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Project AMC--Introduction

Project AMC--The Introduction
Project AMC--AMC Gremlin
Project AMC--AMC Hornet and AMC Eagle
Project AMC--AMC Pacer

"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.

AMC Badge 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 PLAN
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.

AMC 1976 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.

THE CARS
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

AMC LineupAdditionally, 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.

THE RULES
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.

THE PROBLEMS
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.
AMC 1974 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.
AMC Radio 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.

--Chris H.

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Insanity. Where do I sign up?
;-)

It's also worth checking out Hot Rod's article from last year taking AMC in a slightly different direction--a modern relaunch. It's worth checking out, and unsurprisingly I find the modern Gremlin and Pacer amazingly lust-worthy.

http://www.hotrod.com/featuredvehicles/hrdp_0804_amc_concept_cars/index.html

"[C]ould advanced anti-lock brake sensor and software technology really be considered military technology?"

Not in and of itself, but the components of an ABS system could be easily repurposed for other things. Technology is like that. The Internet and GPS started out as military systems; modern emergency medicine derives in large part from battlefield experience; piston engines derived from mine pumps; the Jeep started out as a military vehicle -- I could keep going but I think I've made my point. There was an old PBS show called "Connections" that was all about how technology gets re-used and propagated from one field of endeavor to another.

Actually, there is a way to make the AMC time machine proposition economically viable. Don't send finished cars back; send back designs and tooling and manufacturing processes, and license them out to non-competitors to pay some of the freight. The 1970s semiconductor industry would be all too happy to get its paws on 2010 semiconductor manufacturing technology--or, heck, even 1995 manufacturing technology.

I like the idea of ramping up America's 1970s technical infrastructure to make better cars more sustainably.

John Birmingham wrote an alternate-history/time travel/military tech trilogy called Axis of Time, in which a modern military battle group gets dropped right into the middle of 1942. It's interesting because the modern weapons are in fact overpowering, but they can't really do much to repair or rearm.

The books ultimately become about using their modern knowledge to help speed up technical development - so rather than a finite and brittle set of imported 2020 weapons, they wind up using a much larger and more sustainable, native-built set of 1970s weapons. Which, of course, are still pretty amazing in the context of WWII.

That seems relevant to your comment, CTDO - you could ramp up a variety of industries to start making 1985 sports coupes in 1976.

I don't mean "sustainably" in the modern eco-friendly sense of the word, by the way - I mean that the cars manufactured could be built, supported, and repaired in that time.

Though both schemes could have positive environmental impact, since you'd be replacing extremely dirty 1970s cars with much cleaner, more modern cars.

I remember airbags and anti-lock brakes being offered on late-1960s and early-1970s models, so some of today's safety features should be acceptable to the mid-1970s consumers as well.

Modern electronics? They might scare the bageezas out of folks back then. Look how long it took computers to catch on to baby boomers like me.

I grew up with AMC cars, more in the '60s than '70s. I also owned a '63 Classic, a '66 Classic and best of all a '68 Javelin.

I would settle for the chance to take some big cash and future knowledge back to engineer and position AMC to better meet the needs of the two gas crises and consumer desires. Keep some of the strengths of the '63 to '66 "sensible spectaculars", build on the Javelin and AMX, focus on mileage, price and quality. The decision made for the '67s to get larger to compete with the Big 3 maybe wasn't the best move. Oh, and AMC had the Grand Cherokee design lying around for years before Chrysler brought it to market. And, the Eagle all-wheel drives could have built more of a following like the Subaru Outback.

Ah, but would you have consummated the Renault partnership, TurboDave? I *know* you wouldn't foresake the Alliance, would you?

There was an old SF novel--Larry Niven & David Gerrold's "The Flying Sorcerers"--which talked about technology as "making the tools to make the tools" to build stuff like 747s.

Oh. The joy of it! Loved the Eagle! 250,000 miles of bliss! That car never let us down and if the came back...sign us up!! PLUS the Pacer was also a great car!! We had that car when we met...awww. Get on the AMC resurgence!!

Back in the mid '60's, a friend of my dad's had an Ambassador 4-door (that may have been the only Ambassador model). It was big and plush, and somewhat reminded me of the Packard Patricians ten years prior to that.

