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 divisive. 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.
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 around 117,000 sales in 1958, about 259,000 in 1959, and almost 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.
The midsize Rambler was available with either a 196 cu. in. (3,205 cc) six or a 250 cu. in. (4,099 cc) V8. V8 cars were called Rambler Rebel; the sixes were simply Rambler 6. Low demand led to the cancellation of the Rebel after 1960, at which point the 6 was renamed Rambler Classic.
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 ON TOP
George Romney left American Motors in January 1962 to pursue a political career. His departure marked the beginning of the end of AMC’s niche-market focus on compact cars. His successor, former sales VP Roy Abernethy, didn’t share Romney’s enthusiasm for compacts. Abernethy, a veteran of Packard and before that Kaiser-Frazer, subscribed to the attitude of many contemporary automotive salesmen and executives (even at AMC): Big cars were better than small cars because they were usually easier to sell, sold for more money, and made bigger profits.
The 1963 redesign of the Classic and Ambassador had already made them bigger and more orthodox-looking and much the same was true of the redesigned 1964 American. Under Abernethy’s auspices, AMC moved further toward the mainstream. The Classic and Ambassador got attractive if faintly anonymous new styling courtesy of new design chief Dick Teague and each line gained a convertible. For 1964, a V8 returned to the Classic line for the first time since 1961. A facelift for 1965 increased the Classic’s overall length an additional 5 inches (127 mm), bringing it closer in size to its intermediate rivals.
AMC revived the Rebel badge in 1966 as a sub-series of the Rambler Classic line, offered only in two-door hardtop form. This car has the optional 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) V8 with 270 gross horsepower (201 kW), linked to the rare four-speed manual transmission.
The 1965-1966 Rambler Classic still rode the 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase introduced in 1963, but overall length grew from 190 to 195 inches (4,826 to 4,953 mm) thanks mostly to a longer tail. Equipped like this one, it weighed around 3,500 pounds (1,575 kg).
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.
A 1965 Rambler Marlin. ( Photo: “1965 Marlin aqua white md-sr” © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz; released into the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)
Like the contemporary
Dodge Charger, which was similarly derived from 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 — an interesting reversal given that the Rambler Ambassador had originally been a stretched Classic — which brought the midsize Rambler’s 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 marque. (It disappeared from Rebels in 1968.) The chassis was also updated, discarding the old torque tube for a new four-link rear suspension, and the new 290 cu. in. (4,751 cc) and 343 cu. in. (5,624 cc) V8 engines replaced AMC’s original, fifties-vintage V8s.
None of this helped; 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
Believe it or not, this is the original upholstery, and the throw pillow was standard equipment. Many mid-sixties AMC products, including both the Rebel and the Ambassador, had wild, rococo trim, complete with throw pillows.
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.
The late-sixties Rambler Rebel was an attractive car in two-door hardtop form, although you could argue that it was a stylistic goulash, borrowing themes from the contemporary Ford Fairlane, Pontiac Le Mans, and Dodge Coronet. The SST was the sportiest model, with a 343 cu. in. (5,624 cc) version of AMC’s small V8, launched in mid-1966. With only 280 gross horsepower (209 kW), even the most powerful Rebel SST was no match for a Fairlane GTA, let alone a GTO. ( Photo: “Rebel SST” © 2009 William Hamilton; used with permission) 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.” (A less-confrontational nameplate would have been “Toreador.”)
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.
Whatever else the Matador was, it was not a strong seller. 1971 volume was fewer than 46,000 sales, rising to about 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. AMC’s ad agency, Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc., whose past campaigns had already established a tone of bemused self-deprecation reminiscent of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s famous Volkswagen ads, opted to make a joke of the Matador’s anonymity with a series of 1973 spots asking, “What’s a Matador?” It didn’t help much.
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 and NASCAR drivers Mark Donohue and Dave Marcis, who drove Matador stock cars for Roger Penske, likened it to a brick.
The AMC Matador coupe’s roofline and rear fenders bear a striking resemblance to those of the late-sixties Chrysler C-body hardtops, but its bulging grille reminded one critic of big-nosed comedian Jimmy Durante. A few — perhaps 50 — 1971 Matadors were Machines, similar to the previous year’s Rebel Machine, but without its gaudy paint and ostentatious hood scoop. They had either a 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) engine with 285 gross horsepower (213 kW), shared with the rare Hornet SC/360, or a 401 (6,573 cc) with 330 hp (246 kW). ( Photo: “DSCF0060” © 2008 Pixel/Improbcat; used with permission)
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.
