Curbside Classic: 1970 American Motors Javelin SST – Wrangling A Non-Average Pony Car

1970 AMC Javelin SST right front

Interesting things happen when worlds collide.  Like when a perpetually struggling automaker enters a hot and competitive market segment… or when a company associated with fuddy-duddy conservatism hires an unconventional firm to promote its products.  Both of these things transpired when American Motors entered the pony car segment with its Javelin.

Like any entrant into a competitive market, American Motors tried to differentiate its offering from the competition.  Board Chairman Roy Chapin used bold language regarding the car, saying before its introduction that the upcoming model would have “different” and “non-average” styling.  “We expect,” said Chapin, “to appeal to a type of buyer who is also ‘non-average’ – whose most important characteristic is the desire to be different, who does not respond to conventional products or to conventional marketing appeals.”  Strong words from the leader of a struggling company – let’s see how that worked out.

Ever since its creation in 1954 from the merger of Hudson and Nash, American Motors led a perilous existence.  Innumerable articles about “troubled American Motors” predicted imminent doom for the company, though salvation always came just in time.  The company turned its first profit in 1958 due to strong sales from compact Ramblers, but by the mid 1960s those fortunes had faded.  Sales lagged, and worse, the company had developed a stodgy image.  One analyst described American’s product line as having “as much flair as corrective shoes”

1964 Ford Mustang ad

While American Motors executives mulled how to best steer their company out of the doldrums, the answer appeared like wild horses.  When Ford launched its Mustang in 1964, few could have predicted that about half a million examples would be produced for each of the following three years.  Mustang’s success launched a storm of catch-up among competitors – AMC being no exception.  The allure was obvious: The newly-foaled pony car segment was hot, and attracted coveted young, trendy and well-off customers.

William Luneberg and Roy Chapin

William Luneberg and Roy Chapin with an AMX model.

American Motors and other manufacturers hurried to get their Mustang challengers to market as quickly as possible.  In American’s case, it couldn’t come soon enough, as the company lost $12.6 million in fiscal year 1966.  To reverse its fortunes, in early 1967, AMC’s Board of Directors forced out both Chairman Robert B. Evans and President Roy Abernathy, replacing them with Roy Chapin and William Luneberg – both elevated from vice president positions.  The new leaders quickly replaced many managers, cut operating expenses, and then set their focus on how to build interesting cars as quickly as possible.  A Mustang challenger was high on their list.

Planning for this new car was well underway when Chapin and Luneberg took over.  Back in the summer of 1966, Evans, Chapin’s predecessor, noted that American Motors was working on a sports-type car that would be “better, more exciting, and different” from Mustang or GM’s soon-to-be-released challengers.  The company was already toying with sports car designs, unveiling the AMX (American Motors eXperimental) show car to enthusiastic reviews that year.  This provided a basis for the Javelin’s (and later the production AMX’s) styling.

The following year, more details emerged.  AMC’s answer to the Mustang would be roomier (addressing complaints about the Mustang’s limited passenger and cargo capacity) and would have more modern styling – hinting that despite its popularity, the Mustang had become overly familiar.  It was in mid 1967 that Chapin remarked about the upcoming car being “non-average.”  American Motors wanted to convince industry observers that it was on the verge of something more interesting than a Rambler.

The design itself was more of an evolution, rather than a complete rethinking of pony car design.  It’s an uncluttered look representative of late 1960s designs, with clean lines, a long hood and short rear deck.

A desire to have roomier rear seat and cargo space than the Mustang drove Javelin’s proportions.  Some Mustang owners voiced complaints about their cars’ tight accommodations, so American Motors saw a potential niche in offering a “grown up” sporty car with ample room for four adults and their gear.  Javelin dimensions bear this out – at 189” long, it was 5” longer than a ’67 Mustang, and in fact had more passenger room (including 3.5” more rear headroom).  Unfortunately, this roominess may not have been the boon AMC expected, since buyers seeking large sporty two-doors began gravitating to the emerging personal luxury coupe segment instead of smaller pony cars.

