Welcome everyone to another edition of "Underappreciated" where we look at the underappreciated racing cars of the past, relegated to the history books. We look today at the AMC Matador, a humble car from AMC and it's racing history that is now forgotten and underappreciated.
"AMC the makers of cars YOU want to buy!"
AMC as a brand was an oddity from it's founding to it's collapse. Each decade of AMC represented a different swing in design, vision, and goals. Yet AMC was always the same in it's philosophy, do a lot with little. In the late 60's, AMC was behind the Big 3 (GM, Ford, Chrysler) in terms of sales and performance. AMC did what they could, shoving their 390 and 401 V8's into the Ramblers, Rebels and Javelins. They even ripped the 2 seats out of the Javelin and made a Corvette competitor in the AMX.
While AMC had a few gems in the world of drag racing, they were quickly beat out by Chrysler Hemis and Ford 429 Lightnings. AMC wasn't known as a performance brand at the time, but that belief wasn't entirely true. The Javelin was entered into SCCA Trans Am racing in 1969, and the program was taken over in 1970 by Roger Penske with Penske Racing and the famed Mark Donohue driving. The pairing would create AMC's success in racing, capturing the SCCA title in 1971 and 1972 with Donahue at the wheel. No longer was AMC just a drop in the bucket in the performance world, it was a serious contender.
"You may have a Chevy, you may have a Ford, but you better watch out for that Matador!"
1971 saw the beginning of the end for factory performance cars. However, 1971 saw the release of a new AMC model, the Matador. In typical AMC fashion the Matador was actually the AMC Rebel with a redesigned body and slight interior changes. It was released in 2 door coupe, 4 door sedan and wagon. It was AMC's largest sedan, next to the luxury sedan Ambassador, and would be the flagship family vehicle for AMC throughout the 70's.
In 1972, AMC would hit the world of NASCAR. AMC hadn't had a car on the oval turns of a NASCAR track since the famed Hudson brand and the "Fabulous Hudson Hornet" were on the sands of Daytona in the 50's. Many journalists of the era were surprised to see that AMC would be in NASCAR, especially since they were in association with the SCCA team Penske Racing. The Matador coupe was nicknamed "The Flying Brick" by contemporaries in the sport, and Penske Racing nicknaming their cars the more apt "Bull Fighters".
Penske would enter the cars for the first time at the road course race at Riverside, California in 1972. The car was fast with SCCA driver Mark Donohue at the wheel, however it would retire early due to rear end issues. Penske Racing would be part time in 1972 racing with Donnie Allison and Dave Marcis at Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Michigan, Darlington, Rockingham and Martinsville. The aerodynamics of the car meant that Super Speedway and large tracks were not the Matador's strong suit. The short tracks and intermediates are where the AMC would shine, as the "Flying Bricks" didn't rely on aero, rather the skill of the NASCAR veterans driving them.
The Matador coupe was a bit of an oddity at the time, having 4 disc brakes instead of the traditional drums in the rear as seen on all other makes. Most teams, and manufacturers, thought this was unnecessary as only 2 races (Riverside and Watkins Glen) were run at road courses and the 4 discs weren't seen as a necessity for the rest of the year. In 1973, the famed Donohue drove the Raging Bull to the front and won the Winston Western 500 at Riverside to open the season. Teams saw how much harder the Matador could brake in the corner and noted that brake fade wasn't as prevalent on the Penske car. By 1974, almost the entire field was running 4 disc brakes thanks to the Matador.
"Your car is ready, Mr. Bond"
In 1974 AMC would redesign the Matador coupe, making a more aerodynamic and clean shape to cut through the air. While AMC would not admit the car was redesigned for NASCAR competition, it greatly improved the Matador's success on larger and higher speed tracks. The Matador Coupe was one of the rare times were AMC would make a separate body and interior for a model, as most AMC models would share similar body panels and interior pieces to help reduce costs.
