From 1954 to 1987, American Motors Corporation graced the market with car models that were quirky in ways we have never seen elsewhere
This automaker’s history is well-known. AMC emerged from the union of Hudson Motor Car Company and Nash-Kelvinator in 1954. That was the largest operation of its kind the North American industry has ever executed. It started with compact cars and moved to larger ones later. The increasing competition of Chrysler, Ford and GM and the oil crisis, however, made its financial health spiral down.
Sadly, the well-known history of people and companies is usually a shortened version of what actually happened. If we took the time to properly research it, we would notice that AMC had quite an interesting interpretation of how to design and advertise cars. In fact, some parts of its history are still relevant in nowadays. This article shows why AMC was much more than “the smallest of the Big Four”.
AMC had unique upper-body design
Proportions are everything here. We cannot consider any visual component ugly or beautiful by itself. We must analyze it in the final product together with all the others. In cars, one creates external car design by, basically, drawing the roof line according to the intended body styles. Then, it is time to balance the regions of windows, cosmetic additions (chrome or unpainted), and sheetmetal (plain or creased).
Some AMCs featured very unusual proportions above the waistline. The AMX and the Marlin, for example, featured C-pillars wider than usual to look more robust, which is a very common resource in this industry. The problem is that their C-pillars are proportionally wide enough to make them look unbalanced and heavy. The Marlin was even worse because it didn’t have B-pillars to help.
AMC had a unique take on compact cars
AMC developed a strong image selling value-oriented cars in the 1960s. They shared many components, some were smaller than their rivals, and the entire company built its image on reinventing North-American cars. As a result, it was only a matter of time for it to invest in hatchbacks. The compact body style arrived in 1970 with the Gremlin and was strengthened by the Pacer in 1975.
What makes them unique is the fact that the smallest cars of a low-cost company did not focus on being cheap. The Gremlin appealed to young drivers with funky styling and the partnership you’re going to see in a while. The Pacer, in turn, was conceived with innovative solutions for the cabin — Richard Teague designed the initial model with even more quirks, as Jalopnik once reported.
AMC had unique ideas to build images
Automakers absolutely love to include car names in their marketing strategies. SEAT uses Spanish regions, Lancia uses Greek letters, and so on. A simpler version of that is applying alphanumeric strings, like the German Big Three have always done. With Ambassador, Eagle, Hornet, Javelin, Marlin, Pacer, Rebel and even the Matador, one may say AMC did not really rely on names to help sell its cars.
Another interesting departure from the car world’s unspoken rules came from the purpose of each car. The Pacer was a small hatchback with revolutionary solutions for internal space. The Eagle, in turn, was available as coupé, sedan and station wagon and with all-wheel drive. Along with the tall ride height, it delivered a set of advantages that we would only see again on modern crossovers.
AMC had unique marketing strategies
AMC became famous for ending TV ads with “if you had to compete with the three biggest car companies in America, what would you do?”. By admitting that things were rough, AMC encouraged itself to think outside the box beyond the previous cases. Another one was the extensive use of special editions, which had many different themes; AMC offered them for years on almost every car it produced.
The Rebel Wagon had three of them, each one with exclusive trim and sold in a different selection of states. Other editions celebrated AMC’s performance in races. After AMC dropped the AMX coupé, its name became another edition for the others. But the most impressive group came from partnerships with Gucci, Pierre Cardin, Oleg Cassini and Levi’s, with multiple trim-related exclusivities.
Renault was a unique partner
Designing innovative cars and making them cheap to produce wasn’t enough to steer AMC away from financial trouble in the 1970s. While its rivals fought the rise of Asian automakers by becoming partners with them, AMC turned to Renault. The former needed money which no one had interest to lend and the latter could use a stronger strategy to enter the North-American market.
After acquiring controlling interest of AMC, Renault adapted some models to produce and sell in the U.S. The R9 became the Alliance (and added coupé and convertible bodies), the R11 was rebadged to Encore, and the R18 only changed enough to comply with the local laws. Sadly, their fuel-efficient approach lost the interest of North Americans once the country overcame the 1980s recession.
A unique company up to the end
The main reason why Chrysler wanted to buy AMC was the upcoming Grand Cherokee, but not only one. There were also a brand new plant in Brampton, Canada, the additional dealer network, and the Eagle Premier’s project, whose fate I tell in another article. Chrysler successfully absorbed all those assets in the 1990s in order to stay competitive in the market. Thanks to FCA, Jeep became a global brand.
AMC’s strategies are still praised in nowadays because they managed to make the best of a rather difficult situation. Its strong culture of innovation made its executives constantly look for new ideas to make its cars interesting, whether by making them different from their rivals or making them more affordable to purchase and keep.
Danillo Almeida has explored his passion for cars in two distinct ways. The first one is his graduation course in Mechanical Engineering, which will hopefully lead to a job position in the field. The other one is expressing his knowledge and opinions on the matter through writing. Almeida has already contributed to blogs, stores, and websites in general writing automotive content in many formats.