By 1974, the former dinosaur hunter had become a dinosaur. The AMC Matador coupe is a Brobdingnagian 209.3 inches (5,316 mm) long on a 114-inch (2,896mm) wheelbase, weighing around two tons. Although it was the shortest of the 1974 intermediates, it was actually 1.3 inches (33 mm) longer than a full-size 1959 Ford Galaxie. Some of the AMC’s size and bulk was attributable to the federally mandated 5 mph (8 km/h bumpers), but even without them, the Matador was no compact.
Unlike the previous Matador coupe, the new coupe shared no sheet metal with the sedan and wagon, which looked boxy and rather ordinary despite their peculiar grille treatment. The coupe 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 this 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 perpetually cash-strapped independent.
Like GM’s 1973 “Colonnade” 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 more stringent roof crush standards. Like the old Rambler Marlin, the coupe had a steeply sloping fastback roof, flowing smoothly into the flared rear fenders and drooping tail.
Unlike GM’s contemporary “Colonnade” hardtops, which had fixed quarter windows, the AMC Matador coupe’s rear windows do roll down, a boon to rear-seat passengers. The rear seat is not really suitable for adults, however, a consequence of the sloping roof.
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 compared the old Matador to a brick simply because he didn’t like its looks. However, despite press reports to the contrary, Bob Nixon said that racing had relatively little to do with the design. He was more concerned with issues like how to integrate the now-mandatory 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers in an aesthetically satisfying way, something few automakers successfully managed during this period.
One of the Matador coupe’s many interesting styling features are its free-standing bumpers, which stand out from the body on telescoping hydraulic struts concealed by articulated plastic boots. The idea was to make the bumpers look less like park benches than do the ones on some other contemporary cars, although it’s hard not to conclude that the car wouldn’t look better with a more delicate-looking bumper treatment. The Matador X was the sporty model, priced $504 above the basic V8 coupe; there was also a plusher Brougham model. In 1975, both became option packages rather than models. FASHION VICTIM
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 artist 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.
Certain aspects of the Matador coupe’s design were intended as callbacks to past AMC models in the hopes of creating some sense of stylistic continuity; Bob Nixon says the headlights were a nod to the 1964 Rambler American. The Matador coupe’s flat nose and recessed grille (blacked out on sporty X models) bears no resemblance to the contemporary Matador sedan and wagon. This car originally had the basic 304 cu. in. (4,977 cc) V8 with 150 hp (112 kW), linked to a three-speed Torque-Command automatic (actually a Chrysler TorqueFlite 904). Its present owner has retrofitted it with a 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) engine and dual exhausts, making about 200 hp (149 kW).
With a V8 and a full load of options, the new Matador weighed 4,050 lb (1,837 kg), which put straight-line performance somewhere between sleepy and brisk depending on powertrain. There were six choices, offering between 100 and 235 net horsepower (75 and 175 kW): the base 232 cu. in. (3,801 cc) six, an optional 258 cu. in. (4,235 cc) version of same, the base 304 cu. in. (4,977 cc) V8, the optional 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) V8 with either a two- or four-barrel carburetor, and the 401 cu. in. (6,573 cc) four-barrel.
Road & Track‘s 1974 test car, equipped with the four-barrel 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) option (offering 195 hp/145 kW), managed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 9 seconds and a top speed of 116 mph (187 km/h), which wasn’t bad for 1974. Car and Driver‘s Matador X, with the bigger 401 cu. in. (6,573 cc) engine, was almost a second quicker to 60 mph (97 km/h). Enthusiast publications didn’t bother testing the smaller engines, but the sixes were undoubtedly on the sluggish side.
The Matador’s other virtues were a mixed bag. On the plus side were the automatic (now Chrysler’s excellent three-speed TorqueFlite); decent steering response from the optional variable-assist power steering (a Saginaw system purchased from GM); and disc/drum brakes with better-than-average front/rear proportioning, giving reasonable stopping power. Less happily, the coupe’s interior was cramped, more of a 2+2 than a true four-seater; there was more noise and harshness than in a contemporary Ford Torino or Chevrolet Chevelle; and fuel economy was dismal with any of the larger engines, 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 interior differed little from that of the sedan and wagon. A tachometer was not available, but the dash does feature a primitive fuel economy gauge, located above the fuel gauge on the right side of the wheel. The sport steering wheel was standard on the Matador X; Broughams had fake woodgrain on the dash. This car has bucket seats, a $68.50 option on the Matador X, but not the optional center console and floor shifter.
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 quite good, even beating 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.
The jarring discontinuity between the rear quarter window and the backlight is one of the minor elements that make the Matador coupe’s intriguing shape less than satisfactory, as is the awkward crease near the trailing edge of the decklid. Note the substantial tumblehome (inward curvature of the roof sides), which combines with the curving fenders to make the Matador unusually curvaceous for an American car of this era. All these complex curves made the Matador expensive to build; it ultimately lost money for AMC. REMAINDER BIN
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. With buyers still reeling from the oil embargo, 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; Matador sales dropped by more than 30%, coupe sales by 65%. Gremlin and Hornet sales fell significantly as well, a decline that the introduction of the new Pacer and decent Jeep sales couldn’t fully counterbalance. AMC ended the 1975 fiscal year with a $27.5 million net loss.
