Curbside Classic: 1967 Rambler Marlin – The Humpback Whale – AMC’s Deadly Sin #1

The sad story of the Marlin almost perfectly encapsulates all of the travails that eventually brought AMC to its knees. An inconsistent vision that left the company lurching from VW-fighting compacts to comparing its Ambassador to a Rolls Royce. The lack of resources to properly implement some of its better ideas. Styling that varied wildly. And the sin that so many smaller companies were afflicted with: the overly dominating, and controlling power of its clueless bosses. A Deadly Brew indeed.

The Great Fastback Epoch preceded the Great Brougham Epoch, and began in 1963 with the Corvette Sting Ray. Of course, fastbacks had prior waves of popularity, but the the fifties and early sixties was the Great Three-Box Epoch, embellished by fins, of course. By 1961, that was getting old, and something new was needed to attract the ever fickle taste of Americans.

In the wake of the Sting Ray’s tail, the Plymouth Barracuda led the charge of the fishy fastback brigade. Its giant fish-bowl rear window was a pretty blatant blow-up of the Sting Ray’s.

The Barracuda was introduced in April 1964, two weeks ahead of the Mustang notchback coupe and convertible. The Mustang 2+2 fastback appeared in the fall of 1964, the best of the (non- Sting Ray) bunch. One wonders whether the Mustang 2+2 was planned all along for production, or whether the Barracuda had any influence that decision. I’m guessing it did, at least to some degree. Ford didn’t want to be left out of the fastback wave.

And neither did AMC. In 1963, hearing about the Barracuda’s development, Dick Teague started cranking out some drawings for what became the Tarpon concept. Neither of these early designs showed the way to the Tarpon and eventual Marlin, and frankly, that was a mistake. I think both of these designs had more promise; the left foreshadowed GM’s Colonnades, and the right one looks very 1967 Barracuda-ish, ironically.

Here is AMC stylist Chuck Mashigan with the final Tarpon design, based on the new 1964 Rambler American. This picture also shows off the Tarpon’s problem from the get-go: an awkward profile, to put it delicately. Presumably to provide that Rambler-esque practical priority of rear seat headroom, the roof line stay horizontal way too long. And those extended rear side windows add to its set of issues.

Admittedly, the Tarpon looked much better when not in full profile, and its distinctive tail did have 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.

If this tail looks a bit familiar in a  more modern setting, how about this:

Yes, certain ideas just never seem to die, even if they are deadly.

The Tarpon was shown at the 1964 SAE Auto Show, and it elicited a reaction consistent with the times: favorable, and something to reach out and touch. In 1964, a fastback, any fastback was the equivalent of the Beatle’s haircut: anything with it was something to get excited about, even if the styling (or music) was questionable. The Tarpon was the Hermans Hermits of the times.

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. What better way to break the stodgy image that had come to be associated with Rambler, and to give the Barracuda and Mustang some competition.

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 hunk of cast iron, and AMC’s excellent new compact V8 family was still several years away. How about an alloy OHC six head on that six?

AMC’s new boss, Roy Abernathy 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 the key to that was oversized fastbacks is anybody’s guess. But Abernathy seemed to have a bit of a Death Wish.

So the Tarpon’s fastback was to be lifted from the American’s body to the bigger and new-for 1965 Classic, which also had room for the 327 in its wider engine bay. This clay for it shows that one of the earlier Tarpon designs for the side window tratment was being considered for a reprise. Too bad it didn’t; it’s decidedly better than the final cut.

Teague was unhappy enough about stretching the Tarpon’s fastback on the bigger Classic because Abernathy insisted on a six seater. But Abernathy added insult to injury when he ordered that the production Marlin’s roof be raised an inch while Teague was away in Europe, beacause he was 6’3″ and insisted in being comfortable in every AMC rear seat, even a sporty car! Idiot.

Can you imagine that happening nowadays? And look a t the result: absolutely atrocious. It looks like a raised-roof stretch limo fastback. The longer I look at this picture, the more I find it impossible to believe that this was actually put into production. It defies every convention of taste and proportion. Utterly deadly. BTW, why was the Tarpon name rejected for the production car? Sounded too much like Tampon?

So ironic too, since the prior generation Classic had such handsome lines, especially the “Europeanized” IKA Torino. Why didn’t AMC do something like this, if they wanted a handsome sporty coupe? The same reason for all of Detroit’s deadly Sins: hubris.

Not surprisingly, the Marlin was a dead fish from day one. First year sales barely cracked 10k. meanwhile, the new Mustang sold some half-million in its first year. That was the high water mark; 1966 sales shriveled to a bit over 4k. Oh, well; it seemed like a good idea, a mid sized fastback. But Abernathy wasn’t done yet; Let’s make the marlin even bigger!

For 1967, the Marlin got to sit on the Ambassador’s new longer body. Actually, for what it’s worth, it looks slightly better than the ’65-’66, as the Marlin acid-test profile shot shows (I couldn’t get far enough away on my subject). But nobody cared: only 2545 Marlins were sold in 1967 before the big dead fish was thrown back into the deep blue.