Curbside Classic: 1974 Matador X Coupe –
Great X-pectations

(first posted 1/26/2014)  “So,” said Estella, “I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”

In late 1973, AMC introduced the 1974 model year Matador Coupe, a fairly radical restyling of the 1971-73 first generation two-door hardtop. With around $40 million invested in tooling unique to this single body style (four-doors and wagons retained the old styling), it was a huge gamble for AMC, and one which they hoped would pay dividends through increased sales. Unfortunately for AMC (and paralleling “Pip” in Dickens’s story), the Matador piled up a mountain of debt for AMC and its benefactor eventually died off.

While Matador designer Bob Nixon suggested that the sleek styling of the new Coupe was driven by the need for better styling integration with other AMC offerings, other sources indicate that then-NASCAR driver Mark Donahue provided input to AMC on the design of the car specifically to make it more competitive at the track. Perhaps that explains the design direction going off at full-tangent to the rest of the industry, which was headed toward full neo-classical mode by this point.

To better understand why NASCAR aerodynamics may have substantially influenced the car’s design, we only need note that the AMC Javelin had been quite successful in the Trans Am series for several years. When Donahue moved up to NASCAR and the intermediate-sized Matador, he managed a win at Riverside in January, 1973, despite having only an AMC 366 c.i.d. (6.0l) engine as compared to the competition’s generally much larger powerplants. The fact that his Matador was the only car on the track with four-wheel disc brakes certainly helped–he was able to enter turns faster and driver deeper than everyone else and most race teams adopted this configuration within the next year. First-gen Matadors generally did okay on tracks with lots of curves and few straightaways, but suffered on superspeedway tracks. Donahue and others referred to the car as a “brick on wheels,” the “flying shoebox,” or just plain “boxy.”

Donahue decided to retire in 1973, but not before his photo appeared with the new-for-1974 Matador Coupe. He would soon came back to the Penske team to race Formula One, sadly meeting his untimely death in a crash in 1975.

After alternating races between Dave Marcis, Gary Bettenhausen and George Follmer, Bobby Allison became Penske’s Matador man, taking a single win in 1974, following up in 1975 with an impressive four wins including the non-points qualifying race at Daytona, at which he placed second the next day in the full race (finishing on seven cylinders). The only driver to race both the first and second-gen Matadors was Marcis, who felt the newer design was much more stable than the earlier car.

The Matador still suffered from various aerodynamic issues, however, and sometime during the largely winless 1976-77 seasons, Allison proposed a modification to the front grill that essentially flipped it upside down to encourage airflow up over the hood instead of below the car. Despite AMC parking a production Barcelona Coupe at the speedway sporting a “grill kit” to demonstrate it was a factory option, NASCAR refused to even consider the modification. Allison would nonetheless use the revised grill in USAC and other race events, and his car displayed at the museum in Talladega sports the revised nose. Interestingly, AMC actually offered the grill kit as the Matador “X-2” option, but it was never advertised or promoted. Allison confirmed in a magazine article that he later sold a number of Matadors fitted with this option in his hometown of Hueytown, Alabama.

One other aerodynamic change that *was* accepted by NASCAR was a reduction in the size of the rear quarter windows to reduce lifting effects at speed. Note the similarity to the ‘opera window’ treatment on the Barcelona Coupe? I did, too.

“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come.”

At this point, we can only speculate whether the Matador was an attempt to link its larger-size styling to AMC’s smaller offerings, or simply to create a more track-friendly shape to boost AMC’s performance reputation. Unfortunately, one eventually finds that the putting on of airs is only a mask over what truly lies within. Just as Pip’s “great expectations” fell short of who he really was inside, AMC’s expectations for the Matador never came to pass.

First year (1974) sales were an impressive 62,629 (compared to a mere 7,067 two-door hardtops sold in 1973), but slid back to fewer than 10,000 by 1977 and only 2,006 for the final 1978 model year.

Our subject car is about as close to a track-ready car as one could order (which isn’t that close at all). The floor shift, bucket seats and console are clues that this car has a V-8 under the hood, which optimistically might be the top-option 401 c.i.d (6.6l) making either 235 (net, single exhaust) or 255hp (net, dual exhaust). I didn’t peek underneath to see how many mufflers there were, so we’re left guessing.

Dicken’s novel ends with Pip and Estella leaving the ruins of Satis House as Pip recites the poignant line, “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” Despite AMC’s great expectations for the uniquely styled car, the Matador Coupe only experienced a brief period of interest from the car-buying public, who, being largely fickle in nature, soon “parted” for more baroque interests – leaving a far sadder end for AMC than Dickens did for Pip.