Being gifted as an adolescent with my very first copy of the Encyclopedia Of American Cars 1930 – 1980 from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, written by Richard M. Langworth, was a truly pivotal moment for me. This was the point at which my focus shifted from simply being able to identify the year, make and model of a car on the street into a nonstop quest to learn all I could about every American car ever produced. I was barely a teenager when my parents returned from a trip they had taken to Kansas City, Missouri (if I recall correctly) and had unexpectedly presented me with this gigantic tome that was hardbound in orange and wrapped in the above dustjacket with its colorful illustrations of various cars from all eras depicted across the front. This was one of the first instances when I had internalized that self-motivated research could actually be fun, in contrast to my experience of many of my homework assignments.
This book was an absolute treasure to me, outranking even some of my favorite electronics at the time. I would spend literally hours at a time poring over both the written text and accompanying photographs to the point that when I had purchased a newer edition about fifteen years later, it had turned out that I had memorized exact passages from the previous edition and could recognize some of what had been changed. Looking over at my more recent copy sitting next to me as I write this, I must again marvel at what a valuable and fun book it is. When I had gotten my first copy, I had flipped around it in no particular order just to see what kind of information and pictures were included of some of my very favorite cars, but later settled into an alphabetic approach to studying it. I didn’t want to miss a thing, and with over 900 pages in my most recent edition, I knew at the time that I wasn’t exactly going to burn right through it.
Naturally, the chapter on American Motors was toward the front, and it immediately became one of my favorite sections of the book. AMC products comprised a small percentage of what was on the streets in my General Motors manufacturing hometown of Flint, Michigan, but there were still plenty of them around into the ’80s. Our plumber and family friend, Mr. Williams, had both a Pacer and a Gremlin, one of which when parked in our driveway would signal that we had some water-related issue. My friend Bobby’s folks had a Matador sedan right up to the dawn of the ’90s. My friend Lori owned not one, but two Eagles in a row, a hatchback and a four-door, and the Rogers family in our neighborhood had a beautiful Eagle wagon that conveyed a certain kind of New England-like, rustic sophistication. One of my older brother’s friends had owned a rattlecan-gray, second-generation Javelin that I thought was great looking car and way cooler than a Camaro.
1975 AMC Matador brochure page, as sourced from www.oldcarbrochures.org.
However, most of my earlier impressions of cars from the smallest of the Detroit Four (then called the “Big Four”, or maybe to some the “Big Three Plus One”) was that they were loser cars for people who needed transportation and wanted to buy American, but couldn’t afford anything better. Taking a deep dive into the engagingly written history of American Motors’ beginnings in 1954 through its ’87 purchase by Chrysler Corporation gave me a newfound respect and appreciation for this little, independent automaker and everything it was able to accomplish with its limited financial resources. Suddenly, reading about the Gremlin and its development, being the first domestic subcompact on the market, and its available Levi’s interior, sporty “X” option package, and V8 option (all three of which could be combined in one car) made it seem genuinely cool in my eyes, versus just a weird car that AMC had deliberately made “ugly” just to get it noticed.
1974 AMC Matador X press photo, one of my favorites.
When I got to the section about the ’74 Matador coupe, an obsession was born. Those pages in my original copy of the EoAC were noticeably smudged and slightly dog-eared from all the times I flipped back and forth between the text, my favorite pictures, and production figures of the Matador coupe. For an excellent and comprehensive read here at CC about how the Matador coupe’s story played out, I recommend this essay that originally ran in 2014. I simply couldn’t understand how so many people could find this car unattractive – a coupe I found so beautiful and rife with eye-pleasing details.
Especially appealing to me were its sleek, fastback profile, flag-shaped rear quarter windows, and those afterburner taillamps. The free-standing bumpers still do not bother me. Granted, like the ’86 Grand Prix I wrote about last month, the overall look of these Matadors often comes down to color, trim, wheels, and how one was accessorized. I’ve seen some examples that were absolute knockouts, and others that were not so hot. In my mind, though, anything was fixable. One day, I was going to have my Matador.
I found a ’75 coupe for sale in my neighborhood before I even had a drivers’ license. This was in the fall of ’89. The owners lived across the street from Washington Elementary, not too far from my house. I was used to scouring the classified ads in the Flint Journal for cars years before I could drive or had saved any money, but when I came across what I was convinced was my dream car, with its promise of “low miles, runs good” for a $400 asking price (not even $1,000 in 2022), I begged my mom to take me there after dinner one night shortly thereafter. As a side note, I wouldn’t necessarily say my dad was neglectful of my interest in cars. He was a professor, a brilliant mind, and very engaged in work that he loved. He spent a lot of time creating lesson plans and grading papers for his sociology and anthropology courses he taught at the university. I had asked my mom because I figured that her shrewd powers of bargaining and getting what she wanted might come in handy. She was definitely the correct parent to take on this mission.
