Top 10 Obscure Special Editions and Forgotten Limited-Run Models: AMC Edition

1979 amc spirit amx shots

Every car company has released a special edition or limited-run model at some point. These range from mundane gold-badged anniversary editions to models that were originally intended to run for much longer but failed spectacularly. In this series, we are going to look at a wide variety of short-lived models that were launched to arrest flagging sales and/or generate interest, but have been almost entirely forgotten due to low production volumes and, in some cases, scant publicity. To start, let’s take a look at American Motors. While some websites will treat AMC’s quirky oddball cars like the Pacer and Matador coupe as almost alien curiosities, Curbsiders are an informed and eclectic bunch and know all about such cars and their special editions. So, to clear the air: this AMC instalment will feature (gasp!) zero Pacers and Matador coupes. So, what’s in the Top 10?

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Rebel Mariner wagon

Production years: 1967

Total production: 600 units

First up is a dashing, nautical-themed station wagon. “Rebel Mariner” is such an oddly specific name. Was there to be a mutiny against the skipper? It sounded as specific as the Mercury Park Lane Marauder, which in my mind conjured up visions of a prolific local rapist. Name aside, the Mariner does make one wonder why manufacturers didn’t dabble in the waters of themed models more often.

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The Mariner was actually one of three regional 1967 Rebel wagons: the red/black Briarcliff was sold in various eastern and southern states, while the white/brown Westerner was available where its name suggests. Both were distinctive, sure, but none were as striking as the Mariner.

Mariner wagons, sold in coastal areas like Miami and San Francisco, featured Barbados Blue paint and simulated bleached teak wood paneling with black striping. Nautical insignia featured on the exterior and inside the cabin, which was upholstered in dark blue suede and vinyl with white piping. The special edition wagons featured a 290 cubic-inch V8 (a 343 V8 was optional), and came standard with automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, power tailgate window, power mirrors, electric clock and even a heavy-duty suspension. These were stylish and well-equipped wagons, so it’s a pity that only 600 Mariners were made. 

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Matador Barcelona Sedan

Years Produced: 1978

Total production: ?

The 1974 Matador Coupe was an expensive boondoggle for AMC, with styling that missed the mark and sales that declined rapidly despite option packages like the X, Barcelona and Barcelona II. The sedan received no such option packages until its final year, when AMC made available the Barcelona package.

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Barcelona sedans were distinguished externally by color-keyed slot wheels in 15-inch whitewall tires, vinyl roof and two-tone metallic paint in either Golden Ginger with Sand Tan, or Autumn Red with Claret. Inside, there was velveteen crush fabric with woven accent stripes, custom door trim panels, unique headliner, individually reclining front seats and deep carpeting. Underneath the hood were the standard Matador engines, a 258 cubic-inch six or a 360 cu.-in. V8, mated to a three-speed automatic. Whatever the rationale was for AMC to release the Barcelona sedan, it was a rather fruitless endeavor as 1978 would be the last year for AMC’s intermediate.

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Gremlin GT

Years Produced: 1978

Total Production: Fewer than 2000

The GT package represented the last hurrah for the venerable Gremlin line, although the 1970-vintage platform would live on in spirit (and in the Spirit). Almost perversely for a subcompact hatchback, the Gremlin had offered a fairly slow-selling V8 option from 1972-76. By 1978, the Gremlin had received an attractive front-end redesign and the more upscale Concord’s instrument panel. The long-running, sporty X model remained available but AMC also introduced the GT model at mid-year.

GT Gremlins all came with the 258 cubic-inch (4.2) inline six only. The interior was decorated with brushed aluminum trim in the GT, and there was also a sport steering wheel, full instrumentation and extra insulation. Outside, changes were even more dramatic with body-color bumpers, fender flares and front air dam, as well as bold tape striping, DR 70 x 14 raised-white letter radial tires and unique wheels. Performance modifications were limited to a front stabilizer bar, although you could option the heavy-duty suspension as on other Gremlins. The GT wasn’t the sportiest Gremlin, but it sure looked it.

amc hornet sc360

Hornet SC360

Years Produced: 1971

Total Production: 784

If the Gremlin GT was all hat and no cattle, the rare Hornet SC360 was the opposite. Released in the waning days of the muscle car era, the SC360 was pitched as an inexpensive alternative to muscle cars whose insurance rates had become prohibitively expensive.

