With its smooth curves and clean lines, this week’s subject could easily have been a prop on Space: 1999. Car and Driver called it the best-styled car of 1974, but some critics still consider it one of the ugliest designs of the seventies and it remains one of the most polarizing. It was a bold move for struggling American Motors and ultimately became a financial disaster. This week, we look at the history of the AMC Matador and its midsize predecessors, the Rambler Classic and Rambler/AMC Rebel.
THE FIRST INTERMEDIATE
In 1956, American Motors chairman George Romney decided to bet the company’s future on the compact Rambler, abandoning the venerable Nash and Hudson brands and launching a vaguely messianic (if mercifully tongue-in-cheek) crusade against oversize, gas-guzzling “Detroit dinosaurs.”
In 1958, AMC’s first model year following the demise of Nash and Hudson, Romney hedged his bets with two additional Rambler models: the subcompact Rambler American (really the original Rambler with new skin) and the big Ambassador. This put AMC in the novel position of offering cars in three distinct sizes, something many of its competitors wouldn’t match until the mid-1960s.
Despite that variety, AMC’s bread and butter was the midsize Rambler; the American sold only half as many copies and the Ambassador was at best a niche item. About the same size as a modern Toyota Camry, the “standard” Rambler accounted for nearly 117,000 sales in 1958, about 259,000 in 1959, and nearly 315,000 in 1960.
Even after the Big Three introduced their first compacts in 1960, the Rambler occupied a unique niche. It was bigger than most of the domestic compacts, but still much smaller than any contemporary full-size car. Renamed Rambler Classic in 1961, it continued to sell strongly through 1963, briefly elevating AMC to the number-three slot in total domestic sales.
By 1964, the Big Three had bracketed the Classic with an array of compacts and intermediates. The Classic was smaller than new midsize rivals like the Ford Fairlane and Chevrolet Chevelle and AMC couldn’t match those competitors’ larger dealer networks or marketing budgets. Furthermore, by the mid-sixties, buyers were losing interest in economy cars and turning back to performance and luxury. Classic sales began to slide and AMC’s market share was shrinking at a similar rate.
THE BIG MAN
George Romney left AMC in January 1962 to pursue a political career. His replacement, former sales VP Roy Abernethy, did not share Romney’s enthusiasm for compacts. Abernethy had previously been at Kaiser-Frazer and Packard and, like many automotive salesmen of his era, preferred large cars to small ones.
Under Abernerthy’s auspices, AMC moved away from its previous niche-market focus back toward the mainstream. Each of the company’s offerings grew larger, gained a convertible model, and received attractive, if bland styling, courtesy of Dick Teague’s design staff. In 1965, AMC stretched the Classic by 5 inches (127 mm), bringing it closer to the size of its intermediate rivals. It also added an optional 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) V8, which hadn’t been offered in the midsize Rambler since 1957.
Despite those moves, Classic sales continued to fall, sinking to about 126,000 by 1966. The intermediate market was booming — Ford sold more than 317,000 Fairlanes in 1966 — but AMC, which had essentially pioneered the genre, was in danger of being shut out. The Classic was competent and pleasantly styled, but it was no longer particularly compact or economical. AMC was moving away from the values established by Romney, but it had yet to find any other defining virtues. Resale values were not robust and an increasing number of buyers didn’t look at Ramblers twice.
FISH STORY: THE RAMBLER MARLIN
American’s first attempt to address its image problem became one of its most memorable blunders: the Rambler Marlin.
In early 1963, stylist Robert Nixon penned a compact fastback coupe called Tarpon, based on the Rambler American platform. AMC showed a mock-up at conventions in Detroit and Chicago in early 1964, to generally good response. Dick Teague lobbied hard to build the Tarpon, which would have been AMC’s rival to the Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda, both of which debuted a few months later.
Roy Abernethy, however, was concerned that AMC did not have a V8 that would fit in the Rambler American’s engine bay, which would put the Tarpon at a competitive disadvantage. Furthermore, Abernethy thought the Tarpon was just too small, particularly when he discovered that he couldn’t wear his hat in the back seat. Rather than simply vetoing the Tarpon, he suggested transferring it to the bigger Rambler Classic platform. Teague was hardly thrilled, but he reluctantly scaled up the design for the larger platform, which went on sale in early 1965 as the Rambler Marlin.
