AMC by far was the most conservative automaker back in the day. An AMC dealership was a place to get a reasonably priced reliable car with no frills. And the formula seemed to work with sales being decent for AMC for many years. However by the late 1960s with the introduction of the AMX, Javelin, and limited production Hurst SC/Rambler; AMC had shown it could also compete with the big boys in the muscle car segment. However with its pinnacle muscle car released for 1970 – the Rebel “Machine” which was based on the two-door Matador platform, it had arrived to the muscle car party late just as the lights were being turned off. The two-seat AMX was short lived and the Javelin, AMC’s pony car, was feeling the sales slide of the segment and would be retired at the end of the 1974 model year. It appeared AMC had no new tricks up its sleeve and producing only stodgy “Plain Jane” cars were its future.
Well it came as a nice surprise to the automotive world when AMC released its new Matador coupe for 1974. It had sleek one-of-a-kind elegant aerodynamic styling that was bold and looked at least ten years ahead of its time. The front end had space-age looking pods for the twin head lamps. The hood and roof were low. Out back a fastback design finished off this overall slippery design. And to top off the styling were four large round taillights which added to the car’s sporty looks. The Matador coupe’s body style looked more at home on the racetrack than on public streets. And that was probably the idea from the start. Many rumors have circulated for years that Mark Donohue helped in designing the 1974 Matador. However AMC’s Dick Teague is the one officially credited with the design. Donahue had a tight relationship with AMC, he had successful raced Javelins around the track and he would later have his turn around the oval in the new sleek Matador coupe. Unfortunately Donahue’s time behind the wheel of the Matador coupe was short lived, he died in 1975 during pre-race track runs before the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. However the Matador coupe’s sleek bodywork did reward AMC with its share of successful finishes on the Trans-Am racing circuit.
The 1974 hit James Bond movie – The Man with the Golden Gun showcased the 1974 Matador Coupe. Bond movies had a habit of showcasing futuristic and interesting cars, and The Man with the Golden Gun was no exception. The 1974 Matador Coupe in the movie was driven by Bond’s nemesis. And the viewing audience was taken by surprise when the Matador Coupe transformed into a flying car during an exciting chase scene.
The Matador Coupe came in three varieties: (base) Coupe, Brougham, and X. The Coupe was the entry level offering while the Brougham was the more upscale model with more standard features. The Matador Coupe X (AMC just called it the Matador X) was the performance oriented offering geared towards the muscle car crowd. There were six different engine offerings on the Matador Coupe – 232 CID (1 bbl) I6, 258 CID (1 bbl) I6, 304 CID (2 bbl) V8, 360 CID (2bbl and 4bbl) V8s, and 401 CID (4bbl) V8. Both the Matador Coupe and Matador Coupe Brougham could be ordered with any of these engines. While the Matador X could only be ordered with any of these V8s.
The 232 and 258 I6 engines were reliable with excellent low end torque for six cylinder motors but their low horsepower output made them not up to the duty of pulling around a 3,500 lbs plus Matador Coupe. These two engines came standard with a column shifted 3-speed manual transmission, and could be ordered with an optional 3-speed automatic. All the V8s were only available with the 3-speed automatic transmission. On the V8s the 3-speed automatic transmission could be ordered with a console shifter instead of the standard column shifter for a sportier look.
The 3-speed manual equipped I6s had a performance oriented rear axle ratio of 3.54 which aided acceleration. All engines equipped with the 3-speed automatic had the choice of a 3.15 or 3.54 rear axle ratio both of which were performance oriented.
The 304 2bbl and 360 2bbl V8s provided amble power to propel the Matador Coupe however the 360 4bbl and 401 4bbl motors were more suited for the performance oriented driver. The 360 4bbl produced 195 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque with single exhaust and 220 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque with optional dual exhaust. The 401, the top performer, came standard with dual exhaust and produced 235 horsepower and 345 lb-ft. of torque. By 1974 standards where only low compression motors were available, the 401 was a powerful engine and it propelled the Matador Coupe from 0-60 mph in high-8 second range and the 1/4 mile in high-16 second range.
As well as the 401 performed, it was not a popular option. Just under 1,000 401 equipped Matador Coupes were produced for 1974. This was more than likely due to aftermath of the 1973 fuel crises which gave Americans a taste for the first time of astronomical fuel prices and long lines at the gas pumps.
Handling was not bad for a heavy car, however it fell short of the handling of the well balanced 1974 Javelin which felt more at home in the curves than the Matador Coupe. The Matador X could have benefited from a stiffer suspension since it looked the part of an all around performance car.
One really bad handicap of AMC at this time was their small market share which equated to less development dollars than their competitors. This is not saying that AMC cut corners on the Matador Coupe, but it does make one wonder what the Matador Coupe could have been if AMC had the development dollars that GM, Ford, or even Chrysler had at the time. With a little more money used on development, the Matador may have been a world class performance touring car which was the segment Pontiac was trying to hit with its Grand Am during the same time period.
AMC however made the best of their situation by buying from the other big three automakers parts that they did not want to spend development dollars on. For instance this was the case on the Matador Coupe. The 3-speed automatic transmission was a Chrysler TorqueFlite, the carburetor on the 401 was a Ford Motorcraft 4 bbl, and the steering box was a GM unit. However since these were all proven parts that worked and performed very well, AMC did make a wise choice and saved some much needed cash.
The Matador Coupe’s interior was surprisingly comfy with enough room to fit four to five adults comfortably. The interior design was modern like the exterior. In fact it was much more tasteful than the other AMC cars at the time. Even the dash layout with its squared off gauge clusters added to the modern look. And though AMC was not known for luxury options, a Matador Brougham could be had with some decent luxury options. There was even an Oleg Cassini package which consisted of plush cloth seats and trim which looked more at home in a Cadillac than an AMC.
The auto press back in 1974 was impressed overall with the Matador Coupe. Buyers agreed and Matador sales were very impressive, a little over 62,000 units were sold for 1974. AMC seemed to have found its ace in the hole with the 1974 Matador Coupe. Unfortunately the success was short lived. Sales would drop to a little over 22,000 for 1975. By 1978 (its last model year) sales were a dismal around 2,000 units for the year.
AMC is almost forgotten since being absorbed by Chrysler twenty years ago. And even the AMC cars that are still remembered, the Matador Coupe is usually not on the list. This car has been forgotten, and their current low resale value certainly proves this (hint: a nice conditioned 401 powered Matador X is very inexpensive). However there are a few wise AMC fans that love and respect the Matador Coupe. The Matador Coupe especially the X model makes for an interesting collector car. Today they are seldom seen at car shows. When one does make an appearance there is a lot of interest and the styling always gets a lot of kudos from the crowd. What has kept the collectors from buying these cars is a mystery. Maybe in the future the Matador X will be the next Javelin, and will arise from the ashes and get the respect it deserves. For now it remains the forgotten coupe.
Written contents in this article – © 2008 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved