The “Big Three” and AMC

Written by H.R.R. Gorman

Chemical engineer seeking out new adventures in science and speculative fiction.

September 14, 2021

Before I was born, my mom had a poor AMC Spirit that she ran into an even poorer bull, totaling both the car and the animal in one fell swoop. She told it to me as a horror story with the moral of “why you don’t go too fast” just before I got my license. When she first regaled me with a far gorier version than I relayed to you, I didn’t realize what an absolute piece of history she had violently combined with beef. AMC Spirits (or, really, any AMCs) are now either cult collector items or actual trash. The picture below is of a car very similar to the one she owned.

’79 AMC Spirit. AMC Promotional Media. I’m assuming it’s fair use to put it up here, given the owners of the picture don’t exist anymore.

Whether the vehicles really are trash or treasure, the creation and eventual fall of American Motors Corporation (AMC) is a bizarre and very American story. Buckle up, buckaroos!

It All Began With Refrigerators

Well, it began with refrigerators… sort of.

Back before the great depression, there were lots of car manufacturers. If you think about Grapes of Wrath (my Goodreads review is linked), you’ll remember they drove a Studebaker. You’ll remember things like Hudsons. So where did they all go?

The Great Depression ate the small car companies. The “Big Three” (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) survived because… well, because they had the most cushion to ride out on when the depression hit. They had the best ability to deal with the new union requirements, and they had the most extensive dealership networks.

Three companies, however, made it through in a creative way. In 1937, Nash and Kelvinator merged – and only one of them made cars. Kelvinator made refrigerators, and they bought Nash. Though it was a risk, given all the other dead car companies, it turned out to be a pretty good deal since the motor company’s survival meant it could churn out vehicles for the government during WWII. In 1954, the now-struggling Nash Motors part of Kelvinator also merged with Hudson Motor Car Company. This new car compilation became American Motors Corporation, or AMC. From 1954 until “the fated end”, AMC was destined to struggle, with fewer resources at their disposal, against The Big Three.

They gave ’em hell.

Mitt George Romney

Upon the merger of Hudson and Nash, there needed to be a new leader of the new AMC. That turned out to be George Romney. And yes, indeed, he’s the dad of that other, slightly more famous Romney.

Official picture of George Romney, third Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Made for the US Government, so it’s public domain. Look at that chin – if that’s not the father of Mitt, I’ll be damned.

Romney was at least wise enough to realize that two flagging car companies weren’t set up to compete directly with The Big Three, and he had to find a niche market. As cars were getting bigger and chugging more gas in the 50’s and 60’s, Romney realized there was a market for people who didn’t need a big car and perhaps didn’t have the money for a land yacht. He pushed the new AMC toward a focus on small cars, basing the design and decision on one of Nash Motors’s extant models: the Nash Rambler. The Rambler was the first car in the US to qualify as “compact” (though it wouldn’t qualify under today’s standards), and it was well-known as a reliable but cheap vehicle. It didn’t just takeover the compact market: the Rambler created the market.

In 1962, Romney decided to enter politics and stepped down from AMC so he could accomplish his new goals. Given that he eventually rose to be HUD secretary, he evidently did well.

But that doesn’t really matter to us, because we’re just here for the cars. The problem with Romney stepping down was that someone else, someone who didn’t share the same vision, stepped up to the plate. Abernathy, Romney’s successor, decided he needed to take AMC from the “cheap car” image and blasted non-existent capital at things like the Ambassador line. Though the car sold, development costs churned through the small company’s resources, and some point to this need to save face was the beginning of the end. Others, however, think Romney was wrong to shove the company into a “cheap” hole – who knows, at this point?

The Invention of the Crossover

I desperately wanted to talk about the Gremlin, which happened in the 70’s, but that’s not had the lasting impact of one desperately innovative vehicle: the AMC Eagle. The first true crossover.

Promotional poster/handout for the AMC Eagle. It’s a promo poster for a defunct company, so I assume it’s fair use?

