"Anne Shirley," interrupted Marilla firmly, "I never want to hear you talking in this fashion again. I've had my doubts about that imagination of yours right along, and if this is going to be the outcome of it, I won't countenance any such doings."
--Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
It might seem a bit odd to quote Anne of Green Gables on a car blog, but I think this passage is apropos to today's post. You see, like Anne Shirley I have always struggled with an overactive imagination; and like her, my imagination frequently neglects normalcy in favor of frolicking through a series of imaginary flowery meadows.
This might not sound so terrible--we tend to romanticize imagination, and it certainly has its uses. My imagination, however, has so far shown a resolute inability to be harnessed for useful purposes. Instead of dreaming up a lucrative new invention or writing the Great American Novel, my brain prefers to dwell on ridiculous and yet oddly banal ideas such as showing our Founding Fathers around a supermarket, or building a tiny, flying, cybernetic mosquito terminator.
In this series, I'll share a dream scenario that I have been slowly developing in my mind over the last 15 years. This scenario consists of me traveling back through time to the mid-1970s, purchasing the chronically struggling American Motors corporation, and revitalizing it by using it as a front to surreptitiously “import” present-day cars. This would instantly transform AMC from a lovable loser into an unthinkably advanced powerhouse fortified with 21st-century technology. More to the point, it would blow people's minds and result in some highly entertaining articles in contemporary car magazines.
We spend a lot of time at Car Lust thinking about older cars in today's modern context; transplanting modern cars into the mid-1970s is essentially flipping the normal Car Lust ethos right on its head. It's also weird enough that it would disgust Marilla Cuthbert. "If this is going to be the outcome, I won't countenance it," she'd say--and she'd be right.
The first part of the plan is to invent an industrial-sized time machine. I haven't spent much time on this part of the plan simply because it's the least interesting and clearly the least consequential step. I'm sure I'll figure out the time-travel portion of the plan when I'm ready, so why rush it?
Following my first trip back in time, likely to the early 1970s, I'll borrow the tried-and-true strategy laid out in Back to the Future II--using my foreknowledge to make a pile of money with which I'll purchase American Motors. I’d then clear out AMC's factory in Kenosha, Wisc., and begin using my industrial time machine to warp in the new cars.
Then, starting in January 1976, I'd start rolling out new cars. I'd start with the entry-level by unveiling the new AMC Gremlin economy car and would move up the range month by month until we concluded with the new AMX sports car. The monthly schedule is deliberate—it's the perfect tempo to keep up a distinct but steady pattern of shocking debuts, it would completely dominate the content of the major car magazines, and it would hopefully maximize excitement before the entire endeavor inevitably collapsed in on itself.
I would build a complete roster of cars that addresses virtually every segment in the marketplace, using AMC's traditional names and segments. There are some oddities in this lineup--after all, nobody in 1976 would know what in the heck an AMC Eagle is or should be--but ultimately I think this represents a full and compelling lineup with which to revolutionize the automotive industry.
- AMC Gremlin--the subcompact economy car
- AMC Pacer--the innovative compact people-mover
- AMC Hornet--the small sedan and wagon
- AMC Eagle--the go-anywhere, do-anything AWD wagon
- AMC Matador--the mid-size sedan and stylish coupe
- AMC Ambassador--the full-size sedan
- AMC Marlin--the casual, feel-good sporty car
- AMC Javelin--the more serious sporty car
- AMC AMX--the hard-core sports car
Additionally, most cars will feature an "X" edition. AMC X models used to be a little bit fancier than the normal AMCs, so I'd build on that to make the X AMCs the high-performance line--essentially the 1970s equivalent of an M-series BMW, an S-series Audi, a Ford SVT, or a Chevy SS.
You’ll note that I’m not doing anything with AMC's Jeep line in this scenario—that’s because Jeep was already a healthy asset in the 1970s and, frankly, 1970s Jeeps were far better-suited for the expectations of a 1970s truck buyer than today’s more luxurious models would be.
When selecting the brand new AMCs, I followed a few rules:
- Each new car must be in basically the same class as the AMC car it replaces. It's no fair trying to pass off a BMW M5 as a family sedan, for example.
- Each new car must be unidentifiable by contemporary purchasers or reviewers. For example, we can't bring back a Porsche 911, Ford Mustang, or Chevrolet Corvette--even people in the 1970s would be able to identify these cars for what they are. More subtly, I went overboard in trying to eliminate even the possibility that small components or even shared specifications such as bore and stroke not be familiar to the 1970s audience, which led me to eliminate GM and Ford products out of hand. It's not that I think that those cars actually reuse exact components from the 1970s. It's just that the risk is too great that an intelligent GM engineer of 1976 could recognize an evolution of the classic small-block engine, for example.
