Car Show Classic: 1970 AMC Rebel Machine – A Tale Of Two Machines, Only One Of Them Sexy

Some cars are immortalized in music.  The cool cars, mostly.  From the rockabilly classic Hot Rod Lincoln to the Beach Boys’ T-Bird (that was so Fun Fun Fun) to Prince and his Little Red Corvette.  It is a pity that lesser cars did not get songs made about them, and this was true nowhere more than at American Motors Corporation.  OK, technically the Rambler got its fifteen minutes of fame in the 1958 novelty hit Beep Beep (which we touched on here), but that was certainly not the vibe that the new and improved American Motors of the late 1960’s was trying for.

1970 saw the introduction of two Machines – one a car, the other in music.  AMC introduced the Rebel Machine and James Brown dropped an album called “Sex Machine”.  As much as AMC might have wanted there to be a connection between those two Machines, it is pretty clear that there was none.

We all know the history – American Motors was the product of a 1954 merger between Nash and a moribund Hudson, and a company that only survived because of Nash’s heroic little Rambler.  When George Romney took over as head of the company, all of the Nashs and Hudsons went away and American Motors became The Rambler Company in all but its official name.  Ramblers of the late 1950s and early 1960s were solid, economical, sensible cars and AM (as it was then called) sold a bunch of them.  But one thing they were not – sexy.

In the mid 1960’s, pop culture was all about sex appeal.  Glamour and performance became the thing that sold cars, and everyone fell all over themselves appealing to the “youth market”.  Detroit begat the GTO, the Mustang, the Barracuda, the Charger, and models with designations like “Super Sport”, GT, R/T and anything else the marketers could think of.  Even Plymouth got in on the act with its Road Runner.  Really, if ever there was a blown opportunity for American Motors, it was the failure to capitalize on the Rambler’s image in the old Beep Beep song, that had “the little Nash Rambler” blowing off the far more powerful Cadillac – A road runner would have been a perfect mascot for that kind of car.

American Motors under Roy Abernethy was nothing if not ambitious, desiring to go after customers wherever they could be found so that his independent auto maker could run with the big dogs.  Curiously, he seemed to seek the mass market to the exclusion of the youth market.  The ’65 Marlin is an example – the ad copy is about the “swinging” 60’s, but can’t break free from the kind of “sensible” you could count on from Rambler.  Really, you could substitute a Buick LeSabre into any of those photos and nobody would have noticed.  Poor results caused Abernethy to retire in January of 1967, when he was replaced by Roy D. Chapin, Jr.

Chapin, son of Hudson founder Roy D. Chapin, saw the youth demographic as the key to the company’s recovery.  In short order the company introduced performance versions of their cars, including the 1968 AMX and the cleverly named 1969 SC/Rambler.  During that time the company was working on plans to turn the performance dial up to eleven with a hot, performance version of the Rebel, to be called “The Machine.

There is an internal photo from June, 1967 of a proposed 1969 version of The Machine, menacing in its dark paint and dark wheels and almost total lack of trim.  For reasons that are unclear (very likely the company’s thinly-spread resources) no 1969 Machine would be built.  That would be rectified in 1970, although The Machine that did get built would be a little different.

We opened with some thoughts about the music of cool American Cars.  One of the most iconic albums of 1970 was not specifically about cars, but certainly had a Detroit vibe to it.  That would be James Brown’s album entitled “Sex Machine”.  Well, technically it was more Cincinnati (the location of King Records) than Detroit, and maybe it was more Georgia (Brown’s birthplace) than Motown, but I think Brown’s album hit the classic Motown vibe square on.  The title track could be considered Brown’s anthem, with a funk beat as contagious as any virus.  A shortened 5+ minute version was released in 1970 (parts 1 and 2) and zoomed to the number two spot on the R&B charts and even number 15 in the Hot 100.  So, what does this song have to do with a hot AMC car from that same year?  It is that Brown’s Machine was both sexy and a great success.  AMC’s Machine was neither.

It was not for lack of trying on AMC’s part.  First, AMC stuffed The Machine with some very credible hardware, some of which got an assist from Hearst Performance.  The big 390 cid (6.4L) version of its V8 got a unique intake, special heads, larger exhaust manifolds and a 4 bbl carb fed by ram induction.  This was the hottest V8 in the company’s line, generating 340 bhp @ 5100 rpm and torque of 430 ft. lbs. @3600 rpm.  The Machine’s version of the 390 had a full fifteen horsepower advantage over the most powerful engine you could get in a Javelin or AMX.