One of AMC’s more interesting marketing tactics in this era, and one that would later be widely imitated, was offering special co-branded editions in collaboration with well-known fashion designers. In the Matador’s case, this was the 1974–1975 Oleg Cassini edition, which featured a special black, white, and copper color scheme conceived by the designer and AMC’s Vince Geraci. The Oleg Cassini package was modestly priced — $299 in 1974 — and initially sold a respectable 6,165 cars. Sales for 1975 fell to less than 30% of that figure despite a price cut to $236, so AMC pulled the plug.
The trim-and-tape-stripe AMC Matador X model sold around 10,000 copies in 1974, became an option package in 1975, and disappeared after that. Intermediate buyers of the time were no longer very interested in sportiness, particularly since there was now very little to back it up. Many buyers were content with the 304 cu. in. (4,977 cc) base V8, which provided leisurely acceleration.
Things didn’t get better for the Matador in 1976. Although the domestic auto market was starting to recover, the Matador still sold poorly. The engine lineup had shrunk from the original six choices to four; the smaller six and the 401 cu. in. (6,573 cc) V8 had disappeared in 1975, so the most powerful engine was now the 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) four-barrel, with 180 net horsepower (134 kW). A non-branded “Barcelona” special edition replaced the slow-selling Oleg Cassini package. Total Matador sales slumped a further 30% and AMC had to offer $600 rebates to clear out unsold cars. Worse, an emissions control problem forced the company to recall almost all non-California intermediates, which cost AMC more than $5 million and contributed to a net loss of $46.3 million for the fiscal year.
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. Meanwhile, the production Matador line was further simplified, with only three engine options and standard automatic transmission, and a singularly gaudy two-tone Barcelona II edition was added in a vain attempt to attract interest in the coupe. Matador sales fell to 30,847, a drop of more than 25% from 1976.
Fewer than 7,000 of those 1977 sales were coupes and AMC sold only 2,006 for 1978, the coupe’s 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, so AMC canceled the entire line after 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.
The Oleg Cassini Matador was an optional trim package offered only in 1974 and 1975. In 1974, it cost $299 and was available only on the Matador Brougham. In 1975, the Brougham itself became an option package rather than a model, but you still had to order it to get the Cassini package, which cost an extra $236. AMC sold 6,165 Oleg Cassini packages in 1974 and an additional 1,817 in 1975. AMC’s special designer editions, which also included a Levi’s Edition Gremlin, were among the first such cross-promotions, but they were definitely not the last. In 1976, Lincoln launched designer editions of its popular Continental Mark series by Cartier, Emilio Pucci, Givenchy, and Bill Blass, with great success. ( Photo: “Hi luxury reads Oleg Cassini” © 2007 Tigersnarl; used with permission) AFTERMATH
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 body-style breakouts are available for 1976), which was probably not 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 that the company should change its name to “Ailing American Motors” since the press so often described AMC that way. AMC did recover somewhat late in the decade, posting profits of $36.7 million in 1978 and $83.4 million in fiscal 1979, thanks mostly to robust Jeep sales, but even so, it remained dangerously under-capitalized, posting severe losses from 1980 to 1983.
With the company’s long-term future still in doubt, the AMC board opted for an alliance with the French automaker Renault. That relationship did not prove successful for either side and Renault finally sold AMC to Chrysler in early 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. [
Author’s note: It is now, like other Chrysler marks, the property of FCA US LLC.] (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.)
