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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

1973 AMC Cowboy pickup prototype


            American Motors was the smallest of The Big Four automakers in North America. Formed in 1954 when Nash-Kelvinator purchased the Hudson Motor Car Company, American Motors was unkindly referred to in the press as ‘The Big Three-and-a-half’ when it fell on hard times. Despite the harsh words, the Kenosha-based manufacturer had many good years and even seasons of glory.

Roy D. Chapin, Jr. 1915-2001
            One of those glorious eras came as new president Roy D. Chapin, Jr. carefully steered American Motors away from near bankruptcy in 1967. Under Chapin’s guidance, American Motors would avoid competing directly with GM, Chrysler and Ford by fielding niche products in the small car range. 

Kelvinator began manufacturing refrigerators in 1925. The white goods company became part of Nash in 1937.
Kelvinator, the corporation’s appliance division, was sold in 1968. AMC would live or die as a vehicle manufacturer. Product had always been superior but consumers needed to believe. Brilliant advertising showcased the company as America’s favorite underdog.  Sales soared. Sporty Javelin and speed demon AMX changed the corporate image forever. Back in the black, Chapin stunned the automotive world  by purchasing Jeep from Kaiser Industries.

This 1946 Nash pickup never made it to market.
Both Nash and Hudson had built trucks but its amalgamated successorhad  never developed a truck line. With the purchase of Jeep,  feisty little American Motors owned  the world’s greatest four-wheeled legend.

Jeep had been offered to American Motors previously. Willys-Overland offered to sell in 1954 but Nash-Kelvinator president, George Mason, had no loose cash; he’d just bought Hudson.  Henry Kaiser bought instead. Kaiser himself offered to sell in 1962. No one remembers why American Motors didn’t buy then. President George Romney had taken a leave of absence to take a stab at politics. In his corporate seat was Roy Abernethy. Those who were there speculate that  Abernethy, a former VP of sales at Willys, didn’t get along so well with his old boss and wasn’t keen to do business. The purchase would wait until 1969.

1970 AMC Hornet
AMC’s next smash hit was the Hornet, which replaced the venerable Rambler. Making its bow as a 1970 model, the sleek compact had cost an unprecedented $40 million to bring to market. Product planning needed to get as much mileage out of the dies as possible.

 A mean Hornet SC/360 street machine hit the pavement with tires squealing in 1971. 

The clever, not-exactly-a-wagon 1972 Hornet Sportabout sold like proverbial hotcakes. 

Next was a half-tonne truck. American Motors might be backing away from Detroit’s Big Three but it was ready to tackle the Japanese.  Datsun, Toyota and Mazda had America’s small truck market all sewed up. Rambler had successfully taken on Volkswagen in the Fifties and AMC would turn back the import tide, yet again.

Almost before the ink was dry on the Jeep purchase, AMC’s Gerry Meyers assigned Jeep stylists to create a Hornet-based hauler.  Jim Angers,  Jeep’s chief stylist, dubbed the project ‘Cowboy’ and the name stuck. Enthusiasm was high, there was even talk of four-wheel drive Cowboys.

Jim Alexander worked for AMC in product planning. He was assigned to head up the project. He visited Jeep’s headquarters in Toledo, Ohio where he met Jeep’s product planning team and then the stylists at their rented studios in Royal Oak, Michigan.

Alexander studied their sharp little hauler, done in the El Camino tradition. The project was stymied because of the large, integral side-sail panels used in the design. The immense cost of stamping those huge panels was prohibitive.

Alexander had been a stylist at AMC before moving to product planning. He calculated that a separate-box cab was as sharp looking as a integral-box cab. The project unsnarled.   

Alexander solved other problems. He reasoned “if you can build a car with a stub fame at the front-like GM’s Camaro—then why can’t you do that at the back?”  The truck progressed. An Ambassador gas tank was welded under the front half of the cargo bed and the spare tire fit neatly under the back half.

