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American Motors AMX

American Motors AMX

By Jack Nerad

American Motors AMX America loves an underdog. This country revels in those who succeed even though they lack the raw ability, resources, or advantages that others have. And that is why for many years, America loved American Motors. This company, forged from Nash and Hudson in the 1950s, was undoubtedly an underdog compared to the Big Three. Yet somehow through sheer spunk it managed to stay afloat and thrive for more than three decades. Even at the end, right before it was purchased by Chrysler Corporation, its Jeep division was among the most sought-after brands in the world, yet another tribute to its intrepid pursuit of the near-impossible.

American Motors was known for doing a lot with a little, and that philosophy was certainly true with development of the AMX. For American Motors to even consider competing in the sports car market was a huge stretch of the imagination to begin with. After all, this was a company whose bread-and-butter were mundane compact grocery-getters like the American Motors Rambler. But this was also a company that thrived on filling small holes in the market. Of course, sometimes it thought there were holes in the market that weren't really there -- a case in point occurring in 1965 when the company introduced the fastback Marlin on the heels of the Ford Mustang sporty car craze. Unfortunately for American Motors, instead of basing the fastback Marlin on the compact Rambler chassis, it was instead built on the bigger 112-in wheelbase of the Classic line. The result was attractive in an oddball way, but a full-size six-passenger sporty car certainly wasn't what the market was looking for.

In the never-say-die spirit of American Motors, though, chief designer Richard A. Teague kept his staff tinkering, and soon after the Marlin debacle, AMC's advanced design head Chuck Mashigan and his staff completed a two-seater on the American chassis that Teague dubbed the AMX for American Motors Experimental. The wildest feature of the design was the so-called "Ramble seat," a bench that folded out of the rear deck shielded by a flip-up backlight (rear window.) The design had a very long hood in comparison to its truncated overall length, wide "sail" panels and relatively small side glass over substantial amounts of under-beltline sheetmetal.

The AMX hit the auto show circuit where it won a great deal of popular support. (Generally, the public loves to rave about two-seaters; it just won't buy them.) Meanwhile, back in Detroit, the AMX also found a supporter in Robert Evans, a financier who had taken a flier on a bunch of American Motors stock and found himself named chairman of the company. By this time the more conservative elements within American Motors, led by Roy Abernethy, had already readied the Javelin, a ponycar in the Mustang tradition, for launch in 1968, and the Javelin had borrowed heavily from the AMX in styling. But Evans thought it might be a good idea to build the two-seat AMX as well. Of course, all this was a big undertaking for the relatively small car company. AMC certainly didn't have much of a performance reputation, and now it proposed to enter the market with not one but two sporty cars. To most companies it would have put an impossible strain on resources. But where there is a will (and a Dick Teague), there is a way. The plucky designer figured out a way to build the AMX by using a number of Javelin body stampings, thus saving untold sums of money. Though it had a different roof, quarter panels, and hood, the production AMX was, in essence, a 12-inch shorter Javelin.

The American Motors Javelin debuted as the 1968 model year began in September 1967, and the AMX followed with a half-year launch in February 1968. Both got better-than-passing reviews from a wide variety of auto writers, who praised AMC's foray into the sports car realm, though none could bring himself to say the AMX was a "true sports car."

What none of them could deny was the fact the AMX had only two seats and offered plenty of performance. Amazingly, the car was offered with three engine choices: a 290 cubic inch V-8, a 343 cubic inch V-8 and an all-new 390 cubic inch V-8. The biggest engine was originally destined for the big Ambassador sedan, but it proved remarkably popular with AMX buyers. When one looks at the specs it is easy to see why. The 390 offered 315 horsepower at 4,600 rpm and a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque at just 3,200 rpm, a testimony to the old saw there's no substitute for cubic inches.

As with today's Dodge Viper, the combination of a big engine in a relatively small, light, and simple package made for high-spirited performance, at least in a straight line. When Road & Track magazine tested a 390-equipped AMX, its drivers zipped from 0-60 miles per hour in just 7.2 seconds, running through the quarter-mile in 15.2 seconds at 90 mph. But they also found the AMX a "short-legged" car. Top speed was just 104 miles per hour, thanks largely to the 3.54:1 rear end ratio.

These results stacked up decently well against the newly revised 1968 Chevrolet Corvette. A 327 cubic inch small block Vette was almost spot-on the AMX's 0-60 and quarter-mile times, while a 427 cubic inch big block would out-accelerate the AMX 0-60 and in the quarter mile by about a second. But when it came to sophistication, there was no comparison. The '68 Vette featured all-independent suspension, while the AMX had a modified sedan layout. The front suspension was independent, but the rear was a live axle arrangement with torque links and semi-elliptic leaf springs.

The AMX was equally conventional in all other mechanical areas as well. The transmission of choice was the tried-and-true Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual. Steering was by a power-assisted recirculating ball system. Big 11.1-inch disc brakes were fitted up front, but the rear brakes were 10-inch drums.

Despite its ho-hum underpinnings, the AMX enjoyed decent sales success. Some 6,700 were sold in the 1968 model year and another 8,293 in 1969. But the car was doomed almost before its introduction. New management led by Roy Chapin Jr. took over AMC in 1967, and the fresh braintrust decided that the AMX was a frivolous expense. So when a crippling strike limited AMX sales to just 4,116 units in 1970, American Motors management shed no tears. By 1971, the once-proud AMX name was simply a trim package on the second-generation Javelin, and AMC's sortie into the sports car world was over for good.


Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.

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