1 May 2007

1968 AMX-R

It would probably be safe to say that the 1968-70 American Motors AMX was the only mass-produced two-passenger muscle car built during the 1961-74 muscle-car era. It would be equally safe to say that such a car from American Motors probably took the automotive world by surprise, as the conglomerate had become known as the company with “stodgy” cars. The AMX was released to the public at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 1968, the second all-new passenger car AMC introduced for the model year, following the handsome four-passenger Javelin that was released the previous fall.

While many believe that the AMX was a shortened version of the Javelin – sharing bumpers, doors, fenders, basic hood shape, windshield, deck lid and back light – it would probably be just as accurate to say that the Javelin is a stretched version of the AMX, as it was the two-passenger Vignale-built AMX concept car that Dick Teague, vice president of styling, unloaded in January 1966 that eventually led to the Javelin.

Either way, both were introduced to compete in the well-established youthful performance market that had picked up a head of steam with the introduction of the long-hood/short-deck ponycar in the form of the 1965 Mustang brought forth in April 1964 and soon followed by the Camaro/Firebird offering from General Motors. Like the Mustang, Camaro and Firebird, the Javelin was available with either a six-cylinder powerplant or a V-8, but the base engine in the new AMX was a 290cid/225hp V-8, with either a 343cid/280hp or 390cid/315hp available as options.

It could be argued that the AMX was also trying to cross over into the sports car market, as its 97-inch wheelbase and its overall length of 179 inches was one inch and 3.5-inches, respectively, shorter than Corvette. And performance was heralded when land-speed record holder Craig Breedlove established 14 USAC- and FIA-certified speed records for cars of any engine size, and 106 national and international speed and endurance records for cars with less than 488 cubic inches (its 290cid engine was bored to 304cid). Weighing hardly more than 3,200 pounds, normal performance from the optional 390cid engine, from a test in Car and Driver, proved it could cover the quarter mile in just 14.8 seconds, with a terminal speed of 95mph.

While the automotive press loved the car, and it was a good car, buyers did not show up in the numbers AMC executives had predicted. With initial projections of 10,000 sales for the abbreviated first year, and 20,000 sales per year thereafter, the brain trust was certainly frustrated when only 6,725 cars left the factory by the end of the first year, and only a marginally better quantity after a full year of production in 1969 with just 8,293. The writing was on the wall, and the last year for the AMX saw only 4,116 cars built, for a three-year total of just 19,134 – even less than the amount hoped for one year. Blame for the demise of such a good car can probably be traced to American Motors’ poor image, perhaps undeservedly so. Car and Driver had once said the company made “dumb cars for dumb people.” And if that wasn’t enough, getting out of the muscle car starting blocks with a viable car well after the gun was fired pretty much left the company eating dust as far as public acceptance was concerned.

American Motors worked hard to change that image, starting with four hot concept cars that were unveiled in January 1966. One of the vehicles was a short, two-passenger coupe built by Vignale that featured a rumble seat (or “Ramble,” as AMC called it) built into the deck. After the 1968 models were introduced, the “Ramble” idea was revived for possible production. The concept car you see on these pages was built by well-known designer-customizer James Jeffords in 1968 using a regular production 1968 AMX. Working closely with famous industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who was often working under contract with American Motors, the plan was to re-introduce the Ramble idea. The work was done at Dave Puhl’s House of Kustoms in Palatine, Illinois, and a fully detailed article on this project was laid out in the October 1968 issue of Rod & Custom. Puhl had done quite a few modifications projects for AMC on Javelins and other cars, so he was not new to this challenge.

Jeffords was head of the Javelin Trans Am Racing Team for AMC in 1968 and 1969, and this car was used as a pace car in some of the races. He wanted AMC to sanction his idea and allow him to buy and modify 500 more. Unfortunately, there were many obstacles that prohibited the progress of such a project. In addition to political and liability hurdles, Ralph Nader put the final nails in the coffin when, after learning of its existence and the pending ideas, declared it unsafe.
The year 1968 was also an interesting time for Portage, Mich., resident Darryl A. Salisbury, current president of the American Motors Owners Association Inc. That was the year in which he was discharged from the United States Air Force after serving five years on active duty in Germany and in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Upon returning to the U.S. in May of that year, he was not only subjected to culture shock, he was shockingly out of touch with the American car scene. The muscle car era was in full swing and he wasn’t even aware that it had started.