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Instead of wedging the largest possible engine from their menagerie into the compact Hornet, AMC opted for the Javelin AMX’s 360 cubic-inch V8 to enhance the Hornet’s insurance cost and price advantage (it was priced almost identically to the Plymouth Duster 340). The 360 produced 245 gross horsepower with its standard 2-bbl carb, but you could option the $199 “Go” package with a 4-bbl carb and ram-air induction, good for an extra 40 hp. Standard was a three-speed manual but one could option a Hurst-shifted four-speed manual or a three-speed automatic; optional also was AMC’s Twin-Grip limited slip differential. For all that performance hardware, visual tweaks were comparatively restrained and limited to a hood scoop, unique wheels and some tape stripes.

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The SC360 may have held its own performance-wise, but its rivals absolutely creamed it in sales: in 1971, Dodge shifted more than ten times as many Dart Sport 340s. Those that went for the more left-field AMC found a car that had gutsy performance (0-60 in 6.7 seconds) and excellent handling. However, such buyers were likely the kind to really take advantage of that performance, and thus the SC360’s survival rate was low. Undoubtedly, those buyers enjoyed their powerful little compact, which was truly one of the hidden gems of the 1970s.

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Javelin Pierre Cardin

Years Produced: 1972-73

Total Production: 4,152

AMC made a lot of crucial strategic errors in the 1970s – over-investing in the Pacer and Matador Coupe, for example – but in some respects, the littlest of the big 4 had a good handle on what buyers wanted and did the best with what they had. This was demonstrated by their focus on subcompact and compact offerings but also by their emphasis on fancy trim. The Pierre Cardin Javelin was one such offering.

amc javelin interior pierre cardin

Available for just $84.95 on both the Javelin and Javelin AMX, the Pierre Cardin edition was nothing spectacularly different from the outside, Pierre Cardin crests on the fender being the main distinguisher, but inside it had one of the boldest interiors of the 1970s. Nylon stripes of red, purple, white and silver crisscrossed the black seats, headliner and doors. It was certainly a polarizing interior treatment – very much a product of its era – but it was bold and unique. In the interests of taste, exterior colors on Pierre Cardin models were limited to red, white, silver, blue and purple.

The option package could be had on any Javelin, including the performance flagship AMX, so Pierre Cardin Javelins could be powered by 232 and 258 cubic-inch six-cylinder engines, or V8s of 304, 360 and 401 cubic inches. Either it wasn’t heavily publicized or people found it off-putting, because the Pierre Cardin edition represented just a small fraction of Javelin volume.

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Hornet Gucci Sportabout

Years Produced: 1972-73

Total Production: 4835

AMC again offered a special edition station wagon in 1972 and introduced to North Americans an alluring concept: the fashion designer special edition. Although AMC didn’t stick with it for long (the Pierre Cardin Javelin, Gucci Hornet and Oleg Cassini Matador were all gone by 1975), Lincoln would seize the idea and use it to great success. However, Lincoln was offering designer packages on very expensive personal luxury coupes, while AMC was offering a Gucci edition of its humble compact wagon.

amc hornet gucci interior

Available only on the rakish Hornet Sportabout wagon for $141.80, the Gucci edition featured Gucci logos, a choice of four exterior colors (Snow White, Hunter Green, Grasshopper Green and Yuca Tan) and a special green interior with ivory seats featuring bold red and green striping. There was also a unique ivory and green headliner on models without a sunroof. While total production represented a mere fraction of Hornet wagon sales (around 35,000 were manufactured in 1972 alone), sales were encouraging enough for AMC to offer luxuriously trimmed wagons throughout the 1970s including the Concord D/L and Pacer Limited.

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Hornet AMX

Years Produced: 1977

Total Production: 5,300 (est.)

The AMX name had first appeared on a two-seat version of the Javelin pony car, but by 1971 “AMX” simply meant the top-spec Javelin. After AMC’s pony car was axed in 1974, the AMX nameplate also disappeared. However, it had strong equity so AMC dusted it off for 1977 to use on a sporty version of the Hornet hatchback.