Like the contemporary Dodge Charger, which was similarly based on the intermediate Dodge Coronet, the Marlin was essentially a Classic with a fastback hardtop roof. It looked sleek from some angles, gawky and odd from others. Even Dick Teague and his stylists didn’t like it much.
The public was not enthralled either. First-year sales were an uninspiring 10,327 and the second year was less than half that figure. Teague persuaded Abernethy to switch the Marlin to the even-bigger Ambassador platform for 1967, which at least gave it better proportions, but sales sank even further. The Marlin disappeared for good at the end of the 1967 model year.
Although it could be politely described as an interesting failure, the Marlin was at least distinctive, which could not be said for the contemporary Classic. In 1967, AMC transformed it into a cut-down version of the Ambassador, which brought its dimensions very close to those of the contemporary Chevrolet Chevelle. AMC also dropped the Classic name in favor of Rebel, and began to phase out the Rambler nameplate. (It disappeared from Rebels in 1968.) It didn’t help: sales fell to fewer than 101,000 units in 1967 and fewer than 74,000 units in 1968. By comparison, in 1967 alone, Pontiac sold nearly 220,000 Tempests and Le Mans plus 81,722 GTOs.
Roy Chapin, Jr., who replaced Roy Abernethy as chairman and CEO in January 1967, was trying hard to change AMC’s frumpy image, launching the sporty Javelin and AMX and initiating an aggressive racing program. He even gave the green light to the Hurst SC/Rambler, a hot rod version of the Rambler American. These efforts did nothing to help sales of the Rebel, which fell to a depressing 60,000 for 1969. Neither did the high-performance Rebel Machine, added in 1970, which arrived just as the market for intermediate Supercars was collapsing. Rebel sales were dismal and a model that had once been AMC’s core product was now nearly invisible.
Chapin and Gerry Meyers, who by that time was AMC’s VP of product development, were well aware of the Rebel’s shortcomings. The problem — which was becoming AMC’s perennial curse — was a lack of capital. The company’s scant resources were focused on the desperately needed Hornet compact and its wacky subcompact derivative, the Gremlin, both of which debuted in 1970. The moribund Rebel would have to wait.
WHAT’S A MATADOR?
The Rebel’s replacement finally bowed for the 1971 model year. For the second time in five years, it had a new name: AMC Matador. The new moniker did not go over well in some Spanish-speaking export markets; while “Matador” usually implies a bullfighter, it more literally means “killer.”
Like the Rebel, the Matador shared much of its body structure with the Ambassador, distinguished by a different front clip and a shorter wheelbase: 118 inches (2,997 mm) versus 122 inches (3,099 mm). In overall dimensions, the Matador was only slightly smaller than the “Detroit dinosaurs” George Romney had decried a decade earlier and it was wholly undistinguished in both design and engineering. AMC, with a flash of bemused self-awareness reminiscent of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s famous Volkswagen ads, made a joke of the Matador’s anonymity, launching a series of TV commercials asking, “What’s a Matador?”
Whatever else the Matador was, it was not a strong seller. The 1971 tally was less than 46,000 sales, rising to just under 55,000 for 1972. Sales for many intermediates were down in the early seventies as buyers gravitated to compacts and subcompacts and AMC, which had never firmly established itself in the intermediate market, was hit particularly hard. Fortunately, American’s investment in the Hornet and Gremlin was paying off, allowing the company to post a modest profit for 1971 and even better numbers for 1972 and 1973. AMC’s market share climbed from 3.3% in 1972 to 4.2% in 1973 and the company reported profits of $44.5 million.
