Wednesday, May 20, 2009

1974-1978 AMC Matador

American Motors put a simple question before car buyers in the early 1970s: What's a Matador? But AMC's product planners thought they already knew the answer. To them, the 1974-1978 AMC Matador was just the thing to contend with the bull market for plush mid-size coupes that sprang up after the end of the muscle car era.

AMC gave its stodgy, slow-selling Matador two-door a distinctive makeover. The bug-eyed fastback that resulted made its debut in 1974.

A respected automobile magazine publisher, commenting about American Motors's mid-1970s Matador coupe, sagely noted, "It didn't look like an AMC car -- it looked like it came from GM."

He meant it as a compliment. It recalls, too, the opinions that were held at the time by both AMC and the automotive press: This was something that was truly different and exciting. When it debuted, initial responses to the bold design indicated the coupe might become one of the hottest AMC cars ever. For a while, the press and the public loved it.

The program to redesign the Matador for 1974 represented a new direction for American Motors. Gerald C. Meyers, vice president of product development, had his product planners at work on ideas for a revamped mid-sized product.

The original Matador line, introduced in 1971 to replace the Rebel series, consisted of a staid four door sedan, a station wagon, and an uninspired two-door hardtop. The sedans and wagons offered excellent value and were fairly popular. The problem seemed to be with the two-door models; hardtops generally appealed to people looking for exciting styling and in that regard the Matador just wasn't up to the job.

Company studies indicated the best opportunity for increased sales volume lay in designing a new two-door Matador to appeal to buyers looking for sporty styling. There was plenty of evidence to support this conclusion in the rest of the industry as well. Intermediates were outpacing the market. The new-for-1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo was an exceptionally hot-selling car; so were Pontiac's LeMans, Oldsmobile's Cutlass, and Ford's Torino. The glamour stars of the mid-size market were all hardtops or coupes, with styling as their greatest selling point.

The task of redesigning the Matador went to AMC Styling, under the direction of VP Richard Teague. His staff was allowed more freedom than usual because of a decision to allow the new Matador to be designed strictly as a coupe. Free of the constraints of trying to produce sedan and station wagon variations with the same lines, the designers would be able to style their coupe as rakishly as sheetmetal could be made to look.

1974 AMC Matador

Introduced in the fall of 1973, the 1974 AMC Matador coupe combined the shock of the new with some familiar details. It was a 1970s-style fastback, with a low roofline, close-coupled cabin, and a long, long hood. Exterior design was the work of a team headed by Robert Nixon, director of passenger car exterior styling, while interior design was handled by stylist Vince Geraci and his staff.

The Matador sedan looked shockingly different than the new coupe.

If the idea was to come up with a look that was all-new and visually striking, they did their work well, as evidenced by the cover of the November 1973 issue of Car and Driver magazine, which featured a flaming red Matador coupe that Car and Driver boldly pronounced "1974's Best Styled Car."

Probably the most distinctive styling element was up front. The sloping hood was capped by deeply tunneled headlamps that served as the focal points of the frontal styling. The inset grille was deliberately understated, but featured turn signal lamps styled to resemble driving lamps.

The forward edge of the hood was the starting point of a crease that ran completely around the middle of the car. Two sets of round dual taillights peeked out from under the fold at the rear. The wide doors carried frameless door glass, but the triangular rear quarter windows were fixed behind a thick B-pillar.

It was an effect much like that used by General Motors's new-for-1973 intermediate coupes, although with more of a fastback roofline than seen on the General's mid-size two-doors.

The headlamps recalled the 1964-1965 Rambler American and for good reason -- Nixon worked on both designs. Their selection was a deliberate effort to reflect the earlier design. "We wanted to keep some family resemblance and do it in a mid-size [car]," he said. Nixon pointed out that the rounded headlamp theme was carried over to the taillights as well.

It has long been rumored that the coupe's fastback roof styling was a deliberate attempt to enhance its race track potential, and that racer Mark Donohue (famous for campaigning Trans-Am series Javelins) helped design the car, but Nixon said there was no substance to those notions. "Racing was never a major design issue .... We did talk to Mark Donahue from time to time, but I don't believe it had anything to do with the Matador. We were doing some show cars [the AMX 3] and we talked to him on that."

