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The Rearview Mirror: AMC Throws the Javelin into the Pony Car Wars

The AMC Javelin, designed to take on Mustangs, Camaros and Barracudas.

It was the car that no one would have expected from a purveyor of dull but dependable commuter compacts. But on this week in 1967, American Motors Corp. introduced the 1968 AMC Javelin, its answer to the Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro and Plymouth Barracuda.

The Javelin would be one part of a two-part pony car counterpunch that saw the company also introduce the AMX, a short-wheelbase, two-seat offshoot of the Javelin.

But its creation would prove beneficial to AMC. Nearing bankruptcy, the company’s faltering fortunes revived under the leadership of Roy Chapin Jr., who was appointed in CEO 1967. His father, Roy Chapin Sr., was a co-founder of Hudson Motor Co.

Last of the independents

AMC was born out of desperate times, as Detroit’s Big Three were making life difficult for smaller independent automakers.

Not only did this drive an ill-advised merger between Studebaker and Packard to form Studebaker-Packard Corp. in 1954, but it also saw Hudson merge with Nash-Kelvinator that same year to form American Motors Corp. From 1950 through 1962, the company’s CEOs believed in compact cars, a market segment ignored by other manufacturers.

Designer Richard Teague described the AMC Javelin as “voluptuous curves with nary a hint of fat.”

It built the Nash Rambler from 1950-1955, reviving it using nearly identical styling for 1958, just in time for a recession to hit. As AMC killed its Hudson models to successfully concentrate on compacts, it sold a record 200,000 units. The Rambler helped AMC reach a 6.6% market share. 

But by 1964, AMC sales were sliding against the compact Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant. So the company abandoned the compact car vision that had brought AMC success. Instead, it battled the Big Three, fielding full-sized Ambassadors, midsize Rambler Classics and compact Rambler Americans. 

There was also the AMC Marlin, the production version of the Tarpon show car. But the Tarpon was built on the compact American chassis, while the Marlin employed the midsize Classic chassis, and sales were few. But a replacement was on the way, thanks to AMC’s design chief Richard Teague.

The birth of the Javelin

It even looked good with a vinyl roof.

California-born Teague started his career at General Motors in 1948 before leaving to join Packard, where he became Design Director in 1953, only to oversee its demise in 1957. Two years later, Teague joined AMC, where he oversaw the graceful 1964 Rambler American, and the previously mentioned Tarpon. 

But it was Teague’s “Project Four” show cars, released in 1966, that were the inspiration for the Javelin. The AMX two-seater received inspiration from two of these, the AMX and AMX II. Another was a close-coupled coupe with a landau-style top called the Vixen. All three had lines that were obviously influential in the creation of the Javelin. The Cavalier, the fourth model, offered front and rear doors that could be switched out diagonally.

The interior was typical pony car.

Measuring 189 inches long with a 109-inch wheelbase, and offered in Base and SST trim, it used long-hood/short-deck pony car proportions, and was endowed with what Teague called “voluptuous curves with nary a hint of fat.” It used flush-mounted door handles that were not only unique at the time, but also became an AMC styling trademark. Suspension was conventional, as the car was derived from a Rambler, with coil springs and wishbones up front, and semi-elliptic leaf springs out back.

It could be upgraded with the Rally-Pak, later renamed the “Go” package, which added power front-disc brakes, wider tires, dual exhausts, and a handling suspension with a front sway bar, heavy-duty springs and shocks.

As in other pony cars, the Javelin was built using a variety of engines, including a standard 145-horsepower 3.8-liter 6-cylinder, or an optional 280-horsepower 5.6-liter V-8 or a 315-horsepower 6.4-liter V-8. A four-speed manual was standard; a three-speed automatic optional. Top speed was 105 mph with the big V8. 

Later facelifts, like this 1972 model, were less successful.

AMC soon entered Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am racing, grabbing Mark Donahue to lead them to victory.

The rest of the story

While never as successful as their Big Three competitors, a constant in AMC’s existence, it was a hit by AMC standards. With a price starting at $2,482, $120 less than a Ford Mustang, AMC sold 70,000 Javelins in its first calendar year, 56,462 of which were 1968 models. The same year, Chevrolet sold 235,000 Camaros and Ford retailed 300,000 Mustangs.

Javelin sales slid to 40,000 the following year, remaining at 30,000 units annually through the rest of its life. Even the introduction of the Mark Donahue Special, a 1971 facelift and a special Pierre Cardin edition did little to revive sales.

With the pony car market fading, AMC killed the Javelin in 1974. While esteemed today, they remain unvalued and underappreciated compared to its rival, a reminder that AMC never garnered the respect of its colossal competitors.


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