Another element to Javelin’s marketplace strategy was that AMC tried to position it as the lowest-priced “personal car.”  A low price and modern styling were considered important to attract young customers and to counter the outdated, “granny” image of AMC’s products.  The projected low price, attractive styling and strong pony car market prompted Chapin to predict 50,000 Javelin sales in its first year.  Now came the hard part – convincing the public.

While “non-average” may have been an exaggeration for the overall car, Javelin’s marketing campaign was certainly unconventional.  In June 1967, AMC hired Mary Wells, considered North America’s most innovative ad executive, and her company, Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc.  Wells was one of the ad industry’s few female executives, and had made a name for herself earlier in the decade with numerous successful product promotions.  Since Wells, Rich, Greene had no prior automotive experience, Mary Wells immediately hired a merchandising executive from Ford to head the AMC account.  Together, they sought to reverse AMC’s stodgy image and spawn a new generation of customer, using the Javelin as a launchpad.

American Motors Javelin Girl

Hired just two months before the Javelin’s introduction, Wells, Rich, Greene immediately created buzz among the automotive press.  For example, in July and August, an athletic, blond actress traversed the United States knocking on auto journalists’ doors.  Dressed in a short golden track suit, wearing a “Javelin Girl” sash – and in many cases carrying an actual javelin (the spear, not the car) – her job was to stir up interest in the upcoming model introduction.

Once the late August press introduction showed journalists what the actual car looked like, it was time for Wells’ innovations to be put to the test.  Her firm’s first major ad compared Javelin to its archrival.  This was trailblazing because until this time, ad comparisons to rival cars had been taboo in the auto industry.  Not everyone was a fan of this approach.  Veteran ad executive Fairfax Cone spoke for most of his industry by saying that competitive ads were “bad manners.”  Lee Iacocca predicted Wells’ failure by putting on a Mr. Nice Guy guise and saying “Any time people try to play dirty they will lose… the public is too smart for that kind of approach.”  Iacocca was wrong; the public noticed these ads, and such an approach soon became commonplace.

AMC focused much of its Javelin promotion on TV commercials, a Wells specialty.  Prior to airing, AMC Vice President for Marketing R.W. McNealy hinted that the Javelin’s initial ad campaign would be unusual… “in an aggressive but good-humored way.”  The above commercial is representative: Actor Herb Edelman is challenged to drag race his Javelin by an odd assortment of other drivers.  Wells also created tie-in promotions with other companies such as Montgomery Ward, Bristol-Myers, and BF Goodrich.  For a while, the media seemed saturated with Javelin ads.  These edgy promotions certainly provided AMC some much-needed attention.

1968 AMC Javelin ad with Rebel

Ads could get people’s attention, but the car itself had to finish the sale.  To assist with this, AMC offered a wide variety of configurations.  Powertrains ranged from mild to wild.  Base Javelins came with six-cylinder engines and three-speed manual transmissions, while several V-8s (as well as four-speed and automatic transmissions) provided greater appeal.  Throughout its first four years, Javelin was available in base or SST trim levels, with the SST adding reclining bucket seats and other interior and exterior trim upgrades.

1968 AMC AMX ad

Partway through 1968, AMC introduced the two-seater AMX, built on a shorter wheelbase and featuring a standard 290-cu. in. V-8.  A genuine sports car, AMC styling chief Richard Teague called AMX the Javelin’s “hairy little brother.”  The two-seater AMX lasted for three years, after which time the model was dropped and the AMX moniker was used for the Javelin’s highest trim level.  During those three years, AMX accounted for about 13 percent of total Javelin/AMX sales.

With a combination of value, a good design, and clever promotions, early Javelin sales were robust.  In a rare case of AMC exceeding expectations, Javelin surpassed Chapin’s estimate of 50,000 units for 1968 (61,849 were sold).