Nevertheless, Gerry Meyers was not happy about AMC’s lack of presence in the intermediate market, which was starting to grow again by 1972, reaching nearly 20% of the market the following year. AMC didn’t have an entry in the popular and lucrative personal luxury class, either. In fact, the hardtop coupe was the slowest-selling Matador, in a segment where two-door hardtops were customarily the most popular (and profitable) models. Customers were not taken with the Matador’s blocky styling and peculiar protruding snout. Even NASCAR driver Mark Donohue, who drove Matador stock cars for Roger Penske, reportedly dubbed it “the flying brick.”
Fortunately, thanks to the profits the company had earned in 1971 and 1972, AMC finally had the money to do something about it. Meyers asked Dick Teague to develop a better-looking Matador coupe for the 1974 model year.
STYLING COUP: THE AMC MATADOR COUPE
Bob Nixon, who had styled the 1964 Rambler American, the Tarpon, and the Gremlin, became AMC’s Director of Design for Exteriors in the late sixties. He led the exterior design of the new Matador coupe while his friend and colleague Vince Geraci, who had previously headed large-car design, developed the interior.
Unlike the previous Matador coupe, the new coupe shared no sheet metal with the sedan and wagon. It also had a shorter wheelbase, 114 inches (2,896 mm) compared to 118 inches (2,997 mm) for the four-doors. GM had used a similar split-wheelbase strategy for its intermediate coupes and sedans since 1968, but it was new for AMC, which seldom had the money for such extravagances. While the coupe broke no new ground mechanically, it was different enough from the sedan to make it expensive to build. AMC spent around $40 million on development and tooling, which wouldn’t have been a vast amount for GM or Ford, but was a lot for the cash-strapped independent.
Like GM’s 1973 intermediates, the Matador coupe abandoned the customary pillarless hardtop style for fixed B-pillars and wide rear quarter windows. The B-pillars were linked by a steel hoop through the headliner, in anticipation of federal rollover crash standards that were never actually enacted. Like the old Rambler Marlin, the coupe had a steeply sloping fastback roof, flowing smoothly into the flared rear fenders and drooping tail.
Many contemporary observers assumed the sleek styling was dictated by the need for better aerodynamics on the high-speed NASCAR ovals; Mark Donohue hadn’t called the old Matador a brick simply because he didn’t like its looks. However, Bob Nixon said that racing had little to with the design; the bigger concern was creating some semblance of design continuity between the swoopy new coupe and previous AMC models. Nixon was also struggling to integrate the now-mandatory 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers in an aesthetically satisfying way, something few automakers managed during this period.
When the Matador coupe went on sale in the fall of 1973, it was not only a striking departure for AMC; it defied the contemporary trend toward feverish neo-Classical design, embodied by the Lincoln Continental Mark series and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. In November 1973, Car and Driver compared it to the work of arist Charles Eames, praising the Matador’s lack of ersatz formal grilles and opera windows. On the latter point, the magazine spoke too soon: Opera windows and a padded vinyl roof become optional on the top-of-the-line Brougham coupe in January 1974. There was also a rather gaudy Oleg Cassini decor package, with copper trim inside and out.
Beyond its radical styling, the Matador’s virtues were modest. With a full load of options, it weighed 4,050 lb (1,837 kg), which meant that even with the biggest engine, AMC’s 401 (6,573 cc) V8, performance was far from overwhelming. Car and Driver clocked a 401 Matador X from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in just over eight seconds; Road & Track‘s March 1974 test car, with the smaller 360 (5,892 cc) V8, managed the same in just under nine seconds and a top speed of 116 mph (187 km/h). The Matador’s handling was no worse than most intermediate rivals, but with nearly 60% of its static weight on the front wheels, it was hardly agile. The interior was cramped, more of a 2+2 than a true four-seater, and there was more noise and harshness than a contemporary Torino or Chevelle. Fuel economy, once AMC’s great strength, was dismal, a consequence of the hefty curb weight and primitive emissions controls. AMC had a come a long way since the days of George Romney, not necessarily for the better.
