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!
Copyright James C. Mays 2002 All rights reserved.