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Metal to Rust: The AMC Matador

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The Rebel’s replacement finally bowed for the 1971 model year. For the second time in five years, it had a new name: AMC Matador. The new moniker did not go over well in some Spanish-speaking export markets; while “Matador” usually implies a bullfighter, it more literally means “killer.” (A less-confrontational nameplate would have been “Toreador.”)
Like the Rebel, the Matador shared much of its body structure with the Ambassador, distinguished by a different front clip and a shorter wheelbase: 118 inches (2,997 mm) versus 122 inches (3,099 mm). In overall dimensions, the Matador was only slightly smaller than the “Detroit dinosaurs” George Romney had decried a decade earlier and it was wholly undistinguished in both design and engineering.
Whatever else the Matador was, it was not a strong seller. 1971 volume was fewer than 46,000 sales, rising to about 55,000 for 1972. Sales for many intermediates were down in the early seventies as buyers gravitated to compacts and subcompacts and AMC, which had never firmly established itself in the intermediate market, was hit particularly hard. AMC’s ad agency, Wells, Rich, Greene, Inc., whose past campaigns had already established a tone of bemused self-deprecation reminiscent of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s famous Volkswagen ads, opted to make a joke of the Matador’s anonymity with a series of 1973 spots asking, “What’s a Matador?” It didn’t help much.
Fortunately, American’s investment in the Hornet and Gremlin was paying off, allowing the company to post a modest profit for 1971 and even better numbers for 1972 and 1973. AMC’s market share climbed from 3.3% in 1972 to 4.2% in 1973 and the company reported profits of $44.5 million.
Nevertheless, Gerry Meyers was not happy about AMC’s lack of presence in the intermediate market, which was starting to grow again by 1972, reaching nearly 20% of the market the following year. AMC didn’t have an entry in the popular and lucrative personal luxury class either. In fact, the hardtop coupe was the slowest-selling Matador, in a segment where two-door hardtops were customarily the most popular (and profitable) models. Customers were not taken with the Matador’s blocky styling and peculiar protruding snout and NASCAR drivers Mark Donohue and Dave Marcis, who drove Matador stock cars for Roger Penske, likened it to a brick.
Fortunately, thanks to the profits the company had earned in 1971 and 1972, AMC finally had the money to do something about it. Meyers asked Dick Teague to develop a better-looking Matador coupe for the 1974 model year.
Bob Nixon, who had styled the 1964 Rambler American, the Tarpon, and the Gremlin, became AMC’s Director of Design for Exteriors in the late sixties. He led the exterior design of the new Matador coupe while his friend and colleague Vince Geraci, who had previously headed large-car design, developed the interior.
Unlike the previous Matador coupe, the new coupe shared no sheet metal with the sedan and wagon, which looked boxy and rather ordinary despite their peculiar grille treatment. The coupe also had a shorter wheelbase, 114 inches (2,896 mm) compared to 118 inches (2,997 mm) for the four-doors. GM had used a similar split-wheelbase strategy for its intermediate coupes and sedans since 1968, but this was new for AMC, which seldom had the money for such extravagances. While the coupe broke no new ground mechanically, it was different enough from the sedan to make it expensive to build. AMC spent around $40 million on development and tooling, which wouldn’t have been a vast amount for GM or Ford, but was a lot for the perpetually cash-strapped independent.
Like GM’s 1973 “Colonnade” intermediates, the Matador coupe abandoned the customary pillarless hardtop style for fixed B-pillars and wide rear quarter windows. The B-pillars were linked by a steel hoop through the headliner in anticipation of more stringent roof crush standards. Like the old Rambler Marlin, the coupe had a steeply sloping fastback roof, flowing smoothly into the flared rear fenders and drooping tail.
Many contemporary observers assumed the sleek styling was dictated by the need for better aerodynamics on the high-speed NASCAR ovals; Mark Donohue hadn’t compared the old Matador to a brick simply because he didn’t like its looks. However, despite press reports to the contrary, Bob Nixon said that racing had relatively little to do with the design. He was more concerned with issues like how to integrate the now-mandatory 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers in an aesthetically satisfying way, something few automakers successfully managed during this period.
When the Matador coupe went on sale in the fall of 1973, it was not only a striking departure for AMC; it defied the contemporary trend toward feverish neo-Classical design, embodied by the Lincoln Continental Mark series and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. In November 1973, Car and Driver compared it to the work of artist Charles Eames, praising the Matador’s lack of ersatz formal grilles and opera windows. On the latter point, the magazine spoke too soon; opera windows and a padded vinyl roof become optional on the top-of-the-line Brougham coupe in January 1974.
