(first posted 4/30/2013) The 1970s was the decade of pop psychology. How could anyone alive during that time forget the phenomena of I’m OK, You’re OK and Jonathan Livingston Seagull? But one of the greatest hits of the decade was found on posters in apartments of middle-aged women everywhere: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” — such a great sentiment, capturing the hope and promise of a life well-lived, starting TODAY! That statement, applied to this car, sort of sums up the life of American Motors, but in the most depressing way.
Is there a single car more representative of AMC than the Hornet? Whether as a Hornet, Gremlin, Concord, Spirit or Eagle, this platform was in production longer than any other throughout AMC’s 35-year existence. AMC may have climbed the mountain on the back of the Rambler, but the Hornet would take the company from its peak all the way down to the bottom, when the keys to the building in Kenosha were handed over to Iacocca and Co. of Highland Park. There’s much to be said about this workhorse that seemed to get flogged increasingly harder as it got older. But a look at the car when it was new and fresh should give us a different perspective, that of a car that could hardly have hit the market more squarely when it was introduced.
Nineteen seventy must have been the very zenith of American Motors. If George Romney can be credited with reversing the slide of Hudson and Nash by promoting a niche product like the Rambler, AMC under Roy Abernethy had spent the 1960s running away from Romney’s concept. Abernethy had no use for an AMC that was “the Rambler company”, a producer of sensible cars sold to sensible people. Under his ill-fated attempt to make AMC into a member of the in-crowd (which is well documented elsewhere), the 1960s brought a number of new AMC cars in an ever-broadening lineup that included the midsize Rebel and even larger Ambassador, the Marlin, the Javelin and the AMX. Nineteen seventy also marked AMC’s purchase of Kaiser Jeep which, by bringing Jeeps and trucks under the AMC umbrella, would generate an entirely separate line of business for them. Yes, by 1970 AMC had become quite a success–at least from external appearances. What’s often lost in most discussions of AMC’s growth (and ever-sexier cars) is that AMC’s bread-and-butter line remained the little Rambler (CC here), which had become rather outdated by the end of the 1960s.
The folks at AMC, also well aware that the car was nearing the end of its life cycle, had hatched plans for the Rambler’s successor as early as 1966. Following the industry trend, the new car would be both a bit larger and much more stylish than its predecessor. While honing the concept, AMC’s styling department, under Dick Teague, created two separate prototypes that would give a glimpse of what would appear in showrooms three years hence. The Cavalier was a stylish but practical sedan that highlighted AMC’s design frugality by its use of mirror-image doors that could be made from a single set of stampings.
The Vixen, however, was a sexier coupe that more accurately predicted the eventual lines of the Hornet. The Vixen in particular shows that in 1966, AMC’s stylists had a very good grasp of the direction the industry as a whole would take as 1970 began to loom. Teague’s body of work at AMC was, shall we say, somewhat uneven. In fairness, he was often hobbled by budget constraints more severe than those of the competition. The Hornet, though, may have been the best-ever design to come out of American Motors, without a bad line anywhere on it.
We should not dismiss the size of the Hornet project, particularly for a company of AMC’s size. AMC’s advertising claimed that the project that took three full years, one million man hours, and cost forty million dollars. Not a single piece of the Rambler’s unit body structure would carry over to the Hornet: While the older car’s fairly modern engines and drive train components would largely carry over, the body structure was 100% new. The Hornet also sported a new front suspension design that proved to be quite hearty, as it was shared with the larger Rebel and Ambassador. With the Hornet, frugal AMC would continue its habit of parts interchangeability with such pieces as a common bumper at both front and rear, and a common roof stamping shared by coupes and sedans.
The car’s name was highly significant, in an AMC kind of way. It was apparent from the outset that the Nash-Hudson merger was going to be more of a takeover, one in which the Nash side more or less erased any Hudson lineage in the post-merger cars–which must have been quite galling to longtime Hudson loyalists. After all, The Hudson Hornet (CC and a follow-up Capsule here and here) was one of the most memorable cars of the early post-WWII period, the terror of NASCAR tracks all over the country. The choice of the Hornet name tells us that AMC expected big things from its newest compact.