1968 AMC Javelin Ad

AMC product planners were even more pleased that many customers represented that elusive younger crowd who seemed repelled by American Motors products through most of the 1960s.  First-year sales indicated an average age of 34 for Javelin buyers (AMC’s 1967 average was 45) and nearly a third of those buyers were single.  Quite a change from the previous image of AMC buyers being old and stingy.  Total AMC sales increased for 1968, the firm’s first increase in four years.

Source: Standard catalog of American cars, 1946-1975

Whatever elation Javelin’s introductory season caused at AMC headquarters tailed off in successive years.  Overall Javelin/AMX sales dropped about 20 percent for 1969, and then another 34 percent for 1970 before settling into the high 20,000s for each of the Javelin’s final four years.  This wasn’t entirely Javelin’s fault.  Pony car sales in general fell as the Mustang’s original magic wore off.  Plus, increased competition meant that each manufacturer was chasing a smaller slice of the pie.

1970 AMC Javelin SST left front

Our featured car is from Javelin’s third year – representing the end of Javelin’s first generation.  Annual changes over the first generation were modest.  1969 models received a revised grille, new instrument panel trim, and other minor updates.  1970 was also largely a carryover year, with the Javelin receiving yet another grille treatment, a slightly longer hood, and other minor changes.  We can use our featured 1970 SST to give us a view first-generation Javelin highlights.

This is probably the Javelin’s best angle, where the assertive twin-venturi grille and contoured bumper, combined with the long hood, give the car a commanding presence.  This grille design was used only for 1970 – earlier models had a body color separation between the headlights and grille.

In profile, we can see how AMC prioritized the rear seating area.  The wheelbase seems stretched in this angle, almost like someone photoshopped an extended-wheelbase Mustang.  For folks who like bigger cars, this creates an appealing design, but one can easily see how this shape would lose out when squeezed in the marketplace between smaller sporty cars and the increasingly popular personal luxury coupes.  Personally, I like it, and this car would win a 1970 pony car appearance contest if I were the judge – but then again I’ve always had a soft spot for big coupes.

1970 AMC Javelin SST left rear

From the rear angle, things get a bit chunkier, yet clean lines still predominate.  Flush-mounted door handles – a novelty at the time – blended well with Javelin’s overall design.  The optional Landau-style vinyl roof was a new touch for 1970, replacing a more conventional pattern used in the previous years.

1970 AMC Javelin SST rear

The semi-fastback rear end presents a Space Age type of appearance.  Swoopy C pillars meld into raised edges on the back panel, and with a concave-shaped rear window, this all provides an interesting set of contours.  For 1970, AMC redesigned the tail light panel, separating the light bar into five sections, with the back-up light in the middle.

1970 AMC Javelin SST front

One of the Javelin’s changes for 1970 was invisible.  An advanced safety windshield glass called Chemcor, developed by Corning Glass Works, came standard on Javelins and AMXs.  Chemically-strengthened glass that Corning billed as being stronger and safer than regular laminated glass, Chemcor’s main benefit was promoted as reducing severe lacerations in accidents.  That seemed like a good fit for an era when auto safety became a viable selling point, and Corning hoped that Chemcor would be as revolutionary for automotive glass as Pyrex was for cookware.  Despite its innovation however, Chemcor never caught on with automakers, and Corning discontinued the product after just a few years.

1970 AMC Javelin SST right rear

This particular car is an SST – a step above the base model.  Adding just $128 to Javelin’s $2,720 base price, the SST provided some upgraded interior and exterior trim, and most buyers judged the modest price bump to be worthwhile.  Although during the Javelin’s first model year, base cars and SSTs sold in almost equal numbers, SSTs quickly took over the sales lead.  By 1970, the SST outsold its cheaper companion by more than two-to-one.  This may have come as a surprise to AMC, since one of Javelin’s original priorities was to be a price leader.  Said Chapin upon the car’s introduction: “Our approach is to concentrate on the lower end of the market.  We know how to sell there.”  Turns out most customers preferred relatively well-equipped cars instead.  After the ’71 model year, the base Javelin was dropped completely.

