Curbside Classic: 1978 AMC Matador Barcelona – The Bullfighter Dies in Full Costume

(First published 6/27/2012)   The nine years from 1970 to 1978 may have been the golden age of the “mid sized” sedan in America.  In those days, “mid sized” was a mite bigger than it is now.  Back then, it meant a wheelbase of roughly 114 to 118 inches, a curb weight of around 35-3,700 pounds and V8 engines in the 300 to 360 cubic inch displacement range.  There were many other choices in those years, but the mid-size sedan became what the “standard sized” sedan had been a decade earlier.  This was where practical middle America put its automotive dollars in the 1970s.  So how, then, did the poor AMC Matador, which fit squarely into every one of these criteria, fail so miserably to become a significant contender in this market?  That is the question of the day.

In its day, the Matador fought them all.  Torino, Malibu, LeMans, Coronet, and even the hallowed Cutlass.  The Matador fought them and lost.  Badly.  The Matador should have been called Mat for short, because it was the automotive equivalent of a doormat – it got no respect and was constantly walked on.  Why do some cars become loved classics, while others are just tolerated (or forgotten altogether) during their long model runs?  Is it just coincidence that its most famous ad slogan (“What’s a Matador?”) was almost identical to the title of a Three Stooges movie?

The Matador started with such high hopes.  A fairly through refresh of the attractive 1967 Rebel, the car started the 1970s with a new look and followed it almost immediately with a new name.  The name was fine – Matador.  Who could argue with a car that brought to mind the image of the brave and manly Spanish bullfighter?  Was there a better image for a mid sized American sedan at the dawn of the 1970s?   “Satellite” and “Skylark” were so last decade (or two).  AMC had the name nailed down.  But the look?  Uhhhhhh – no.

The 1967 Rebel had been an attractive car with a not-so-attractive name.  Look at that Rebel sedan.  Is there a bad line on it anywhere?  To me, it is one of the most attractive midsize sedans of the late 1960s.  Unfortunately, poor snake-bitten AMC would do the reverse after 1970.  This attractive new name would be affixed to a car with styling that can only be called unfortunate.  And why they would have still called the new 1970 design a Rebel, waiting a full year to change the car’s name to Matador is vintage AMC – a mystery.

I have never understood the look of this car.  In the mid 1960s, every U. S. car company that did not employ Bill Mitchell as its lead stylist produced cars whose lines were sharp and angular.  But at that time, the entire industry marched to the drumbeat of General Motors, and the styling leadership coming from GM decreed that it was time to go with the flow.  The soft, fluid shapes that started at GM in 1965 took over in the rest of the industry by 1970, when virtually all of motordom was curvy and proud of it.  So, what happened with the Rebel/Matador?

It has been said that nothing succeeds by half measures, and the 1970 model is a particularly good example.  Somehow, the car manages to lack both angularity and flow, all at the same time.  Is there a more awkward design of the 1970-72 period?  It is not as though AMC lacked talented stylists.  The 1970 Hornet and the upcoming 1971 Javelin were, if not beautiful, certainly very nice designs in tune with the age.  Even the Gremlin was a nicely done job, given the constraints of the assignment.  Perhaps the stylists exhausted themselves with all of the other cars they were doing and were just out of energy and ideas by the time they finally got to the big M.

In particular, the entire rear half of the car was just wrong, and not really unified with the front.  It is as though the stylists wanted to emulate the Chrysler fuselage or the 1968 GM A body sedan, but were only allowed to re-do the rear of the car.  Sorry, but it is just not possible to mate a hippy, coke-bottle rear onto a car that is basically rectangular from the B pillar forward.  It just can’t be done.  Well, it can – but it looks like this.

I have never understood the relationship between the rear door, the C pillar, and the rear quarter panel.  It is as though the stylists decided on a point where each of those lines would meet, then made each a straight line to that point and called it a job.  The 1970 Torino and even AMC’s own 1970 Hornet were beautifully proportioned cars with a graceful fluidity to their lines.  On the other hand, Chrysler’s Valiant/Dart sedans proudly wore their 1967 angularity long after it was out of style, yet still sold a lot of cars to those who did not need style with their practicality.  Poor AMC tried to chart a course halfway between those opposing looks, but found that when the river forks, staying in the middle is a good way to run aground.

In 1974, it was time to freshen up the old girl, and this is where things started to get really weird.  There were a lot of 1974 cars that wore their government-mandated 5 mph bumpers with some awkwardness.  However, was there a worse front end in all of the 1970s than this Matador?  This car makes the fish-mouthed 1955 Studebaker look positively elegant.  This is a look that could only have come from a mixture of alcohol and a deadline.  Should I ever succeed in creating a time machine, one of the first places I plan to go is the meetings where this design was approved.  Seriously.  Who was the guy who said “let’s push the front out just a bit farther – I don’t think that this one is pronounced enough.”  Was everyone in Kenosha hung over from a weekend of brats and Blatz?  This thing would scare some of the more sensitive children.  Yet there it was, prominently displayed in AMC showrooms everywhere.  Somehow, Dick Teague’s design crew managed to do the impossible: They somehow botched the only decent looking parts of the car.  Oh well, I guess there is something to be said for consistency.

