American Comment

With the racing season yet to get into full stride, the most interesting sporting news of the past month has been the introduction by American Motors Corporation of its new AMX model. The AMX is the most significant new car to come out of Detroit since Ford announced the Mustang four years ago. It is significant not only for its concept—it is the only low-priced two-seater produced by a U.S. automobile maker—but also for the fact that it was sired by American Motors.

A.M.C. has been known for years for what its former president, George Romney, proclaimed as “sensible transportation”—simple, low-powered, 6-cylinder cars that it could sell to little old ladies from Keokuk, Iowa. It was sensible transportation, just like a Green Line coach and about as interesting to drive. But unfortunately for A.M.C. little old ladies from Keokuk, Iowa, don’t make up a very large segment of the American car-buying public. The company was on the brink of disaster when new management was brought in to reorganise and revitalise it. The new team realised that the company could not hope to compete with the Big Three all down the line. Where it had to do so it would offer a better product at a lower price; but where it could it would exploit specialised markets in which the Big Three considered the potential volume too small to produce a profit. A market that was too small for Ford would not necessarily be too small for American Motors. Finally, the company acknowledged that its reputation for safe, “sensible transportation,” although once an asset, was now a liability for it did not sell cars. The youth of today wanted performance, and if that was what they wanted that was what American Motors would give them.

The first step in building this new performance image came last autumn when A.M.C. introduced the Javelin as its entrant in the “ponycar” sweepstakes already occupied by Mustang, Barracuda, Camaro and Cougar. The Javelin wasn’t radically different from these other cars but it was the sportiest machine that had been seen in American Motor showrooms for more than a decade. The public began to sit up and take notice. Last month A.M.C. carried the image-building process a giant step forward by unveiling the AMX. Here they were breaking completely new ground with a reasonably priced, two-seat sports/GT car that nicely filled the gap between the domestic “ponycars” and the sophisticated imported sports cars. It is the sort of car American enthusiasts have discussed for years. Unfortunately, everybody talked about it but nobody did anything about it until American Motors thought out the AMX.

The Javelin and the AMX had their origin two years ago when American Motors produced a design exercise, also known as the AMX (American Motors Experimental), to “test public reaction.” The reaction was overwhelmingly favourable and the company launched a crash programme to get a car into production. For reasons of pure economics the Javelin came first because this market, although crowded, is undoubtedly much larger than that for a two-seat personal car. It is a credit to A.M.C. that they had the Javelin in production and in the showrooms in 18 months. Six months later the two-seat version appeared and it is remarkable how little it is changed from the original show car. For that reason, among others, it retained the name AMX.

There is no doubt about the relationship of the production AMX to the Javelin. It is, basically, a Javelin with 12 in. cut out of its mid-section just behind the doors. From the rear edge of the doors forward the cars are structurally identical, although slight changes have been made in the sheet metal for exterior differentiation. At the rear the AMX has been given a flying buttress roofline to emphasise the long bonnet-short boot theme that is popular in America today. The AMX is unquestionably a compromise but it is a decidedly successful one. It is a bit stubby at the back end, but apart from that the clean, uncluttered styling has attracted many favourable comments. In addition, one very real advantage of using existing Javelin components and tooling is that the AMX can be manufactured at a price that puts it in a class of its own in the middle of the market mainstream. It will sell in the United States for about $3,300—a good $2,000 (£800) less than either the Corvette (the only other American two-seater) or the Jaguar E.

Physically, it is about the same size as the Corvette and the Jaguar, with a wheelbase of 8 ft. 1 in. and an overall length of 14 ft. 9 in. The track is 4 ft. 10.4 in. at the front and 4 ft. 9 in. at the rear, with an overall width of 5 ft. 11.6 in. and a height of 4 ft. 3.7 in. The chassis is of unit construction and the curb weight, with oil, water and petrol, is about 3,400 lb. The suspension is independent at the front with unequal length A-brackets acting on coil springs, tubular shock-absorbers and an anti-roll bar. At the back the live axle attaches to multi-leaf springs and tubular shock-absorbers. There are also two radius arms running from the rear axle to strengthened areas in the floor pan to prevent axle tramp during acceleration. All this is standard American practice, of course, but if the components show no radical innovations the thinking behind them certainly does. “In the past,” said John Adamson, A.M.C.’s vice-president for engineering, “our tendency has been to compromise cornering ability in favour of a softer boulevard ride. With the AMX we turned this approach around and now have superior handling at the expense of a superior ride.” What the A.M.C. engineers have done, in effect, is to take the heavy duty (“handling package”) suspension from the Javelin and make this standard on the AMX. An even heavier duty suspension is available for those who want it but a short road test suggested that the standard suspension is more than adequate. It obviously doesn’t have the advantages of a good, fully independent system but it is taut, agile and responsive. Altogether a vast improvement over the typical wallowing ride of most American cars.

The handling is also helped considerably by a new glassfibre-belted tyre provided by Goodyear. This tyre is an interesting compromise that combines two conventional bias plies with a two-ply glassfibre belt running circumferentially under the tread. The bias-belted design provides the tread stability and longer life of a belted tyre without some of the harsher ride characteristics of fully radial ply tyres. The standard braking system is 10 in. x 1.75 in. drums all round, but 11.2 in. discs are available as an option at the front. There are three choices of steering: manual (5.1 turns lock to lock), quick-ratio manual (4.0 turns lock to lock) and power-assisted (3.8 turns lock to lock).

There are also three choices in the engine compartment. The standard power plant is a 4.8-litre V8 producing 225 b.h.p. at 4,700 r.p.m. The optional units are a 5.6-litre V8 giving 280 b.h.p. at 4,800 r.p.m. and 6.4-litre V8 putting out 315 b.h.p. at 4,600 r.p.m. The 6.4 is the largest engine ever produced by American Motors and it is an interesting comment on the company’s new performance philosophy that when Earl K. Brownridge, the president of American Motors (Canada) Ltd., was asked about the possibility of installing one of A.M.C.’s ubiquitous sixes, he replied: “There is no way a six goes into the car. We never entertained the thought.” A refreshing change indeed! Completing the mechanical specifications, the car comes with a four-speed Borg-Warner manual transmission as standard equipment. A three-speed automatic is optional and there is a choice of axle ratios ranging from 2.87:1 to 4.44:1.

Our first test of the car was short and hampered by severe winter weather, but it was enough to show that in the AMX American Motors has produced an exciting, distinctive car that should do very well on the race track once the tuning experts get their hands on it. On paved surfaces it can be driven, and driven hard, without any suggestion of sudden, impolite behaviour. The 12 in. shorter wheelbase than the Javelin has improved the weight distribution so that while understeer is still the dominant characteristic, the handling is predictable. The 6.4-litre engine provides more than enough power to bring the tail out but the standard manual steering is much too slow to catch it. The power steering, on the other hand, lacks some feel and for spirited driving we would opt for the quick-ratio manual steering. The abysmal weather prevented acceleration and top-speed runs but other reliable testers have obtained 0 to 60 times in the region of 7 sec. and top speeds in the 125 m.p.h. bracket.

The AMX is a decidedly interesting car that is breaking entirely new ground in the American market. By itself it won’t restore American Motors to full health but it is a well-written prescription for a performance image—D. G.