(First posted 1/25/2014, now with a number of revisions and additions to make it even…uncooler, if that’s possible)
Life was simpler in the early-mid sixties. It was easy to know what was cool and what wasn’t, unlike in today’s very fragmented world. Or maybe it’s still just as easy and I’m showing my age. Back then we all watched the same TV shows and movies, heard the same music, and we just knew what was cool, and what wasn’t. And nothing backfired worse than the uncool trying to fake coolness, like AMC did with the 1965 Rambler Marlin.
At the time, Ramblers were the epitome of un-coolness. They were driven by the spinster librarian who smelled like moth balls and the grumpy old skinflint who lived around the corner and wouldn’t open his door on Halloween (but we showed him; eggs on his Rambler!).
Or even worse, they were driven by your parents, because they were too cheap to buy a 421 Tri-Power ’63 Pontiac Bonneville Safari wagon with which to take you to the family yacht. No; instead, you were forced to ride in a crowded, hot Rambler wagon with sticky clear plastic seat covers to a scummy pond. We kids all knew the truth: Ramblers blow! And not just because their stupid sixes blew a distinctive nasal farting sound from their straw-sized exhaust pipes as they struggled to increase their speed.
Coolness was obvious and self evident. Just like it was when it came to Kennedy and Nixon. You either had it or you didn’t.
Need I say more?
But if it’s really necessary, how about this: Could you imagine Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Rambler Marlin?
The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray had coolness in spades. And its fastback, the first on an American car in a long while, quickly became iconic, like the Beatles’ haircuts. Everybody else wanted one too.
Fastback-coolness got another big boost with the XK-E as well as on the movie screens in 1964. Oh, the Europeans have been doing this for a while? No wonder we embraced the British invasion.
In the wake of the Sting Ray’s tail, the 1965 Plymouth Barracuda led the charge of the fastback me-too’s. Its giant fish-bowl rear window was a pretty blatant blow-up of the Sting Ray’s. Was it cool? Well, sort of, yeah; like being the first kid at school to grow their hair long, even if he wasn’t really all that good looking, wore boring clothes, and would never be mistaken for John or Paul. And as soon as others did the same thing, everyone quickly forgot about him.
The 1965 Mustang notchback coupe was the closest thing to being the automotive Beatles. It created a mania across the land, even though its actual buyers were a few years older than the screaming and fainting girls at a Beatles concert (and who were not wearing hats!). It really was new—or at least looked new to us—and therefore was the real deal. For the first year or two, anyway.
So adding a fastback on the Mustang was a bit of overkill, but why not? The more coolness, the merrier, as the Stones soon found out.
The hairy bad-boy Shelby GT 350 version did rather evoke a certain rock-music counterpart, even if he preferred a fastback from the home country.
A youthful thirty-six year-old Dick Teague arrived at AMC in 1959, and took charge of its design studios in 1961. In 1963, obviously aware of the Sting Ray’s impact and almost certainly aware of the Barracuda’s development, Teague started cranking out some drawings for what became the Tarpon concept. Neither of these early designs showed the way to the final Tarpon and eventual Marlin, and frankly, that seems a mistake. Both of these designs had more promise; the left foreshadowed GM’s Colonnades, and the right looked rather 1967 Barracuda-ish.
Here is AMC stylist Chuck Mashigan with the final Tarpon design, based on Teague’s new 1964 Rambler American. This picture also shows off the Tarpon’s problem from the get-go: an awkward profile, to put it delicately. Rambler’s dogged adherence to practical priorities were at work here, making sure that there was full-height rear seat headroom. That forced the roof line to stay horizontal for way too long, and the overly-long extended rear side windows only added to this set of issues. Sorry, this is not cool.
And of course, the Tarpon suffered the same problem as the Barracuda: it was all-too obviously just a Rambler American with a new roof. Same stubby hood, tall cowl, upright windshield, and dorky, old man designer standing in front of it. Definitely not cool.
It was infinitely cooler to be jammed into a crowded little rear seat under a real fastback with limited headroom and no side windows. We were young and limber, you know, and cramming ourselves into cars was; well, you guessed it.