I wasn’t able to get good interior pictures of our featured car, so Internet finds will suffice.  This interior is similar to that of our featured car, with black vinyl seats and automatic transmission.  Dashboards were redesigned for 1970, now featuring a full-span instrument panel with “eyebrow” crash padding along the top.  This shows the SST’s woodgrain trim, sports steering wheel, and the deeply recessed gauges shared with all Javelins.  Also, seen here is Javelin’s signature bullseye logo on the glovebox door and steering wheel hub – somewhat ironic since the sport of javelin is a distance sport, not a target sport.  The dashboard’s center portion looks rather plain because Javelin’s HVAC controls and clock sit to the driver’s left.

This image of a fabric seat-equipped Javelin shows the view through the hardtop’s windows.  Rear seat room was, indeed, generous for pony cars.

1970 AMC Javelin SST right front

Badging here indicates that this car came equipped with American Motors’ 304-cu. in. Typhoon V-8, one of five Javelin engines for 1970.  Standard for both base and SST Javelins was the 232-cu. in. Torque-Command six that was also standard on the Rebel.  That 1-bbl. six produced just 145 hp, and didn’t exactly cause a sensation.  The 304 cost about $100 extra, but produced a respectable 210 hp.  Genuine performance credibility could be achieved by ordering one of the two available variations of AMC’s 360, or the 325-hp 390.

Our featured car, a V-8 SST with automatic transmission, air conditioning and several other popular options, would have likely listed for slightly above $4,000.  While not cheap for the times, it would have been a perfectly reasonable choice for someone looking for a practical, sporty car, and particularly for someone eager to deviate a bit from the more popular Mustangs and Camaros.

1970 marked the end of Javelin’s first generation, and with it the smooth and lithe 1960s-era lines.  For 1971, Javelin (like the Mustang during the same year) became bulkier – 3” wider and a bit longer.  Characterized by raised fenders, a prominent snout, a smaller greenhouse, and oversized sail panels, the car looks like it was designed by a committee of bull terriers.

By this time, the pony car’s status as America’s hottest market segment had passed.  While at its 1960s peak, the segment accounted for 11 percent of US auto sales, pony car sales plummeted to 5 percent for 1971.  A combination of waning uniqueness, falling performance from emissions regulations, and high insurance rates took the luster off these cars, and buyers’ interest drifted elsewhere.

With sales slipping to less than half of its introductory year’s total, AMC executives indicated as early as 1972 that they might drop the Javelin due to its “fading market.”  Ultimately, the model won a reprieve, and lasted through 1974, though for the last few years it was clear that this car had outlived its usefulness.  After 1974, AMC returned to its roots to concentrate on the small car market, discontinuing both the Javelin and the full-size Ambassador.

Incidentally, those witty ads and brochures didn’t last long.  In late 1972, AMC replaced Wells, Rich, Greene as its main ad agency with a more conventional firm.  Demonstrating how much priorities had changed in a few years, AMC’s General Marketing Manager said his company wanted a firm that was “a little more nuts-and-boltsy” and less humor-filled or edgy.

1970 AMC Javelin SST right front

The Javelin leaves a mixed legacy.  It provided a spark of interest in American Motors at a crucial time, and the car itself – while not perfect – achieved its objective.  On the other hand, that wasn’t quite enough to propel American Motors in the long term.  Although the Javelin didn’t make much of a lasting imprint on the car market, it’s arc through the air was certainly an interesting one.  And it’s tough to get more non-average than that.


Photographed in Fairfax, Virginia in September 2023.


Related Reading:

AMC Javelin: Some Like It For What It Can Be And Others Would Just Like To Find One by Paul Niedermeyer