The Matador wagon survived with few changes through 1978; by the end, it sold better than the coupe despite costing more. A 1975 V8 wagon like this one had a base price of just under $4,000, nearly $400 more than a V8 coupe. It accounted for about 8,100 sales that year. ( Photo: “1975 AMC Matador wagon” © 2009 Gremlin72; used with permission)
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 said AMC had made that car look different on purpose, hoping 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 took 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.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources on the AMC intermediates and the development of the 1974-1978 Matador Coupe included “AMC gambles $60-million on a new compact,”
Business Week 20 January 1975, pp. 76-78; “American Motors Matador X,” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 7 (September 1973) pp. 42-45; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1970 AMC Rebel Machine: Portrait of a Muscle Car,” HowStuffWorks.com, 12 September 2007, musclecars. howstuffworks. com/ classic-muscle-cars/ 1970-amc-rebel-machine.htm, accessed 16 August 2009; “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); “Autos: American Motors Hangs in There,” TIME 14 February 1977, www.time. com, accessed 7 December 2009; “Autos: American’s Moment of Truth,” TIME 26 October 1970, www.time. com, accessed 7 December 2009; Craig Bond’s website, “The Coupe Coop!” Matadorcoupe.com, August 2008, www.matadorcoupe. com, accessed 7 December 2009; Arch Brown, “1965 Rambler Classic V-8: Shedding the Little Old Lady Image,” Special Interest Autos #63 (May-June 1981), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); “Business: AMC’s Charge,” TIME 19 November 1979, www.time. com, accessed 7 December 2009; “Corporations: American Flits Ahead,” TIME 29 November 1971, www.time. com, accessed 7 December 2009; Barnaby J. Feder, “A.M.C.’s Long, Hard Struggle, The New York Times 10 March 1987, www.nytimes. com, accessed 9 December 2009; Patrick Foster, American Motors Corporation: The Rise and Fall of America’s Last Independent Automaker (Minneapolis, MN: MBI Publishing Company, 2013); “Bob Nixon: AMC’s Master of Design,” Hemmings Classic Car #55 (April 2009), pp. 48–51; “Designing the Future at AMC: Part III: Bob Nixon and the Sizzling Sixties,” Special Interest Autos #161 (September-October 1997), pp. 46-53; “1974 AMC Matador Coupe: Kenosha’s Question Marque,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 13, No. 4 (December 1996), pp. 50-58; Standard Catalog of Jeep, 1940–2003 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2003); The Story of Jeep (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1998); and “Vince Geraci: Living in Style,” Collectible Automobile Vol. 22, No. 2 (August 2005), pp. 66–75; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Charles K. Hyde, Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009); David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Donald MacDonald, “Wither AMC?” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 5 (May 1966), pp. 36-40, 70; Wolfgang A. Mederle, “AMC History,” American Motors 1954-1987, 3 May 2009, www.american-motors. de/en/ history/ 70s/, accessed 7 December 2009; Todd Ruel’s interviews with former AMC marketing VP Bill McNealy (“Torq-O Podcast #7: Interview with Bill McNealy,” 20 July 2008, Torq-O: The Cog Blog, www.torq-o. com (audio recording), accessed 1 February 2010) and product planning VP Gerald Meyers (“Torque-O Podcast #9: Interview with Gerald Meyers,” 12 October 2008, Torq-O: The Cog Blog, www.torq-o. com (audio recording), accessed 7 December 2009); Rich Truesdell, “Pete Harrison’s 1970 AMC Rebel” 2001, clubs.hemmings. com/clubsites/ classicamx/RebMachArticle/ RebMachineArticle.html, accessed 16 August 2009; Bill Vance, “Motoring Memories: AMC Matador Coupe, 1974-1978,” Autos.ca, 19 September 2008, www.autos. ca/ classic-cars/ motoring-memories-amc-matador-coupe-1974-1978/, accessed 8 December 2009; and remarks of former AMC ad manager Barney Brogan at the So. Cal. AMC All AMC Classic Car Show & Beach Cruise 2009 in El Segundo California on 12 September 2009. 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.
We also consulted the following period road tests: “AMC Marlin: A Reflection of Difficulty, Built in Small Numbers,”
Car Life Vol. 14, No. 3 (April 1967); “Car Life Road Test: Rambler Classic V-8,” Car Life Vol. 11, No. 2 (March 1964); John Etheridge, “Road testing the new fastback Marlin,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 3 (March 1965); Steven Kelly, “American Look-Alikes – Rebel SST & Ambassador,” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1967) “Marlin by Rambler, Ambassador, Rambler Classic, American,” Auto TopicsNovember 1965, Bob McVay, “2 Rambler Rag Tops,” Motor Trend Vol. 17, No. 7 (July 1965); “Rambler Six,” Road & Track Vol. 11, No. 6 (February 1960); “Rebels, a Pair – 770 & SST,” Car Life Vol. 14, No. 5 (June 1967); “Track Burner from AMC — The Machine,” Road Test May 1970; and Jim Wright, “Rambler Classic and Ambassador (Car of the Year),” Motor Trend Vol. 15, No. 2 (February 1963), all of which are reprinted in AMC Rambler Limited Edition Extra 1956-1969, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 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 Coupe,” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 1 (September 1973), pp. 110–112; “Matador X: It is, unquestioningly, this year’s style leader,” Car and Driver Vol. 19, No. 5 (November 1973), pp. 41-46, 104; Jim McCraw, “Matador X 401: It’s the Real Thing!” Super Stock February 1974, pp. 50-52, 67, and “The Personal Luxury Cars,” Motor Trend Vol. 26, No. 3 (March 1974), reprinted in Thunderbird Performance Portfolio 1964-1976, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000), pp. 129–132.