Aero-Detroit was subcontracted to render drawings for the team.  Alexander says,“we made the metal parts. The metal boxes were hand-beaten over wooden frames.  We made wooden mdels, boxes and frames. The rear stub frame was welded on.”

“Specifications called for a 1.8-metre (six-foot) box. The original Cowboy prototype used doors from a four-door Hornet. I didn’t think it worked very well.  It was too short. We changed the upper frame and put that K-pillar effect in there with a door from the two-door sedan which gave the Cowboy better sight lines and opened up the cab.”

Alexander recalls, “a red styling mockup was made with a Gremlin front end. It had a  more stylish, rakish rear but the bed wouldn’t take a 1.8-metre (six-foot) long object.  We built two more half-tonne trucks. One was a 4.2-litre (258-cubic inch) six-cylinder with a four-speed transmission. It was a pretty basic Hornet, done in yellow.  It was shipped to the Southwest for testing.  The other was made from an SC 360. We didn’t have any in our stock so we got one from a dealer in Royal Oak and cut it in half. The 6-litre (360-cubic inch) eight-cylinder Cowboy was tested at AMC’s proving grounds in Burlington, Wisconsin.”

While the Cowboy was under development, so was a hatchback proposal. Alexander recalls that emotions ran high between the rival teams, each touting their prototype as being the next surefire winner. Factory floor space would be a problem. Facilities in Kenosha and Milwaukee were already running at maximum capacity.  It became clear that only of the two new body styles would be produced and whichever one chosen would be built in the Canadian plant in Brampton, Ontario.  The decision hung in the air until management finally selected the hatchback.

The three Cowboys were banished to the basement of AMC’s Plymouth Road headquarters to gather dust along with the company’s other rejected prototypes. The red and yellow Cowboys are believed to have been cut to pieces for a date with the big dumpster.  The green Cowboy nearly got recycled into a styling buck. AMC could sell prototypes and re-engineered vehicles to employees by assigning them a manufacturer’s title. Alexander bought the prototpye and drove his nifty little Hornet half-tonne hauler home.

Because the Cowboy would have been a 1973 model, Alexander promptly updated the two-tone pickup with the nose clip from a ’73 Hornet.  He eventually sold it to a relative in Kansas. The Cowboy underwent a complete restoration in 1998.

The hatchback garnered more than 130,000 sales for AMC, first as a Hornet and later a Concord before the dies were retired. No one will ever know what the Cowboy might have done for the company’s sales figures but one can only dream that it would have made  truckloads of money.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2002 All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

American Motors Corporation: The Rise and Fall of America's Last Independent Automaker

Historian Patrick R. Foster and Motorbooks International bring AMC fans a terrific new book that delves deep inside of American Motors. In an unusual twist, the author starts the story in 1986--the beginning of the end of the manufacturer.

You might be tempted to think that the corporate story has been completely covered and you'd be wrong. This history is fresh; it unfolds with new and delicious details that make every page of this 208-page book a a meaty read with plenty of sizzle and flavour.  Nothing is left out, either. Jeep, AM General and the Renault years are well covered.

Told in Foster's inimitable  style, the sparkling saga simply pops with hundreds of rare and unusual photos, many in colour. Most fascinating are the sketches, models and mockups under consideration in the styling studios.

You don't have to be an AMC fan to enjoy this book--it reflects the North American auto industry. However, if you have ever waxed nostalgic for a Nash, hungered for a Hudson, loved a Rambler or pined for a Pacer--you will require this definitive book on the greatest of the independent auto manufacturers.

Order from DRB Transport Books: $50 plus HST, s&h 1.800.665-2665 (BOOK)

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!
Copyright James C. Mays 2013 All rights reserved.

Monday, November 11, 2013

1975-1978 Chrysler Cordoba

 Cordoba was Chrysler’s first small luxury car.  Had it not been for Cordoba’s timely entry into the market, Lee Iacocca might not have had a company to save.