The Matador coupe’s sales, like those of those of the industry at large, took a nasty hit from the OPEC oil embargo, which began shortly after its introduction. When the dust settled, AMC had sold almost 100,000 Matadors, more than 62,000 of which were the new coupe. Compared to the dismal sales of the previous Matador and Rebel hardtops, that was decent and it even beat out a few competitors, like the Plymouth Satellite Sebring and Mercury Montego. On the other hand, Oldsmobile sold almost 240,000 Cutlass coupes in 1974 while Chevrolet sold 240,000 Chevelle, Malibu, and Laguna two-doors and 312,000 Monte Carlos.
The slick new body also failed to make the Matador a serious contender on the racetrack. Roger Penske’s Matadors scored only a single victory in 1974. Bobby Allison managed three wins in 1975, which was respectable, but the 1976 season was a disaster. Plagued with technical failures, the Matador scored no victories, and AMC terminated its support of NASCAR at the end of the season. The following year, Roger Penske switched to Mercury.
If the Matador had continued to sell at its 1974 volume, AMC probably would have deemed it a success. Unfortunately, once the initial demand was sated, customers were few and far between. Matador coupe sales fell to less than 23,000 in 1975, despite the car’s featured role in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, in which the villainous Scaramanga (portrayed by Christopher Lee) transforms his Matador into an airplane to escape from 007. Buyers were apparently not moved and AMC lost $27.5 million in 1975.
AMC tried to spark interest in the Matador coupe (and other seventies models) with a series of these special trim packages and designer editions. The first of these in the Matador line was the 1974-1975 Oleg Cassini package, followed in 1976 by the two-tone Barcelona and then the even-gaudier Barcelona II.
The following year was even worse. Although the domestic auto market was starting to recover, the Matador still sold poorly, leading AMC to offer rebates of up to $600 per car. A problem with emissions control sensors also forced the company to recall nearly all non-California Matadors, which cost American more than $3 million. AMC’s losses for 1976 totaled $46.3 million.
In 1977, NASCAR driver Bobby Allison, no longer affiliated with Roger Penske, persuaded AMC to back another run at the Winston Cup. Allison’s Matador failed to win a single race, however, and the publicity value was minimal. Matador coupe sales totaled less than 7,000 for 1977 and just over 2,000 for 1978, its final year. As with the contemporary Pacer, the Matador coupe’s novelty wore off quickly, and we suspect the only reason AMC kept it alive was to minimize the losses it was going to take on the coupe’s tooling. Sales of sedans and wagons weren’t much better, and AMC canceled the entire line in 1978. Gerry Meyers, who became chairman in the fall of 1977, decided there wasn’t enough demand to merit a replacement. By 1979, AMC’s biggest car was the compact Concord, introduced in 1977.
AMC had high hopes for the Matador coupe; if it had been a hit, it would have brightened the company’s financial picture considerably, especially given the commercial failure of the Pacer. Bob Nixon’s team even did some design studies for sedan and wagon derivatives of the coupe, which could have replaced the existing four-doors. As it was, AMC lost a lot of money on the coupe. Total production was something less than 110,000 for five model years (no precise figures are available for 1976), which was not nearly enough to recoup its tooling costs.
The Matador’s failure only exacerbated AMC’s financial problems. Paul Tippett, who became president in 1977, joked grimly to Time in 1979 that the company should change its name to “Ailing American Motors” since the press so often described AMC that way. AMC did recover somewhat in 1979-1980, thanks mostly to robust Jeep sales and good business for its truck and bus subsidiary, AM General, but even so, it remained dangerously under-capitalized.
With the company’s long-term future still in doubt, the AMC board opted for a merger with the French automaker Renault. The marriage was not successful for either side and Renault finally sold AMC to Chrysler in 1987. By the time of the Chrysler buyout, AMC’s survival had become increasingly dependent on the Jeep brand, which is the only part of the company that still survives today. (We should note that designer Bob Nixon, who eventually replaced Dick Teague as VP of styling, also led the design of the extremely successful Jeep XJ Cherokee and ZJ Grand Cherokee. He joined Chrysler styling after the merger and retired in 1992.)
