AMC is Americana

How the American Motors Owners Association Celebrates the Ugly Ducklings of Cars

by | Aug 30, 2019 | Journals

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

AMC is Americana

How the American Motors Owners Association Celebrates the Ugly Ducklings of Cars

by | Aug 30, 2019 | Journals

Photo Credit: Colin Beresford

It’s easy to understand people who are passionate about Porsches, Ferraris and Corvettes. Understanding Chuck Watson is less easy.

Watson’s passion is his 1973 AMC Hornet. Really.

1973 AMC Hornet – Levi’s Edition

He first “drove” one at age nine, sitting on his brother’s lap.  Some 25 years later that memory is “what prompted me to buy a Hornet,” says Watson, now age 50. “I was just looking around for a daily driver and saw it on AutoTrader, and (thought), ‘I’m going to have to buy this car.’”

After the car came the tattoos–the vehicle identification number of his 1973 Hornet (Levi’s Edition, no less) adorns the inside of his right bicep.

Chuck Watson’s vehicle identification number tattoo

right forearm tattoo with both the AMC and Hornet logos.

His right forearm sports both the AMC and Hornet logos

Last summer Watson, an IT professional from the Canadian capital of Ottawa, joined close to 200 other AMC aficionados in Auburn, Ind., for the 42nd annual American Motors Owners Association (AMO) convention.

In the 1970s, AMC bought Kaiser Jeep Corp. and developed some distinctive (though not necessarily distinguished) cars. The Gremlin’s chopped-off rear-end prompted the joke: “What happened to the rest of your car?” The 1975 Pacer was billed as “the first wide small car” with its greenhouse-glass roof. “Getting inside this fish bowl is a trip in itself,” wrote Car and Driver, which also praised the 1974 Matador as the “Best Styled Car of 1974.”

Along the way AMC came under the control of Renault of France, which later sold it to Chrysler. CEO Lee Iacocca wanted the company’s Jeep brand, which is the only AMC model still made.

But not the only one still loved. “You aren’t ashamed to be seen in (a Gremlin) anymore,” Dan Jenson, a 62-year-old AMO attendee from Portland, Mich., says. “I’ve had lots of Gremlins. They’re great cars.”

Several streets around county courthouse were shut down for the event where owners parked their aging Gremlins, Javelins, Ambassadors and other AMC models.  Along with their cars they brought their memories.

“I actually came home from the hospital in my dad’s AMX,” says 37-year-old Ian Webb of South Bend, Ind., the club’s president. Over the years Webb has owned several AMC models, including a 1979 Spirit AMX, a later version of the company’s late-60s GT sports car.

They certainly are attention-getters. “I’ll be at the gas station – it’s hard to get away because they want to tell me a story about how their cousin or their sister had one,” says Webb. “It’s so neat to hear those stories because people remember the car, but they’ve forgotten about it until they see one.”

Nostalgia drives many car collectors, of course, but AMC collectors form a special breed because the company was Detroit’s ugly duckling.  But there’s more to AMC’s appeal. “It’s the underdog story. Everyone loves the underdog,” says Watson.

American Motors got its start in 1954 with the merger of Nash-Kelvinator and the Hudson Motorcar Company. With its small-car niche, AMC coined the term “compact car.” Among other innovations, it introduced disc brakes and standard dual reclining front seats years before its Big Three rivals.

“At GM, you had to get a lot of approvals to get something done,” explains veteran auto publicist Steve Harris, who moved from General Motors to AMC in 1979. “At AMC, if you knew three or four key people, you could get anything done.”

Still, AMC’s cars had a dowdy reputation until it launched the Javelin in 1968. “AMC can look forward to an improved image with…high-performance car buffs,” Car and Driver opined. Next came the AMX, with up to 390-horsepower.

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Webb was introduced to AMC through his dad, who sold parts for the cars starting around 1990. He bought a 1979 Spirit AMX when he was 15 and repaired a 1970 Ambassador for the winter soon after. With their red, white, and blue corporate colors, Webb adds, “[AMC’s] are Americana,” Webb said.

The price of classic AMC models isn’t exactly in the stratosphere of classic-car collecting. A Javelin or AMX in good condition can fetch as much as $50,000, similar to a Mustang from the 1970’s. Pacers and Gremlins can go for more than $25,000. A Rambler or Ambassador will typically go for under $15,000.

AMC Rambler

The ranks of AMC fans pale compared to the fans of Mustangs, Corvettes and other American classics, but that’s part of the appeal, owners say. “I go to the car shows now and I rarely look at the cars. I’m there to see the people,” says Webb. “Partly because I’ve seen so many cars, it’s the people and the stories that I like the most.”

Some of those stories revolve around procuring spare parts, which is both a constant quest and a source of bonding for the AMC community. One story comes from Watson, who, drives his 1973 Hornet to the AMO conventions with his friend, Tod Simser, an AMC Eagle owner. (They met when Simser, an auto-body repairman, repaired Watson’s Hornet.)

In 2016, on their way from one owners’ gathering, Watson’s Hornet broke down outside of Gary, IN. He went to The AMC Forum, an all-things-AMC website, and found someone who had the parts they needed. Parts in hand, their tow-truck driver found a mechanic who then blew off a date with his wife to get Watson’s Hornet back on the road. (It isn’t clear whether the mechanic’s marriage got back on the road.)

Although some AMC owners trailer their cars to events, others, such as Watson, enjoy driving their typically air conditioner-less cars. Driving any vintage car hundreds of miles is like playing Russian roulette – sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t.

The mutual affinity for AMC cars brought Watson and Simser together and now has spawned their personal annual ritual: getting AMC-inspired tattoos at the AMO international conventions. In Auburn, Watson got a red X on his ribs, and Simser (taking a detour from the AMC theme) got a Highway 401 logo. Last year Simser got the profile of an AMC Javelin.

The parts swap was a major draw of the recent AMC Owners gathering. Parts dealers spread their obscure AMC components and novelties across tables and on the ground. There was wide variety: touch-up paint, owners’ manuals, car doors and AMC matchbox cars.

Various AMC Parts

Also popular at AMC gatherings are the people who actually worked for the company when it still existed. AMC owners are always anxious for even the smallest detail about working for the company.

“You can tell us who you ate lunch with, you can tell us where you parked in the parking lot. You can tell us anything – what was your drive like to work,” Webb joked about the allure of former AMC employees. “We’ll eat it up.”

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