The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 25, 2008

The former pride of Kenosha

Hot Rod magazine, a publication for car enthusiasts, committed one of the great April Fool’s jokes in the history of magazine publishing when it breathlessly reported in its April issue that a group of private investors were working to bring back the late American Motors Corp. (The disclaimer at the beginning of the Web page didn’t appear until the last paragraph of the printed version.)

As with any successful practical joke, this one worked because of the appearance of plausibility. Given that the 2008 Ford Mustang looks like the 1967–68 Mustang, and given that Chrysler is resurrecting the Dodge Challenger and General Motors Corp. is bringing back the Chevrolet Camaro, is it possible that someone might want to resurrect the AMC Pacer (top photo) or, even better, the Javelin (right photo)?

AMC, created by the merger of the former Nash and Hudson brands, was the smallest member of the Big Four automakers, until Chrysler purchased it in 1987 to get the Jeep brand into the Chrysler fold. AMC first had a reputation for building compact cars, such as the Rambler, in an era in which compact cars were only sporadically popular. One of AMC’s presidents was Gerald Romney, a later governor of Michigan and Republican presidential candidate, and father of 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Having much less capital than its bigger three competitors, AMC nonetheless built some cars that were ahead of their time, thanks in large part to the work of chief stylist Richard Teague. The company first took its sporty Javelin, chopped off the rear end, and created the two-seat AMX, a cult car among collectors today. A couple years later, AMC took its compact Hornet, similarly sliced off the rear end, and created the subcompact Gremlin (an unfortunate name for anything motorized), a car you could buy with a Levi’s interior. Whoever thought of adding four-wheel-drive to the compact Concord (born as the aforementioned Hornet 10 years earlier) created the Eagle (right photo), America’s first crossover sport utility (car with four-wheel-drive-truck-like capabilities), predating the Subaru Outback and other all-wheel-drive-equipped cars by 15 years. Then, in 1983, came the downsized Jeep Cherokee, the first compact sport utility. An AMC subsidiary, AM General, began work in the late 1970s on something the U.S. Army called the “High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle” — which, two owners and a marketing agreement with General Motors later, the world came to know as the Hummer.

Other AMC cars were not great cars, but at least they stood out on the street, such as the Marlin (which arguably looked better as the Tarpon show car, based on a smaller model than the Marlin ended up being), the Gremlin, and the final two-door (right photo) and four-door versions of the Matador. Like the Pacer, the Matador coupe was in a class of one, while the last four-door Matador was referred to as “coffin-nose.”

One unusual AMC niche was in police cars. Anyone who watched “Adam-12,” “The Rockford Files” or “The Dukes of Hazzard” (I plead guilty to all three — any series with cool cars got my attention) might remember that those series all featured Matador police cars. Many law enforcement agencies used Matadors because they probably were less expensive than their Big Three competition. (I once saw a sign in a National Guard armory that reminded everyone that all of their equipment was produced by the lowest bidder.) I don’t remember seeing Matador police cars in Wisconsin, but for several years in the early ’70s the Wisconsin State Patrol used Ambassador squad cars (this photo). So did a few sheriff’s departments, including Dane County, at least until a well-publicized spat between either AMC or the Madison AMC dealer and the sheriff over sheriff’s deputies’ habit of crashing said Ambassadors. (The dealership, from which we purchased a 1973 Javelin (read further), is still in business today, though it sells used cars now.)

There are conflicting schools of thought as to why AMC finally folded with its purchase by Chrysler. Patrick Foster, author of American Motors: The Last Independent, argues that AMC did fairly well in the 1960s, offering economical (for the day), sturdily built, stolid cars (similar to Mercedes-Benz in the day), until AMC management decided it needed to offer what the other members of the Big Four were offering — sporty cars (although the Javelin was quite successful in the Trans Am series) and big cars, products where AMC lacked the ability to compete with GM, Ford and Chrysler.

I maintain that the reason AMC doesn’t exist today as an independent manufacturer has to do with a decision the company made during the early 1970s to discontinue building its Javelin “pony car.” Chevrolet built many more Camaros and Ford built many more Mustangs than AMC built Javelins, but the Javelin and its AMX two-seat cousin developed a reputation as race cars whose performance exceeded their reputation. (My first car was my father’s brown 1973 Javelin, a cool-looking car from the front seats forward, with a back seat suitable only for dolls.) The last year of the Javelin was 1974, just before the pony car market exploded and General Motors sold as many Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds as they could build.

Instead of the Javelin (and the luxury Ambassador, killed at the same time), AMC built the Pacer (right photo), a car that was small in length, but wider and thus roomier (or so AMC wanted the consumer to believe) than the average small car. It was, however, heavy for its length due to big windows and slow yet fuel-inefficient even for that time, and, as the New York Times put it, it “looked like nothing else on the road,” a plus perhaps only in the minds of Wayne and Garth.

With AMC lacking money, 25 percent of AMC was sold to Renault (leading to the AMC Alliance and Fuego) before Chrysler purchased all of AMC in 1987. Chrysler closed the Kenosha manufacturing plant, originally built by Nash in 1902, in 1988. Chrysler’s Kenosha engine plant and General Motors’ Janesville plant are the only plants building cars in Wisconsin today, and the Janesville plant will be closing within the next two years. (My family must be a curse upon carmakers, since our family’s garage simultaneously housed a Kenosha-built Javelin and a Janesville-built Chevrolet Caprice. My parents also owned two of the last Oldsmobiles, and my father owned a Studebaker Hawk many years ago. Someone should warn Cadillac, Subaru and Honda of this.)

Given how things for the remaining Big Three automakers today, it’s hard to imagine how AMC could have made it to today had the sale to Chrysler not occurred. It is fun to contemplate, though, what could have happened had the “group of like-minded venture capitalists pooling billions of dollars to create the ultimate U.S. car company, and without the hindrance that comes with being a public company” been more than the figment of a creative writer’s imagination.


Anonymous said...

SOWhat 1971 to 1974 Javelins are the only Ponycars that have real bigger backseats for adults...And won Trans Am races.......;)

Joe said...

The Dukes of Hazzard did not use AMC Matador police cars like you stated in your article. They used Dodge and Plymouth police cars. Here is a picture of one.

Joe said...

My link got cut off earlier

Joe said...

Why does your system cut off URL's?

Here is the picture to the police car used in Dukes of Hazzard. For the third time.