These days American Motors is but a vague memory, and not necessarily a pleasant one. Those few American Motors-built vehicles that are still on the road today include battered, old Jeeps and tatty Renault-based Alliances, rusting their way toward oblivion, certainly not the stuff of automotive legend. But there was a bright, shining half-decade or so when lowly American Motors gained a reputation for building attractive, sporty cars. And the model that was the centerpiece of American Motors' version of Brigadoon was the Javelin.
Of course, no one can tell you that the Javelin was an original idea. By the time it reached the marketplace in the fall of 1967 as a 1968 model, Ford had already blazed the trail with its Mustang. The "ponycar" started a new genre. The Javelin was simply a response to Ford's innovation in much the same manner as the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. But at least AMC got it right. And, the fact is, the company did so against considerable odds.
First of all, American Motors was forged from two "independent" car companies -- Nash and Hudson -- that had built decent reputations for themselves in the late '30s and '40s but had also labored in the shadow of the Big Three. Soon after the merger, at the behest of then-CEO George Romney (who would later go on to become governor of Michigan and Presidential aspirant) the company decided to zig while the Big 3 zagged, building small, relatively fuel-efficient cars like the Rambler, while GM, Ford and Chrysler built ever-larger vehicles. When a recession hit the car business hard in the late Fifties, this stood AMC in good stead, and for several years the company enjoyed significant sales success.
But the Big 3 automakers were quick to catch on to building "compact" cars, and with the introduction of the Ford Falcon and Chevy Corvair, AMC was forced to get even more resourceful in its quest to maintain sales volume. Unfortunately, though, when it came to developing new models, AMC just didn't have the cash or the staff of the Big 3, so it relied on clever design and the 1960's version of multi-tasking to enable it to compete.
A case in point occurred in 1965 when the company introduced the fastback Marlin on the heels of the Mustang's incredible success. Unfortunately for American Motors, instead of basing the fastback Marlin on the compact Rambler chassis, instead it was built on the bigger 112-inch wheelbase of the Classic line. The result was attractive in an idiosyncratic way, but a six-passenger sporty car with a trunk lid the size of a manhole cover certainly wasn't what the market was looking for.
It didn't take AMC chief designer Richard A. Teague long to recognize the folly of the Marlin and set about an attempt to right that wrong. By 1966 drawings, clay models, and then a full-size auto show concept car foretold the shape of the upcoming Javelin and its sister ship, the two-seat AMX. The AMX concept car hit the auto show circuit that year, and immediately got rave reviews. Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Robert Evans, a financier who had bought into American Motors so heavily he found himself named chairman of the company, began to hanker to build the AMX, while the more conservative elements within American Motors, led by Roy Abernethy, were readying the Javelin for launch in 1968. The Javelin borrowed heavily from the AMX concept vehicle and an AMC studio concept called the Rogue.
Of course, launching two sporty cars was a big undertaking for the relatively small car company, and on top of that AMC was hardly synonymous with performance. But thanks to Dick Teague, AMC was able to launch both the Javelin and AMX within six months of one another in 1967-68. How? The production AMX was, in essence, a Javelin, less 12 inches.
Almost in spite of itself, the automotive press immediately took to the Javelin, drawn by the car's sleek, no-nonsense look that retains its attractiveness today. The design glommed onto the long hood-short deck Mustang profile, but it was uncluttered in a way quite unlike the Mustang with sweeping expanses of sheetmetal and a semi-fastback roofline. The split grille front-end was equally uncluttered, matched by a tasteful rear-end treatment with none of the fussiness of the Mustang's three-part taillights. In fact, it was hard to believe that this elegant design had emerged from an American studio.
The interior featured the same clean look. Up-front were two rather flat bucket seats and in the rear a bench that could, in a pinch, accommodate three people, hopefully close friends. Behind a thin-rimmed plastic steering wheel, the gauge package was deeply recessed and significantly less gaudy that most American dashboards of the era.
While AMC had no performance credentials to speak of, the company was able to supply Javelin buyers with the requisite "goodies" right out of the box. While many buyers opted to get the Javelin's great looks and not much else by buying the six-cylinder version (with 145 rompin'-stompin' horsepower from the engine's 232 cubic inches), those seeking some fun to drive could select what became known as the "Go" package and get power front disc brakes, "Wide-Oval" tires and a stiffer suspension with a front anti-sway bar to go along with three V-8 engine choices.
What were those three choices? Though not the stuff of automotive dreams, the 290 cubic inch V-8, 343 cubic inch V-8 and an all-new 390 cubic inch V-8 were all thoroughly workmanlike. The biggest engine was originally destined for the rotund Ambassador sedan, but it proved remarkably popular with Javelin (and AMX) buyers. When one looks at the specs it is easy to see why. The 390 offered 315 horsepower at 4,600 rpm and a whopping 425 pound-feet of torque at just 3,200 rpm. As they say, there's no substitute for cubic inches.
While the 390 offered significant torque, a less expensive but still palatable choice was the 343 cubic inch V-8. That engine could propel the 3500-pound Javelin from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than eight seconds, while its 3.15:1 rear-end ratio helped the car offer pleasant highway cruising and pretty decent fuel economy. Top speed was just north of 100 miles per hour, but in the U.S. that number was largely academic anyway.
The Javelin was also a better-balanced all-around car that the big-block Mustangs, Barracudas, Camaros and Firebirds that were its major competition. Given its humble AMC underpinnings, the Javelin's suspension was utterly conventional -- coil springs and unequal-length wishbones up front and semi-elliptic leaf springs locating a solid axle at the rear. But with the optional fast-ratio steering and the handling package, the Javelin could hold its head up when the roads grew twisty.
Right out of the box the Javelin was a winner for AMC. Of course it never turned in Mustang-type numbers, but in its first model year some 55,000 Javelins roared out of showrooms, and it maintained a steady volume into the early 1970's. One factor that helped build the prestige of the car was the successful racing exploits of engineer-driver Mark Donohue. Along with Roger Penske, Donohue made the Javelin a force to be reckoned with on the then extremely influential Trans Am racing circuit. In 1971 that combination combined for a Trans Am series championship with seven wins in nine races, and the Javelin took the T-A championship the following year as well.
Despite success on the track, though, the times were running hard against the Javelin. Safety, insurance and fuel economy concerns were smacking ponycar fans in the face, and when the gas crisis of 1974 hit the country, the Javelin's days ran out. But not before the car had given American Motors one shining moment in the sun.