With a V8 and a full load of options, the new Matador weighed 4,050 lb (1,837 kg), which put straight-line performance somewhere between sleepy and brisk depending on powertrain. There were six choices, offering between 100 and 235 net horsepower (75 and 175 kW): the base 232 cu. in. (3,801 cc) six, an optional 258 cu. in. (4,235 cc) version of same, the base 304 cu. in. (4,977 cc) V8, the optional 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) V8 with either a two- or four-barrel carburetor, and the 401 cu. in. (6,573 cc) four-barrel. Road & Track‘s 1974 test car, equipped with the four-barrel 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) option (offering 195 hp/145 kW), managed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 9 seconds and a top speed of 116 mph (187 km/h), which wasn’t bad for 1974. Car and Driver‘s Matador X, with the bigger 401 cu. in. (6,573 cc) engine, was almost a second quicker to 60 mph (97 km/h). Enthusiast publications didn’t bother testing the smaller engines, but the sixes were undoubtedly on the sluggish side.
The Matador’s other virtues were a mixed bag. On the plus side were the automatic (now Chrysler’s excellent three-speed TorqueFlite); decent steering response from the optional variable-assist power steering (a Saginaw system purchased from GM); and disc/drum brakes with better-than-average front/rear proportioning, giving reasonable stopping power. Less happily, the coupe’s interior was cramped, more of a 2+2 than a true four-seater; there was more noise and harshness than in a contemporary Ford Torino or Chevrolet Chevelle; and fuel economy was dismal with any of the larger engines, a consequence of the hefty curb weight and primitive emissions controls. AMC had a come a long way since the days of George Romney, not necessarily for the better.
The Matador coupe’s sales, like those of those of the industry at large, took a nasty hit from the OPEC oil embargo, which began shortly after its introduction. When the dust settled, AMC had sold almost 100,000 Matadors, more than 62,000 of which were the new coupe. Compared to the dismal sales of the previous Matador and Rebel hardtops, that was quite good, even beating out a few competitors, like the Plymouth Satellite Sebring and Mercury Montego. On the other hand, Oldsmobile sold almost 240,000 Cutlass coupes in 1974 while Chevrolet sold 240,000 Chevelle, Malibu, and Laguna two-doors and 312,000 Monte Carlos.
The slick new body also failed to make the Matador a serious contender on the racetrack. Roger Penske’s Matadors scored only a single victory in 1974. Bobby Allison managed three wins in 1975, which was respectable, but the 1976 season was a disaster. Plagued with technical failures, the Matador scored no victories and AMC terminated its support of NASCAR at the end of the season. The following year, Roger Penske switched to Mercury.
If the Matador had continued to sell at its 1974 volume, AMC probably would have deemed it a success. Unfortunately, once the initial demand was sated, customers were few and far between. With buyers still reeling from the oil embargo, Matador coupe sales fell to less than 23,000 in 1975 despite the car’s featured role in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, in which the villainous Scaramanga (portrayed by Christopher Lee) transforms his Matador into an airplane to escape from 007. Buyers were apparently not moved; Matador sales dropped by more than 30%, coupe sales by 65%. Gremlin and Hornet sales fell significantly as well, a decline that the introduction of the new Pacer and decent Jeep sales couldn’t fully counterbalance. AMC ended the 1975 fiscal year with a $27.5 million net loss.
One of AMC’s more interesting marketing tactics in this era, and one that would later be widely imitated, was offering special co-branded editions in collaboration with well-known fashion designers. In the Matador’s case, this was the 1974–1975 Oleg Cassini edition, which featured a special black, white, and copper color scheme conceived by the designer and AMC’s Vince Geraci. The Oleg Cassini package was modestly priced — $299 in 1974 — and initially sold a respectable 6,165 cars. Sales for 1975 fell to less than 30% of that figure despite a price cut to $236, so AMC pulled the plug.
Things didn’t get better for the Matador in 1976. Although the domestic auto market was starting to recover, the Matador still sold poorly. The engine lineup had shrunk from the original six choices to four; the smaller six and the 401 cu. in. (6,573 cc) V8 had disappeared in 1975, so the most powerful engine was now the 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) four-barrel, with 180 net horsepower (134 kW). A non-branded “Barcelona” special edition replaced the slow-selling Oleg Cassini package. Total Matador sales slumped a further 30% and AMC had to offer $600 rebates to clear out unsold cars. Worse, an emissions control problem forced the company to recall almost all non-California intermediates, which cost AMC more than $5 million and contributed to a net loss of $46.3 million for the fiscal year.
In 1977, NASCAR driver Bobby Allison, no longer affiliated with Roger Penske, persuaded AMC to back another run at the Winston Cup. Allison’s Matador failed to win a single race, however, and the publicity value was minimal. Meanwhile, the production Matador line was further simplified, with only three engine options and standard automatic transmission, and a singularly gaudy two-tone Barcelona II edition was added in a vain attempt to attract interest in the coupe. Matador sales fell to 30,847, a drop of more than 25% from 1976.
Fewer than 7,000 of those 1977 sales were coupes and AMC sold only 2,006 for 1978, the coupe’s final year. As with the contemporary Pacer, the Matador coupe’s novelty wore off quickly and we suspect the only reason AMC kept it alive was to minimize the losses it was going to take on the coupe’s tooling. Sales of sedans and wagons weren’t much better, so AMC canceled the entire line after 1978. Gerry Meyers, who became chairman in the fall of 1977, decided there wasn’t enough demand to merit a replacement. By 1979, AMC’s biggest car was the compact Concord, introduced in 1977.

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