The Tarpon was shown at the 1964 Society of American Engineers Auto Show, and it elicited a reaction consistent with the times: favorable, and something to even reach out and touch. But this was hardly a throng of screaming and fainting girls; more like engineering geeks who probably listened to the Kingston Trio or the Dukes of Dixieland. In 1964, a fastback—any fastback—got some attention, even if it wasn’t quite the real thing.
But Dick Teague was proud of his fishy baby, and wanted badly to see it go into production, seeing how Rambler was decidedly weak in the youth market, except perhaps with young families busy with too many kids on their hands to think about being cool. What better way to break the stodgy image that had come to be associated with Rambler, and to give the coming Barracuda and Mustang some competition?
Admittedly, the Tarpon looked a bit better when not in full profile, and its distinctive tail did have some real character, even if it didn’t have a trunk opening. There’s that Rambler split personality disorder at work again: rear headroom galore, but no trunk opening.
Now this is where the Tarpon story starts to really smell. AMC didn’t have a V8 that would fit between the American’s narrow, tall spring-shock towers. The old AMC 327 V8 was a big, wide hunk of cast iron, and AMC’s new compact V8 family was still a couple of years away.
How about an alloy OHC head on that excellent all-new 232 six that arrived for 1964? Or just a bit of performance tuning? For that matter, ditch the me-too fastback altogether, and spend the money on the American’s suspension, brakes and steering, and turn it into a real road machine, like IKA did with the Rambler American-based Torino 3800 in Argentina. Cars that handled well and looked honest were a path to genuine coolness. Ask BMW or Pontiac.
But AMC’s new boss Roy Abernethy was no John DeLorean, and had other ideas. After he took over, he was determined to get away from the economy-compact-centric image of AMC and go mano-a-mano against the Big Three. Why the hell he thought that an oversized fastback was a key part of that strategy is anybody’s guess. So the Tarpon’s fastback was lifted from the American’s body on to the bigger Classic, which had room for the hoary and heavy 327 in its wider engine bay.
Teague was unhappy enough about having to stretch the Tarpon’s fastback over the bigger Classic because Abernathy insisted on a six seater, no less. But then Abernethy added insult to injury when he ordered that the production Marlin’s roof be raised one inch while Teague was away in Europe, because at 6’3,″ he insisted on being comfortable in every AMC rear seat, even those of “sporty” fastbacks! An unfortunate—and equally disastrous— replay of Chrysler president K.T. Keller’s insistence in the early post-war years that he be able to wear a fedora in his cars, with room to spare.
Here’s that extra inch, rising awkwardly above the top of the Marlin’s windshield and side glass, unlike the clean roof of the American or Tarpon concept. Idiot! Can you imagine that happening nowadays, overriding your V.P. of Design while he was on vacation? And you wonder why AMC went down the tubes (or speculate endlessly how it might not have)? Good luck with that.
Of course the Marlin is madly cool and hip now, as is everything that was un-cool then, like Falcons and early Valiants and fedoras. But in 1965, we were not fooled; not even the slightest.
The Marlin’s affected fastback sitting on the boxy Rambler Classic was the equivalent of Richard Nixon letting his hair grow long and saying, “Peace, baby!”
Not surprisingly, the Marlin was a dead fish from day one. First year sales barely cracked 10k. Meanwhile, some half-million Mustangs were sold to screaming and fainting Americans in its first year.
And the first year was the Marlin’s high water mark; 1966 sales shriveled to a bit over 4k. Oh well; it seemed like a good idea, a mid-sized six-seater fastback. But Abernathy wasn’t done yet: let’s make the Marlin even bigger! Brilliant.
For 1967, the Marlin’s “wig” got to sit on the Ambassador’s new longer head and body. Actually, for what it’s worth, it looked slightly better than the ’65-’66, especially in profile. But nobody cared: only 2,545 Marlins were sold in 1967 before the big dead fish was tossed overboard (1967 Marlin CC here; it overlaps this one partially).
