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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.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.