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Car History Chronicles

AMC’s Uniqueness is Wildly Underrated

Between 1954 and 1987, American Motors Corporation graced the market with models quirky in ways we’ve never seen elsewhere

Danillo Almeida
Jul 20 · 5 min read
  • The abridged version of the automaker’s history skips the best parts
  • Over 33 years, it had innovations from body style to foreign partners
  • Many of its business strategies are still interesting references today

This automaker’s history is well-known. AMC was born from the merger of Hudson Motor Car Company and Nash-Kelvinator in 1954, which was the largest operation of this kind ever executed in North America. It started with compact cars and moved to larger ones later, but the increasing competition of Chrysler, Ford and GM and the oil crisis 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’d notice that AMC had quite an interesting interpretation of how to design and advertise cars — some parts manage to still be relevant in nowadays. This Chronicle shows why AMC was much more than “the smallest of the Big Four”.

Unique upper-body design

Proportions are everything here. No visual component can be considered ugly or beautiful by itself; we must analyze it in the final product, together with all the others. In cars, external design is made by, basically, drawing the roof line according to the intended body styles then balancing 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.

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’s image was built 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 brand weren’t focused 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.

Unique ideas for name and image

Automakers like to include the car’s 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 didn’t 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’d only see again on modern crossovers.

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?”. Admitting that things were rough encouraged it to think outside the box beyond the previous cases. Another one was the extensive use of special editions, which had many different themes and were offered 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 the AMX coupé was dropped, 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.

Unique foreign partnership

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 banks weren’t interested in lending and the latter could use the better plan 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 9 became the Alliance (and added coupé and convertible bodies), the 11 was rebadged to Encore, and the 18 only changed enough to comply with the local laws. Sadly, their fuel-efficient approach lost North-Americans’ interest once the country overcame the 1980s recession.

Unique 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 Canada, the additional dealer network, and the Eagle Premier’s project, whose fate is told in this Chronicle. All those assets were successfully absorbed in the 1990s and helped Chrysler stay competitive. 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. Feel free to leave a comment with what you think of AMC!

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Danillo Almeida

Written by

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.

Car Design Chronicles

Automotive styling broken down into short and simple posts, each one based on a recent event of the industry

Danillo Almeida

Written by

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.

Car Design Chronicles

Automotive styling broken down into short and simple posts, each one based on a recent event of the industry

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