The Javelin was the American Motors Corporation’s entry into the ponycar market segment, three and a half years after the the Ford Mustang and followed the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, long hood and short rear deck formula typical of the type.
First Generation 1968-1969
AMC was struggling in the mid-to-late 1960s because it was known for producing frumpy, economical cars while the rest of Detroit was making high-HP cars that were, well, sexy. A few months before Mustang debuted, AMC exhibited a fastback coupe prototype called the Tarpon that was designed by Robert Nixon and based on the compact Rambler American. Styling chief Dick Teague pushed AMC to build Tarpon as an answer to the Mustang, but president Roy Abernathy ordered him to scale it up to the midsize Rambler Classic platform.
The result was the awkward-looking Rambler Marlin, which proved no threat to Mustang or even the Dodge Charger which it vaguely resembled. By mid-1965 even Abernathy admitted that the Marlin was not what was needed.
In January of 1966, socialite, sportsman and venture capitalist Robert Beverly Evans saw an opportunity in AMC, a company he believed to be undervalued and in need of new direction, and became the largest stockholder, earning himself a seat on the AMC board of directors. By June he would be chairman, and he convinced the board that the company needed to produce a sexy ponycar in order to stay afloat because Baby Boomers were reaching driving age and had no interest in their frugal Ramblers. The youth market was booming and he thought that it was high time AMC claimed their fair share of it. Their sportiest Rambler American convertible, even with the hottest engine available, a 196 cubic inch inline six with an optional two-throat carb, needed sixteen seconds to reach 60 MPH and couldn’t even approach 100 MPH. Something else was clearly needed, and the Rambler-with-a-fastback Marlin wasn’t it.
A new design study for a sporty, two-seat fastback was undertaken and dubbed “AMX” for “American Motors Experimental.” Two non-running prototypes were built, one a fiberglass 2-seat “AMX” and the other a four-seat “AMX II.” These were appealing designs and had strong influences on the ponycar project. AMC undertook a 10-city traveling auto show called “Project IV” in 1966, including AMX and AMX II. The former ultimately became the AMX and the latter became the Javelin. Later Project IV shows had an actual running prototype of the AMX version. AMC’s Name Committee debated what to call the new four-seat Mustang fighter. PR director Howard Hallis preferred “Cavalier,” but Dodge had already registered that name with the Automobile Manufacturers Association. Dodge ultimately never used the name and it was adopted by Chevrolet in the 1980s. Special events manager Guy Hadsall, Jr. proposed “Javelin,” and this name was ultimately selected despite a lukewarm response from Hallis and Dick Teague. The Committee also decided to keep the AMX name for the two-seater.
AMC was late to the ponycar game by 1968. and produced the Javelin and the two-seat AMX in order to appeal to younger buyers who were shopping for Mustangs, Camaros and Plymouth Barracudas. In fact the average age of early Javelin buyers was 29, a full ten years under the median for other AMC customers. Javelin was roomier than the Mustang or Camaro, but not the Barracuda, and was priced competitively at $2,743 for a base model. A base 1968 Mustang was a few dollars less at $2,707. AMC did not have the resources to design separate fastback and notchback hardtops like Mustangs and Barracudas, so designer Dick Teague’s styling team concentrated on “a smooth semi-fastback roofline that helped set Javelin apart from other pony cars.”
Built on the compact Rambler American platform, like Mustang was based on the Falcon and early Barrcaudas had Valiant underpinnings, AMC created the 2-door hardtop Javelin to be a hip, dashing and affordable ponycar with musclecar performance if the buyer wanted and was willing to pay for the extra go-power.
The car incorporated safety features such as an industry-first use of fiberglass safety padding on the interior windshield posts and flush paddle-style door handles in addition to the exterior side marker lights, headrests and three-point seat belts to comply with new NHTSA safety standards. To reduce glare, there was no bright trim on the interior. There were also no side vent windows, vent air was funneled through apertures in the doors controlled by adjustable flap valves in the bottom of the door armrests. Instruments and controls were set deep in a padded panel. Thin-shell bucket seats were provided, but with no seat back adjustment unless you opted for the premium SST model, which added reclining seat backs, simulated wood-gain door panel trim and a sports-style steering wheel.