That’s right: AMC invented the crossover. They invented the thing that’s only now dominating markets, even if they didn’t have the term “crossover” yet to depend on. It was way ahead of its time, and yet the Eagle came out too late to save the company. After changing direction so many times, the company’s budgets were spent and there was nothing they could do. They flailed around a bit doing things like selling out to French manufacturer Renault. While the merger seemed beneficial, both ended up losing in the end.

While the financial side of the market just tanked, the Eagle just absolutely stunned in terms of influencing markets. The Eagle was borne of a last-ditch death throe to take the best of 4-wheel drive and off-road Jeep capabilities with what was still AMC’s best category: the economy car. They added things like front suspension to keep the ride smooth and feel like an ordinary sedan. The car did well in the rally scene, as well.

The Eagle still enjoys a cult following, despite the 1988 end of manufacturing. Some say it was a decade ahead of its time, others 3 decades. Regardless, the car was influential to designers and buyers everywhere. It definitely spurred the direction of the automobile market, even through today.

Why There are Jeeple (“Jeep People”)

1970 the company CEO Roy Chapin decided to buy Kaiser Jeep (Kaiser Jeep was, like Nash and Hudson, a conglomeration of smaller car companies that survived the depression). They took control of Jeep and looked forward to government contracting, which Jeep specialized in at the time. Though AMC had control of Jeep, they let the cars develop almost independently in terms of technology. While AMC itself struggled for capital, Jeep continued to run with its solid axle format and used its original military design, giving it the distinctive look and feel we know today. The Jeep Wrangler, started in 1986, was a big success.

1986, however, was too late to save the company. In 1987, Chrysler purchased and put out to slaughter the AMC brand. It kept, however, the nameplate and distinctive designs of Jeep.

That makes Jeep, though a subsidiary of Chrysler, the last descendant of the small car companies. There’s all sorts of loyalty from Ford and Chevy people to their chosen brand, and there was surely loyalists of Nash, Hudson, Kaiser, and Willys-Overland (Jeep) that carried in to AMC. There were probably AMC fans in and of themselves. Now, there’s only one outlet for that love to go. Some Jeeple (“Jeep People”) may not even realize that their devotion to the cars may stem from a parent’s unrewarded loyalties.

Sometimes, I like to fantasize about what could have saved the company, but there’s only one real answer: the end was fated from the very beginning.

AMC Logo, 1970-1987. Public domain where I’m writing, though there may be copyright and trademark issues in some countries.

For More Information

I’ll be honest: while I searched around the internet for various nonsense about this topic, nothing I looked up was truly surprising. If you want a super-deep-dive version of this alongside crude jokes and way, way more reading and research, I suggest this YouTube video from Regular Car Reviews. It’s 2.5 hours long, so you’ll probably need more than one sitting, but believe me that it’s great.

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to

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  1. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    This was fun! When I first met up with my now husband he drove an AMC Spirit. It wasn’t the finest specimen. He’d rolled it a time or two. The driver’s seat was propped with a piece of firewood (unsplit). The shifter boot was lacking so driving through a puddle meant spray inside the car. The clutch went, and I learned how to shift without a clutch. Worse was starting the thing without a clutch because yep, it was in first gear for that. That individual car had history but I sure enjoyed this history of that beleaguered car company. That car we gave away. There’s still a mint AMC Hornet being driven around those parts, bright green.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Any car that is used and loved far past its prime makes me delighted. I loved your story about the Spirit – it fits the theme of these cars well.

      And someone still has a working Hornet!?! That’s a special individual, there. Kind of jealous, but don’t have time or money for a classic car, lol.

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        Didn’t AMC also put out the Pacer, a distinctly ugly car?

