Curbside Classic: 1976 Hornet Hatchback – AMC’s High Water Mark

(first posted 2/22/2012)    Growing up in south-central Pennsylvania, trips to the Gettysburg battlefield were a regular family outing. My father has always been a history buff, which meant that we spent quite a few summer Saturdays touring the battlefield. Among other lessons, it instilled an appreciation of AMC’s repeated use of the name “Rebel”.

A regular stop was the site of Major General George Pickett’s infamous charge. My father would solemnly tell us that this spot represented the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Over 12,000 Confederate soldiers marched across 3/4 of a mile of open field, right into a heavy barrage of Union artillery fire. The Confederates suffered a 50 percent casualty rate, and General Robert E. Lee’s attempt to threaten both Harrisburg and Philadelphia was stopped in its tracks. From that point on, the question wasn’t whether the Confederacy could win the war, but how long until it surrendered.

America’s independent auto makers were a lot like the Confederacy. They battled much bigger and wealthier foes with a combination of daring and inspired leadership, primarily because they didn’t have much else.

Regular Curbside Classics commentator Dr. Lemming has proclaimed that the 1973-77 Hornet hatchback represented a High Water Mark for American Motors. Given that AMC was the last independent automaker, this car represents the final High Water Mark for the independents.

AMC was looking a lot like the Confederate forces after Pickett’s Charge by the time the Hornet debuted in the fall of 1969. The Hornet replaced the tired Rambler (which had debuted as the Rambler American in 1958, but was simply tagged as “Rambler” for its final year). The Hornet’s debut marked the demise of the old Rambler nameplate, which AMC had been phasing out since the mid-1960s. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) George Romney, who combined messianic zeal with a general’s discipline, drove AMC to third place in total sales by 1961 (or 1960, if Valiant sales are separated from Plymouth sales). Romney, realizing that going head-to-head with the Big Three was a losing battle, placed all of AMC’s chips on the intermediate-size Rambler. He was helped by a combination of the 1957-58 recession, the ballooning size of the Low-Price Three, and the lousy build quality of far too many Big Three cars.

In an exquisite bit of timing that has so far eluded son Mitt, Romney left AMC to run for Michigan’s Governor’s office in early 1962. His replacement was Roy Abernethy, who was determined to match the Big Three model-for-model. AMC was preparing all-new Classics and Ambassadors for 1963, followed by a 1964 American that was to be based on the same platform. The cars were quite handsome on the outside, and boasted new “uniside” construction for better panel fit and durability.

Romney would later criticize Abenethy’s direct attack on the Big Three, but, in reality, he had few options, given that they were invading AMC’s market segments. AMC was thus backed into making its own version of Pickett’s Charge.

And not all of AMC’s problems were Abernethy’s fault. AMC had neglected chassis development, and its engines lagged behind those of the Big Three. The American was still using the ancient Nash flathead six in 1965! That didn’t matter as much when AMC had the intermediate field largely to itself, but by 1965, GM, Ford and Chrysler had invaded the compact and intermediate fields with handsome designs and more modern drivetrains. In the military, business and politics, leaving just before things go sour is an art in and of itself, and Romney’s exit from AMC was a classic example of leaving at just the right time.

AMC fought back with excellent new sixes for 1964, and new V-8s for 1966. Abernethy pushed for larger, fully restyled Classics and Ambassadors for 1965, and planned another generation of all-new, even larger cars for 1967. He also demanded more distinction between the Classic (renamed Rebel for 1967) and Ambassador.

The only problem was that all of that spending on new sheetmetal and engines failed to generate increased sales. The bigger cars and more powerful engines were also erasing AMC’s economy advantage. AMC sales slumped badly for 1966 and 1967, leaving the company on the verge of bankruptcy in early 1967. By 1969, AMC was offering five distinct lines of cars – Ambassador, Rebel, Javelin, AMX and what had been the Rambler American. Their total sales failed to equal the sales of what had been the “standard” Rambler just nine years earlier.

Battle-weary AMC dealers therefore looked at the Hornet the way a beleaguered general looks at a fresh infusion of troops. Riding on a trim 108-inch wheelbase, the Hornet came in two-door and four-door sedans. Having learned its lesson with its 1965 and 1967 cars, AMC made sure that both body styles shared the same roof stampings, and the front and rear bumpers were interchangeable, all to minimize tooling costs.

The engines were standard AMC fare – straight sixes in 199 and 232 cubic inches, or a 304 cubic inch V-8, with the 199 six gone after one year. Styling was the Hornet’s strong point – its Dick Teague-designed flanks were smooth and clean, while the grille and taillights managed to be simple without being boring. The Hornet avoided the contrived “mini-Mustang” look of the Maverick or the plain-jane frumpiness of the Valiant/Dart, making it the best-looking domestic compact of the 1970s.

