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.
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.
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.
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.