The last four years of its run, the Matador, which had never been a big seller to begin with, went into the tank.  It is as though the poor, hapless bullfighter finally realized that his public was laughing at him, and he retreated to his room to smoke, drink and brood.  And hire himself out for some government jobs.  But somehow, when he knew that the end was at hand, he managed to pull his very best and most festive garments from the closet to make his final, ill-fated appearance.  Sort of like Elvis.  For the final Matador sedan, this was the Barcelona package.

The Matador coupe (another story for another time) had featured a Barcelona trim package a couple of years earlier, that tried to Broughamify the oddly out-of-style car.  “Maybe”, thought the designers, “the sedan just needs some more Brougham.”

Perhaps this was not a bad instinct in the second half of the 1970s, but no amount of Broughamification was going to save the Matador at this late date.  The Barcelona package would take a standard Matador and add the two-tone paint scheme in either these colors or in a red/maroon combination, with some color-keyed “slot-styled” wheels.   On the sedans, the two-tone treatment was a nearly perfect rectangle that worked against rather than with the basic shape of the car.  Then, the package included in interior with every 1970s Brougham cliche then in use, with the little woven insert stripes for good measure.  Otherwise, the car was a garden variety Matador, with either the old 258 inline 6 or the 360 V8 and some luxury options.

Every Father’s Day, there is a nice old car show held in a park in a nearby small town.  For several years, my sons and I have ambled around this show, enjoying a wide variety of old cars being displayed by their justifiably proud owners.  As a rule, Curbside Classic brings you the cars that we find out on the street, still earning their keep, if only occasionally.  Conversely, we generally avoid bringing you vehicles found at car shows.  But every once in awhile, we stumble across something at a car show that just screams to have its story told on CC.


This year, we were stopped in our tracks by this most unique face.  Then we looked inside, and we were mesmerized.  Not just a Matador, mind you, but the Barcelona version.  Looking at this car is sort of like looking at the aftermath of a terrible traffic accident.  You know that you shouldn’t stare, but you just can’t help it.  This car reminds me of some scenes from the movie My Cousin Vinnie.  Vinnie is a dull and loutish fellow who has just passed the bar exam, and finds himself in court in another state defending his cousin who has been charged with murder.  During the trial, Vinnie’s only suit is ruined, and he has to come to court wearing a red velvety tuxedo.   Not only is he completely outmatched by the experienced prosecutor and the crusty old judge (“Mr. Gambini, are you mocking me with that outfit?”), but he looks like a fool as well.  What do you say?  Is the proper response pity or laughter?  I have the same reaction to this car.  How do you appropriately respond to “velveteen crush fabric with woven accent stripes”.  I have no idea.  In 1978, people responded by buying Cutlasses.

Some time back, Paul Niedermeyer wrote about a ’73 Matador  (CC Here).  In the piece, Paul made the apt comparison of AMC in the 1970s with Studebaker in the 1960s.  During Studebaker’s final years, Brooks Stevens made a lot of changes to the basic sedan structure and managed to take an unattractive basic shape and at least modernize it, changing almost every piece of sheetmetal in the process.  The result was that a 1964 Stude looked very, very different from the 1956 or even the 1960 version of what was actually the same basic car.  Even though Studebaker eventually failed, the cars told us that the people making them were at least trying.  But AMC’s designers did the opposite with the Matador.  Once the basic unattractive shape of the sedan was set in the 1970 refresh, it would remain unaltered for the next 8 years.  This is the most maddening thing about the Matador – AMC didn’t even seem to be making a serious effort.

During the 1970s, most breakout successes were in the Matador’s size class.  The Olds Cutlass was America’s best selling car.  This makes the Matador’s failure all the more damning.  With a car like the oddball Pacer, its lack of success could be interpreted as the consumer saying “it’s not you, it’s me.”  But the poor showing of a midsized sedan in the 70s was undeniably the consumer saying “sorry, it’s you.”  So the poor Matador closed out its final model year by donning its most flamboyant suit and meeting its maker.  They don’t get any better looking than this one, folks.  This is the version they used in the brochure.  And they couldn’t even make it look good in the brochure shot.  If cars had tombstones, the one for this car could read something like this:  Matador.  1971-1978.  The Rebel son of the Ambassador.  Died from wounds inflicted by a Cutlass in the vicinity of Cordoba.  There was no funeral.

Do I seem to be piling onto this poor car?  Perhaps I am, but it is only because this one disappoints me so.  If there was ever an AMC car that should have appealed to me, it should have been this one.  Large-ish V8 powered cars that were born in the mid 1960s have no better friend than me.  But AMC’s dominant DNA was from Nash, and was there ever a company that built so many undistinguished cars?  Twenty years earlier, the big Nash sedan went away and nobody seemed to notice or care.  The Matador would do the same.  But at least it went out in its best suit.