The Sporting American: The AMC Javelin

ABERNETHY OUT, CHAPIN IN

Despite Evans’ continued public enthusiasm about AMC’s exciting plans and potential, 1966 was a bad year for the company financially. AMC posted a loss of more than $12 million for the fiscal year, which sent stock prices tumbling by about 25%. Evans, who had increased his personal stake to more than $3 million around the time he became chairman of the board, lost about three-quarters of a million dollars.

Months earlier, Evans had expressed confidence in Abernethy’s leadership, but as the year progressed, the two men butted heads more and more. By the end of the year, Evans was maneuvering to force Abernethy out.

At a contentious board meeting on January 9, 1967, Evans agreed to step down as chairman (although not from the board) in exchange for Abernethy’s taking early retirement. Roy D. Chapin, Jr., who had been appointed executive vice president and general manager in September 1966, succeeded Evans as chairman and CEO while AMC vice president William Luneburg replaced Abernethy as president.

Chapin had a long history with AMC. His father had been one of the founders of Hudson, which had merged with Nash to form American Motors in 1953. Chapin himself had worked for Hudson since the thirties, becoming treasurer after the AMC merger and spending several years in overseas operations after the departure of George Romney. In the short term, Chapin and Luneburg announced layoffs and other cost-cutting measures intended to bolster AMC’s financial position, but Chapin also announced that AMC would now pursue a new and more exciting direction.

ENTER MARY WELLS

The ascension of Chapin and Luneburg brought about a major change in atmosphere at American Motors. Abernethy had tended to manage the company from the top down; AMC employees followed orders from the CEO or the board. By contrast, Luneburg preferred to hire good people and give them enough room to do their best work.

Luneburg gave Teague’s styling department far more leeway than they’d ever had before and moved several executives to new roles that better suited their talents. Among those executives was purchasing director Bill McNealy, who had been an outspoken critic of AMC’s antiquated product and marketing strategies. Luneburg responded by making McNealy the company’s new vice president of marketing.

McNealy was well aware that even with the upcoming launch of the Javelin, making American Motors cars interesting to teenagers was going to be a challenge. American’s dealers knew nothing about the youth market and neither did AMC’s ad agency, the respectable, conservative, old-line New York firm of Benton & Bowles. McNealy decided that the best way to give the Javelin the credibility it needed with young buyers would be to take it racing.

This was a radical concept for American; George Romney had been one of the leading proponents of the 1957 AMA racing ban, a gentleman’s agreement prohibiting automakers from promoting competition or performance. Ford and Chrysler had repudiated the AMA ban years earlier and while GM still officially upheld it, its individual divisions had flaunted the ban repeatedly. American was the only domestic automaker who still assiduously observed it, a holdover from the Romney era.

Dick Teague was an enthusiastic supporter of the competition idea, as were many of the engineers, but management was dubious. Chapin had already made tentative noises to the press about supporting competition, so Luneburg didn’t say no, but he refused to authorize any additional money for a racing program. That was better than a flat “no,” but it was less than McNealy had hoped.

Fortunately, McNealy soon made a powerful new ally. In the spring of 1967, he met Mary Wells, the dynamic senior partner of the ad agency Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc. (WRG). Wells was a former vice president of Doyle Dane Bernbach who had founded her own agency in April 1966. In only a year, she had made WRG the talk of the ad world through her dramatic re-branding of Braniff Airlines and clever TV spots for clients like Alka-Seltzer. McNealy introduced Wells to Chapin and by June had convinced him to move the entire $12 million AMC account to WRG.

THE JAVELIN RACING TEAM

With Wells’ help, McNealy convinced Chapin and Luneburg to authorize a much larger competition budget. In September, AMC hired Victor Raviolo, a former Ford engineer who had led the development of Ford of England’s Lotus Cortina race cars, as group vice president in charge of engineering and styling. Part of his role would be overseeing the development of AMC performance cars and parts for both street and track use.