Thirty-five years on, the Matador coupe remains a polarizing design. Like its Pacer cousin, it has become something of a cult object. There are fans who still insist it was the best-looking domestic car of the seventies, a judgement that in our view says more about contemporary American design than it does about the Matador. To our eyes, the Matador coupe is an agglomeration of interesting details that don’t quite add up to a pleasing whole. It’s fascinating to look at, but not pretty.
Dick Teague himself claimed that no big fastback had ever really succeeded and sales figures tend to support that conclusion; the early Barracuda and Charger weren’t much more successful than the Marlin and Matador and even the Mustang fastback, beloved of so many modern collectors, didn’t sell nearly as well as the notchback hardtop.
More to the point, the clean, sleek, space-capsule lines so praised by contemporary critics were not what coupe buyers were after in the mid-seventies. What the market wanted, for better or worse, were upright grilles, padded formal roofs, opera windows, coach lights, stand-up hood ornaments; the comparative sales of the Matador and Chevrolet Monte Carlo make that clear enough. True, Chevrolet had something like three times as many dealers as AMC and Chevy’s annual advertising budget exceeded the Matador coupe’s total development costs, but the Matador was significantly cheaper than the Monte, and we would expect that to count for something. The fact that the Monte Carlo outsold the Matador by around 10 to one suggests that buyers just didn’t care much for the Matador’s looks.
On the other hand, we’re not sure that a cookie-cutter Continental Mark IV knock-off would have sold much better. AMC generally did best when it went its own way; whenever the company tried to follow the herd, it usually got trampled.
When the Gremlin came out in 1970, Dick Teague told Motor Trend that AMC had made it different on purpose, to give it character and attract attention. Odd as it was, we doubt that the Gremlin would have sold nearly as well if it had been more orthodox. The Matador coupe was a similar calculated risk and even though it didn’t quite pay off, it was a commendably bold effort. Indeed, if AMC hadn’t been willing to take such chances, we don’t think the company would have survived half as long as it did. For that reason, we kind of like the Matador even if we do find the styling a little cross-eyed.
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NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources on the development of the 1974-1978 Matador Coupe included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1974-1978 AMC Matador,” HowStuffWorks.com, 26 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks.com/1974-1978-amc-matador1.htm, accessed 7 December 2009), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History, (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Craig Bond’s website, “The Coupe Coop!” Matadorcoupe.com, August 2008, www.matadorcoupe. com, accessed 7 December 2009; Patrick Foster, “1974 AMC Matador Coupe: Kenosha’s Question Marque,” Collectible Automobile December 1996, pp. 50-58; Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); and the remarks of former AMC advertising manager Barney Brogan in a conversation with the author following a talk at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California on 12 September 2009.
We also consulted the following period road tests: Steven Kelly, “American Look-Alikes – Rebel SST & Ambassador,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1967), pp. 75-78; “Rebels, a Pair – 770 & SST,” Car Life June 1967, both of which are reprinted in AMC Rambler Limited Edition Extra 1956-1969 , ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 2004); “American Motors Matador X: Sleek & fast but oversize & thirsty,” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 7 (March 1974), pp. 42-45; Bob Hall, “AMC Matador Barcelona II: What price individuality?” Motor Trend Vol. 29, No. 8 ( August 1977), pp. 107-109; “Matador X: It is, unquestioningly, this year’s style leader,” Car and Driver Vol. 19, No. 5 (November 1973), pp. 41-46, 104; and Jim McCraw, “Matador X 401: It’s the Real Thing!” Super Stock February 1974, pp. 50-52, 67.
Our source for Paul Tippett’s joke about “Ailing American Motors” was “AMC’s Charge,” Time, 19 November 1979, www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,948805,00.html, accessed 8 December 2009, although it also appears in Barnaby J. Feder, “A.M.C.’s Long, Hard Struggle, The New York Times 10 March 1987, www.nytimes.com/1987/03/10/business/amc-s-long-hard-struggle.html, accessed 9 December 2009; it may have been a remark Tipppett made on several occasions! Dick Teague’s comments about the intentionally outré styling of the Gremlin appeared in an interview with Eric Dahlquist in Motor Trend Vol. 22 No. 3 (March 1970), p. 72.