The Matador Coupe is most remembered from the James Bond film "Man with the Golden Gun" where AMC spent thousands to make the Matador and AMC a prominent member of the film. A flying Matador coupe was driven by the main villain, Francisco Scaramanga, and was chased by Mr. Bond in an AMC Hornet with a Southern Sheriff on vacation in Bangkok... Yes, it's as crazy as it sounds. The car was eventually barrel rolled in the climax of the chase, showing just how strong the AMC's were. In a movie first, the famous Hornet flip was designed on a computer as a way to verify the the roll would work. It's pretty incredible for the time and would inspire the beginning of movies and computer animation.
The Matador flying car was sent around the country to auto shows to promote the movie and AMC's new styling choices. Quite a sight it must have been to see this next to a Gremlin and a Pacer.
Dick Teague, styling manager of AMC at the time, wanted to make a Sedan and Wagon based on the Coupe's styling but money was a hold back. It's incredible to think what AMC could have made if they weren't always in 4th place, but I digress. The Coupe was styling halo car for AMC and would influence the rest of the line into the 70's and 80's as curves were added to the AMC box cars that came after it.
A raging bull gets a kill, but eventually he will lose
AMC's new Matador Coupe would find success in 1974 winning in Onatrio, CA with Bobby Allison at the wheel. '75 would be the best year of the Matador winning at Riverside again, along with winning Darlington's dual dates (the Rebel and Southern 500) all with Allison at the wheel. Allison would also come runner up at the Daytona 500, proving the speed and improvements of the new body style were working.
However, the good times were not to last. As 1975 started, AMC dropped factory support of their racing teams. AMC in the mid 70's was in a time of "penny pinching". The Pacer program, launched in 1975, was extremely expensive and the sales return was not meeting expectations into it's 2nd year.
The company was losing millions, market share, and racing was not driving sales as expected. AMC would soldier on with the Matador as they couldn't afford to redesign the car for the market demand of smaller, fuel efficient cars. Especially when compared to the Imports from Japan that were making large strides in market share.
Penske Racing would move over to Mercury for 1976, but with no wins that year as compared to when they were doing the dance with the Matador. Penske would stick around in NASCAR until 1980, never finding the success they had with AMC until they returned in 1991 with Rusty Wallace and the Ford Thunderbird.
AMC's Matador would die out in 1978, as AMC would modify their Gremlin frames and bodies into the AMC Spirit and stretching that out into the AMC Eagle and Concorde into the 80's. AMC would revitalize their racing program for 1979-1980 with entries in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, SCCA rally and IMSA racing throughout the country. Unfortunately, the Spirit never captured the same "Spirit" and fanfare that the Matador did, which is saying something. Maybe a story for another day.
Requiem for a car
The Matador is a strange vehicle, from a strange company. It started life as a re-badged Rebel, given a face only a mother could love. Then, they gave it a sexy makeover, to be a more successful racer. Only to invest in a car that was falling out of favor with the public when AMC needed more money and falling out of racing altogether.
The Matador is a car that folks forget about in the world of racing. In the 60's and 1970, NASCAR is remembered for cars like the Gran Torino, Superbird, Cyclone and Charger 500. No one remembers the 70's, most people go from the Superbird to the Monte Carlo and Thunderbirds of the 80's. From Petty to Earnhardt, the 70's and their star cars are all but forgotten at this point. I can't blame people for this lapse in memory, the cars and races weren't as fast and they weren't as wild as they were before or after this era.
However, I would argue the Matador was a gamechanger, at least in NASCAR. The '74 coupe was designed specifically for racing in NASCAR, not the first time this had happened but it wasn't a trim level but rather a whole new car to be made for racing. It championed disc brakes on all 4 ends, improving road racing. Drivers like Mark Donohue winning in the AMC Matador lead to the future of "road course ringers" and the changes they would bring to the sport.
The Matador is remembered by most folks for a bad cameo in a James Bond film. They remember it only when shown a picture or a YouTube clip of that movie. I think the Matador should have more respect, it should be better well remembered, it's truly underappreciated for it's changes to the world of NASCAR and the future of NASCAR racing.