Chrysler Corporation wasn’t in the best of corporate health in 1976.  Luxury Imperial had been withdrawn from the market for lack of  interest at the end of the 1975 model year run.   Dodge Dart and Plymouth Valiant were replaced by Aspen and Volare in 1976. 
Smart looking they were, but Chrysler's compact duo quickly set records for being the most recalled cars in automotive history--before GM’s X-cars captured the dubious honour.

The economy was in a tailspin, inflation was rising rapidly and gasoline prices were higher than ever before as a result of deliberate shortages designed by  the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).   To make matters more aggravating, car prices rose sharply in order to cover the cost of new safety and pollution devices now required by Washington.  Customers experienced ‘sticker shock.’   While the American auto industry’s sales were off by eight percent, Chrysler’s loss was an astonishing 19%, leaving it with only 14% of the market.  Ford had twice that percentage while General Motors earned 53% of new car sales. 

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

Production was slashed and 18,000 Chrysler employees were laid off.  A two-month supply of cars sat rusting in inventory.  Chrysler’s chairman, Lynn Townsend, hiked prices a second time during the model run and the glut of unsold vehicles swelled even larger.  Finally, Chrysler offered a factory rebate to purchasers, something no other carmaker had ever done.   The other manufacturers quickly followed suit.

Chrysler’s fortunes were flagging in the market.  Resistance to building a small Chrysler had finally been overcome and it was hoped that the new ‘sport size’ Cordoba would revive the manufacturer.  Highland Park desperately needed a success story to run with.  The smart Cordoba had been a brand new car in 1975, although it  was  very similar to the mid-sized Plymouth Satellite, Cordoba carried  very formal front-end styling. 

            Cordoba was smashing to look at.  The car was perfectly poised on its 2 921-millimetre (115-inch) wheelbase.  It looked personal.  In an age of bloat, Cordoba was only 5 461millimetres (215 inches) long, making it 558.8 millimetres (22 inches) shorter than the New Yorker Brougham. 

   Jaguar was the benchmark for Chrysler stylists. Headlights were deeply tunneled into large, round pods that evoked the wealth and grandeur of classic cars of the 1920s.  Turn signals were housed in smaller inboard pods.  The grille was upright and square with vertical bars, giving it a positively ritzy air.  It was long in the front and shortened in the rear quarters so that it had a sporty feel.  Luxury was evident in the opera windows and padded vinyl roof.   Cordoba was given the 5.2-litre (318-cubic inch) V-8 engine. Industry wide, all passenger cars got catalytic converters.

Billed as ‘the new small Chrysler,’ actor Ricardo Mandelbaum introduced the car brilliantly in a series of now classic television commercials.  Who can forget his exotic, hypnotic accent as he showed off Cordoba with “…rich Corinthian leather?”  The personal luxury coupe was an immense success and a tremendous psychological boost within the corporation.  It was the smallest post-war Chrysler ever, just 50.8 millimetres (two inches) longer than the very first one made in 1924.  It was sleek, sassy and just what the consumer ordered.  Cordoba said “cool” and “classy.  It would give decent gas mileage without econo-box stigma.

The new Cordobas and sister Dodge Charger SE were built exclusively in Windsor, Ontario for the North American market.   The only hot seller for the Chrysler nameplate that year, 150,105 units scooted out the factory doors during the model year.  Cordoba was fielded in the same class as Ford’s Thunderbird and Buick’s Riviera.  It was impressive enough to beat all its personal luxury rivals except for Chevy’s Monte Carlo--which was much less expensive than Cordoba.  The luxurious mid-sized Cordoba accounted for nearly 70% of all the Chrysler nameplate’s sales that year.  Calendar year production was 193,587 units.  In the first 13 months of Cordoba production, more Chryslers poured out of the Windsor plant than had been built there between 1946 and 1966! 

