The Sporting American: The AMC Javelin

The AMC Javelin was American Motors’ only foray into the popular “pony car” market, and the model that almost single-handedly transformed American from a peddler of Scotsman-like economy to a two-time Trans-Am racing champion. This week, we take a look at the 1968-1974 AMC Javelin and AMX, how they came to be, and why they disappeared.

1973 AMC Javelin AMX badge

ROBERT EVANS AND AMC

In the fall of 1965, millionaire Robert Beverly Evans started buying up shares of the American Motors Corporation. By January 1966, he had acquired over 200,000 shares of AMC, making him the company’s largest shareholder and earning him a seat on the board of directors.

Bob Evans’ arrival at AMC made headlines in the financial world. A dashing 59-year-old socialite from Virginia, Evans was the son of wealthy lumberman Edward S. Evans, founder of the very successful Evans Products Company. Until 1960, Evans had been better known as a sportsman than a businessman. After his family lost control of Evans Products to an aggressive west-coast venture capitalist, however, the still-wealthy Evans went on an acquisitions spree, buying up struggling companies and making them profitable. By 1965, he owned a dozen companies with revenues totaling more than $20 million a year.

Evans’ investment in AMC was a vote of confidence in a company that had seen better days. Although AMC had risen to number three in U.S. auto sales earlier in the decade, it had floundered after the departure of CEO George Romney in 1962. Romney’s replacement, CEO and President Roy Abernethy, had tried to shift the company’s focus from compact economy cars to more mainstream products, but he had only succeeded in sacrificing the company’s main point of distinction. AMC’s market position began to slide and by early 1966, the automotive press was wondering gloomily if its days were numbered.

Evans had no background in the auto industry, but AMC was exactly the sort of company that attracted his interest. Despite its recent slump, its debt load was reasonable, it had modern facilities, and it still had the resources to develop new products. It was far from unsalvageable and its stock was significantly undervalued. If Evans could turn it around, he stood to make a handsome return on his investment.

Evans felt that American’s principal failing was its staid, fusty image. Six or seven years earlier, George Romney’s small-car evangelism had struck a chord with buyers reeling from the excesses of the fifties, but now the Baby Boomers were reaching driving age and they had no interest at all in AMC’s frugal Ramblers. The youth market was booming and Evans thought it was high time American Motors claimed its share.

1963 Rambler American 440 convertible front
In the early sixties, the Rambler American convertible was the sportiest model in AM’s lineup. Motor Trend tested a car equipped much like this one in February 1963. With 138 gross horsepower (103 kW) from the 196 cu. in. (3,205 cc) six (with the optional two-throat carburetor) and Rambler’s “Twin-Stick” (three-speed plus overdrive) transmission, it went from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over 16 seconds and reached an actual top speed of 92 mph (148 km/h). Testers found it comfortable and reasonably economical, with the overdrive providing relaxed highway cruising, but exciting it was not.

TARGET: MUSTANG

If the mid-sixties youth market could be summarized in a single word, it would be Mustang. Introduced in April 1964, the Ford Mustang was an astutely targeted appeal to the hearts and minds of the Baby Boom generation. It was cheap, it was sporty, and it offered a full measure of mass-produced individuality with a wide assortment of options and accessories. The Mustang was a colossal success, selling over a million units in its first two years. More seriously, it outsold AMC’s entire 1965 line-up and it was already inspiring a host of imitators.

A few months before the Mustang debuted, AMC had exhibited a cute fastback coupe called Tarpon, styled by Bob Nixon and based on the compact Rambler American. Dick Teague pushed to build the Tarpon as an answer to the Mustang, but Roy Abernethy ordered him to scale up the design for the midsized Rambler Classic platform instead. The result was the awkward Rambler Marlin, which was no threat at all to the Mustang, or even the <Dodge Charger.

By the middle of 1965, even Abernethy admitted that the Marlin was not what AMC needed. Bob Nixon, by then the head of small car exterior design, started work on a replacement. It was initially known as Rogue, a name AMC was then using for the hardtop coupe version of the Rambler American. The new Rogue would be AMC’s entrée into the emerging “pony car” market.

1965 Rambler Marlin rear 3q
The production Rambler Marlin was essentially a re-skinned Rambler Classic with a fastback roof. Sales were very slow: 10,327 in 1965, 4,547 in 1966, and a mere 2,545 for the restyled, slightly bigger 1967. (Photo © 2008 Christopher Ziemnowicz; released to the public domain by the photographer)

PROJECT IV AND AMX

In October 1965, as the Rogue took shape, Chuck Mashigan’s advanced styling studio developed a design study for a sporty two-seat fastback coupe, also based on the Rambler American platform. Teague dubbed it “AMX,” American Motors Experimental. Although there were no specific plans for production, the AMX was an appealing design and it had a strong influence on the development of the pony car project.

Because the pony car was a considerable departure from anything AMC had done before — the company’s only previous sports car, the 1951-1954 Nash-Healey, was neither designed nor engineered in house — Teague proposed exhibiting prototypes of the AMX and other advanced styling studies, to show the public that AMC was moving in a new direction. Bob Evans became a strong supporter of that idea, which culminated in an extravagant traveling auto show called Project IV, shown in 10 North American cities in 1966. Project IV showcased four concept cars, including a non-running model of the AMX; a longer 2+2 coupe called AMX II, designed by freelance stylist Vince Gardner; a four-door sedan called Cavalier with interchangeable doors and fenders; and a two-door coupe called Vixen, which looked a great deal like the later AMC Hornet. Teague subsequently commissioned the Italian coachbuilder Vignale to build a full-size running prototype of the two-seat AMX, which replaced the fiberglass model in the later Project IV exhibitions.