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Yessss – but they also did the Javelin, so I guess that might make up for it? 😛

  2. Robert Kirkendall

    Interesting history. I remember AMC, especially the distinctive Gremlin, and there was a time back in the ’70s when AMC Matadors were used as police cars. A friend of mine had an ’82 Concord that had such bad suspension you could hear the squeaking springs and shocks from blocks away. Seems like there just wasn’t room for a fourth American auto manufacturer.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Haha – I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said, even if it’s sad that there wasn’t room for four. During my research, though, I found Chrysler was bought br Fiat, and Fiat by Stellantis (Netherlands), which makes me wonder if 3 is too many now. Sad, though.

      • Robert Kirkendall

        Even the big three are scaling down; no more Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Mercury, and Plymouth anymore. And vehicles now look more alike and are less distinct in their appearance.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Pontiac is probably the saddest to me. GM decided to keep Corvette and Cadillac during the bailout, but I was sad that they then chose GMC and fought the government for Buick and Pontiac… but the government caved to only allow one of them, and Buick lives.

        And yeah – I wonder why everything looks the same. All these gently sloping angry faces (if you don’t see car faces, I’ll question if you’re a human or if Charli needs captchas on the comments, haha).

      • Robert Kirkendall

        Pontiac made some iconic cars, especially during the ’60s. The first car I remember my dad driving was a ’68 GTO so I have some old Pontiac memories. It seems their cars became too similar to Chevy so ending the Pontiac brand probably wasn’t a difficult decision for GM.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Yeah, but they’d just released the Solstice, which was sad to see go. I see why they did what they did, but honestly the badge engineering is what they did with Buick and GMC (for trucks). Distinct cars must be gone forever…

  3. floridaborne

    I remember when a friend bought a Gremlin. Ends up it there really were gremlins running the car. You’d think the Ford Pinto with it’s exploding gas tanks would have killed that company but, as you said, those who had the resources to weather the storms, ruled.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      The Gremlin was a very cool concept, especially for an economy car. When I imagine riding in one, though, my mind can’t help but smell cigarette smoke laced with gasoline. I totally believe Gremlins may have been in there!

  4. Miss Judy

    My father had an Ambassador (bought it used) and drove it several years. When I graduated high school he gave it to me. Floor boards were rotted out and rust everywhere, but it ran like a top. I then got a Spirit, used but gave it up when I went to college a year later; freshmen couldn’t have cars. When I graduated, I bought a brand-new RED Gremlin. Those were all great cars! Thanks for the memories!

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I am thrilled with all the memories people have been sharing, including yours! Imagine – you participated in a lot of history. An Ambassador, Spirit, and Gremlin? Incredible array.

      • Miss Judy

        My father would be thrilled, as am I.

  5. Rosliw Tor Raekül

    Fun stroll down memory lane. I drove a Jeep Cherokee for awhile. I guess I’d forgotten about the connection to AMC and Nash. I remember when there were more four than three major airlines, too. I remember when cars had ashtrays in every door, and when people still smoked on planes. There’s a lot of history compressed into this essay.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Hahaha – thanks for stopping by!

      As a good millennial, I can only barely remember when people smoked indoors publicly. I do, however, remember the ashtrays in my grandmother’s old Caddilac – I just thought they were useless little cubbies!

  6. Charli Mills

    Willys! I’m an original Jeeple, having learned to drive my dad’s WWII Willy’s Jeep on logging trails in the Sierra Nevada mountains. That thing can go anywhere. I know. I accidentally found out when I drove off the logging trail and discovered “off-roading” to the terror of my 12-year-old cousin riding shotgun (I was 14). By the time I was 16, I could drive the Barney Riley, one of the hardest 4WD trails in the Sierras. I remember coming across a group of Jeep enthusiasts from a trail they were too nervous to take. They asked how rough it was. I shrugged and said I rode my horse that way all the time. Ah, such were the fearless offroad days. A high school buddy had a Gremlin and we used to laugh hysterically at the antics required to get and keep it going. Great history article to jumpstart fun memories, Dr. G!

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Do you still have the old Willys? Either way, incredible link to the past by driving such a cool machine!

      I’m loving all the stories people are putting in the comments. No prompt, even! Just love! It’s made this my favorite Into the Past article yet!