- Within those rules, I tried to pick the car that would best do the job and make the biggest splash.
At this point you might be wondering--what could possibly go wrong? I'm sad to say that even aside from the trifling problem of industrial-scale time travel, there are some issues.
This would represent financial suicide on an epic scale.
Most time-traveling car-sale fantasies consist of going back in time to purchase something like a brand new Plymouth Superbird Hemi for a few thousand dollars, placing it in climate-controlled storage for the next several decades, and reselling it for hundreds of thousands of dollars today. That scenario makes financial sense because it involves the purchase of an inexpensive, easily available commodity that is sold when it's in high demand and wildly expensive.
This scenario is the exact opposite. For these cars to sell in any quantity in mid-1970s America, they would need to be sold at competitive 1970s prices; yet we'd have to purchase them at their 2011 prices. We would in effect be buying incredibly high and selling incredibly low, losing something like 80 percent of our investment. Selling modern cars as AMCs into the 1970s market would be highly entertaining, but that entertainment would come at a stiff cost.
Maintaining and repairing these modern "AMCs" would be a nightmare.
As reliable and well-built as today's cars are, especially in comparison with their new 1970s competitors, they are not immune to the need for maintenance and repair. Some will inevitably be involved in collisions, and all will need normal preventative maintenance.
When that happens, one of the biggest flaws in this plan will become obvious--the parts and service industry in America in the 1970s would have no idea what to do with these cars. Even assuming that we could time-warp and sell the parts just as we do the cars, outfitting every AMC dealer with ODBII diagnostic equipment and training every technician to diagnose and repair today’s computerized cars would be a massive challenge. Even that challenge would be dwarfed in comparison with the task we'd face in getting the massive network of independent repair shops up to speed. I'm guessing that the vast majority of automotive technicians in 1976 had never even seen a computer.
I'm guessing that customers would be thrilled with the initial quality of their new AMCs, but they would quickly be frustrated by the fact that their cars are essentially unrepairable.
Some of today's neatest advances will be unusable.
Some of today’s great technical advantages will translate nicely to the 1970s. For example, anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, highly advanced fuel- and engine-management controls, and automatic set-and-forget climate control would represent incredible advances over the brake-locking, wheel-spinning, and inadequately ventilated cars of the time.
On the other hand, though, some of the technology would be completely unusable. Back in 1976, some cars didn't even have FM radio, and 8-tracks and cassettes were considered luxury features. Unless we saw fit to import CDs and iPods into the 1970s along with our cars, buyers of these new-fangled AMCs would be highly confused by those weird openings and ports in their dashboards.
Satellite navigation would also be anathema. Some forms of satellite navigation were around by 1976, but they were all military in nature and would be inaccessible by our cars. We could explain these in-dash nav systems away as simply highly advanced maps and route-finding, but the maps would contain towns, roads, and businesses that didn't yet exist.
The advanced technology might prove destabilizing.
I would assume that competitive automakers would eagerly tear these cars down to learn their secrets, but I doubt the interest would end there. The U.S. military would quickly figure out that one new AMC contained more computing power than its finest jet fighters. At a minimum, the military would likely request the reconstituted AMC bid on new military projects. At the maximum, the military could shut down sales (particularly export to other countries) and hoard the cars to keep the technology for themselves. All of those scenarios could be problematic for the new AMC.
This might sound alarmist--could advanced anti-lock brake sensor and software technology really be considered military technology?--but given that this was during the Cold War I can imagine the government wanting to control the spread of clearly very advanced technology.
People would very quickly start asking questions.
While we were making a splash in the press and with customers, people would very quickly start asking how it's possible that we could build such advanced cars without a workforce, raw materials, or manufacturing capacity--questions that we would be hard-pressed to answer.
Given all this, I would expect our reconstituted AMC to be in major trouble within a year. Happily, by then we will have introduced all of our cars by then and properly shocked both the car-buying public and the automotive press.
Starting tomorrow, I'll begin revealing my picks--and I hope you enjoy the series as much as I have enjoyed imagining it. I figure that if my imagination is going to spend its time on such folly, I may at least get some blog posts out of it.
The vintage AMC car radio picture came from Flickr user amyjwoodland's photostream.