AMC marketed the Javelin as offering “comfortable packaging with more interior and luggage space than most of its rivals.” It did have adequate head and legroom in the back and 10.2 cubic feet feet of trunk space. AMC said the front end had a “twin-venturi” look with a recessed honeycomb split grill with outboard-mounted headlights and matching turn signals in the bumper. Simulated hood scoops and a highly raked windshield added to the sporty appearance. Motor Trend magazine placed it at the top of the “sports-personal” category in its annual “Car of the Year” issue and called it “the most significant achievement for an all-new car.”
The two-door hardtop only base Javelin held a 145 HP 232 cubic inch straight-six engine under the hood, much like its base Mustang rival, that topped out at 80 MPH. A 290 cubic inch V8 with a two-barrel carb making 200 HP was optional as well as a more powerful 284 HP 343 cubic inch powerplant. The four-barrel 343 was included in AMC’s “Go Package” for the Javelin, along with power front disc brakes, a heavy-duty suspension, dual exhaust system with chrome tips, wide full-length body side stripes and 14-inch red-line tires on chrome “Magnum 500”-style wheels. A “Go Pac” Javelin could hit 60 MPH in 8 seconds, run a 15.4 second ¼ mile and top out at 120 MPH, not bad for the time. A 390 cubic inch V8 from the AMX was offered with the “Go Package” mid-year, with 320 HP and 425 ft. lb. of torque, with a 5.7 second 0-60 time. Dealer-installed “Group 19” performance accessories such as a cross-ram intake manifold, high-performance camshaft with needle-bearing rocker roller arms and a dual-point ignition could make your Javelin even faster.
To promote the new Javelin, AMC took it racing in 1968 on the dragstrip and SCCA Trans Am circuit. They were somewhat of a Cinderella team in Trans Am, finishing third in the over 2-liter class and was the only factory entry to have all of its cars, two, finish every race they entered.
Total production for 1968 was 55,125 units, but a fraction of the 318,000 Mustangs sold in its debut year and over 1 million by 1966.
Only minor changes came along for 1969 such as a new grill with a bulls-eye emblem, new side stripes, trim upgrades and a new stainless steel trim ring on the optional Magnum 500 wheels. An optional stripe package included a C-shaped graphic that started behind the front wheel openings and continued to the back of the car. On the inside there were new door panels, upgraded carpeting and an 8,000 RPM tach that matched the speedometer. Mid-year the instrument panel received a cowl over it to further reduce glare.
The “Mod Javelin” package was also introduced mid-year and featured a “Craig Breedlove” (of Bonneville Salt Flats land speed record fame) roof-mounted spoiler, simulated exhaust ports in the rocker panels, bright lower grill molding for the front bumper and twin blacked-out simulated air scoops in the hood. The package also included optional loud paint colors that were fashionable at the time such as Big Bad Blue, Orange and Green, and came with matching-color front and rear bumpers. AMC stated that they were “dumping the drab” with these new colors to target youthful buyers, the same as Chrysler was doing with its “High Impact” colors like Lemon Twist and Vitamin C.
Engine options remained the same, including the “Go Package” that now included a “Twin-Grip” limited-slip differential and heavy-duty suspension with thicker sway-bars. Starting in January 1969 the floor-mounted four-speed manual transmission came with a Hurst shifter. The older engines proved to be uncompetitive in racing and new engines had yet to be approved by the SCCA, resulting in poor racing performance and budget cuts until Roger Penske took over the team and built all-new cars with considerable suspension upgrades to make them handle better than the old models.
A wider front grill and a longer hood graced the 1970 model, along with a new rear end with full-width taillights and a single center-mounted backup light. Newer, more aerodynamic mirrors were also fitted and could be ordered painted to match the body color. The “Big Bad” paints were still optional, but without the matching bumpers, all were now chrome. A new suspension featured ball joints, upper and lower control arms, new coil springs and shock absorbers and trailing struts on the lower control arms. Corning’s new safety glass was fitted, thinner and lighter than standard laminated windshields.
New engines came along as well, a 225 HP, 304 cubic inch mill in addition to a 360 cubic inch version with either 245 HP or 285 HP, depending on whether one opted for the 4-barrel carb, which replaced the old 290 and 343 versions. The 390 was still available, upgraded with new cylinder heads and a new Autolite 4300 four-barrel carb, bumping the HP of the big-block to 325. A new “power blister” hood with two functional scoop openings was included in the “Go Package” along with the revised 390, although the 360 was also an option in the package, which now included improved cooling, a 3.54:1 rear axle and wider Goodyear raised white letter tires. Popular Science magazine tested the new 1970 pony cars and noted that Javelin still had the roomiest interior and trunk, only lost out to Camaro in ride comfort, and was the quickest to 60 MPH at 6.8 seconds.
A new dashboard with wood-grain on the premium SST model graced the interior along with a new center console, revised door panels and new “clamshell” bucket seats in vinyl, corduroy or leather with integral headrests.
With AMC’s racing effort now under Team Penske leadership, the Javelin 360 engine was de-stroked to 305 cubic inches to comply with new SCCA regulations and provided the closest competition to the new Boss 302 Mustangs, with the team finishing second overall in the over-2 liter class in 1970 with driver Mark Donahue. As a result of racing success, AMC built 2,501 special “Mark Donahue Javelin SST” models for sale with his signature, a 360 engine with four-bolt mains, a Ram Air hood and either a floor-mounted four-speed manual or automatic transmission. These were built to homologate the Donahue-designed rear spoiler for racing.
100 “Trans Am” Javelins were also produced with the 390 engine featuring heavy-duty and performance upgrades and front and rear spoilers. These were painted in the AMC racing team’s “hash” paint scheme in Matador Red, Frost White and Commodore Blue and retailed for $3,995. Turning Javelin SSTs into Trans-Am editions was costly and AMC actually lost money on the program. Both the Mark Donahue and Trans-Am Javelins are highly collectible and very expensive today.
Despite the improvements and color schemes to attract young buyers, sales slipped to 40,675.
Second Generation 1971-1974
AMC undertook a radical re-design of the Javelin in 1971, attempting to give it a somewhat futuristic look and some individuality, even at the expense of putting off some buyers. As was the trend with other ponycars like the Mustang, the 1971 Javelin was longer, lower and wider than its predecessor, with a 1-inch gain in wheelbase and a similar increase in length. It also got porkier with a curb weight of 3,245 lbs., a 315 lb. gain over the 1970 model. An integral roof spoiler and high sculpted front and rear fender bulges originally designed for oversize racing tires and echoing those found on the C3 “Mako Shark” Corvette announced that this was not the Javelin of the last three years. An intricate injection-molded plastic grill added to the more modern look.
Inside, the asymmetrical dashboard wrapped around the driver in aircraft-cockpit fashion and efficiency, contrasting heavily with other AMC models like the Hornet. Under the hood, the 304 slipped to 210 HP, while the 360’s HP ratings remained the same. A new 330 HP 401 replaced the 390 as Javelin’s big-block choice, with a 4-barrel carb and 9.5:1 compression ratio producing 430 ft. lb. of torque and a forged-steel crankshaft and connecting rods engineered to withstand 8,000 RPM. The Hurst floor shifter was now mated to a Borg-Warner T-10 four speed transmission. Under Team Penske, the Javelin won the Trans-Am title for 1971.
1972’s grill was now an egg-crate design, echoing to the back over the full-width taillights, with 15 exterior paint colors available. To reduce production costs, AMC offered more standard comfort and convenience items in line with other company vehicles. Horsepower numbers were down across the board, not only for AMC but other manufacturers as well, due to the shift from gross horsepower measurement to SAE Net which took the drivetrain into account as well and measured HP at the rear wheels. As a result, rated HP dropped to 150 in the 304, 175 or 195 for the 360 depending on carb choice, and 255 for the big-block 401 even though actual engine output remained the same. The “Go Package” now included 15-inch tires to fit under those big wheel arches and a blacked-out rear taillight panel.
4,152 Javelins were produced with an optional interior design by fashion designer Pierre Cardin with multi-colored pleated stripes in red, plum, white and silver on a black background. These stripes, in nylon with a stain-resistant silicone finish, ran from the front seats up the doors, onto the headliner, and down to the rear seats. This $84.95 option ($560 in 2015 dollars) was described as the “most daring and outlandish” of its kind in a 2007 magazine article.
AMC hit record Javelin sales numbers by focusing on quality and offering a one-year or 12,000 mile “Buyer Protection Plan” to back its products, a first for the industry. They promised to fix anything wrong with the car, except tires, and provided a toll-free number to report problems and a free loaner car if repairs took more than a day.
1973 Javelins had updated grills and taillights, along with non-telescoping bumpers with two rigid rubber guards to withstand a 5 MPH front and 2 ½ MPH rear impact without damage per new safety standards, along with door reinforcements. Slimmer, lighter front seats replaced the older “Turtle Back” models, providing increased legroom for rear-seat passengers as well as a more comfortable perch up front. New emissions control devices hampered performance in small-blocks, while the 401 remained at 255 net HP and could go from 0-60 in a respectable-for-1973 time of 7.7 seconds and a 15.5 second ¼ mile despite its increased bulk. The SST trim was retired and all models were now simply Javelin. Sales were still a modest 30,902.
By 1974 the automotive landscape had changed, with domestic subcompact cars like the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega trying to stem the tide of small, fuel-efficient Japanese cars in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo. Interest in high-performance vehicles was waning, Chrysler abandoned the ponycar altogether and Ford downsized the Mustang to the Pinto platform, saddling it with the Pinto’s sad little 90 HP four-cylinder as well. Javelin suddenly had fewer competitors, but the larger ponycar’s days would be numbered with GM’s F-body twins Camaro and Firebird being the lone survivors by this time aside from the AMC offering. There was the Chevrolet Nova and the Nova-based Pontiac GTO, but they had ceased to be performance cars by ‘74. Camaro/Firebird and Mustang II sales actually increased, however, but the same could not be said of the Javelin, whose sales slumped to 27,696.
While the few other remaining ponycars had jettisoned their big-block engine offerings by 1974, save for the Pontiac Trans Am’s 400 and 455, the Javelin 401 option continued through the end of production in November 1974, although with 20 fewer HP. Power output for the 304 and 360 remained the same. A new seatbelt interlock system prevented the car from starting if the driver or front passenger were unbuckled thanks to government regulations and the functional fiberglass cowl-induction hood was dropped. While Javelin was exempt from 1974 bumper standards, AMC estimated it would take $12 million in engineering and design work to have its bumpers conform to stricter 1975 standards, an expense they weren’t willing to take on for a dying automotive segment. The Javelin was dropped from the 1975 lineup, with the new Matador coupe replacing it as the “sporty” choice from AMC. Javelin’s production line was converted to produce the new compact Pacer, an inglorious end to a line that had built AMC’s lone entry into the ponycar/musclecar fray.
A classmate in some electronic schools I was attending at Fort Gordon, GA while in the Navy happened across a 1972 Javelin SST with a 401 while we were there and bought the low-mileage example. He was enamored with the quirky styling and loved the big-block engine. I had recently bought my ‘68 Chevelle and he was surprised that I could keep up with him despite the Chevelle’s small-block 327, until I told him that my 327 had nearly the HP of his 401 and just a bit more torque.✪