Curbside Classic/Automotive History: 1977 AMC Hornet AMX – The Long Slow Decline Of The AMX

77_amc_hornet_amx_01

In 1966, the American Motors Corporation (AMC) unveiled a pair of radically styled concept cars called AMX (American Motors eXperimental) in an attempt to better connect with the youth and performance markets. The cars generated a lot of excitement, and in 1968 AMC introduced the production AMX, which was available through the 1970 model year. Throughout the 1970s, AMC was in a long, slow slide as it struggled to remain relevant (and solvent) as one of the last American independent car manufacturers. The AMX name would be applied to a number of AMC cars, including our subject for today: the one-year-only 1977 AMC Hornet AMX.

amc_1954merger

Before we take a closer look at the Hornet, it will be helpful to understand the backstory behind the AMX name…

AMC was formed in 1954 as the result of a merger between the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company–at the time, it was the largest American corporate merger to date. The idea behind the merger was to combine the strengths of the two companies in order to better compete with the dominant “Big Three” automakers. By 1957, AMC had effectively retired the Hudson and Nash brands and promoted the Rambler model into a full brand with its own models.

1961_teague

In 1959, AMC hired Richard “Dick” Teague (next to left-front fender in the photo), who had worked for General Motors, Packard and Chrysler. Teague became AMC’s Principal Designer in 1961 and Vice President by 1964. At Packard, Teague had learned to create unique styling designs on a tight budget, and he was called upon to use his skills to the utmost during his tenure at AMC.

1964_rambler_american

Teague’s first mark at AMC was made with the introduction of the third-generation 1964 Rambler American, which brought a fresh, new and modern look to the Rambler line. Teague’s team, using a number of common parts shared with other AMC cars, worked “relative miracles” on the very tight budgets with which they had to work.

1965_AMC_Cavalier_show_car

In 1965, Teague and his team created the AMC Cavalier concept car, which carried the idea of interchangeability to the extreme—the Cavalier used the same stampings for the right-front/left-rear fenders (and vice-versa), the front/rear doors, and the hood and deck lid. A number of styling cues from the Cavalier would eventually find their way into the Hornet, which was introduced five years later, in 1970. An interesting side note is that AMC had planned to use the Cavalier name on a new pony car set to launch in 1968, but since GM had already filed for rights to the name, AMC had to go with their second choice, Javelin.

1966_project4

By 1966, AMC began to phase out the Rambler name as their sales were slipping against the Big Three. In an attempt to bolster excitement and trust with the buying public, AMC launched a concept car road show called Project IV, in which the AMX and AMX II were displayed along with the Cavalier and Vixen concepts. While Teague had led the work on the Cavalier, it was Charles Mashigan of the AMC Advanced Styling Studios who led the effort for the AMX concepts.

1967_amx-iii

In 1967, the AMX name was trotted out again for a concept version of a Javelin-based station wagon called the AMX-III; a few years later, its styling would show up in similar form in the Hornet Sportabout.

1968_amx

Interest in the AMX concepts was strong (especially from AMC management!), and in 1968 the first production AMX model was introduced, being described as a design where “hoods didn’t come any longer, nor decks any shorter.” The AMX was a true performance car—its chief rival was the Chevrolet Corvette—which cost over $1,000 more—and was capable of speeds up to 130 mph, with engine options topping out at 315 hp and 425 lb./ft. of torque.  The AMX incorporated a number of industry-first, safety-minded features that were recognized by the American Society of Automotive Engineers when they awarded the AMX the “Best Engineered Car of the Year” award for both 1969 and 1970.

1968_AMC_AMX_GT_Concept

Concurrent with the 1968 launch of the AMX production car, a new concept called the AMX-GT–whose shape would reappear, in near-identical proportions, on the 1970 Gremlin–was shown on the car show circuit.

1968_amx-r

Also in 1968, James Jeffords–head of the AMC Javelin Trans Am Racing Team and himself a designer-customizer–created the AMX-R prototype, from a production AMX, with the intent of having AMC turn the concept into a production offering. Liability and safety concerns over its “Ramble Seat” effectively stopped the idea in its tracks, however.

