Classic Curbside Classic: 1981 AMC Concord – The Underdog Learns One More New Trick

Everybody loves the underdog, so how can we not love this Concord? Or everything else that AMC kept coming up with in its increasingly desperate attempts to forestall its inevitable demise as America’s last (major) independent car maker? Every couple of years, a new strategy appeared to position its cars in whichever little niche that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope: compact economy cars in the mid-fifties, a sporty fastback Marlin, the pony car Javelin, the two-seater “sports car”  AMX, the full-sized Ambassador, the #%$@&% Gremlin (adjectives fail me), the wide-body compact Pacer, the ultra-swoopy Matador coupe, the all-wheel drive Eagle.

Desperation is the mother of improvisation, and AMC did plenty of that. This Concord is one of AMC’s last gasps before it rolled over and played dead. And exactly what niche was it trying to fill?

AMC’s new 1970 Hornet (CC here) was a mighty clean machine for those coke-bottled times; one of Dick Teague’s best in his highly varied but never dull career as head of AMC styling.  I’ve been vigilantly looking for a Hornet, and regret not stopping in a little town where I saw a nice early example parked. It was the Rambler American’s successor, and aimed straight at the compact car class dominated by the Nova, Valiant and Dart; tough company. Especially so, since it was a segment vulnerable to two big factors: the swing in oil prices, and the invasion of the Japanese sub-compacts. The Hornet’s only year to crack the 100k barrier was in 1974, in the midst of Energy Crisis I.

The Hornet’s front two-thirds, the Gremlin, was left to fight off the sub-compacts, but its all-body-parts-accounted-for donor languished in the late seventies, as the old “compact” class started to fragment. What to do? Where is the new niche? AMC certainly couldn’t afford to develop a genuine new car, and the “mid-size” Matador was already as good as dead.

AMC decided that the opportunity lay somewhere between Mercedes and Toyota, as the booming success of those two brands were determined to be the result of American’s new-found love with quality and luxury, or some reasonable facsimile of them. The Hornet would get a face-lifted front, and a healthy dose of quality, luxury and class, but without throwing value to the winds along with the Hornet’s foreshortened front end. And a new name, of course: Concord.

And it actually kind of worked. The real secret sauce was that by 1978, the Hornet/Concord had been in constant production at Kenosha for almost a decade, so the bugs and panel gaps had all been pretty much worked out. Slather on a hefty dose of sound-deadening, thick new rugs (both on the floor and on the roof), and a higher grade of interior materials. The Ford Granada had shown the way with this formula. At least AMC avoided any fake classic grilles; Dick Teague wouldn’t have allowed that; thank you.

Sales jumped: in its first year (1978), they hit a decent 117k. That would remain the high water mark, but the Concord had two more decent years, in ’79 and ’80. Then the formula petered out, like so many of AMC’s perpetual  stop-gap measures. Energy Crisis II might have been part of it, but the market was just shifting away. 1983 was the Concord’s last year, as it handed off the baton to the Renault R11 based Alliance. But that’s another story.

Concords were powered mostly by the venerable AMC six, the 258 CID (4.2 L) version only after 1980. It actually made the Concord feel fairly zippy at lower speeds, with its very healthy torque curve. The 304 was available the first two years only.  And the unloved Audi-castoff 2.0 L four was available for hard core economy freaks in ’78 and ’79, but undoubtedly struggled more than a bit under the burden of all that padding in the vinyl half-roof. GM’s Iron Duke 2.5 L four was recruited from 1980 on, and with a long-geared four speed stick gave pretty good mileage during those high-gas price years. Although that combination didn’t really suit the Concord’s character, and I’ve never seen one. These cars are quintessential six cylinder machines, with an automatic. The fours and eights just never quite seemed right.

This particular Concord is the only one I’ve seen around town, and eluded me until a couple of days ago. Like so many well kept original older cars, it’s a multi-generational affair. The driver’s grandfather bought it new, and will inherit it after his elderly mother passes on, as she made a point of telling me. It’s certainly aged well, and the condition of that red vinyl cardinal’s hat tells me it’s been garaged.

The Concord did the trick, sort of; it didn’t keep AMC independent, but it allowed it to survive long enough until Renault stepped in; or stepped into it, as the case may be. What were they thinking? Along the lines of Fiat today, I presume; but then AMC was no Chrysler.