A very unique and innovative feature debuted that year on the Matador coupe -- AMC's free-standing bumpers. Stringent new federal bumper regulations forced automakers to increase the size of bumpers and place them further away from the body. The gap between body and bumper was usually filled with a plastic "sight panel" that, in combination with the large bumpers, gave many cars a nose-heavy look.

AMC solved the problem by eliminating the filler panels that normally spanned the space between body and bumpers, instead covering just the retracting pistons that located the bumpers to the car. Although it sounds like a simple concept, in 1974 it was considered audacious.

1974 AMC Matador Lineup

The 1974 AMC Matador lineup was simple. The Coupe came in three models: base, sportier X, and ritzier Brougham. The standard model was equipped the way most mid-size American cars were back then -- pretty basic. Included was AMC's reliable 232-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine, a three-speed manual transmission, bench seats, color-matched carpeting, cigarette lighter, dual horns, and a 24.9-gallon fuel tank.

The 1974 Matador X, with its slotted wheels and racing stripe, kept up the pretense of sport.

The Matador X came with rally side stripes, blacked-out grille, slotted wheels, sports steering wheel, a 304-cubic-inch V-8 engine, and "Torque Command" automatic transmission.

Brougham models added fancier trim, bright rocker panel and wheel opening moldings, a hood stripe, full wheel covers, a two-spoke steering wheel with woodgrain appliques, custom door trim panels, and nicer seat upholstery but carried the 232 six as standard equipment. This was the first year of the dratted federally mandated ignition interlock that forced front seat occupants to fasten seat belts before the ignition would operate, so that, too, was standard equipment.

AMC was famous in the 1970s for its use of designer-label interiors like the Gucci interior trim offered on the Hornet Sportabout wagon, "LEVI'S" denim-look seating on Gremlins and Hornet hatchbacks, and the outlandish Cardin trim offered on Javelins. For the Matador coupe, AMC settled on a combination of luxury interior trim matched with fancy exterior highlights marketed as the Oleg Cassini Package.

The package, available only on the Brougham, included individual reclining seats with black trim, copper buttons and Cassini's crest on the head restraints, a black headliner, a black instrument panel with copper dials and overlays, plus Cassini identification on the glove box door, a black steering wheel with copper accents, handsome copper carpeting, a copper-colored grille and headlamp bezels, a vinyl roof, scuff moldings, and special wheel covers with copper accents. According to several AMC executives, most of the Cassini package's elements were designed by AMC stylists, with little real input from Cassini.

In January of 1974, an opera window treatment, dubbed the D/L Formal Window Package, became available on Broughams. An AMC stylist remembered, "That was Dick Teague's request -- he loved things like that."

The coupe's underpinnings were nicely done. The 114-inch wheelbase (now four inches shorter than the stretch under the face-lifted carryover sedans and wagons) boasted four-wheel coil springs, twin ball-joint front suspension, and a front sway bar as standard equipment.

The body/chassis was unitized, naturally, like all AMC cars had been for many years. An Extra Quiet Insulation Package was standard on all models. Front disc brakes were standard, although power assist was available at extra cost.

The Matador offered a lot of powertrain choices. Buyers who desired more spunk than the 100 horsepower provided by the 232 six could opt for a 258-cubic-inch six with 110 horsepower or a 150-horsepower 304-cid V-8. Additionally, two 360-cubic-inch V-8s were offered: a two-barrel job of 175 horsepower, and a four-barrel version packing 195 horsepower with single exhaust or 220 with dual exhausts. The big-motor option, however, was the 401-cubic-inch V-8, which came only with four-barrel carburetion and twin exhausts. It pumped out 235 horsepower at 4,600 rpm and 335 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm.

Only two transmissions were available. The column-shifted three-speed manual came standard with the sixes and wasn't offered with the V-8s. A Chrysler-built three-speed fully automatic transmission was available with either a column- or floor-mounted shifter. The floor shift could be had only on V-8 coupes equipped with bucket seats and console.

1974 AMC Matador Advertising

American Motors rolled out an impressive 1974 AMC Matador advertising program to launch the new Matador coupe. To make sure the public understood this really was a new car, headlines blared "Newest Mid-Size For 1974." Copy stated, "This is one mid-size car you've never seen before. See why experts are already calling it America's sportiest new car."