1969_amx-400

While not an official AMC concept, George Barris created a one-off, radically customized version of the 1969 AMX which came to be known as the AMX-400. The car was nearly 5 inches lower and 18 inches longer than a production AMX and had taillights that glowed green during acceleration, yellow when decelerating, and red when braking.

1969_amx-2

In 1969, hot on the heels of the AMX and AMX-GT, came the AMX/2 concept car—a radical, mid-engine design created by in-house stylists Bob Nixon and Fred Hudson and based on a Teague sketch that had caught the fancy of AMC Group Vice President Gerald Meyers. Interest in the concept was so strong that AMC took the next step of commissioning a fully production-intent running prototype. Meanwhile, Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro was also commissioned to create a competing mid-engine styling concept. Other than a foamcore mockup that was never shown to the public, the Giugiaro design never got past the comparison stage—Teague’s design won out and development continued with an eye toward limited production.

1970_amx-3

The production-intent AMX/3 debuted in Rome, Italy, in March of 1970, and journalists who had the opportunity to drive the prototype were impressed. Plans were very nearly implemented for 24 production cars to be built in 1970, but AMC’s continuing profitability issues, combined with the expected costs of meeting federal safety standards, served to end the program after only six pre-production prototypes were built (an interesting history of each prototype can be read in more detail here).

1970_jeep

Nineteen seventy marked the end of the line for the AMX performance cars. In a move that would later prove to be the one DNA link from current-day production vehicles back to the Hudson-Nash days, AMC acquired the Kaiser-Jeep Corporation from Kaiser Industries, which included both the Jeep brand of utility vehicles as well as government contracts for postal and military Jeeps. The governmental business would later be reorganized twice, ending up as today’s AM General.

Nineteen seventy also marked the introduction of both the Hornet and the Gremlin, which were received by the buying public with enthusiasm: The Hornet sold over 100,000 units (and was named 1970 Car Of The Year by Motor Trend Correction – the Ford Torino won 1970 COTY – ed.), and the Gremlin nearly 30,000 units in 1970 and over 75,000 in 1971.

1971_javelinamx

With the discontinuation of the AMX as a model, AMC turned to the Javelin to carry on the AMX name, this time as a trim level, but which still carried some street cred in the form of real performance upgrades. Javelin AMX was advertised as “the closest thing you can buy to a Trans Am champion.” The AMX option continued through the 1974 model year, but with stricter federal regulations and waning interest in muscle cars, AMX no longer made fiscal sense, especially in light of AMC’s introduction of a restyled Matador and brand-new Pacer models. Only 4,980 Javelin AMX models were produced in 1974, and there would be a dry spell of three years before ‘AMX’ would grace an AMC car again…

1977_newcar_cover

The mid-1970s saw a recession as well as high gas prices, and AMC put its focus on economy rather than performance. Gone were the AMX and Javelin, and only the Gremlin X (304 c.i.d. / 5.0-liter V8) and Matador X (360 c.i.d. / 5.9-liter V8) were left as “performance” options for AMC buyers. The 360 V8 also ceased to be an option on the Hornet after 1974.

1977_hornet_amx_leftrear

It was at this point that AMC approached Jim Wangers (former Pontiac Chief Marketing Manager) of Motortown Corporation to create a more exciting version of the Hornet. Motortown specialized in creating limited-run specialty editions of production cars that the large manufacturers couldn’t do profitably in-house, and was responsible for such cars as the Pontiac GTO Judge. An appearance package was developed along with some suspension tuning, but unfortunately, the EPA certification requirements triggered by drivetrain upgrades prevented the possibility of a larger engine such as the 360, which would have been a drop-in replacement. So the Hornet AMX debuted with either a 110 hp 258 c.i.d (4.2-liter) straight-six coupled with either a four-speed manual or an automatic with floor shift, or the 150 hp 304 c.i.d (5.0-liter) V8 with a Chrysler-sourced automatic.