The car hit showrooms in late 1969. Although the line would expand in later years, initial choices were limited to the number of doors (two or four) and trim level (base or SST). Power trains were largely unchanged from those of the Rambler. There were two sixes, sized at 199 cu.in. (3.3-liters) and 232 cu.in. (3.8-liters), as well as the 304 (5.0-liter) V8. Tansmission choices carried over as well, comprising three- or four-speed manuals and the aging Borg-Warner Shift Command automatic. In all, the inaugural power options seem strangely subdued for a car named after the the most successful racer in the AMC family tree. For whatever reason, the larger 258 cu.in. (4.2-liter) six and 360 (5.9-liter) V8 would not be along until 1971. Actually, the 1971 Hornet SC/360 was quite a fire-breather, and a car that would have done ol’ Doc Hudson proud.
As we all know, the 1970 Hornet was a blowout success, propelling AMC to two decades of unprecedented prosperity. No, wait – I’m thinking of some parallel universe. Actually, for all of AMC’s efforts, the “little rich car” was met with a resounding “meh”. The 1970 Hornet was certainly no flop, selling slightly over 100,000 units. However, the elderly ’69 Rambler had sold about 96,000 cars (although in fairness, about 13,000 were wagons that were not initially part of the Hornet lineup).
This isn’t to say the Hornet was a bad car. Popular Science magazine did a comparison test of the Nova, Duster, Maverick and Hornet (found here), and the result was that both Jan Norbye and Jim Dunne would have chosen the Hornet, despite chassis dynamics that were several years behind the leading brands. Perhaps the biggest problem was that the car didn’t do any one thing particularly well…or that it came from AMC, take your pick. Of course, now the car is a highly prized collector’s item, at least according to the sign in its window. Or perhaps the owner of this Golden Lime Metallic base coupe is a mite optimistic in his $15,000 asking price.
When I was in high school, I worked with a kid who came from an AMC family, and his daily driver was a white ’70 Hornet SST sedan with the 304/automatic. I wanted to like the car, I really did. It was attractively styled and quite powerful for its size. Unfortunately, the car did not do anything for me. If you liked all-out durability and conservative style, there was the Valiant and Dart. If you liked good looks, the Nova and Maverick were both attractive cars. Also, by now, AMC cars were not giving off a vibe of deep-down quality that the Ramblers of the 1960s had offered. In all, this one just fell into sort of a “me-too” zone that made it just a face in the crowd.
I have often referred to this car as AMC’s 1953 Studebaker. The ’53 Stude is remembered as that company’s last clean-sheet design, and the one that served as the basis for every car the company built afterwards right up to the end. On further reflection, this analogy is not really so close. AMC in 1970 was in a much stronger position than Studebaker in 1953, coming out with at least three new clean-sheet cars (’71 Javelin, ’74 Matador Coupe and ’75 Pacer) after the Hornet. Also, unlike the ’53 Stude line, the Hornet was moderately successful, certainly by AMC standards.
I suppose we can say that the Hornet’s strength was that it was the only AMC platform that had the legs, the wind and the heart to keep pushing forward as the company’s newer cars collapsed because of changing styles and market conditions. Maybe the Hornet should not be thought of in terms of ’70s pop psychology, but rather within a more old-fashioned paradigm of hard work and tenacity. In a way, it may have been AMC’s Samwise Gamgee, who urged on his master Frodo Baggins, despite impossible odds.
In the fall of 1969, nobody knew that a version of the Hornet (called an Eagle) would be in showrooms as late as 1988, even after American Motors had ceased to exist. In this way, the debut of the Hornet did indeed mark the beginning of the end of AMC. Perhaps it’s time to give the Hornet some long-overdue respect. After all, none of its competitors lived nearly so long, or was relied on so heavily by its maker for so many seasons. Well done, little Hornet, well done.