The sporty 1974 Matador had an undeniably unique look, a bonus for advertising.

In the previous year, an AMC advertising promotion had lampooned both the modest sales and relative anonymity of its mid-size models by posing the question "What's a Matador?" For 1974, American Motors answered its own question with color postcards of its glamorous new mid-size offering. "WHAT'S A MATADOR?" the card asked rhetorically "THIS IS!" AMC expected big things from its new car and production was cranked up accordingly.

Members of the motoring press swarmed to the Matador and for the most part they loved it. Car and Driver said, "There's an undeniable smugness stamped into the fenders of AMC's new Matador X. And each arrogant crease is integral to an overall air of confidence."

Of the Cassini version, Car and Driver stated, "You won't be able to miss it if you travel in high fashion circles. Nor will you pass by the Matador's shapely exterior without serious consideration. While it lacks the refinement of a Chevelle or a Torino from several standpoints, it is undoubtedly this year's style leader." Road & Track magazine felt the Matador was "Sleek & fast but oversize and thirsty."

The new coupe even made it to the race track, but had an inauspicious first year. Fielded by Roger Penske Racing, the Matador spent the year gradually working its way up through the NASCAR standings before Bobby Allison bagged the team's first win in the season finale at the Los Angeles Times 500 in Ontario, California.

Production of the 1974 Matador coupe totaled 62,269 (31,169 base coupes, 21,026 Brougham coupes -- including 6,165 in Cassini trim -- and 10,074 X coupes) for the model year, up sharply from the 7,067 Matador hardtops produced for 1973. This increase came despite a drop in the overall market for 1974. A production milestone was reached during the year when a Matador coupe became the six millionth car produced by AMC since its founding in 1954.

1975 and 1976 AMC Matador

AMC introduced its radically styled Pacer subcompact in 1975, so changes to the rest of its car lines were held to a minimum. The 1975 and 1976 AMC Matador coupe lineup was trimmed down to a single model, but the Brougham and X survived as option packages. The Cassini decor continued to be available, as well, tempting 1,817 buyers in 1975.

A 1975 Matador X like this one was technically an options package for the base model.

The advent of emissions-tempering catalytic converters sapped net horsepower and led to a shakeup in the 1975 Matador's engine roster. The 258-cubic-inch six with electronic ignition became standard equipment, except in California, where the 304-cubic-inch V-8 was the base engine. Respective power ratings fell to 95 and 120, however. Furthermore, the 401-cubic-inch V-8 option was dropped (though some reports claim that four coupes and a total of 85 sedans and wagons were built with the big engine).

Two 360-cubic-inch V-8s were still available; a 140-horsepower two-barrel version with single exhaust, and a four-barrel variant with dual exhaust rated at 180 horsepower. The Matador X's shift to appearance package status meant it could be had with the base six, but the two made for a rare combination. The three-speed manual transmission continued as the standard gearbox, though most Matadors were ordered with the optional automatic.

Fuel economy was still a concern months after the OPEC oil embargo ended, so easier-rolling steel-belted radial tires were fitted as standard equipment. Also, a fuel economy gauge became available.

During the 1975 NASCAR racing season Allison and the Matador coupe racked up additional victories at the season-opening Winston Western 500, the Rebel 500, and the Southern 500. But by season's end, AMC decided to discontinue factory support of the Matador racers. After one more start with the Matador in the 1976 Winston Western 500, the Penske-Allison effort switched to a Mercury.

It was a bad year for the auto industry, with sales affected by fuel scares and a business recession. Production of the 1975 Matador coupe sagged to 22,368 for the model year. AMC reported a $27.5 million loss.

For 1976, the Matador coupe received an interesting new grille consisting of two rectangular panels filled with horizontal grille bars and rectangular park/signal lamps. An inside hood release, previously optional, became standard equipment and the seat belt interlock system departed. Oddly enough, bias-ply rubber was standard again as radial tires returned to the option list.

The Brougham option, which included roll-down rear quarter windows, made its final bow for 1976.

The popular Brougham decor was still offered, but the X package was no longer available. However, buyers desiring a sportier looking coupe could order new 14x6 forged aluminum wheels, a rally stripe, bucket seats, and firmer suspension parts to make a Matador X in all but name.