Esteemed automotive historian R. Perry Zavits wrote, “A factor contributing to the high acceptance of the Cordoba was the fact that was Canadian-made.  Many people believed the car’s quality was better because of its Canadian origin.”  It was common knowledge to industry insiders in the 'Seventies; Canadian-built cars were picked for auto executives and VIPs because of the superior build. 

In 1976 things just got better in Windsor, calendar year production broke a record as 200,986 units were shipped.

            Chrysler’s new warranty with unlimited mileage for the first year of ownership was good news but there weren’t a lot of takers.             When preparing this story, the author went to a photocopy shop for a laser copy of the Cordoba.  The man behind the counter said he almost bought one but changed his mind at the last minute because he was afraid that Chrysler would go bankrupt and he’d be left with an orphan.  He opted for a Chevrolet Monte Carlo instead.

Chrysler ordered seven Cordoba convertibles from Emess Coach Builders in 1977.
 In 1977 sales jumped up 25% for Chrysler.  Cordoba got a T-top and sales were helped immeasurably with the introduction of luxury compact Chrysler LeBaron on the Volare/Aspen body. 

1978 Chrysler Cordoba
In 1978 square, halogen lamps came to the industry and Cordoba got a mild restyle to accommodate the new lights. While North American automakers enjoyed a great year, Chrysler slipped badly.  

 Chrysler sold all of its European subsidiaries in 1978 to Peugeot-Citroen in order to stay afloat.

            Cordoba was the right car at the right time for Chrysler.  More than 650,000 units were sold during the first generation which spanned five model years.  Automotive folklore tells the breathtaking tale of how Lee Iacocca and the K-car saved Chrysler’s bacon, but there might not have been any bacon to save had it not been for the brave management team who put the junior edition Cordoba into production.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

Copyright James C. Mays 2000 All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mike Brewer's The Wheeler Dealer Know How!

Mike Brewer is a familiar face to many who have watched his TV shows on Discovery Canada HD. He has vast experience in buying, restoring and selling vehicles of interest. He now shares that wisdom in the 128 pages of his newest book, Mike Brewer's The Wheeler Dealer Know How! The book is filled with Mike's passion, wit and humour as he gives invaluable tips that make for savvy wheeling and dealing without getting burnt.   Forewarned is forearmed. Mike's book is a must for anyone who wants to enjoy the vintage car hobby fully and wisely.

In Canada $27.99 plus HST, shipping and handling, order from 416.744.7675 in Toronto or toll free at 800.665.2665
In the USA $24.95 plus shipping, handling and applicable taxes, order from 800.458.0454

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

Copyright James C. Mays 2013
 All rights reserved.

Friday, October 25, 2013

1971 AMX/3

Racking legend Mark Donahue checks out the AMX/3.

American Motors set out to erase its corporate econo-box image in 1966. The  Rambler name was downplayed and a classy quartet of concept vehicles hit the show car circuit.   
The AMX concept  was sassy and classy.
One of the four show cars was the exotic AMX.  Designed in-house by Charles (Chuck) Machigan, it was the inspiration for the production pony car Javelin and its beastly brother, the two-seater AMX. 

The 1970 compact Hornet (rear) and the subcompact Gremlin.

            Stockholders and consumers were excited. Javelin and AMX were followed by the stylish new Hornet compact and the adorable Gremlin, America's first domestically built subcompact. VP of Design, Dick Teague was ready to wow the public with the low and sleek AMX/2.

The AMX/2 was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in 1969.
            The response to the prototype was overwhelming.  President Gerry Meyers gave the go-ahead to modify the sensuously proportioned, two-seater AMX/2 and get it into production. 

Extremely practical but not exciting, the Rambler American targeted West Germany's Volkswagen. 

Morale was high among the stylists as they set out to make this beauty into reality. The guys in the studio joked as they worked that no longer would the company be known for winning the MobilGas Economy run with little Ramblers. For the record, stylist Bob Nixon confirms that the vehicle was referred to as AMX/2, AMX/3 and AMX/K during its development.

