COAL: 1973 AMC Hornet – The Devil You Know


(first posted 10/10/2015. I don’t normally rerun COALs but this one is well worth it) 

Last week I shared my brief fling with a respectable vehicle, the above car represents my retreat back into beater-hood. That may sound like a bad thing but it wasn’t, I have always loved beaters and still do. While I knew my decision to sell my Jeep and go back to school meant getting another beater, it still had to be unique. I still had a pile of parts from my previous Gremlin parts car and knew how to wrench on them, so when I saw this car for sale across from my old high school I knew it would be mine.



pic via

The story goes that the seller had bought the Hornet from a little old lady for his teenage son but he didn’t want it. How can anyone not love that face? What an ungrateful brat. Or maybe the seller just crawled underneath the car and figured the rocker rust repair wasn’t worth it for a 6 cylinder Hornet. Sure some rust repair was needed but I took it for a rip around the block and it did everything a car should do. Nothing particularly well but I knew I could get it to pass a safety inspection. Somewhere around $600 changed hands and I threw some dummy plates on it and drove it home.


Once I had the Hornet home I again experienced a bit of buyer’s remorse upon examining the rotted rocker panels. Someone had fiberglassed a chunk of 2 x 4 lumber to reinforce the passenger rocker panel! My creative juices were summoned and the solution I found was to fashion a patch from some sheet metal that could be welded over the offending area.

The Hornet was brought to the shop of my friend’s Dad that had passed my Gremlin a few years earlier. A precedent had been set, he had passed my earlier beater so he had to pass this one. I remember him laughing at my very amateur welding job on the rocker panels, but he was okay with it. He wasn’t okay with the brakes though as they had been sitting quite a while and were rusted. Some other minor issues were present as well, but finding new drums for all 4 wheels proved rather difficult and expensive. Once found and installed, they caused the car to shudder while braking. They must have been stored (for decades) on their sides and come out of round as the problem gradually decreased as I put more kms on them. Having never driven 4 wheel drums brakes before I just thought that it might be one the idiosyncrasies of the antiquated system. That and not being able to stop cars as well as disc brakes. You get used to it.


While I did not buy my Hornet directly from the old lady who bought it new, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a “little old lady” car. For one, it came with the original owner’s manual and receipts from April 1973. It also had all the options of a car I would describe as a “lazy stripper”. By that I mean, it was a 2 door sedan with only the most practical of convenience options like automatic transmission and AM radio. That is all. It had the base 232 cid 6 cylinder that allegedly produced 100 hp, the Chrysler sourced Torque-Command tranny, manual steering and brakes, and AMC’s world renown church pew bench seats in a charming black and white hound’s tooth pattern. Sadly I have no pics of this and neither does Google. It also had that ugly steering wheel you see above that managed to get into about 90% of all AMCs.

seat belt

 pic via

Remember non-retractable shoulder harnesses? I didn’t, I had never seen them before, it didn’t make any sense to me. I guess that was the cheapest way to comply with government mandated shoulder harnesses. I could see why no one would have used these, you’re either strapped too tight to the seat or too loose to do anything in the event of an accident. For the most part I actually used these in the Hornet but the automatic seat belts buzzers lasted about a month before I cut the wires. Those were the most shrill buzzers I’ve ever heard. The automotive industry had come a long way in the pleasant sounding buzzer department.

No discussion of this car could be complete without acknowledging it’s twin from The Man With The Golden Gun. While my car was unfortunately not a hatchback, it’s the same colour and Mr. Bond and I share not only a name but similar driving styles. I never jumped a river with a spiral ramp but I got air a few times in my Hornet. Funny thing is, I never knew about this movie till after I sold the car.


This car was certainly not fast but it was dependable. I don’t recall any breakdowns, but I did manage to overheat the cooling system in -50°C weather once. A friend and I had planned a ski trip on a Saturday following a Friday late night pizza delivery shift. Once I had cashed out at about midnight I went out to my car to discover a flat tire. Not wanting to deal with it at the time (or not having a spare?) I caught a ride home, planning on changing it in the morning. I got up early, got a ride to the car and managed to start it despite the severe weather. I then quickly changed the tire without incurring any frostbite and drove off to my friend’s place to pick him up.

During the short drive to my friend’s place I noticed the heater was not defrosting the windshield despite the car having been running for a half hour and the temperature gauge rising. As is the custom in Winnipeg, I drove with one hand and scraped the inside of the windshield with the other. When I got there, I noticed the temperature gauge was in the hot zone. Huh? I popped the hood and the motor was giving off a lot of heat, but one squeeze of the heater hose told me the anti-freeze had frozen solid. No coolant was making it to the heater! I shut it down and let the radiant heat melt the blockage and we were on our way. The weather warmed to a balmy -30°C, we got some good skiing in and made the 4 hour return trip no problem.

n_1973 AMC Exterior Colors Chart-01

It may have been dependable but it didn’t take long to incur a lifetime of wear on this poor unsuspecting Hornet. I know this will offend some lovers of old cars but there really wasn’t anyone else to love this thing. Rust soon appeared everywhere, most notably at the mount for the hinge on the driver’s side door. I did a quick clean-up of the door from my old parts Gremlin and bought some spray paint from a local body shop. Apparently I had picked the wrong 70’s AMC orange (I picked ’74 Sienna Orange instead or ’73 Trans-Am Red) and the colour was way off. It looked extra weird. The exhaust soon blew a hole and it got loud. I had a stupid-loud stereo system to overpower the exhaust noise but that soon attracted unwanted attention.

Hornet brochure

While attending a very large party at a very unreputable part of town one weekend, I walked over to my car in the early morning hours to find a window smashed and the entire stereo system gone. The deck was hidden and locked in the glove box but that was pried open and the trunk lock was yanked to get at the subwoofers and amplifier. Since I had a fair bit of money into the stereo I made an insurance claim and she was written off. I can’t remember what I got but I’m sure I at least got what I put into it.


Sorry, I may have spilled beer on this pic

So I had a month to turn in my car to the insurance company, how do you think I drove it? It was written off so no one else could put it back on the road without a very onerous safety inspection that it would never pass. I tried to kill it but it wouldn’t die. I left it first gear with the throttle pinned for minutes and it would only rev to 5000 rpms and could hold that all day. The night before it’s last day I decided to do a one legged burnout for as long as it could do it. Fortunately it was raining. I had it spinning for at least 10 minute before the tire blew. Mission accomplished I guess. The next day I drove it about 10 kms via the side streets to the insurance depot and parked it among the other corpses without any insurance people noticing.

Six months later I was at a swap meet and came across a guy selling a Hornet grille with one lower middle tooth missing. He had bought my car at the insurance auction and was using the parts to fix up his Hornet. She would live on.