Engines were retained from 1975, but the twin-exhaust, four-barrel 360 V-8 was in its last year. A more economy-minded 2.87:1 rear axle ratio came with all V-8s, but the previously standard 3.15:1 cogs could still be ordered.

There was no Cassini option for the 1976 coupes, but AMC Styling came up with a new trick, the Barcelona package. Matador Brougham coupes with this package were treated to lush individual reclining seats in tan or black Knap Knit fabric, thick carpeting with matching trim for the lower door panels, black or tan color-keyed wheel covers, a stand-up hood ornament, Barcelona nameplates for the hood and decklid, special medallions on the glove box and fenders, and a red-and-yellow bodyside stripe. If the tan interior was chosen, the grille, headlamp bezels, and rear license plate cove received tan accents.

AMC car sales dropped dramatically for 1976, Matador included, and the company suffered a loss of $46 million for the year.

1977 and 1978 AMC Matador

The 1977 and 1978 AMC Matador underwent only minor changes. When the 1977 AMC cars debuted October 11, 1976, they had a new slogan: "THERE'S MORE TO AN AMC!" The 1977 Matador coupe didn't offer many styling changes despite being in its fourth year of production, but its standard equipment list was greatly enhanced. Automatic transmission, power steering, power disc brakes, full wheel covers, and individual reclining seats were now included on every Matador.

Aluminum wheels and a vinyl roof were among the options for the 1977 Matador.

The 258-cubic-inch six continued as the base engine in most states, but it picked up three brake horsepower to 98. The 304-cubic-inch V-8 got a boost to 126 horsepower, but the lone 360-cubic-inch offering dropped 11 horsepower to 129.

The big story for 1977 was a new appearance package dubbed Barcelona II. This Brougham replacement provided what AMC termed "Distinctive fine car luxury." Included was two-tone paint in either Golden Ginger Metallic on Sand Tan or Autumn Red Metallic on Claret Metallic; a landau-type padded vinyl roof; opera quarter windows with special accents; body-color bumpers with black bumper guards and protective strips.

A padded opera window roof was added as part of the 1978 Barcelona package.

Also included in the Barcelona II were dual body-color remote mirrors; accent color around the headlamps; slotted wheels (in body color); GR78X 15 whitewall radial tires; Knap Knit upholstered seats; and a Barcelona hood ornament, insignias, and medallions. But AMC car sales were in a slump even the Barcelona II couldn't lift. Matador coupe production sank to just 6,825 for the model year.

The 1977 Matador made a surprise return to the NASCAR racing circuit. Allison and Penske parted company after the 1976 season, and for 1977, the veteran driver chose to strike out on his own. He talked American Motors into providing factory support, rounded up some banking industry sponsors, and returned the red, white, and blue Matador livery to the speedways.

Allison managed five top-five finishes in the 30 races on the schedule, but could do no better than a second in the short-track Nashville 400 in July -- and only then as the result of a scoring review several days after the race that moved him up from third. The following season Allison was in a Ford and AMC's fling with stock car racing was finally at an end.

In 1978, AMC was preoccupied with launching the "new" Concord compact (really a reworked Hornet), its latest attempt at reviving the company's passenger-car business. There wasn't much interest in the mid-size line and thus there wasn't too much that was new.

The 1978 Barcelona package became more elaborate with new color-keyed bumpers and slotted wheels.

The popular Barcelona package returned -- minus the "II" designation. (For 1978, package availability was even extended to Matador sedans.) Drivetrain choices were trimmed, however. The 258-cubic-inch six with automatic remained standard, but the 360-cubic-inch became the only V-8 option.

The engines did get beefier, though. The six was puffed up to 120 horsepower and the V-8 was restored to its 140-horsepower rating of 1975-1976. Torque was up, too, especially in the V-8, which went from 245 pound-feet at 1,600 rpm in 1977 to 278 pound-feet at 2,000 rpm for 1978.

American Motors was clearly shifting its priorities to compact and smaller cars, and most of its dealers knew the Matador was at the end of its run. Production for this final year was a mere 2,006 coupes, slightly more than one per AMC dealer.

By mid-1978 AMC had reached an agreement with Renault to market the French company's line of small cars in America. The agreement eventually led to Renault taking over AMC, but that was still in the future. At the end of the 1978 model year, American Motors abandoned the intermediate market and the Matador coupe became a part of AMC's past.