Don't be embarrassed if you don't. It's not exactly at the forefront of modern collector-car consciousness.
Truth be told, the Marlin didn't get a whole lot of attention even back when it was in production. There were 17,419 Marlins built in the three years it was on the market--contrasted with production of well over 1.6 million Mustangs in the same period. We call cars in this market segment "pony cars" (and not "fishmobiles") for a good reason.
While it could never match the Mustang in terms of sales, or visibility, or performance, or (let's not mince words here) good looks, the Marlin is a perfect Car Lust car, with the sort of endearing quirkiness we love around these parts. The story of the Marlin also has some surprising ties to professional baseball and national politics.
That last bit may sound a little, ah, fishy, but I assure you it's, um, for reel.
Our story begins in the 1950s. George W. Romney succeeded to the presidency of AMC shortly after the 1954 Nash-Hudson merger. Under his administration, AMC concentrated on the popular Rambler compacts first introduced by Nash, to the point where it had discontinued both the Nash and Hudson nameplates and badged all its cars as "Ramblers." Romney's Ramblers were relatively compact, high-mileage, economical, eminently practical cars with understated styling and restrained ornamentation, while most of what Detroit was offering was, well, nothing like that at all.
They were also wildly successful: AMC was the only manufacturer to see an increase in sales in the 1958 recession. Rambler sales doubled in the 1959 model year, and nearly doubled again in 1960. As the "Big Three" adopted more restrained styling and introduced their own compacts (such as the Corvair, Valiant, and Falcon), AMC's sales growth leveled off, but the company was still riding high when Romney decided to try his hand at electoral politics. He left AMC and was elected governor of Michigan, taking office on January 1, 1963.
Governor Romney's successor at AMC was sales executive Roy Abernethy, Jr. Abernethy was not content to stay in the niche market so successfully exploited by his predecessor. He wanted to expand AMC's product line beyond Rambler, to challenge the Big Three in every market segment. As an element of this strategy, he even planned to phase out the "Rambler" brand name.
At the time, Ramblers came in three model ranges. The smallest was the Rambler American, built on a 100-inch wheelbase platform that would be stretched to 104 inches when it was redesigned for the 1964 model year. The Rambler Classic rode on the 108-inch platform developed when the Rambler was "upsized" in 1956. The "big" Rambler was the Ambassador, which rode on a 112-inch wheelbase, making it an "intermediate" by 1960s standards.
Apart from their smallish size, Ramblers were thoroughly conventional American cars. There was nothing wrong with Ramblers, but there weren't any California surf-rock musclecar ballads being written about them either. They were middle-of-the-road cars for mid-century middle class Middle Americans, with conventional engineering, conventional driving dynamics, and dead-conventional styling: neat, tidy, and perhaps a bit boring.
Abernethy wanted to change that. In particular, he wanted to develop a car for what was then called the "youth market." The car would be built on an existing platform to keep the development costs down, but would be given styling that was more hip, mod, groovy, trendy, and sporting than the donor car. It should be noted that Roy Abernethy was not the only auto executive with this idea: over in Highland Park, near Detroit, a group of Chrysler stylists were developing the youth-market Barracuda on the platform of the plain-Jane Valiant, while in nearby Dearborn Lee Iacocca was spearheading the effort to turn the humble Falcon, a compact with a rather Rambleresque personality, into the mother of all youth market cars.
Under the direction of chief stylist Richard A. Teague, AMC's crew took a 1964 Rambler American and gave it a dramatic fastback hardtop roofline (with a profile faintly reminiscent of the postwar "step-down" Hudsons) and a new grille. The interior got bucket seats and a more sporting instrument panel. The result was a jazzy little number worlds away from the sensible-shoes Rambler American.
Dubbed the Tarpon, it made the rounds of the auto shows in 1964 and was quite well received.