1977_hornet_amx_grill

The Hornet AMX was offered in four colors: Alpine White, Firecracker Red, Lime Green (the rarest of the four) and Sunshine Yellow, with wheel flares, spoilers and rear window grille all color-keyed to the body color. The front grille was blacked out, and AMX decals were applied in front of the rear fenders. The interior received an engine-turned dash applique as well as a gauge cluster mounted in front of the shifter console. A run of 100 Hornet AMXs were also offered in Alpine White with a Levi’s interior (which was a regular option on the Gremlin, Hornet, Pacer and Jeep for 1977). Finally, a California Edition Hornet AMX was offered, which had “C.E.” decals applied to the front fenders and in some cases, may have had an upgraded Audiovox stereo system.

1977_hornet_amx_hooddecal

Optional for the Hornet AMX was a large hood decal that was duplicated in smaller scale on the trunk. This was right around the time of Smokey and the Bandit, so perhaps AMC was trying to benefit from the halo effect, or maybe Mr. Wangers was applying the same ideas to both cars (he advised on the modifications for the Trans Am used in the movie). 

1977_hornet_amx_wheel

The last year of Hornet production was 1977; just over 76,000 units were produced, of which it is thought that around 5,200 were ordered as AMXs. According to the best estimates I could find, perhaps 150–300 AMX cars exist today (~150 are documented in an online registry), making our subject car fairly rare. Folks who were familiar with the previous performance-oriented AMX cars were fairly infuriated over the name being gutted of what it represented in the earlier “true” performance cars. 

1978_concord_amx

The Hornet was succeeded in 1978 by the Concord, which was essentially a restyle job on the same platform with the same drivetrain options. An AMX option, with similar component upgrades as those on the Hornet AMX and a slightly different front grille, was available. No Concord markings were applied to the exterior when the AMX option was ordered. The Concord’s AMX option was dropped with the 1979 styling refresh. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In 1979, AMC entered into a joint manufacturing agreement with Renault, which brought much-needed capital; apart from its Jeep line of vehicles, AMC was bleeding cash everywhere. AMC also launched the Spirit (essentially a restyle of the Gremlin), which was offered in AMX trim that incorporated similar upgrades to those used on the Hornet and Concord AMX models. 1980 was the last year an AMX option was offered on the Spirit, ending the nearly fifteen-year run of the AMX name.

By this point, AMC was out of financial options—U.S. banks refused to loan them money, and AMC again turned to Renault for help. By 1983, Renault had increased its ownership in AMC to 49%, which effectively ended AMC’s position as the last truly American car company. AM General would be sold off; in 1987, Chrysler would acquire AMC from Renault, with AMC becoming the Jeep-Eagle division. Chrysler itself would subsequently pass through the hands of Daimler, and is currently owned by Fiat.

1977_hornet_amx_rear

My impression after researching the AMX history is that Dick Teague used clever and effective industrial design to keep AMC’s product line fresh and cost-competitive far longer than if AMC had followed typical industry practices. The excitement brought to AMC by the AMX concept and later production cars gave the company a much-needed shot in the arm, but by the mid-1970s, with economic issues that drove product development decisions away from performance, AMC simply didn’t have the ability to stay competitive with the Big Three. The AMX name quickly devolved from representing a fire-breathing, ground-pounding performance car to being essentially a “paint-on performance” trim option that, while recognized by industry reviews as competent, was simply not enough to bring customers back in numbers large enough to matter.

2009_amx-4

The AMX name would appear one last time, in 2009, when Hot Rod Magazine ran a spoof article speculating that AMC was being revived, complete with an AMX/4 mid-engine “exotic.” 

1973 AMC Javelin AMX Grill

AMC’s AMX cars (perhaps excepting the post-Hornet AMX cars, which were merely restyling exercises) were groundbreaking in many respects, and they caused the market to pay enough attention that AMC was able to enjoy a second wind. The automotive landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s is certainly richer for the work of Dick Teague and his designers.

One final note: for those of you in the Middle West, AMX/3 prototype number 3 is on display at the 2013 Chicago Auto Show this week. It was purchased by Dick Teague after the program was shut down, and it still remains in his family.