By 1977, the 360 and 401 V8s were no longer available in AMC’s passenger car range as EPA standards strangled performance in the name of lower emissions and greater economy. The Hornet AMX package, available as a $799 option on the Hornet hatch, instead made do with the regular 304 cubic-inch V8 and 258 cu.-in. six. Performance wasn’t exactly sparkling: the 258 mustered 114 hp and 210 ft-lbs, the 304 just six more horsepower. Both featured a floor-shifter, but only the six was available with a manual transmission. While power output was nothing to write home about – the Hornet SC360 was a distant memory by now – the Hornet AMX did receive performance modifications in the form of a front anti-roll bar and, as an option in the V8, a 3.15:1 ratio rear axle.

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To justify the cost of the AMX package, various exterior modifications were made. These included blacked-out trim, a brushed aluminum targa band and body color bumpers, fender flares, chin spoiler and rear window louvers, while colors were limited to white, lime green, yellow and red. There was even an available hood graphic featuring a giant hornet. Inside, there was an engine-turned instrument panel and full instrumentation. All in all, the basic Hornet package was competitive with its hatchback versatility, relatively spacious cabin and competent handling. The AMX package didn’t really add much more except for questionable styling touches and a higher pricetag. Why not just buy a Hornet hatchback with the optional heavy-duty suspension and save a few hundred?

amc amx 1978 ad

1978 AMX (Concord AMX)

Years Produced: 1978

Total Production: 2,500 (est.)

The Hornet nameplate may have been retired for 1978, but AMC wasn’t content to shelve the AMX package. It reappeared on the new Concord – a lightly revised Hornet – and was marketed as a separate model. There may have been new front and rear end styling and a handsome new interior, but the powertrains were the same.

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Again, the AMX represented a $800 increase in price over AMC’s compact hatchback and again, there was a limited range of colors (this time white, silver, yellow and red, as well as a Trans Am-copying black/gold combination). You could also still get a handling package in the standard Concord hatchback and save some coin, or head over to a Dodge or Plymouth dealership and get a more powerful Aspen R/T or Volaré Roadrunner. Although the Concord hatchback would return for 1979, the AMX package shifted to AMC’s smallest offering, the “new’” Spirit.

1980 amc spirit amx

Spirit AMX

Years Produced: 1979-80

Total Production: 3,657 in 1979, ? in 1980

Much like the AMX-ized Hornet and Concord had featured a tuned suspension and a racy bodykit on a humble hatchback body, so too did the 1979 Spirit AMX. Spirit liftbacks were available in a GT trim level, but it was quite plain. The AMX package was anything but, with the usual AMX addenda like flared wheel arches and tape striping looking a little better suited to the smaller body. 

1979 amc spirit amx

The big news was underneath, as you could now option the 304 V8 with a four-speed stick (a three-speed auto was optional, and the 258 cu.-in. six was the standard engine). The V8 would prove to be a one-year only affair, as V8 subcompacts rapidly became extinct in the light of tougher Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. Unlike the more pedestrian Spirit GT, the AMX trim came standard with the “rally-tuned” suspension featuring Gabriel shock absorbers and tuned front and rear sway bars, among other enhancements.

It took a loyal AMC buyer to take the company’s newest sports compact over the new-for-1979 Fox-body Mustang, considering the latter’s more modern underpinnings, attractive styling, superior performance and similar price. After 1980, the AMX nameplate was finally retired although the GT option would remain.

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Hornet and Gremlin Levi’s

Years Produced: 1973-78

Total Production: ?

The Levi’s special edition of the Gremlin and Hornet (and Jeep CJ-5) were a cheaper, all-American alternative to the designer special editions gracing AMC’s showrooms. Despite their appearance, though, the seats were actually upholstered in nylon as denim didn’t meet flammability standards. The seats did however feature orange stitching and copper buttons like a real pair of Levi’s.

amc gremlin levis interior

The Levi’s package proved much longer-lived than AMC’s other fashion editions. The option was priced at $134.95, and it is unknown exactly how many Levi’s Gremlins and Hornets were manufactured but it must have been a popular option to warrant such a long life.

amc gremlin levis exterior

All together, these limited-run models accounted for several thousand cars but one wonders how many survive today. Not many of these rare AMCs are especially valuable to collectors but they are wonderful time capsules from a very different era.

Which rare AMC would you want in your garage?

Related Reading:

Car Show Classic: 1972 AMC Javelin Pierre Cardin

Curbside Classic: 1972 AMC Hornet Gucci Sportabout

Curbside Classic: 1977 AMC Hornet AMX

Curbside Classic: 1978 AMC Matador Barcelona