Hornet received good reviews, but, surprisingly, sales were somewhat of a disappointment. AMC, to its credit, kept trying, and followed up with the handsome Sportabout wagon for 1971, which is still one of the best-looking wagons ever produced. An important mechanical improvement was the replacement of the outdated Borg-Warner automatic with Chrysler’s terrific Torqueflite automatic in 1972 (named Torque-Command by AMC) for all AMC cars, something the company should have done in 1964 or 1965 to better show off its new engines.

AMC’s sales and balance sheet steadily improved after 1971, so by 1973, AMC was ready to add some sex appeal to its compact line. Hatchbacks were all the rage in the early 1970s, so, for 1973, AMC added this handsome one to the Hornet line-up. Car and Driver promptly proclaimed it “the styling coup of 1973,” and the praise was right on target. While GM and Chrysler took a blowtorch and cut a hatch into their standard compact bodies, Dick Teague designed an entirely new roofline and rear quarter panels for the Hornet hatchback. It flowed beautifully on to the neatly bobbed deck. That curse of the Great Brougham Epoch – the vinyl roof – couldn’t completely hide the slick new roof and quarter window.

Even the new-for-1973 bumper standards didn’t ruin the Hornet, as Dick Teague designed a sharp new front fender, hood and grille ensemble that mated perfectly with the rest of the body. This Hornet is a post-1974 model, as it sports the segmented grille and rectangular parking lights adopted for 1975.

Even the details were handled nicely. AMC placed a Hornet medallion on the leading edge of the hood, thus avoiding the stand-up hood ornament craze sweeping the industry while still giving buyers an extra bit of decoration.

The door handles were AMC’s trademark, flush-mounted units that it had used since 1968, which added a nice premium touch to the car, while maintaining a visual link to the rest of the line-up.

Sparked by improving Hornet and Gremlin sales, AMC’s market share increased for 1973, and rose again in 1974, which was a terrible year for the industry. AMC seemed to have recovered from its 1960s mistakes. And then, in two consecutive years, it would repeat them in rapid fashion, ensuring that it would be driven out of business. It introduced the Matador coupe for 1974 and Pacer for 1975, both of which used unique sheetmetal shared with no other AMC car. Neither car generated enough sales to recover their tooling costs, largely due to their oddball styling and uninspired mechanicals.

The hatchback’s impact died almost as quickly, as domestic compact buyers decided they wanted either mini-Continentals or faux-Benzes, and hatchback lovers bought VWs and Hondas.The Hornet soldiered on through 1977, after which AMC surrendered to the Brougham craze and brought out the Concord, which was a Hornet with styling and appointments inspired by a Lincoln Continental Mark IV. The hatchback continued as a Concord through 1979, and even served as the basis for a revived AMX in 1977 and 1978. The Concord, in turn, spawned the all-wheel-drive Eagle in 1980, which was still in production when Chrysler bought AMC from Renault in 1987. The Eagle wagon, still wearing the same basic body of the old Hornet Sportabout, lasted through the 1988 model year, after which it was finally phased out by Chrysler.

One wonders what would have happened to AMC if, instead of blowing precious development dollars on the Matador coupe and Pacer, it had used that money to give the Hornet the Concord treatment in 1975 and sold it alongside the Hornet as a downsized Ambassador. It could have then restyled the Gremlin into the Spirit for 1976, but given it the Javelin name, selling it as a more rational pony car that bridged the gap between the awkward Mustang II and sleek-but-cramped Camaro and Firebird.

In the end, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. In the Civil War, the talents of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson couldn’t overcome the Confederacy’s disadvantages that were rooted in an economic system based on slavery. That hindered its economic development and stopped Great Britain or France from coming to its aid during the Civil War.

AMC ultimately couldn’t survive as an independent, despite the talents of George Romney, Dick Teague and Roy Chapin, Jr, because it could not compete head-on with the richer Big Three. The Confederacy died because it found itself on the wrong side of history in regards to slavery, but AMC vanished, ironically enough, because George Romney was more right than even he realized. Americans would happily drive more rationally sized cars. The only problem was that Americans buying those cars could be swayed by style and status, too. A Ramber Rebel or even an AMC Ambassador was ultimately no match for an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme that had been styled by Bill Mitchell’s troops.

But, over 30 years later, we can still appreciate this Hornet hatchback, not only for its handsome looks, but as the final High Water Mark of the independent automakers. Sitting in a yard in suburban Harrisburg – without, oddly enough, any “For Sale” placards – it shows off its smooth, sleek lines. We can appreciate Dick Teague’s efforts to keep the final independent alive, even if they weren’t ultimately enough to turn the tide of history.