An AMC Hornet that was pricier and more exclusive than a equivalently-specified Ford, GM or Chrysler product, sold in a market where what would be an American compact was the default size of large car? It must be a Rambler Hornet.
The Hornet was assembled by Australian Motor Industries (AMI), a company which had assembled vehicles for the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Triumph. It had taken on Rambler in 1960 and assembled models like the Rebel, Ambassador and Javelin from knock-down kits.
As in the US, the Hornet went up against the Valiant. Our Valiant had become a decidedly different beast, however, particularly after the entirely Australian-developed 1971 VH redesign.
In 1971, a Rambler Hornet cost A$4079.
Similarly-priced vehicles that year included the top-spec Toyota Crown Deluxe auto ($4047), Triumph 2000 ($3638), Volvo 142S ($4050), Holden Brougham ($4069) and Lancia Fulvia sedan ($4200).
That price made it more expensive than any regular-wheelbase Holden or Ford Falcon without the letters ‘GT’ somewhere in their name, plus any Chrysler Valiant bar the luxury VIP with the optional V8. In fact, it was around $1500 more than a nicely-equipped Holden Premier or Ford Fairmont.
In addition to the standard automatic transmission, the Hornet had front bucket seats upholstered in ‘Chamoiskin’, plus a console-mounted shifter. There were electric wipers and washers, an illuminated parcel tray, a variable speed heater/demister, a radio and a padded dashboard. This was a pretty robust equipment list for the day in Australia at this price point. AMI also borrowed the larger 11.2-inch disc brakes from the Javelin it also assembled, while the only options were air-conditioning and radial tyres.
Sadly, I was unable to get a decent shot of the interior. Here’s an illustration from the brochure instead.
The Rambler Hornet came with just one powertrain: a 232 cubic-inch six-cylinder with an advertised 155 hp and 240 ft-lbs, mated to a Borg-Warner three-speed automatic transmission. That was good for a 0-60mph time of 11.3 seconds – nothing earth-shattering, especially considering you could get a V8-powered Big 3 model for the same price. This engine was replaced in 1972 with a 258 cubic-inch six, though a V8 was never offered – AMI left that for the larger Rebel and later Matador sedans. The ‘4.2-litre’ badge on the featured car’s C-pillar indicates this is a 1972 or later Hornet.
Contemporary reviews from Wheels weren’t overly impressed with the steering but found the handling and roadholding to be ‘excellent’, with little body roll and a firm but comfortable ride. The Hornet was also praised for its quiet cabin and lazy six-cylinder engine. The “essentially cheap interior” was well dressed up with carpets, nicer interior trim also used in locally-assembled Triumphs, and attractive, if not overly comfortable, seats.
Perhaps the greatest compliment came from veteran journalist Peter Robinson, who said the Hornet was “easily the prettiest American car in a decade”, citing in particular its low height and short overhangs. If only the handsome Sportabout had come here…
AMI only made around 40 Hornets a month, making it a considerably lower-volume car than the likes of a Falcon or Valiant. That meant the Hornet’s best year was miles off the best year for any of its Big 3 rivals. AMI sold a total of 1825 vehicles over six years, with 407 cars sold in 1970, 597 in 1971, and then 355, 212, 118 and 136 in the following four years.
I’ve seen a tiny handful of Hornets in Brisbane over the years, always eluding my camera until I found this one parked by the side of the road. While the name won’t be familiar to many people, those Hornets still remaining appear to all be lovingly looked after by their owners. I saw this Hornet driving down the road later that day and gave the owner a thumbs up and he looked surprised.
He shouldn’t have been. In photos it comes across a little bland but in person this is a handsome, well-proportioned vehicle. That explains how AMC was able to keep producing this same basic body for almost two decades as a Hornet and then later a Concord and Eagle. My only grievance is with the rather under-detailed front end. The Concord and Eagle faces were more appealing to me, however the sedan variants of those adopted fussy roof treatments.
To buy a Rambler Hornet then was a rather left-field choice, as it is to keep or restore one now. Even if you wanted something with an American flavour, the Valiant was there and could be had for cheaper. Nevertheless, while AMI might have stung you a bit with the price, the Hornet was a good car.