They say BMW is "The Ultimate Driving Machine," but before the now-legendary German brand took that moniker for itself there was another, far more humble car, that dubbed itself simply "The Machine." It was built, not by Bavarian Motor Works but by American Motors, and despite its mundane underpinnings, if The Machine had ever squared off against a contemporary BMW, it would have blown it back into the Black Forest. Which is not to say The Machine was the ultimate "ultimate driving machine," but in its own idiosyncratic way the American Motors Rebel Machine, a model you probably don't remember, but a model whose single year was a great one, somehow, someway deserves to be considered among the greatest cars of all time.
These days, of course, American Motors is simply a footnote in automotive history. If the marque is ever considered all, it is with disdain. Perhaps it is fitting that one of its precursor companies -- Nash -- merged with Kelvinator, a maker of refrigerators, because if any company has a reputation for building "appliance cars" it was American Motors. Not only did the company build low-powered "compact cars" during the late Fifties when other American car companies were flexing their muscles by unleashing bigger and bigger V-8s, but American Motors also had the audacity to spring the Renault-based Alliance small car on a largely unsuspecting public before it and the company itself vanished from the scene.
Surely this heritage gives no hint that a greatest car or two lies under the American Motors bushel, but, strangely enough there was a bright, shining half-decade when lowly American Motors gained a reputation for building attractive, sporty cars. Two models do the heavy lifting in this era -- the Javelin and AMX -- near twins that were launched one after the other in the heady days of 1967.
Of course, neither of these worthies was an original idea. The Javelin was stylist Dick Teague's clean, modern take on the Ford Mustang formula, while the AMX was Corvette in spirit if not in form. But as the youth car craze struck America in the late 1960's, AMC added a couple of other sub-models in an attempt (the unkind would say "feeble attempt") to keep up with the plethora of performance chariots from the Big 3. One of these was the SC/Rambler forged by dumping a 390 cubic-inch V-8 into the engine bay of the prosaic American Motors Rambler, a vehicle that, in its base form, could well have been called the American Motors Kelvinator. The other is the subject of this essay, the 1970 American Motors Rebel Machine.
Talk about a Rebel Without a Cause. First of all, in those days of General Motors' dominance in the U.S. market, it was amazing American Motors was even around to compete. Forged from two "independent" car companies -- Hudson and the aforementioned Nash - that had labored in the shadow of the Big 3, American Motors was always an outsider, trying to make it way with fewer resources in what was becoming an ever-more-complicated business.
After the merger between Nash and Hudson, the company decided to continue on Nash's course of 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 AM in good stead, 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.
AMC's first answer to the epoch-changing Ford Mustang was the Marlin, an oddly attractive six-passenger sporty car that was much too big and lumbering to compete effectively in the pony car wars. Happily, it didn't take Teague long to recognize the folly of the Marlin and to right that wrong. By 1966 a full-size auto show concept car foretold the shape of the upcoming two-plus-two Javelin and the two-seat AMX. The AMX concept car got rave reviews on the auto show circuit, prompting Robert Evans, a financier who had bought into American Motors so heavily he found himself named chairman of the company, to build the AMX, while old AM hand Roy Abernethy pushed the Javelin for 1968 introduction.
Somehow the American Motors was able to launch both models successfully within just a year's time, and the press immediately embraced both, though the bulk of the praise was showered on the Javelin The design co-opted 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 pure design had emerged from an American studio.
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.
Meanwhile, the AMX, a truncated two-seat Javelin, somehow managed to be viewed as a somewhat credible competitor to the contemporary Corvette, despite its pedestrian, sedan-like underpinnings. But while these twins did give American Motors some presence in two important sporty car categories, the company still had no competitor in the musclecar segment that had been pioneered by the Pontiac GTO.
Following the GTO, of course, were a plethora of similar rides featuring the same basic architecture -- big engines in medium-sized or smaller chassis. You know them: Oldsmobile 4-4-2, Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396, Plymouth Road Runner, etc, etc. Buoyed by the success of the Javelin, American Motors decided it could play in this sandbox, too, and introduced the previously mentioned SC/Rambler, a combination of 315-horsepower 390 cubic inch V8 in a compact Rambler body.
That short-lived exercise was replaced in the 1970 model year with The Machine. Again the engine of choice was the 390 cubic inch V8, but this time the 6.4L engine was slipped under the ample hood of the mid-size Rebel model, which made it a straight-up competitor to the GTO, et al. At the same time the engine was upgraded to 340 horsepower (SAE gross of course, not today's SAE net) by virtue of a four-barrel Motorcraft carburetor and other hot rod trickery. The torque figure was equally prodigious -- 430 lb-ft at a lazy 3600 rpm. In this car the engine was practically the entire story. Backed up with the requisite four-speed manual, The Machine could spring from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 6.4 seconds, a creditable showing even today.
Additionally, AMC did beef up the suspension, which was utterly conventional circa 1970 -- control arms and coil springs up front assisted by an anti-sway bar, while at the rear was a live axle spring again with coils and another anti-sway bar. With front discs and rear drums, braking was better than you might expect.
Then there was the styling. The Rebel actually had a pretty clean, somewhat Chrysler-esque profile with a huge c-pillar and a long rear overhang. On the quintessential The Machine, this profile was done up with operating hood scoop, hood-mounted tach and red-white-and-blue racing stripes. Inside, in Road Runner fashion, it was equipped with bench seats fore and aft (room for six), and the instrument panel offered no hint that this was a performance car save for a passenger-side applique‚ that said The Machine. A similar applique‚ -- essentially a decal -- carried the same message on the front fenders. All this cost about $750 more than the base Rebel two-door of the era.
Was it a big sales success? Hardly. Just 2,000 Rebel Machines rolled out of AM showrooms in the 1970 model year, but that's not surprising since, by the time it debuted, American Motors was already preparing the Matador that would take its place. Okay, so it wasn't the ultimate driving machine. Nevertheless The Machine could still hold its head high in fast company.