1969 AMC Javelin front 3q © 2009 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz PD
The first-generation AMC Javelin looks shorter than a contemporary Mustang, but the Javelin is actually 5.6 inches (142 mm) longer, with an overall length of 189.2 inches (4,806 mm) and a wheelbase of 109 inches (2,769 mm). V8 cars weigh about 3,350 lb (1,520 kg). This is actually a 1969 Javelin SST; the SST trim series included different wheel colors and reclining seats. (Photo: “1969 Javelin SST red w white C-stripe fr” © 2009 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

The first question was what avenues of competition American Motors should pursue. Chapin had already said AMC was not going to pursue stock car racing (although he would later change his mind) and at least in the short term, it was obvious that AMC would be hopelessly outgunned by the well-entrenched NASCAR competition, particularly Chrysler and Ford. As an alternative, Dick Teague’s assistant, Jim Alexander, suggested SCCA Group 2 sedan racing, more commonly known as Trans Am. The Mustang and Camaro were already fighting it out on the Trans Am circuit. If the Javelin could make a good showing there, it would put AMC’s newest car on the map.

AMC began soliciting proposals from established racing managers, including Bob Tullius of Group 44, Ray Caldwell, and Roy Winkelmann, but none fit the bill. Finally, styling consultant Brooks Stevens, a friend of Chapin’s, recommended Jim Jeffords, a former SCCA champion who was then working for an ad agency in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Stevens personally flew Jeffords to Detroit to meet with Chapin, who quickly hired him.

Effective October 1, Jeffords and engineer Ron Kaplan became president and vice president of a new AMC subsidiary called Javelin Racing Team (JRT). Their mission was to make a name for the Javelin in Trans Am competition.

THE AMC JAVELIN DEBUTS

AMC introduced the Javelin to dealers via a closed-circuit television broadcast on August 31, 1967. The car made its public debut on September 26, just as the ink was drying on Jeffords’ and Kaplan’s JRT contracts.

To anyone who had seen the Project IV cars, the Javelin’s styling was familiar; the AMX and AMX II show cars had foreshadowed many of its design themes. It was nonetheless a pleasant-looking car, not as extroverted as a Pontiac Firebird, but sleek and nicely proportioned.

1969 AMC Javelin SST rear 3q
The Javelin’s engineering was orthodox pony car stuff. Front suspension was double wishbones with high-mounted coil springs (like the Rambler American or, for that matter, the Ford Mustang) while the rear was a live axle with leaf springs. This 1969 SST has the $34 “Big Bad Orange” paint option, which included body-colored bumpers and bumper overriders. Alternate choices were Big Bad Blue and Big Bad Green.

Mechanically, the Javelin had a great deal in common with the contemporary Rambler American sedan, although the Javelin had a unique body shell, not shared with any existing car. Standard power was a 232 cu. in. (3,801 cc) six with 145 gross horsepower (108 kW). AMC’s recently introduced small V8 was optional with a choice of 290 or 343 cu. in. (4,751 or 5,624 cc) and up to 280 gross horsepower (209 kW). The options list also offered front disc brakes, four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission, heavy-duty suspension, and the usual assortment of convenience options. Helpfully, the Javelin was priced a little bit below the Mustang; a basic Javelin started at under $2,500, undercutting the six-cylinder Camaro and Mustang by more than $100.

Having gone more than three years without an answer to the Mustang, you’d think that AMC’s sales organization and dealers would be ecstatic about the Javelin. Some were excited, but others were nervous about or even baffled by the new car; the Javelin represented new territory for AMC and AMC salesmen. Roy Chapin’s sales projections were similarly cautious. Recognizing that the Javelin was arriving late to a crowded market segment, he announced that AMC’s sales target was a modest 35,000 to 40,000 units. By comparison, Ford had sold nearly 12 times that many Mustangs in 1967 while 1967 Camaro sales totaled more than 220,000.

