AMC is a company which never really aimed for dominance, happy to fill gaps no other company did. In its 34-year existence, American Motors produced a fine selection of cars, as well as some lesser ones, but ultimately collapsed on itself. In this article, I want to examine two fantastic muscle cars produced by the company: the AMX and the Javelin, and explore just what went wrong for AMC in the decade that followed. Why did such a small and agile company suddenly find itself floundering? It’s a more dramatic story than you might think, but first, let’s take a look at their cars.
The AMC AMX almost defines the company in car form. A small, unique car which showed a lot of promise, but had a very short life. The AMX was a muscle car that decided to go compact, with a wheelbase just 97 inches long, but engines large enough to compete with any other muscle cars going. It was cheaper than its principal rival, the Corvette, by quite some margin: prices for the 1968 model started at $3245, nearly $1500 cheaper than the Chevy. If you wanted to, you could go ham on the extras, with A/C, AM-FM radio, power steering, and power disc brakes among the tantalizing options. With a top-of-the-line 390 ci engine, this thing was able to produce some breakneck pace. Before it was first shown to the public, it had already broken national and international speed records under the careful control of Craig Breedlove. At Bonneville during an unofficial run, the car broke the 200 mph barrier. This was 1968. It was a wonderful muscle car.
The AMX continued to go from strength to strength in 1969. While the changes made were very minor, including headrests and a new speedometer, the car was also making further inroads into racing. Twelve AMXs were designated as pace and courtesy cars for the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, with only one remaining today, that used by Bobby Unser before the race. A variety of special editions were made of the 1969 AMX. On the west coast, dealers sold the California 500, which came with sidepipes and the 315 horsepower 390 by default. If you were the drag racing sort, you could grab a Super Stock AMX. On this build the 390 was equipped with twin carbs and new cylinder heads, as well as slick tires. This car was rated at 420 horsepower by the National Hot Rod Association, and once set a quarter-mile time of 10.73 seconds.
The AMX saw a minor facelift in 1970, along with a thorough interior redesign which brought a new woodgrain dash, and a two-spoke steering wheel. Under the hood, you could now plump for a 360 V8, replacing the previous 343, while the suspension saw some improvements. Reviewers described it as the best AMX yet, but its days were numbered. All too soon, it was to be absorbed by the AMC Javelin.
The Javelin is a car that’s not given anything close to the amount of the attention that I feel it should be. Back in the day, it was an able competitor to the Plymouth Barracuda and the Dodge Challenger, and even outsold them frequently. Now, however, if you want one, be prepared for a hunt. Production of the Javelin began in 1967, and instantly appealed to the young. The average age of buyers was 29, 10 years younger than AMCs as a whole, and there are good reasons for that. It looked the part. The front end featured a split and recessed grill, aping a European look, and the windshield featured a dramatic rake backwards of 59 degrees. There were also a pair of hood scoops, but these were purely cosmetic. The car’s engine options ranged from a small straight-six with a cruising speed of just 80 mph, up to the 390 V8. In contrast to the AMX, the Javelin was, as the name would suggest, a long machine, bigger than the Mustang or the Camaro, and it was comfortable inside, to top it all off. The interiors were fully-carpeted and featured racing bucket seats, which could recline on the more expensive SST models.
In the racing circuit, the Javelin performed exceptionally well. Two Javelins raced in the SCCA Trans-Am series, with AMC being the only factory to finish every race, and finished third in the 1968 series. This was a small company with a lot of bite.
In 1970, the Javelin got a redesign, with the hood being stretched, new front suspension and safety glass. As on the AMX, the 343 was replaced by a 360, but most exciting of all, from a speed perspective, was the “Go Package.” The option, which was available only on the 360 and 390 V8s, included front disc brakes, dual exhaust, improved suspension with a sway bar, and performance tires. In a test of pony cars, the 1970 Javelin came second to the Camaro in terms of comfort, but was also the quickest of all cars tested, hitting 60 in 6.8 seconds.
AMC pushed out the second true incarnation of the Javelin in time for the 1971 model year, and the changes were immediately obvious. The whole car looked far more futuristic, and adverts pushed it as a “1980 looking Javelin,” made to look definitively different from all other muscle cars. Even now, in certain lights, the second-gen Javelin looks unique. The car’s fenders somewhat ape those of the Corvette, and the roof features a built-in spoiler. On the AMX models, there is a fiberglass induction hood, and spoilers at the front and rear. The spoilers worked extraordinarily effectively, adding 100 pounds of downforce. On the engine front, the new Javelins were able to pack even more of a punch than their predecessors, thanks to the inclusion of a 401 V8 which produced 335 horsepower.