  7. suespitulnik

    I had a sporty white AMX for a few years in the ’80s. Sure had some get up and go, plus, it was a guy magnet. Unfortunately, it started throwing rods, which I don’t understand, but my mechanic at the time said to unload it. I missed it…
    My daughter has just become a Jeeple and her white ride is decked with everything zebra including eyelashes. It rides like a tank. If we go any distance I drive…
    Thanks for the education and memories.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      No problem! The AMX is underappreciated, for sure. And I love zebra jeep – make a distinctive vehicle even more distinct!

  8. Norah

    That was a fast ride through time. Many of the models you wrote about may not have been available here. Their names are not familiar. Or maybe I was just not that into cars. 🙂 I’m more interested now.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I don’t know for sure, but I have the feeling AMC cars were rare in Europe until the buyout by Renault in 1980. Just what I think off the cuff, no proof.

      • Norah

        I’m in Australia. I don’t remember them here.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Then they probably weren’t! 🙂

  9. noelleg44

    What a fun ride through automobile history. I chuckled when I read about Nash – my folks had a little Nash Rambler (the one made famous in a song). That was before they bought a Buick station wagon that was a tank!

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Buick station wagon!? Was it the almighty ROADMASTER!?

  10. Anne Goodwin is bringing Matilda Windsor home

    Ha, when the first line popped into my inbox, I had no idea what this was about! AMC? Poor spirit? Was this some kind of tree-hugging thing? I now realise the latter could be another consequence of driving too fast. You do take us to some unusual places.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Haha, I do try. I have been trying to find a commonality between my posts, though, and I think I’ve *mostly* been talking about technology (medical advancements, writing systems, dog domestication, submarines, and now cars) even if it’s in the guise of being about people. I need to step up my game with some other type of history!

  11. Jules

    I don’t know all that much about cars. Collectively Hubby and I only bought one real new car. The family station wagon that had a long life before being gifted as the first car for the first teen we had.

    One of my early cars was a used (Mercury) Comet. I liked that car. But a ice on the road took it. The last used car I got (still have) was the first one to have non-crank windows and a key fob computer button lock (though it still has a real key to open the trunk, doors and start the car.

    Remember ‘Right of Way” in driving isn’t something you get – it is something you give. Always be alert and aware of you surroundings. Cheers, Jules

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I love driving, and part of me regrets being young enough to not have experienced the older cars! At the same time, I think cars have gotten safer, which is nice.

      Thanks for the stories! Loving the comments on this one.

      • Jules

        My first car was what I call my “Flintstone Car” – there was a hole in the floor on the front passenger side – it was cold during the winter!! But that old little FIAT didn’t last long… There are some humorous interpretations of what car companies mean; FIAT = Fix It Again Tony, Dodge = Dead on day guarantee ends, FORD = Fix Or Repair Daily… There are probably others.

        I know some folks name their cars like folks name ships. I never got into that. I do remember watching the show “My Mother the Car”… I never felt the need to name my own cars 😉

        Cheers, Jules

  12. dgkaye

    I thoroughly enjoyed this investigative look back on cars of the 70s. The good old days. And yes, Gremlins were popular in my high school. 🙂

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I’m gathering through my research that that’s probably true! My mom said she had to choose between a Gremlin and a Chevette in high school and went with the Chevette “because the Gremlin was weird.” I love them both, even if I’ll probably never get to ride in either one.

      • dgkaye

        Lol, so funny. I thought they were odd looking even while they were in style. 🙂

  13. Mr. Ohh's Sideways View

    Great post When we were teens A friend of mine had a junk yard Gremlin which means every time he got a bad dent we went to the JY and got a new body pamel. It didn’t matter the color so you can imagine what it looked like after a while It Was Great
    Laugh because… Why not??

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Hahaha! I love it! A multi-color panel Gremlin? I’m pretty sure the makers would have approved, because it’s such a crazy car anyway!

      I did laugh, because it was funny!

      • Mr. Ohh's Sideways View

        He was famous in the neighborhood at least ????????????

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