When the decision was made to put the car into production, there was a small problem. A V-8 engine option was considered essential to make the car sporty enough for the target market. At that time, AMC's only production V-8 was a 1956 design that would not fit in the Rambler American's engine bay. There was a new small-block V-8 under development that would fit in the American, but it would not be ready until 1966. In order to get the car out the door in 1965 with a V-8, it would have to be based on the larger Classic. Making the new youth market car larger also coincided with Abernethy's desire to move AMC away from its emphasis on compacts.
The stylists and engineers quickly set themselves to adapting the Tarpon design to the larger platform. Along the way, the car got a new name: Marlin--referring to the game fish, not the guy from Wild Kingdom.
In the course of turning the Tarpon into a Marlin, the stylists had to make some changes and compromises. The Classic platform was longer and wider, with a longer front clip, which stretched things in the horizontal dimensions. President Abernethy was 6'-4", and insisted on a higher roof so he could sit in the back comfortably--a change Dick Teague thought messed up the proportions of the roofline. To make things even tougher, the '65 Classic had a decidedly squarish theme to its styling: the sides met the hood and deck at a sharply-defined right angle, and a full-length chrome spear accented this crease. On the Marlin, this clashed with the lines of the upper body, which had originally been developed for the softer-shaped '64-'65 American. The fender-top chrome thingy, combined with the optional two-tone treatment and the chrome accents running down from the roof, made the back end come off just a little too busy.
The final result is rather polarizing. Some people love it, others consider it one of the ugliest cars ever built. I'm somewhere in the middle on that issue. The Marlin comes off to me like someone had a good idea for the basic shape (which they did--it was called the Tarpon) but fumbled the details of the execution. As you walk around a Marlin, it looks good from the front quarters, okay from directly abeam, and gets progressively clunkier as you come 'round the back. The rear end isn't anywhere near as unnerving as that of the Rodius, but it's over-styled, with creases and character lines going every which way but loose in a manner that precisely fails to please the eye--and, as I noted above, the "Tarpon" part above the beltline is not really all that well synchronized with the "Classic" part below. In AMC's defense, they're not the only ones to have trouble getting a big fastback to look good. Much of what I've said about the Marlin's aesthetic shortcomings could also be said about the contemporary first-generation Barracuda or the 1971-73 "boat-tail" Buick Riviera.
The interior turned out much better. The Marlin got a sportier dashboard (swiped from the Ambassador) with circular gauge pods, and a nicer level of trim than the Classic. It didn't get bucket seats, however. Like the Classic from which it derived, the Marlin was a six-passenger car, and AMC touted it as a roomy, family-friendly "3+3."
The Marlin was introduced February of 1965 as a mid-year model. This was about a year after the Tarpon had hit the auto-show circuit, and one must give the design and engineering departments credit for getting the Marlin into production so quickly, and with no significant build quality issues.
The base engine was a straight six, with two different sizes of V-8 optional. Less than 20 percent of the 1965 Marlins swam out of the factory on 6-cylinder power; the most popular engine was the big (327) V-8. With the most ferocious possible engine option, a 327 with a four-barrel that produced 250 horsepower, a '65 Marlin could do the 0-60 dash in 11.2 seconds.
That's not quite pony-car performance now, is it? As a result of the need to use the larger platform, the Marlin ended up being a bit too fun-sized to be a true pony car. A V-8 Marlin weighed in at a bit over 3,200 pounds, while the Mustang fastback was more like 2,500 pounds.
On the plus side of the ledger, the Marlin had much more room than a Mustang, and AMC made a talking point out of that in its advertising. The ads pitched it a "sports fastback" for family men with a Walter Mitty streak, or even a sort of personal luxury car. Thing was, the Marlin lacked the formal lines and over-the-top rococo decoration of a true personal luxury car like the Thunderbird. At the same time, it had just a little too much flash to be just another sensible-shoes Rambler family car.