Having grown up in a Hudson family, his appreciation for “underdog” cars was heightened, an appreciation that later morphed into an admiration for orphan cars. However, his first inclination upon his discharge was to become the owner of a brand-new Corvette. His dad, though, quenched those aspirations when he suggested the idea of looking at the new products from American Motors, specifically the Javelin and AMX. It was a “no brainer” and shortly thereafter Darryl became the proud owner of a new 1968 Javelin SST. Shortly thereafter, his father showed him the October 1968 issue of Rod & Custom with the 1968 AMX-R, and the dream to own it emerged.

Sixteen years passed and, like many dreams, the idea of owning such a car had taken a back seat to more important things in life. During that time, though, he had become heavily involved in the AMC club. At the club’s national convention held in Kenosha, Wisconsin, many unusual cars and prototypes consistently come out of the woodwork and appear on the show field. Cars such as the 1962 Ambassador Vegas wagon, two of the six of AMX/3 prototypes, the 1966 AMX prototype, and many more were displayed, much to the surprised pleasure of AMC enthusiasts. It became a challenge to find and display unique cars produced by AMC, and during the convention in August 1984, Salisbury’s dream was rekindled.

When the show cars began to fill the field in Kenosha that year, one of the trailered cars caught his attention. It was the Rod & Custom car. The curator of the Brooks Stevens museum, located just north of Milwaukee, agreed to trailer the car to the event. (Stevens’ work as an industrial designer is known world wide for miscellaneous products ranging from boats, trains and automobiles to vacuum cleaners, ovens and lawn mowers; from corporate logos to corporate offices. His 40-year automotive styling bylines include full passenger lines for Willys, Kaiser and Frazer, as well as Studebaker and AMC, not to mention the dozens of custom one-offs and his own Excalibur company.)

At the convention, the AMX-R was carefully scrutinized by show attendees throughout the day. As president of the club, Salisbury learned that the car was for sale. He was asked to mention it at the awards banquet that evening, which he did. Additionally, with a long-time interest in the car, Salisbury wrote the museum curator a letter of appreciation for bringing the AMX and expressed his own interest in purchasing it. Seven months later, he received a phone call from the curator who admitted that he had been talking with Dick Teague, Duane Mackie (editor of Collectible Automobile), and Bob Stevens (editor of Cars & Parts magazine and knowledgeable AMC historian), among others, to gather information about Salisbury’s credentials. With good recommendations from all, he informed Salisbury that if he wanted the car, he had first right of refusal.

Salisbury immediately made plans to visit the museum to discuss the possible purchase of the car, which would first involve selling a car and several years’ worth of parts and memorabilia collecting. An agreement was made, and Salisbury’s 16-year dream came true. Once the custom AMX got to his home, the idea of restoring it was contemplated. More than 12 years later, the project finally began. Without any idea of knowing when the car was last run, Bob Saeger, Salisbury’s good friend and fellow AMC enthusiast, carefully took the engine apart and completely rebuilt it. At the same time, Salisbury convinced his brother-in-law, Brian Moyer, another AMC enthusiast and possibly the world’s foremost authority on AMC Gremlins, to do the actual restoration. He had done many cars for himself and other people, so he was an ideal candidate to take on the AMX with the same care to detail.

The whole project, from the point of purchase to the finished restoration, took 20 years. The AMX-R is now better than it was when it was first completed in 1968. Great care was taken to ensure the restoration process was done with the original concept in mind, and now both Darryl, and his wife, WiSeon, enjoy taking the car to different shows around the country. It was first shown in the rain at Hershey in 2005; not the way many people wish to unveil a fresh restoration. Nonetheless, it received its AACA First Junior award there, followed by an AACA Senior Award at Rockford, Illinois, in 2006.

Salisbury feels the end product was worth the wait.  One never knows how dreams will come true!

West Peterson is editor of Antique Automobile, the official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America.

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