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.
ROBERT EVANS AT AMC
By 1965, the American Motors Corporation, which had been riding high a few years earlier, was floundering. After the departure of CEO George Romney in 1962, new president Roy Abernethy sought to expand the company’s focus beyond compact economy cars, but ran headlong into tough new competition from GM’s A-body intermediates, which were sized and priced much like Rambler’s bread-and-butter Classic line. AMC’s market share began to slip and pundits in business and automotive press were already speculating that American Motors might be on its way out of the auto business.
That situation attracted the attention of a dashing 59-year-old socialite, sportsman, and venture capitalist named Robert Beverly Evans. Originally from Virginia, Evans was the son of wealthy lumberman Edward S. Evans, founder of the highly successful Evans Product Company. After the family lost control of the company in the early sixties (it closed for good in 1962), Evans had set out in search of new opportunities and new investments, generally with good results.
Evans had no background in the auto industry, but AMC fit the pattern of his past acquisitions: a depressed but basically solid business that could be salvaged with relatively little difficulty. AMC’s debts were manageable, it had modern factories, and it still had the capital to develop new products. All it needed, Evans thought, was to shake off its malaise.
In the fall of 1965, Evans began buying up AMC shares, which thanks to the gloomy financial forecasts were attractively cheap. In late January 1966, he announced that he had purchased more than 200,000 shares, which made him the company’s largest single stockholder and earned him a seat on the board of directors.
Evans, like the contemporary automotive press, concluded that American Motors’ 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.
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. The Mustang 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 also a colossal success, selling more than a million units in its first two years. More seriously, it had outsold AMC’s entire 1965 line-up and 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 Robert Nixon and based on the compact Rambler American. Styling chief Dick Teague pushed AMC management to build the Tarpon as an answer to the Mustang, but Roy Abernethy ordered him to instead scale up the design for the midsize Rambler Classic platform. 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 and Bob Nixon, by then the head of small car exterior design, had started work on a replacement. This 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.
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,” for American Motors Experimental. Although there were no specific plans for production, the AMX was an appealing design and 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, which toured 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 cute and clever four-door sedan called Cavalier with interchangeable doors and fenders; and a two-door coupe called Vixen that 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: 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. PR director Howard Hallis preferred the name “Cavalier,” but Dodge had already registered it with the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA). (Dodge never actually used it for a production car, so Chevrolet adopted it in the early eighties.) Special events manager Guy Hadsall, Jr., proposed “Javelin,” which was ultimately selected despite a lukewarm response from Hallis and Dick Teague.