(first posted 1/22/2014) Back in 1972 my father, JackD, went on a quest to buy his first new car. His primary criteria were that it carry his family of five and have an enormous trunk to swallow their belongings. At that time we had a pair of Rambler Americans, so it’s not too surprising that JackD came home with a Matador two-door hardtop, an ex-demo car. The sole option was the 258 cubic inch six; no air conditioning, no radio. I was five years old at the time, and have several vivid memories of our new car: the new car smell of Tactyl and Ziebart undercoating, and being able to stand in the back seat and look over Mom’s shoulder. Little did I know that it would become mine, and that I would still be driving it almost twenty years later.
The Matador served our family reliably, if unspectacularly, during its nine years of front line duty. It got Mom to the store and back, pulled our camper trailer, and carried us cross country on family vacations. In fact the only recollection of trouble I have was the time the exhaust pipe rusted in half while camping. Dad fixed it with an apple juice can and a wire, and I relished the resulting throaty roar on the drive home.
By the early 80’s AMC was a shell of its former self, so we became a GM family with a 1981 Impala and 1983 Regal. The Matador was relegated to my sister and me, and faced an uncertain future. When the water pump started to leak, the writing was on the wall, but I managed to get enough help to fix it in the high school shop, and from that day on, the Matador symbolically became mine.
Under my shoestring stewardship the Matador received AMC rally rims and 70 series tires, Chevelle bucket seats and a Javelin U-bar console. Bodywork was done with pop rivets and later with brazing. I only got 1/3 of the way through my planned AMC racing colors paint job, but at least the front fenders weren’t brown anymore. To be truthful the car looked pretty awful, but I was learning a lot and having a great time. Being a big car with a small engine, it was easy to work on and when replacing the head gasket, I was able to stand next to the motor and lift the head off onto the fender.
Because of the Matador’s low production numbers, finding parts was a constant concern. I didn’t have the money for new OEM parts but there were several four-doors in area wrecking yards which kept me going for a few years. Once those were crushed I was stuck, until a friend told me he’d found one abandoned in an apartment parking lot. We tracked down the owner and I bought it for $150. I drove it home; we stripped every serviceable part and sent the carcass to the junkyard. I now marvel at how understanding my parents were, because this created a tremendous mess in our suburban driveway and the resulting parts stash took up a lot of space in the basement.
Eventually I graduated from High School, and I was off to study Engineering in a different city. The Matador’s utility stepped up a notch, because I would call on it to make the 650km round trip home. One December nonstop trip was in slushy weather, and on my arrival we found amazing star shaped icicles hanging off the center caps of all four wheels.
The drive from school to home included 3 hours of droning along the most boring stretches of highway 401, and during one September trip things suddenly became very exciting. A businessman driving a Ford Taurus had been doing paper work in his lap with the cruise control on, and rear ended me at highway speed. The sloped nose of the Taurus scooped up the rear of the Matador, and then put it down sideways. After the impact I turned the wheel full opposite lock, but it was too late, and I was sliding sideways across the grass median toward the oncoming lanes. I was very fortunate that the car didn’t barrel roll, as the right side tires nearly pulled off the rims. I was also very fortunate that traffic was light; the Matador bounced right across the oncoming lanes and came to rest on the far gravel shoulder, pointing in the direction I had come.
After the initial adrenaline rush wore off, I could hardly stand on my rubbery legs. The low back bucket seat had also given me ferocious whiplash. The Matador appeared mortally wounded, the big bumper was flattened and the gas tank partially crushed. Gas dribbled into the gravel. After the police were done, the Taurus departed on a hook. The gas leak had somehow stopped; to my surprise the Matador barked to life and ran fine, so we grumbled back onto the 401 to continue the journey. Of course I had to take the next exit to get headed in the right direction.
The Matador was written off by the insurance company, but we bought it back and the cheque for the difference went towards car insurance and tuition. A back bumper was not in my stash, and finding a replacement took weeks. I had to have the right side tires reseated to get the grass and dirt out of the beads. The Matador carried on for two more years, and it never let me down. In 1991 I graduated, loaded it up with all my worldly belongings and made the last trip home, past that unremarkable spot on the 401 where its sturdy construction had saved me, and on to my post-student life.
Unfortunately the Matador was not to accompany me into that life, because although it looked as good (or as bad) as ever, the complex rocker structure was terminally corroded. Once rust takes hold of an AMC unit body, it’s difficult and expensive to fix properly, and I had neither the skills nor the money.
What I did have was the 1980 AMC Concord inherited from my Grandfather which had a bad engine but was otherwise pristine. Everything from the 1972 motor bolted right up and I drove it for another two years before giving it away. So the heart of the Matador beat on in the Concord, and the last I heard in 1994, it was still on the road.
Can I overstate the importance of the Matador to my development? In addition to being my beloved first car, having a simple, easy to work on yet uncommon vehicle taught me many things. The lessons I learned wrenching and problem solving have served me well both at home and in my daily work as an Engineer.
I regularly look online for another Matador. I find a hardtop for sale about once a year, and I always send Dad the link but I’ll probably never buy it. I could recreate the car, but not the intense period of learning and personal growth it came with. Besides, there’s so much more to experience; if I could get a BMW Z3 then Dad and I could reminisce about six cylinder engines while we road trip the Blue Ridge Parkway, and after that we could…