AMC’s answer to the car’s suspension needs came in the low-budget use of extra stiff coil springs, including units from the Rebel station wagon in the rear, which also gave the car a butch-looking forward rake.  Both front and rear sway bars were added, as was a Twin Grip differential.  The package touched the ground with E60-15 white letter tires mounted to some awesome wheels.  In a turnabout from most of the competition, AMC made a 4 speed manual the standard transmission.  Although some sources claim that no automatic was offered, this is incorrect.  A cast iron Borg-Warner M-12 (“Shift Command”) automatic was optionally available.

The 114 inch wheelbase Rebel had been a conventionally attractive car in its first three years, and this first significant refresh added a 1967-68 Mopar-style fastback hardtop roof  that was not unattractive.  But when even Plymouth’s new Duster sported some modern curves, The Machine (like all Rebels) looked a little more, um, Classic than was the current style.  It has been said that Chrysler’s styling was three years behind that of General Motors, but here was AMC imitating a three year old Chrysler, in all it’s rectangular glory.  Another throwback to 1967 was the use of the three clean-cut young guys in place of the bikini-clad girls Chrysler was draping all over its cars in the promotional shots.

The Machine was announced with great optimism in the company’s October, 1969 promotional materials to dealers.  “Our goals in introducing “The Machine” are threefold …

  1. Help position the Rebel as an intermediate-sized car through a hot performance model rub-off.
  2. Improve the company’s image among young people – – the principle market for this model and for intermediate sized cars.
  3. Obtain a share of an over 400,000 unit muscle car segment.”

It was also announced that the first 1,000 cars to be built would be trimmed in what has become known the “25A” package – a red (tape)/frost white/electric blue paint scheme.  Thereafter all 18 paint colors would be available (with a “shadow black” hood and scoop).   That first 1,000 units would turn out to be over forty percent of the 2,326 units AMC would eventually build.

So what happened?  The car was a credible performer, but it was not cheap for what you got.  The base price was $3,475, which was more expensive than a Pontiac GTO ($3,267), a 429-powered Torino Cobra (3,270) and almost the cost of a 440-powered Plymouth GTX ($3,535).  The base Road Runner coupe, in contrast, could be had for $2,896, with the hardtop only a little more ($3,034).  Performance figures are a little murky, but one modern source said the car was good for a 6.8 second 0-60 and a quarter mile in 14.4 seconds at 99 mph.  Those were respectable numbers for the period but not anything that would separate it from the competition.

There was also a problem in the overall muscle car market, which was beginning to implode in 1970.  Road Runner production, though over 41,000, was down drastically from 1969.  And considering that there were only 32,373 GTO hardtops built that year, maybe the Machine’s sales numbers weren’t too bad for something from AMC.

The most successful muscle cars had always added compelling looks to match a compelling mechanical package, and this was where this effort from AMC had a problem.  The Machine would surely have done better in 1967 when the muscle segment was growing and when the Rebel’s styling was more in line with the competition.  By 1970, The Machine was looking a bit old fashioned next to the quickly moving style changes coming from the big Detroit companies.

Finally, could it have been the red white and blue thing?  AMC got a lot of traction out of the “American” part of American Motors, and used those colors in some fairly successful racing efforts that featured Mark Donohue driving for Roger Penske.  But red, white and blue may have been more associated with Grandpa’s Pabst Blue Ribbon than it was with the kinds of cars aimed at America’s youth during the peak of the Viet Nam era, among whom the appeal of red white and blue was not universal.

Maybe it is simply that some people “got it” and other people didn’t.  James Brown certainly “got it.”  And his iconic “Sex Machine” performance was just James Brown being James Brown, and doing it at a really high level.  AMC’s Machine, unfortunately, was not so much about AMC trying to be the best and most authentic version of itself, but about trying to be like the cool kids.  Did anyone ever see The Partridge Family or The Osmond Brothers do a cover of anything by James Brown?  If they did (and I doubt that it ever happened) it probably would have been as successful as this car.

But in fairness, popularity and success are not everything.  Although The Machine may have more camp factor going for it than much else today, we must acknowledge that it was a serious (if flawed) contender dropped into the thick of an ebbing muscle car fad.  For a company that had never managed a performance program for a sustained period and that did not have much in the way of resources to change that, The Machine was certainly nothing for its makers to be ashamed of.  AMC did what it could with what it had to work with, and built a pretty fast car.  If only we had celebrated the American Bicentennial in 1970.  Because not even James Brown could have made this Machine sexy.

Further Reading:

1969 Rebel SST (Daniel Stern)

1970 Ambassador SST hardtop (Jason Shafer)