1972 saw a few minor changes to the car, with improved standard equipment and the first true one-year warranty. Any problems would be repaired by AMC for one year, and a loaner car would be provided while the work took place. The old auto transmissions were replaced with TorqueFlite transmissions from Chrysler. In the racing world, the 1971 and 1972 Javelins had rocketed to success in the Trans-Am Series, claiming the title in both years, resulting in the production of a mostly cosmetic Trans-Am Victory Edition in 1973. However, 1973 also saw the major problem which would affect just about every company: the issue of meeting emissions standards. The engines saw a slight downgrade in performance, with the 401 downrated to 235 horsepower, while quarter-mile times extended up to 15.5 seconds. While these emissions problems must take some of the blame, some of it also rests in the hands of AMC itself. While other companies had seen that the pony car market was declining, and pulled or dramatically changed their offerings, AMC pushed ahead with the Javelin and the AMX variant in 1974. While the OPEC oil embargo raged on, AMC continued to push out gas-guzzlers, leading to a big fall in consumer interest.
Why then, when these cars were innovative and AMC, for the most part, previously demonstrated good business sense, did the company so dramatically fall over the next 14 years? It’s a tale worthy of a novel. You see, AMC were hit hard in the 1970s. From 1975-1977, the company made a loss of $73.8 million, and the stockholders were not happy. To dig themselves out of this truly monstrous hole, in March 1978 the company decided to go international, to do a NATO, and partner with French firm Renault. This wasn’t the first interaction AMC had had with the French giants: in the 1960s, Renault were selling rebuilt versions of the Rambler Classic in Belgium and Argentina. Not even two months later, AMC faced a recall of all their 1976 cars, to repair an emissions control unit. The timing couldn’t have been worse for AMC. The cost of the recall, $3 million, wiped out the company’s earnings from the first quarter.
The deal with Renault began to bear fruit in 1979, with AMC receiving $150 million in cash, $50 million in credit, and the right to manufacture the Renault 5 in the US after 1982. The price was 22.5 percent of the company. For one brief, shining moment, it appeared as though AMC may have been on the rebound. Their profits hit an all-time record of $83.9 million, and their sales increased by 37% despite the terrible economy. The economic situation and high gas prices came back to bite on the Jeep end of AMC however, one of the company’s mainstays, and when that dipped, the whole company was looking straight back down again. What AMC also wasn’t prepared for was the arrival and surge in popularity of Japanese cars in the United States. With high-tech plants and innovative ideas, Japanese manufacturers began to stomp all over AMC and their out-of-date facilities. To save themselves from bankruptcy, AMC’s shareholders overwhelmingly voted to give control of the company to Renault.
The final years of AMC began relatively well. The AMC Alliance, a licensed and mildly altered version of the Renault 9 was very warmly received by critics, but a lack of options in the body styles somewhat hamstrung its success. The Jeep Cherokee and Wagoneer also saw some success, and kickstarted the SUV market.
It was all just too shaky. In 1985, AMC found themslves once again thrown by the market. Gas prices were falling again, and AMC’s compact models were once again losing favor. In addition to this, AMC faced angry workers at their plants. The workers felt that they were owed thousands of dollars each for contract concessions, but United Automobile Workers had accepted just $300 a head. They took matters into their own hands. In April of that year, four workers at the Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, were fired for damaging unfinished Jeep bodies on the production line. Other protests included painting the bodies the wrong color or simply stopping work.
Georges Besse, former Renault Chairman.
What no one could have expected was that this cavalcade of catastrophes that AMC was experiencing would be brought to an end in a hail of bullets. It wasn’t only workers in the US who were angry; in France, the investment in AMC had led to plant closures and the loss of 21,000 jobs. The chairman of Renault, Georges Besse, was unwilling to divest his company of its North American stake, however. He was sure that AMC were on the road to recovery, that Renault was going to make a killing. He had fair reason to: the aforementioned Jeeps were proving popular and an advanced new plant had just been finished in Brampton, Ontario. This wasn’t enough for other groups. On November 17, 1986, Besse was assasinated in a drive-by shooting by the far-left French group Action Directe. The killing, they claimed, was a response to the vast lay-offs which Besse had overseen.
As a result of the killing, Renault attempted to get the labor force back on their side, and as such, divested themselves of their American holdings to focus on the French market. At this point, Renault held over 46 percent of AMC stock, so getting rid of it was going to be no mean feat. Fortunately for Renault, Chrysler had already made an agreement with AMC, who were to build cars for them from 1986-1988. In March 1987, Chrysler bought Renault’s stake for $1.5 billion, where it became the Jeep-Eagle division. In one fell swoop, Chrysler had quashed the small company which had previously been a thorn in the side of the larger marques, and also banished Renault from the United States for eleven years.
Article courtesy of restoMODS.com, written by Joe.