This running prototype AMX/3 was photographed in April of 1968.
            Only 43 inches from the ground and laid out on a 105-inch wheelbase, the package was simply breathtaking. Teague designed a new front and rear for the production model. Headlamps were concealed. The windshield was given a 60-degree rake. The counterbalanced engine cover opened from the rear with the aid of gas shocks. 

Bizzarrini of Italy handcrafted the bodies; the panels were beaten into shape and bolted onto a semi-monocoque frame. The engine was AMC's own 390 V-8, created by David Potter. Mounted behind the passenger cabin, the mighty 390 was so powerful that no existing transaxle could handle its torque; so one was created by OTO Melara.  

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

            Brakes were vacuum-boosted and internally vented. Tires were different widths, front and rear. Independent suspension, adjustable shocks, anti-sway bars and coil springs made it a thoroughbred on the track. AMX/3 registered 0-60 in 5.5 seconds and did the quarter-mile in 13.5 seconds at BMW's test tracks at Nurenburgring.

The AMX/3 is right at home in Rome.

            The public got its first look at the AMX/3 on March 23, 1970 in Rome and on April 4 at the International Auto Show in New York.  The automotive press raved about the luxury sports car and many swore that it couldn't have come from American Motors! 

The 1970 Chevrolet Corvette was the AMX/3's domestic competition.

 Production of the hand-built AMX/3 was limited to two vehicles a month but the retail price was still twice that of Chevrolet's Corvette. After five of the dazzling beauties were built, the order came from Detroit to cut up the others. Four were destroyed but Bizzarrini finished the sixth one and kept it for himself.

Copyright James C. Mays 2001 All rights reserved.

The VW Camper Van: A Biography

Mike Harding and Aurum Press have teamed up to tell the story of the Volkswagen Camper Van, and what a story it is! The author's love for the quirky vehicle reaches back to 1961--more than 50 years. The Type 2 (the Beetle was Type 1) bowed to the public in 1950. It wasn't long before the camper variant appeared. It became popular with young people who saw that it represented the anti-establishment counter-culture they embraced in the 1960s.  Harding's accounting of the van makes for a hilarious and unusual platform for social commentary as seen through the eyes of his VW van, named Molly. The tale is most fitting as Volkswagen recently ended production of the icon in Brazil. 

In Canada $27.99 plus HST shipping and handling, order from 416.744.7675 in Toronto or toll free at 800.665.2665

In the USA $24.95 plus Shipping and Handling, order from 800.458.0454

Monday, October 7, 2013

Top Gear USA: The Complete Season 3

 BBC Home Entertainment has released the third season of Top Gear USA on DVD. The wild and wacky stars, Adam Ferrara, Tanner Foust and Rutledge Wood thrill their way through every episode with daring-do and devil-may-care stunts. If it's got four wheels, it's fair game for the boys and their celebrity guests to ride. This is a must for die-hard fans who get 704 minutes of high-octane entertainment that includes extra scenes, outtakes, audio commentary and  interviews.

In Canada $30.90 plus shipping and HST order from DRB Transport Books 416.744.7675 or toll free at 800.665.2665
In the USA $24.98 plus shipping and handling order from

Monday, July 15, 2013

1963 Chevolet Sting Ray

            Chevrolet’s Corvette took off in a completely new styling direction for the 1963 season.  Based on the experimental Mitchell Sting Ray Racer that had been on the race circuit since 1957,  the new Corvette was more angular in looks than its predecessors. A 1:4 scale model of the new sports car was tested in wind tunnel experiments.  Results from those tests dictated the final shape that Corvette would take. 

Side glass with compound curves was the latest styling trend in Detroit that year.  If  Rambler was having curved glass, so was Corvette.    With the help of tiny motors, Corvette’s headlights rotated out of sight when not in use.  The pod-headlight styling trick was superb and even added to the car’s aerodynamics.  Hidden headlamps also gave a sleek, uninterrupted front profile. 