Roy Abernethy teased visitors by implying that American might build something like the concept cars if response was strong enough. That was a little disingenuous, because the pony car project — which bore a strong resemblance to the AMX and AMX II — was already well under way. The show did have one major influence on AMC product planning: Bob Evans was so taken with the Vignale-built AMX that he asked Teague to develop a production version, in addition to the upcoming four-seater Mustang fighter.

Around that time, AMC’s Name Committee was debating what to call the new pony car. Special events manager Guy Hadsall, Jr. suggested “Javelin,” which neither Teague nor PR director Howard Hallis liked very much. Hallis preferred “Cavalier,” but Hadsall discovered that Dodge had already registered that name with the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA). The pony car became the Javelin.

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  1. Another childhood memory – I was 10 years old.

    Back in 1974, my mother had just gotten her license and wanted to buy a sporty car. Somehow, we ended up at the local AMC dealer and she ended up ordering a plum colored Javelin AMX with gold stripes, 360 V8, and who knows what other options. I was thrilled with the idea of finally having a powerful sports car in the family. Sitting in the showroom Javelin AMX was heaven while my parents did the paperwork.

    It never came to be. At that time we lived in a small apartment and rented a very small garage from the neighbor. My father measured the garage and realized the Javelin would not fit. We neded up going to the dealer and changed the order to a 1974 Hornet X hatchback with a 304 V8.

    To this day, I occasionally browse for sale ads looking for a decent 1974 Javelin AMX. Then again, I do the same for Porsche 928’s, 69 Dodge Chargers, and all sorts of other childhood and teenage draam cars…

  2. Great piece on the Javelin. Ikied the car when I was growing up, and I stgill like it now.

    Too bad you didn’t mention the Javelins the Alabama State Troopers used in the 1970’s. I can still remember when those cars patrolled the highways, especially in my hometown.

    There are two model that I know are still in existance: one at the Alabama Department of Public Safety in Montgomery, and the other at the Alabama Motorsports Museum in Talladega.

  3. Fond memories…I used to own a 1970 AMX. Seeing this stuff always makes me wish AMC could still, somehow be around. I worked at an AMC dealer back in the seventies. I miss them.
    Thanks for memories…

  4. After reading your production figures for 68-70, I guess it’s no wonder I haven’t seen a live Javelin of that vintage since about 1980. Bought my ’69 SST upon returning home from S.E. Asia in Oct., ’72. Met. charcoal w/290 V-8, 3-on-the-floor and power nothing. Quite reliable, decent mpg, handled upstate NY winters well w/snow tires on the back. Interior trim pieces began falling off after about 1-yr. but mechanicals were pretty robust. Traded it in for a ’71 Mustang in ’75 rather than pay for a brake job, but frankly, the Javelin was a better car.
    Thanks for the memories…

  5. The 1st generation Javelin is quite a feat.
    Consider the resources of the big three, in comparison a small company like AMC was very limited in there budget. The car they produced from concept to reality was beautiful and functional. Few cars look as timeless and balanced.

    The second generation evolved into a racier but
    still appealing look. That it was competitive and unique is uncontested.
    I wonder if a small company today could build a competitor to the new Camaro, Mustang or
    Challenger with a limited market in mind?
    Go Javelin!

  6. I do have one correction for you: The Spirit was available with a AMX package as well. The 1979 Spirit AMX was available with either the 258 2 bbl L6 or the 304 2bbl V8 while the 1980 Spirit AMX was available only with the six and marked the last use of the name on a production car ( The Turbo AMX was also a Spirit, but it was a one off used as a pace car and was based on the Spirit. I think it was used in 1982 or 83). The 1979 model year marked the last time an AMC car could be ordered with a V8. All in all, around 4,000 Spirit AMX’s were produced, but they were essentially just a flashier Spirit GT as they shared the suspension, drivetrain and most of the interior trim (AMX variants had silver dash trim in place of the wood grain of the GT).

  7. C. L. Zinn II’s “Javelin Photo Archive” has a number of interesting items. For example, he displays design proposals for a clever, Gremlin-based 1974 Javelin. AMC might have gotten a much better bang for its buck had it gone in this direction rather than betting on the ill-fated 1974 Matador coupe, which was a Javelin-style sporty coupe upsized to intermediate status.

    In addition, Zinn also shows mock ups of Javelin-based four-door sedans and sport wagons. These were considered for a 1969 introduction. Their existence reflects a crucial, but under-discussed, issue: Unlike the Big Three, AMC couldn’t really afford to offer a pony car on an exclusive body. The Javelin may be one of AMC’s most memorable designs, but I suspect that it was also a money loser.

  8. I purchased a 1968 model when I was in high school, and paid for it bagging groceries. It may have been the one of the first sold in Waco, TX. I have to admit I ran the crap out of that poor car, street racing every chance I got. It had the stock 290 with 2bbl carb & 3-speed on the column. I couldn’t afford headers, but discovered that the exhaust could easily be disconnected just behind the collector. It almost sounded like headers, and I loved it.

    I’ll bet the guys at the AMC dealership replaced 3-4 throwout bearings/clutches in that poor car and never complained about it once. But…it was eating up Mustangs around town, and that sold more Javelins and AMX’s.

  9. <blockquote>This week, we take a look at the 1968-1974 AMC Javelin and AMC, how they came to be, and why they disappeared.</blockquote>

    I think you mean "AMC Javelin and AMX".

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