After making a phone call to the sellers in which we discussed a few things and I got their coordinates, Mom and I were soon in our Renault Encore hatchback (the Matador’s new, French-American relative) on the way to check out the car I was sure was my destiny. I’ve made reference before to how I’m not the best poker player, and given my excitement of having found an elusive Matador coupe for sale, I’m sure I asked maybe three questions on the phone and didn’t screen this potential purchase well at all before Mom and I were out the door. Whatever. Sometimes, just having a dream at all has value, and no one was taking this one away from me without at least an in-person investigation.
I remember what it felt like in the cool, autumn dusk as our Encore’s headlamps illuminated the Matador’s four, round, red reflectors as we approached the car from the rear. My heart was pounding so hard and fast, not unlike at the end of running a relay race in the school gymnasium. Nearing this Matador felt like a face-to-face meeting with one of my biggest heroes or crushes, or some combination of the two. I revered this car in a way that stopped just short of idolatry. I was temporarily lost in this fantasy that this car could be mine… and then I suddenly found myself paying attention to the sound of my mom’s shrill, expressive voice next to me. It was no longer just a Joe-and-Matador moment. “So, this is the car you want. Interesting.”
We got out of the Encore and the owner came out of his nicely kept house and met us by the Matador, which was finished in factory Fawn Beige with a white vinyl top. After some pleasantries, I got into the driver’s seat. I looked at those rounded, rectangular pods that held the gauges and marveled at how 1970s it all looked, including the type font. It had bench seats front and rear with a kind of diagonally-checked, black and white upholstery in cloth and vinyl that looked really chic. We weren’t in plebeian Malibu-town. The interior was in absolutely beautiful shape. I had never before seen pictures of the rear seat in these cars, and the dome light being situated in a little cove in the center of the rear bench seemed like an special touch that made the the interior seem almost as exotic as the exterior styling. This would also be years before I had learned that the rear quarter windows rolled down, knowledge that surely would have blown my mind that night.
1975 AMC Matador brochure page, as sourced from www.oldcarbrochures.org.
This coupe had the optional 304 cubic inch V8, which was the next step up from the standard 258-c.i. six. The owner fired up the car with no problems or hesitation, but not long after, the faintest wisps of white smoke started to emit from the tailpipe. Aha… the probable reason for the sale. Our ’71 Plymouth Duster had needed a ring job right before we sold it to an eager, young fellow, and I remembered how it, too, had the telltale white smoke that indicated that a troublesome amount of oil was leaking into the combustion chambers. The exterior didn’t have a lot of rust for a fourteen-year-old AMC car in a Midwestern industrial town that used a lot of road salt during winter. Had this nice family been too embarrassed to drive and be seen in this Matador around Flint, thus keeping it off the road for much of the year, inadvertently preserving it?
I started formulating my plans for this car right then and there. I was going to save all my money from my paper route. By the time I could drive it, I would have saved up enough for that engine work, and also to have that vinyl top removed before a $99 Earl Scheib paint job. We could just keep my Matador parked in the driveway under a tarp until then. I asked, “Is the price negotiable?” “The four hundred dollars is firm.” “Will you be around later this week, and did you have any other offers?” “Well, the Matador isn’t exactly a hot-selling car.” (That last sentence is, verbatim, what the gentleman said.) It was clearly not the red Matador X of my dreams, but it was real, and having seen, touched, and sat in it was somehow enough.
On the ride back home the evening of that school night, it started to solidify in my mind that this particular ’75 Matador coupe wasn’t for me. I couldn’t imagine my parents allowing some old car to sit under a tarp in our driveway indefinitely, even if my interest in cars was probably the most average-teenage-boy-like thing about me at that time and thus something they seemed to encourage. Nevertheless, my encounter with this Matador remained an electrifying experience, and one that couldn’t completely kill the idea of owning a nice example one day. The unrecouped $40 million price tag for the development of these unique coupes that sold a total of under 100,000 units from between 1974 and ’78 may have been disastrous to the financial situation at American Motors. Their styling also isn’t for everyone, but I’ll say it all day long not to let someone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t like, and I like the Matador coupe.