THE PRODUCTION AMX
In early 1968, American Motors followed up the Javelin with the two-seat AMX that Bob Evans had requested two years earlier. The production AMX was essentially a Javelin with its wheelbase shortened by 12 inches (305 mm), fitted with a new hood, grille, roof, and sail panels. The AMX was mechanically similar to the Javelin, although it came standard with the 225-horsepower (168 kW), 290 cu. in. (4,751 cc) V8. A new option for both the Javelin and AMX was a bigger 390 cu. in. (6,384 cc) V8 rated at 315 gross horsepower (235 kW).
AMC sold more than 55,000 1968 Javelins, around 40% more than Chapin’s target. The AMX, meanwhile, accounted for 6,725 sales in its shortened first year. Neither was a major player in the crowded sporty car market; the Javelin accounted for less than 6% pony car sales in 1968 and was not a big money-maker. Despite their modest sales, both cars played a useful role as image leaders, drawing young buyers into AMC showrooms for the first time.
In the spring of 1968, shortly before the AMX appeared in showrooms, the Javelin embarked on its first Trans Am season. AMC had given JRT two Javelins, each painted with gaudy red, white, and blue stripes. The 343 cu. in. (5,624 cc) V8 was too big for Trans Am, so the racing team started with the smaller 290 cu. in. (4,751 cc) block and bored it to 3.84 inches (97.6 mm), giving a total displacement of 304.3 cu. in. (4,977 cc), safely under the 305 cu. in. (5,000 cc) limit. Naturally, the racing engines also got hotter cams and dual four-barrel Holley carburetors. Jim Jeffords and Ronnie Kaplan hired Peter Revson and George Follmer to drive the cars with John Martin as co-driver and crew chief.
Just before the beginning of the season, Victor Raviolo told reporters that AMC didn’t really expect to win, hoping instead for a solid third-place finish. It was a realistic assessment, but it may have been more candid than American management would have liked; Raviolo was fired not long afterward and Carl Chakmakian took over AMC’s performance efforts.
The Javelin made its Trans Am debut at the 12 Hours of Sebring on March 23, 1968. One of the team’s two cars, driven by Follmer and Jerry Grant, was DNF (did not finish), but the other, driven by Revson and Skip Scott, managed fifth place. The Javelin team won no races in the 1968 season, but they managed second-place finishes in six of the 12 races. The Javelin also finished every race, itself a commendable achievement for an untried car. By mid-season, AMC was fighting it out with Ford for second place, to the considerable amazement of early scoffers. The Javelin finally ended up third overall, as Raviolo had predicted, but it was a credible effort.
Unfortunately, the Javelin’s second season was a disaster. At the end of the 1968 season, Ford hired away both Peter Revson and George Follmer; their replacements, John Martin, Ron Grable, Bob Tullius, and Lothar Motschenbacher, did not do nearly as well. The Javelin’s bored-out engines failed regularly; a more durable block with four-bolt rather than two-bolt main bearings was developed, but couldn’t be legally used because it wasn’t offered on production cars. The best the team managed all season was a fourth-place finish.
While the Javelin vied with the Camaro and Mustang in Trans Am, the AMX was setting speed records and tearing up the dragstrip. In February, Craig and Lynn Breedlove drove a pair of modified AMXs to 106 class records. Dave Kempton, meanwhile, campaigned an AMX in NHRA SS/FA drag racing. In 1969, Shirley Shahan, the “Drag-On Lady,” set several SS/D drag racing records. That year, American Motors product planning VP Gerry Meyers also organized a volunteer group called TEAM (Technical Employees of American Motors) to run the AMX in SCCA B/Production sports car racing. Ike Knupp, the supervisor of American’s electrical engineering lab, won the 1969 SCCA Central Division championship, scoring five victories over Alan Barker’s Chevrolet Corvette.
PENSKE AND DONOHUE
While the Javelin and AMX’s track performance brought considerable publicity, it did not translate into robust showroom traffic. For 1969, sales of the little-changed Javelin fell to 40,675 while the AMX managed 8,293 sales. Part of the problem was simply that the market had peaked in 1967 and declined steady from there. The Mustang fell 20% for 1969, while Camaro sank more than 30%.
The 1970 Javelin and AMX got a facelift with a new grille, new taillights, and a rather tacky new hood scoop, but it didn’t help. Sales declined to just over 30,000 Javelins and 4,116 AMXs. The competition wasn’t doing any better; Mustang sales were down an additional 40%.
Bill McNealy was not at all pleased with JRT’s mediocre showing in the 1969 Trans Am season, but he had not given up on the competition program. He decided that AMC needed to set its sights higher, so he fired Jeffords and Kaplan and went after the leading Trans Am team: Penske and Donohue.
Roger Penske had begun his racing career in 1958. He retired in the mid-sixties to focus on business, but he launched his own team, Penske Racing, in 1965. In 1967, he and driver/engineer Mark Donohue entered Trans Am with their infamous Sunoco Camaro. Donohue proceeded to dominate the series, winning three consecutive driver’s championships. They also competed in Can-Am, USRRC road racing, and the Indianapolis 500, where Mark Donohue won a Rookie of the Year award in 1969.
Despite his success in Trans Am, Penske was not actually being paid by Chevrolet and their official anti-racing stance meant that factory support came primarily through back channels. When Bill McNealy made him an offer switch to AMC, Penske was very receptive. He soon signed a three-year contract with American Motors, bring Mark Donohue with him.
Despite the skills of Mark Donohue and Peter Revson, whom Penske lured back from Ford, the Javelin had a difficult season in 1970. Its engine was not nearly as reliable as Penske’s previous Traco-built Chevrolet 302 cu. in. (4,942 cc) engine and oil starvation was an ongoing problem. Still, Donohue earned the Javelin’s first Trans Am victory at Bridgehampton on June 21 and the team managed second place overall.
Penske was not accustomed to coming in second and was determined to make good in 1971. He dismissed Peter Revson, arranged to sell the 1970 cars to Roy Woods Racing (RWR), and decided the team would focus its 1971 efforts on a single car that would be driven solely by Donohue.