Part of the problem with the Marlin was that it made such little effort to disguise its Classic-ness (not to be confused with classiness). The whole front clip was unchanged, as was the rest of the car except for the roof and tail.
The 1966 Dodge Charger wanted to play in the fastback band too. It least it got a distinctive front grille with disappearing headlights, another cool fad thanks to the Sting Ray. The Charger’s fastback was a bit faster then the Marlin’s too, although that still didn’t make it a success, except in comparison to the Marlin.
And then there were those prominent R A M B L E R badges everywhere: The kiss of death, which was finally dropped for 1966, when AMC became the brand instead. Not that it would really have made a difference in 1965.
There was also the matter of the interior, which again was all-Classic, except for the Ambassador’s round gauges and that huge Marlin badge on the dash, to perpetually remind you that there really was a difference from the otherwise identical Classic hardtop coupe, except for the view in the rear view mirror and the 27% premium paid for the privilege. That amounted to almost $700, or over $5,000 in today’s money; a really expensive bad wig.
No, these are not the bucket seats all the cool cars had, which was another colossal blunder (buckets were optional). But there was, of course, one redeeming feature: the seats folded down into a glorious love den. Every kid who scored a date despite Dad’s bad choice of cars, and managed to take advantage of the
girl seats, forever gave Ramblers a bit of grudging respect.
Yes, the Marlin was “the big, bold brand-new car for swingers”. All six of them. Too bad they only bought one Marlin between them; no wonder Marlin sales were so bad. Drive Me!
And what’s up with the grille on that car in the brochure? Was AMC still undecided as to whether they would spend the extra $8 per Marlin for a unique grill?
Unlike the Barracuda and Charger, the Marlin’s rear seat didn’t fold down. That might have been handy in the case of a double date. Or for very tall lovers.
The Charger’s unique and high-quality interior was in huge contrast to the Marlin’s, what with its classy standard full-length console, loads of chrome, four buckets, and folding rear seats.
The Charger also had a unique and expensive instrument panel, with round gauges that had electroluminescent back-lighting. Cool. Given that the ’66 Charger cost only $22 more than the Marlin and had a standard V8 and automatic, as well as all those other features, it was a genuine bargain in comparison. Never mind that a Mustang V8 fastback cost some 20% less. Compared to them, the Marlin looked like a blatant rip-off. Now that just wasn’t cool at all.
And we haven’t even gotten to the Marlin’s utter lack of any genuine sporty ambitions yet. It came standard with the 232 six, three-on-the-tree, and to the best of my knowledge, no modifications to the Classic’s ancient suspension with trunnions, or its slow steering. Oh wait; it came standard with front disc brakes! Perfect for slowing down that 232 six-powered Marlin from triple digit speeds. But too bad they were hidden and no one noticed, like Rambler’s “Ceramic-Armored” muffler and old-school torque tube. Where were the racing stripes? There was no Marlin GT, RT, SS, GTX or even SST version available; just the Marlin POS model.
The Marlin was one of the all-time great duds of the post-war years. It didn’t even try very hard at fooling us. Putting a cheap, bad wig on a balding, middle-aged sedan and jacking up the price to an absurd level just showed how utterly clueless AMC was about the youth/sporty market.
Now you’d think AMC would have learned a lasting lesson from the Marlin’s colossal flop. Nope. Dick Teague obviously had a lasting thing about fastbacks, and AMC kept churning them out, mostly to yawns. The Javelin was the best, but fastbacks were already mostly un-cool by 1968, and its sales were modest, at best. The Gremlin and Pacer were semi-fastbacks. The Hornet managed to buck the odds by sprouting one that was both attractive and functional. The ’72 Matador coupe’s swept-back hair-implant was questionable, as was the Spirit’s cramped tail.
But AMC’s fastback fetish wouldn’t end until it essentially re-incarnated the Marlin some ten years later. And we all know how cool that was. You either have it or you don’t.
And if not, GM would gladly send over a hearse to pick up the dead fish corpse. Oh; it’s arriving already.