I have to admit - the idea of traveling back in time with full (or nearly full) knowledge of history, energy crises, and where the market would ultimately be going might be enough to get AMC pointed in the right direction without necessarily importing, say, Honda Fits as Gremlins or anything quite that cheesy. The key, of course, is you'd have to show up early enough to keep AMC from being a hopeless cause. Say, late '60s would just about do it - early enough to get something going for '72 and the energy crunch, but late enough to keep it interesting.

That said, it's not like AMC's problems were really about product placement, at least in the traditional Detroit "everything was too big" narrative. Most of the AMCs that we think of when we hear that name (Gremlin, Pacer, Hornet, etc.) were all smaller than the rest of the Detroit-built competition, but still a bit bigger than the import competition (a safe, smart call at the time). Unfortunately, quality control was somewhere between abysmal and criminal and AMC was always woefully undercapitalized, so creating new product always took some wishful thinking and educated guessing, which didn't help quality control any.

The financial issue is no issue at all. Just use 1970 cash generated from sales to buy oil, gold, commodities. Transport the crude to modern times and sell at nice profit.

Other military tech: carbon fiber.

Wow, you gave a lot of thought to this wacky but highly entertaining concept. Should be an interesting ride.

Not sure which categories they would fit in, but my first thoughts are as follows. Original Ford Fiesta and Mercury Capri (yes I know they were Ford products, but they were Ford of Europe products, therefore no typical Ford Mechanic would recognize them in the USA). 1970 Datsun 240Z, 1987 Honda Civic full model line (IIRC that should cover 3 diffent models, fuel efficient, standard model, and sport). Subaru Brat (sorry, I have owned 2 and would love to have another one, plus the AWD technology would be a plus back then). Just a few suggestions.

I'll be truly shocked if Subaru isn't represented somehow, but the Outback in particular deserves note as being the spiritual heir to the Eagle wagon. Hell, for awhile they even had a (very attractive in my eyes) Outback sedan for fans of cars on stilts, a demographic probably populated almost entirely and exclusively by fans of the Eagle SX/4.

Damn you, now I have to go back Craigslist to see if that 360 V8 Hornet is back for sale again.

The lubricants and fluids of 1976 are woefully insufficient for modern use. Try using SD oil you're car and watch the sludge build.

Sounds like an interesting project. And don't call me Shirley...

It would be interesting to see what and average guy could do if dropped back into 1970 with just the knowledge in his head. For instance, I'm a fairly technical guy, but I don't think I could recreate a whole lot of 2011 tech all by myself. I could point people in the right direction, but I don't have enough knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts to start from scratch.

This whole idea was very intertaining until you got to the part about why it wouldn't work! Too bad, it was fun to imagine that scenario!

Actually, the biggest stumbling blocks are the most pedestrian:

1)The 70's was the era of the 5mph bumper and the sealed beam headlight. Not a single modern car would be considered safe for 70's roads because of this "failing".

2)According to 70's aesthetics, modern cars are butt-ugly spaceship things. Remember that the Pacer was rejected because it looked like a wart on wheels. What would the average car buyer think of a Camry or a Subie Outback in comparison? Either of these cars, boring nuthingburgers of styling today, would be considered some freakish anachronism when compared to that rather pedestrian Matador.

Compared to any '70s car, these cars would be freakishly competent. They're faster than nearly anything built then except a supercar, handling superior to anything on the road, and fuel economy better than the original CVCC.

However, according to the standards of the day, they'd be considered butt ugly futuremobiles.

What if we took an Aztek back to 1975? LOL

Here's someone who had the exact same thought, but transposed to the world of consumer electronics. Bring an iPod back to 1977, and encase it in fake wood grain to fit in. These fake ads are brilliant:

http://www.behance.net/gallery/ALT1977-WE-ARE-NOT-TIME-TRAVELERS/545221

Chris...
About the military wanting to keep ABS technology to themselves in 1976.
I believe the 1969-70-71 Lincoln Mark II had ABS.
In any event, since ABS was developed for jet airliners, the military already had it.

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