The hood sported twin full-length depressions that carried large, simulated air-intake plates. The grille, made up of thin, horizontal aluminum bars, was deeply recessed into the lower half of the front.   Bumpers were understated spaghetti straps in chrome.
1957 Q Corvette clay model.
 Lines flowed effortlessly in Corvette’s profile. Two deep indentations moulded into the trailing edge of the front wheelwell spoke of speed, even when the sports car was sitting still.   

Corvette was one of the first American automobiles to  acquire the Coke-bottle swell in its rear quarter panels.  It was the perfect look. A raised spine or dorsal fin that ran the length of the coupe gave the perfect excuse for designing a split rear window, which was Bill Mitchell’s brainchild.  The gas filler cap was centrally located in the rear, below the window.  A pair of  bumperettes was given the task of silhouetting two small, round taillights.

Inside the cabin, designers made much of the split or dual theme.  Bucket seats nestled on either side of a massive centre console.  The console in turn, set off the functional and classy dual-cowled instrument panel.   AM/FM radio was available for $174.35.  Passengers were treated to rich, deep-pile carpeting,  adding luxury to what one magazine said was “America’s most sophisticated car.”

A Corvette2+2  was developed in styling alongside the two-seater but it required an extra ten inches of length to accommodate the rear passengers.  Altered rear fenders and a higher roofline changed proportions sufficiently that the larger model never saw the light of day.

Advertising claimed that streamlining was the goal and indeed designer Zora Arkus-Duntov--working under the watchful eye of GM styling guru Billy Mitchell--created a classically elegant and graceful fastback coupe and convertible. The latter could be ordered with a hard or soft top.  Basic design for the ’63 models was locked up by September of 1960, although studio photos show that the hardtop roof for the convertible came into being in February of 1961.

            The wheelbase was cut ten centimetres (four inches) to 249 centimetres (98 inches) and the overall length was shortened by five centimetres (two inches) from the 1962 model. Chassis, frame and the rear  axle were all new to Corvette.  So was the rear suspension, which was given a three-link independent system at each wheel.  A multi-leaf transverse spring was bolted to the differential carrier and extended from one rear wheel to the other. This set up handled vertical loads.   Radius arms, axles and control rods, running from the differential to the frame, handled horizontal forces.  More of Corvette’s weight sat on the back wheels than the front.

            Engines were carried over from 1962.  The 5-3-litre (327-cubic inch) V-8 was standard with its 250 horsepower rating.  300 horses cost $54 more, 340 horses cost $108 extra and the fuel-injected 360 horsepower version added a whopping $340 to the tab.   For a short while the higher horsepower engines came with a buzzer that sounded at 6500 RPM.  The intention was  to alert the driver that he was “…approaching excessive engine speeds.”  The buzzer was dropped because no one could hear it over the engine’s roar.

Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

 A three-speed manual transmission was standard but a close-ratio four-speed could be had for $188 or, for $199.10 Chevrolet’s Powerglide automatic could be installed.   For the first time, power steering, power brakes and air conditioning were available in Corvettes, though archives show that only 280 buyers purchased the cool option at an equally cool $421.  Leather seats were a choice for the first time, if one had an extra $80 in his pocket.  For $202, purists could order the optional 136-litre (36- US gallon) gas tank on coupes.

            Corvette was kept ultra-secret and when it was finally shown to the public, the motoring public went wild over the sensational vehicle. Chevrolet had an imediate hit and an instant classic on its hands. 

Chief Zora Arkus-Duntov even built five Grand Sport specials to Challenge Carrol Shelby’s Cobras on the track. In its initial year 10,594 coupes were built and 10,919 convertibles in Chevrolet’s St. Louis, Missouri plant, a full third more than the previous year.

Copyright James C. Mays 2001
All rights reserved.