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American Motors AMX had recipe for success but failed spectacularly

Dave Utterback of Omaha, Neb., puts on the

Dave Utterback of Omaha, Neb., puts on the finishing touches as he details his 1970 American Motors AMX for show at the 2007 Mile High International Convention of the National American Motors Owners Association in Aurora, Colo. For all its good looks and performance, the AMX never really caught on. (July 6, 2007) Credit: AP

Forty grand for an AMX?

Yup, that's what an Arizona dealer was asking for a fully loaded 1969 model in reportedly pristine condition. It's a far cry from 45 years ago when a lack of buyers for the AMX over its three-year lifespan kept quantities to a trickle.

The AMX was an attempt to produce something really revolutionary and to radically change the perceptions of American Motors Corporation. But the vehicle designed to make a big noise in the marketplace amounted to little more than a barely audible whisper.

Poor old AMC could hardly be faulted for trying. Hit head-on by the Go-Go 1960s, the company had little choice but to abandon its compact-focused, fuel-efficiency-is-king mantra and develop products with the cash- and credit-rich boomer generation in mind. And what this demographic desired more than anything else were sporty automobiles with gobs of adrenaline-producing horsepower. And with a lineup primarily consisting of cars that appealed to their grandparents, AMC was typecast as stodgy and un-hip.

The corporate brass was aware of the problem, but with dwindling sales and limited financial resources, the company was forced into building performance on the cheap.

The initial attempt was the Rambler Marlin that was based on one of the company's frumpy sedans instead fitted with a swoopy fastback roof. The Marlin managed to hang on from 1965-'68, but the kids saw it for what it was and stayed away.

However, the future was looking up. The Marlin was followed by the Javelin in 1968, an original and on-the-mark model somewhat similar in shape (long nose, short rear deck) to the Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda and Chevrolet Camaro. The Javelin sold at a respectable clip, although it never posed any real threat to the Big Three's supremacy in the so-called "ponycar" category.

But AMC was holding an ace up its sleeve, one that it hoped would add greater sparkle to its emerging line of performance machinery.

In a surprise move, American Motors unleashed the AMX alongside the Javelin in late February of 1968.

At first glance, the AMX looked vaguely familiar and for good reason since it was based on the Javelin. The designers had simply removed about a foot behind the front doors to create a strictly two passenger quasi-sports car with a generous storage spot behind the seats.

The AMX was at least as good looking as the Javelin. The beautifully proportioned clutter-free lines and "flying buttress" rear end gave it a no-nonsense appearance.

The car was unique in other ways. It was the only AMC product to feature V8 power exclusively, something that only a year or two earlier would have been considered heresy for a company that had staked its reputation manufacturing primarily fuel-efficient six-cylinder automobiles. Customers could choose from a quartet of engines, ranging from a modest 225-horsepower 290 cubic-inch V8, all the way up to a muscular 315-horse 390-cube motor that was capable of launching the two-seater to 60 mph in less than seven seconds. No matter the engine, the AMX could be ordered with a four-speed manual transmission, or optional three-speed automatic.

The base price of about $3,250 was at least $750 higher than that of the Javelin and its peers, but the AMX did include a fancy interior with reclining bucket seats, carpeting, woodgrain interior trim, dual exhaust and a heavy-duty suspension and, of course, a V8.

To promote the car's arrival, AMC sponsored former land-speed record holder Craig Breedlove as he set 106 separate speed records in a specially prepared AMX. To celebrate the achievement, a special run of 50 "Craig Breedlove" editions were produced, each copying the racer's red-white-and-blue paint job.

In 1969, AMC also produced about the same number of AMX SS cars aimed at the drag-racing crowd. For a hefty $6,000, these cars came with heavily modified engines, suspensions and Hurst-brand transmission shifters.

All of AMC's valiant efforts, which included a heavy emphasis on various forms of racing, ultimately failed to deliver big numbers on the company's bottom line and the original AMX body style ended after three years with a little more than 19,000 units sold, which was about half the number of Plymouth Road Runners sold in 1968 alone.

The AMX would live on as a special Javelin model until 1974 when, tiring of the whole escalating musclecar/ponycar battle (which was beginning to fade, anyway), American Motors retreated to what it knew and did best: producing mainly inexpensive economy cars with six-cylinder engines.

The AMX might not have been a sales or performance standout, but it was one of AMC's most interesting and off-the-wall vehicles, no doubt the reasons behind the $40,000 asking price for a pristine model today.

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