Geraci said. “It really took the sweeping line out, so we had to disguise that inch and a half.”
He credits Goodnough with making the redesigned roofline – now a bit more bulbuous and not as slick – look nowhere near as bad as it could’ve.
AMC announced the Marlin in February 1965 as a mid-year standalone model, and while its 10,327 sales in that first year hardly posed a threat to the Barracuda, they wouldn’t have seemed out of place were the Marlin considered simply another Classic bodystyle. Marlin sales, however, slid to less than half that amount – 4,547 – for 1966. The decision to shuffle the fastback bodystyle and Marlin nameplate to the longer Ambassador platform for 1967 – a change that some observers say led to better overall proportions – didn’t help matters; AMC sold just 2,545 Marlins that year before spiking the nameplate partway through the year.
“I do consider the 1967 Marlin as the best-looking of the three years,” Geraci said. “I did the drawing for that one at Dick Teague’s behest, and it ended up a very handsome vehicle.”
Plenty of AMC historians and enthusiasts have since played what-if with the Marlin, speculating whether it would have sold in larger numbers had AMC just put the Tarpon into production or kept Geraci’s original sleeker roofline. Geraci seems not to obsess too much over what could have been, though.
“In retrospect, we probably could have found a way to put the V-8 into the American chassis, though I still would’ve changed to the loop rear window,” Geraci said. (AMC did, in fact, make its newly redesigned 290-cu.in. V-8s optional in the American in 1966.) “Maybe we could have done both the Tarpon and the Marlin – there was a lot of opportunity in that time for unique vehicles.”
Geraci remained with AMC until Chrysler bought it in 1987, then transferred to Highland Park to continue as the chief stylist in Chrysler’s exterior studio until he retired in 1990. In the years since, he said he’s seen the Marlin’s styling elements occasionally pop up in new cars, most prominently in the Chrysler Crossfire coupe’s fastback roofline. “That rearend has a taste of the Marlin, much more than the Barracuda,” he said.
He also believes the Marlin could make it as a modern car with some tweaking to the bumpers and fascias, which is what led him and a small group of other retired Detroit stylists to work up a clay model of a modern Marlin a few years ago. The 1/5-scale model, which he completed with Goodnough’s assistance and introduced at the 2010 American Motors Owners club meet, has yet to progress beyond the clay stage, but he said he hopes to soon produce some more permanent models from it.
The model will accompany Geraci to next year’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Marlin, which the Marlin Auto Club has planned to take place during the 2015 AMO National meet. Mark Zeno, board chairman of the club, said he hopes to make the celebration the largest-ever gathering of Marlins.
The celebration and the AMO National meet will take place July 23-24 in Independence, Ohio. For more information, visit MarlinAutoClub.com or AMONational.com.
Article courtesy of Hemmings Daily, written by Daniel Strohl.