While the 1965 Rambler Marlin was sort of (pardon the expression) neither fish nor fowl, AMC sold 10,327 in the abbreviated 1965 model year, which wasn't bad. The car got generally good reviews in the automotive press, and a tricked-out "Black Marlin" concept car wowed 'em at the auto shows.
For the 1966 model year, AMC cut the Marlin's price by $500, made some formerly optional equipment standard, and offered a black vinyl roof treatment. The "Black Marlin" show car was repainted in metal-flake blue, given a new interior with rhinestone accents and floral-pattern upholstery with matching throw pillows (!), and sent back out on the show circuit as the "Tahiti Marlin." (The Tahiti Marlin survives in a private collection.) The most significant change was on the nameplate: the 1966 Marlin was no longer a Rambler. It was now the "Marlin by American Motors," making it the first "AMC" and marking the beginning of the end of the Rambler brand name.
Despite having a full model year to work with, AMC sold only 4,547 Marlins in 1966, which was a great disappointment after 1965's encouraging start.
For 1967, the Marlin was redesigned to fit on the full-sized, 118-inch wheelbase sixth-generation Ambassador platform. The longer, lower, wider '67 Marlin was a much more attractive car, as you can see from the picture at right. It was also getting even further away from the light and quick pony-car ideal.
Unfortunately, bigger size and better looks did not translate into greater sales. Only 2,545 of the 1967 version were sold, and AMC dropped the model at the end of the year. That didn't mean that AMC was abandoning the youth market, however, as 1968 saw the introduction of the Javelin, a much better pony car than the Marlin had ever been.
The Marlin story would have ended there, but there are (as I hinted at the beginning) a couple of postscripts, one involving baseball and the other involving politics.
As baseball fans know, the Florida Marlins are a Major League team founded in 1993. The Marlins' mascot is "Billy the Marlin," a rather large and fishy individual. For the 1997 season, the team bought Billy a car: a 1966 Marlin which had its roof removed, turning it into a roadster. The Marlins had a 92-70 record that year, the best in their history, and beat the highly favored Cleveland Indians in an exciting seven-game World Series.
The car was not used the following year, and the Marlins went "from first to worst," with a 1998 season record of 54-108. Mere coincidence? I suspect not.
The Marlin also played a part in the 2002 gubenatorial election in Massachusetts, which pitted George Romney's son Mitt against Shannon O'Brien. Early in the campaign, Mitt Romney aired a one-minute "getting to know you" TV ad in which he and his wife talked about their lives together, including their "first real date." Ann Romney described the Marlin Mitt picked her up with as "some goofy-looking car" and noted that her future husband "was a little embarrassed about it." He agreed with her that "it was kinda awful." (You can watch the ad here; the Marlin is mentioned at the 0:19 mark.)
No sooner had this commercial appeared than Romney's opponent leaped to the defense of the Marlin. The O'Brien campaign issued a press release criticizing Romney as "out of touch with regular working people" because, contrary to what the Romeys said in the ad, the AMC Marlin was actually "a cool car!"
When the citizens went to the polls that November, Mitt Romney beat Shannon O'Brien by a margin of over 100,000 votes, becoming the second Governor Romney in his family's history. As far as I know, there were no exit poll questions asked about the Marlin, so we do not know if Ms. O'Brien's controversial views on automotive styling cost her support among likely voters who had once owned an AMC. Certainly, it would be a bit of a stretch to call the election results a referendum on Ramblers or a mandate on Marlins.
Actually, this is that rare political issue on which both candidates were right. The 1965-66 Marlin was indeed "goofy-looking," with "kinda awful" rear styling--but by virtue of its goofiness, the Marlin is also, in Car Lust terms, very much a "cool car."
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
All illustrations are from the website of the Marlin Auto Club. The Club proclaims "We are keeping the Marlin alive!" and if the photos of member cars and restoration projects are any indication, they're doing a great job of it. The Marlin Club's website was indispensable in writing this article, and if you are interested in learning more about these uncommon and fascinating cars, I can think of no better place to start.