AMC by far was the most conservative American automaker back in the day. AMC found its niche offering reasonably priced reliable cars with no frills. And the formula seemed to work with sales being good for AMC for many years. The only deviation during this period started in the late-1960s with the introduction of the AMX, Javelin, and limited production Hurst SC/Rambler. These offerings had proved that AMC could also compete with the big boys in the muscle car segment. However its pinnacle muscle car was released in 1970 – it was called the Rebel “Machine”. Unfortunately AMC 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 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 was its future.
It was a nice surprise to the automotive world when AMC released its new Matador Coupe for 1974. Its styling was different than the 1974 4-door Matador sedan which was very conservative by comparison. The Matador Coupe 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 lights. The hood and roof had a low profile. The fastback roofline 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 famous designer, Dick Teague is the one officially credited with the design. Donahue had a tight relationship with AMC, he had successful professionally 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 runs during the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. 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 2-door Coupe came in three varieties: (base) Coupe which was just called “Coupe”, Brougham, and X. The Coupe was the entry level offering while the Brougham was the more upscale model with more standard features. The X was the performance oriented offering geared towards the muscle car crowd. There were six different engine offerings on the Matador Coupe – the 232 cubic-inch straight-six, 258 cubic-inch straight-six, 304 cubic-inch 2-barrel V8, 360 cubic-inch 2-barrel and 4-barrel V8s, and a 401 cubic-inch 4-barrel 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 straight-six engines were reliable with excellent low end torque for six cylinder engines but their low horsepower output made them not up to the duty of quickly propelling a 3,500-lb 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. The V8 equipped Matadors were standard with a column transmission shifter while a center console shifter which offered a sportier look was optional.
The 3-speed manual equipped straight-six engines 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 2-barrel and 360 2-barrel V8s provided amble power to propel the Matador Coupe however the 360 4-barrel and 401 4-barrel engines were better suited for the performance oriented driver. The 360 4-barrel 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 the 401 was a powerful engine and it propelled the Matador Coupe from 0-60 mph somewhere around 8 seconds and the quarter mile in 16 seconds.
Even though the 401 was a very good performer, it was not a popular engine choice. Just under 1,000 401 equipped Matador Coupes were produced for 1974. This was more than likely due to the aftermath of the 1973 oil crises which gave Americans a taste for the first time of astronomical gas prices and long lines at the gas pumps. The 401 was the Matador Coupes most fuel thirsty engine.
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 on curvy roads 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 problem with AMC at this time was their relatively small market share compared to the other U.S. automakers equated to less development dollars than AMC’s 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 Coupe may have been a world class performance touring car which was the segment Pontiac was trying tap into with its Grand Am during the same time period.
AMC made the best of the situation by sourcing from the big three automakers, parts that it did not want to spend development dollars on. This was the case with the Matador Coupe. Examples are the 3-speed automatic transmission which was a Chrysler TorqueFlite unit, the carburetor on the 401 was a Ford Motorcraft 4-barrel, 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 five to six 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 Coupe Brougham could be showered with a decent amount of luxury appointments. The optional Oleg Cassini package was named after the famous fashion designer who designed this luxury package for AMC, consisted of plush cloth seats and trim which looked more at home in a Cadillac than an AMC product.
The auto press back in 1974 was impressed overall with the Matador Coupe, Car and Driver magazine referred to it as 1974’s best styled car. Buyers agreed and Matador Coupe sales were very impressive, a little over 62,000 units were sold for 1974. AMC thought it 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 dismal with around 2,000 units produced.
AMC is almost forgotten since being absorbed by Chrysler during the late-1980s. Even among the AMC cars that are still remembered, the Matador Coupe is usually not on the list. This car has been forgotten, and its current low prices for good conditioned examples certainly proves this (hint: though a nice conditioned 401 powered Matador X has seen decent upward movement in price in the last 10 years, it is still inexpensive). 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 lots of kudos from the crowd. What has kept the collectors from buying these cars is a mystery. Maybe in the future the Matador will be the next Javelin, and be on the receiving end of a big uptick in price as it so deserves. For now it remains the forgotten coupe.
Written contents in this article – © 2008 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved