The cars we loved.
It seemed that everyone wanted a mid-sized personal luxury coupe in the mid ’70s. Muscle cars had given way to big slow and comfortable coupes that in some cases were linked to muscle cars by name only. American Motors Corporation (AMC) was the smallest of major American auto makers and was often cited for independent and innovative thinking, despite what the rest of the market was doing.
The Matador had been a somewhat successful mid-sized sedan for AMC for years, so when the time came to roll out a coupe, the Matador name would be used although the two cars shared little in common visually. The coupe introduced in 1974 was designed by Richard Teague and Mark Donahue, the race car driver who was instrumental in molding the Javelin into a respectable race car.
The styling was a departure from what had been the norm over at Ford and GM. The use of baroque stylistic cues like opera windows, upright grilles and landau bars was eschewed in favor of smooth flowing lines. It was those lines that generated a great deal of controversy. At once beautiful and awkward, the Matador X as it was initially called was a love/hate proposition at first sight. The big round headlights immediately won it the nickname ‘bugeye’.
Ironically, Car and Driver called it the best styled car of 1974. In that year there had been no new coupes introduced in its class, so maybe it was a given. The majority of the public seemed to agree, as the Matador X sold better than its frumpy sedan relative. The fast back design managed to look swoopy without looking fast and was surprisingly not a hatchback, considering the huge downward taper of it’s rear end. The unique design may have been why the matador was featured in the 1974 James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun. In the film a Matador X is seen flying….
Flying aside, the Matador X was never intended to be a performance car, although it looked the part sometimes. When equipped with the rare 6.6l 220 hp V8, it could manage a respectable 0 to 60 time of 7 seconds. Not bad for and American car in the ’70s. Most cars equipped with the larger engines were consigned to police duty. For everyone else, a typical Matador came with one of 3 other engines – all except one a V8 of some sort. At almost 4,000 lb. no one was getting anywhere fast especially when saddled with the lone V6. The suspension was semi modern with an independent double wishbone front and leaf springs in the back. The rear wheels always propelled the Matador X while front disc brakes and drums in back stopped it, all 3800 lbs. of it.
In addition to the base and sporty X model, AMC would tinker with various higher end models. As if to compensate for shortcomings in the X, AMC began offering various editions of the car that focused on luxury, similar to what Ford had been doing with the Mark IV. In the 74 and 75 model years, AMC offered a designer edition called the Oleg Cassini Edition. It was still out of step in step with coupe trends of the time, but refined the luxury attributes of the car. A vinyl covered hood, turbine styled cooper wheels and plenty of copper accents inside and out made the Cassini edition stand out. A Cassini was only available in black, copper or white. Like any other Matador, it came with the standard 3 speed automatic transmission.
The ultimate luxury Matador came in 1977 with the Barcelona. By now AMC had watch the popularity of the Cutlass, Monte Carlo and Thunderbird go through the roof. Their response was to add the styling touches that helped make these cars so popular for the first time in the Matador. Landau roofs and opera windows were now part of the Matador design language as AMC sought to compete with the Cordoba and others like it. Motor Trend magazine gave it their seal of approval, calling the Barcelona II equal to the competition. While the Matador was securing its place firmly in the bottom rung of the luxury coupe sweepstakes, Mark Donahue and Bobby Allison were pushing the extremes of Matador performance in NASCAR. The Matador was actually a successful, but short-lived car on the NASCAR circuit in the mid-seventies. It was actually the first car on the ovals to use disc brakes.
The success on the track did not translate well to performance in the showroom or on the street as Matador sales began lagging. The weight of the car, its polarizing looks and AMC inability to keep up with the public’s growing acceptance of smaller cars would erode its already small share of the personal coupe market. Its been said that AMC was planning a four dour based on the design of the coupe, but never got around to doing it for financial reasons. In 1978 the Matador coupe was replaced by the Concord.
Today Matador coupes are a rare site (or any Matador for that matter). Despite being sold in Mexico, Australia and the UK, very few survive today. Currently the desirability of the Matador seems to be growing, as with all forgotten things from the 70’s. On occasion you might find one at a car meet with its proud owner standing guard and answering the question what is that. Even more rare are customized versions with the large bumpers removed revealing a surprisingly modern looking car underneath. Time will tell if the Matador ever gets the respect of old Monte Carlos or even AMC’s own Grimlin, but chances are that a car so unique won’t go un noticed by the future car lovers for too long.