1969 AMC Javelin SST front
The body-colored bumpers on the 1969 “Big Bad” AMC Javelins were still novel at the time; Plymouth adopted a similar scheme for the 1970 E-body Barracuda and Dodge Challenger. This car has the 390 (6,384 cc) V8 with 315 gross horsepower (209 kW). There was a “Group 19” high-performance camshaft kit for both the 390 and the 343, increasing horsepower to a claimed 343 hp (256 kW) and 308 hp (230 kW), respectively. Unfortunately, AMC’s elderly Borg-Warner automatic was not really up to the task; in 1972, American finally replaced it with Chrysler’s vastly superior three-speed TorqueFlite.

Press response to the Javelin was generally positive. Even British reviewers liked the AMC pony car’s styling, although some critics were none too fond of its molded-plastic dashboard. The Javelin’s handling and performance won praise, but its brakes were mediocre and its optional handling suspension made for a choppy ride. The Javelin also shared many of the failings of its peers, including limited trunk space, poor rear visibility, and so-so composure over rough pavement. In all, it was a thoroughly competent but not groundbreaking example of the pony car breed.

Early sales were encouraging, leading AMC to increase Javelin production by more than 10%, aided by a series of irreverent print and TV ads courtesy of WRG, which even dared to violate an unspoken Detroit taboo by directly comparing the Javelin to its competitors.

21 Comments

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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).

    1. Thanks for the correction; I’ve amended the text accordingly.

  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”.

    1. Oops — that got garbled when I had to redo all the lead-ins during the migration. Thanks!

  10. Hindsight being 20/20, AMC would have been better off keeping the Javelin and AMX in production past 1974, as opposed to introducing the Pacer. Look how sales of the Firebird and Camaro took off in the late 70’s. An AMX equipped with a 360 or 401 would have been quite competitive with a Trans Am.
    Easy to say now, I know….

    1. Well, the Javelin was obviously for a very different purpose than was the Pacer, so I can’t imagine it would ever have been either or, but otherwise, yeah. It’s easy to see why they didn’t think so at the time, though.

  11. I am an ORIGINAL owner of a 1970 AMX (glove box tag #21776). Fully documented, fully optioned, never in an accident, no rust – and, again, ONLY ONE owner-me! Showroom condition, 171K miles, car show award winner, – and thinking about finally selling! I have no idea of value but will look to NADA classic car values for market price. If you know of anyone with an interest to buy, we can work out a “finder’s fee”. Thank you, Aaron.
    Respectfully, Bob Schneider (H) 321-637-3774 (C) 631-924-8739

    1. Bob,
      I redacted your phone numbers — if you’re determined to publish them, I’ll put them back, although I take no responsibility for any consequences. I can’t help with buying or selling cars, but I’ll leave this here for anyone that’s interested.

      1. Aaron,
        Thank you for publishing message. Yes, please print the phone numbers. I will take full responsibility for any consequences. Thank you.
        Bob

        1. Okay, will do.

      2. I have a friend that came across a bunch of cars in a yard. He found a base model Javelin that he insists the door tag says 1966. He said it looks lime a javelin. He was hoping the guy had a Marlin. The guy has a pacer and a few matadors. What do you think he found?

        1. Telling a Javelin from a Matador doesn’t seem like it would be all that difficult, assuming the car was mostly intact and not buried in crap. I’m not up on AMC door tag formats, but assuming it was indeed a model year and not some other code, my observation is that it wouldn’t take a whole lot in the way of damage, incomplete stamping, or weird lighting to make an “8” look like a “6.”

        2. He was looking at the tag that says the car conforms to all requirements of the 1966 Highway Safety Act.

  12. There had to be some pretty talented people at AMC to pull off stamping those ’71-’74 Javelin front fenders and even then I imagine the scrap rate was pretty high! That’s a huge part with a lot of metal stretch. Count me as a fan of this era of AMC.

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