COAL: 1974 AMC Matador Oleg Cassini – Copper and Rust

(ED: Welcome Jim Grey, who is starting a new Saturday COAL series today)

During my 1970s kidhood, lots of dads on my block had two-door cars. Moms, on the other hand, were relegated to the four-doors and the wagons. My dad certainly followed that trend. He said that he drove them because he didn’t want his two young boys to open the rear doors while he was flying down the highway, but I think that was a ruse. No, Dad just wanted to look cool.

Or what passed for cool to him, at any rate. He brought me home from the hospital in a pale yellow 1966 Ford Galaxie 500.

Next he owned a 1971 Chevy Impala Sport Coupe, midnight blue with a white vinyl top.  My chief memory of that car, after the time I shut my younger brother’s fingers in the door, is that Dad spent as much time under its hood as driving it. That may be why he got rid of it so soon, and bought the coolest car our family ever had.

Dad rolled up in a 1974 AMC Oleg Cassini Matador. I swear our Matador had a white vinyl roof, but photos all over the Internet show this car with a copper roof. I was ten; memories do grow dim. Whatever, the vinyl topped a swoopy white coupe. Up front, its copper-trimmed grille matched the copper-colored insets for the coffee-can headlights. Tail lights out back were large, round, and low-slung. A copper-colored trim strip led to the car’s tail, where four large, round, low-slung tail lights dominated, separated by a wide copper-colored inset panel for the license plate. Every exterior detail was unconventional and cool, from the giant federally-mandated bumpers that seemed to float apart from the body to the turbine-style wheel covers that were trimmed in copper.

Suddenly, Dad’s past Fords and Chevys were mundane and mediocre. Wildly styled Matador coupes stood out anyway, but Oleg Cassini Matadors went beyond. Our car got noticed everywhere.

My brother and I spent a lot of time in the Matador’s back seat, of course. Despite all the glass, the mostly black interior made it pretty dark back there. The seat fabric had a broad, slightly nubby weave. Copper buttons festooned with the Oleg Cassini crest rested in the center of each tuft. In the summer, that black interior sweltered our family; our Matador lacked air conditioning. And those buttons got red hot in the sun, branding Oleg Cassini’s mark into my legs south of my shorts.

Shortly after Dad brought the Matador home, rust began to appear along every seam. I grew up in northern Indiana, not far enough from Lake Michigan; winters were hard and roads were salted six months of the year. It’s funny now to think about how normal it was then to see a little rust on cars, even those just a few years old. But oxidation cancer soon racked our Matador’s body, and our distinctive and youthful car increasingly looked like a beater. When a large hole formed aft of the driver’s door, Dad decided to do something about it. To start, he issued my brother and I sheets of wet-or-dry sandpaper and buckets full of water, and told us to get sanding. I’m sure that this unpleasant memory suffers from both the impatience of youth and the exaggeration of thirty-plus years of telling this story, but I swear we spent weeks sanding that car every day after school and on the weekends. When Dad, the perfectionist, was finally satisfied we’d erased every bit of surface rust, he had the hole cut out and new sheet metal welded and faired in. Then finally he had the whole car repainted. The copper-colored rub strips along the body’s swoopy hipline didn’t survive; the car always looked naked without them.

Within a year or so of the repaint, rust began to appear again. Dad declared that he’d had enough. He was also building a business making custom furniture and wanted a vehicle that could haul lumber as well as his family. So one dark day in 1980 I came home and found he’d sold the Matador for a van. I was in a funk for weeks. But I didn’t know that van would become the first thing I’d ever drive, and so would have its own special place in my automotive history. Its story is next.