The AMC Renault & the French Connection
Q: Greg, I appreciate your car articles as it sure brings back great memories. I noticed in one of your columns on AMC where you had the incorrect manufacturers named in the AMC merger. I know it was a memory lapse, as you’ve written about AMC in the past and mentioned some AMC cars you owned.
I want to also say that AMC was once a partner with Renault before it was sold to Chrysler. Some of the Renault cars were good, others not so good. Just wanted to write you a letter letting you know I enjoy the articles, and how the manufacturers used auto racing, too. Sam J., Arkadelphia, AR.
A: Sam, thanks very much for your letter. I did make an error a few columns ago, but want to again repeat that I do know it was Hudson and Nash-Kelvinator that merged in 1954 to form American Motors, back then. AMC featured cars that were small and affordable, although never forgetting that the larger Ambassador catered to those who wanted a big car.
Through the early 1960s, AMC was doing very well selling its brand of compact economy, especially cars like the Rambler American. By the mid-1960s, larger was better and muscle cars were the “in” thing. AMC responded well, and thanks to the larger Ambassadors and Matadors and the new line of Gremlins, Hornets and Marlins, sales were good.
As for racing, American Motors came into NHRA Pro Stock Drag Racing in 1974-75 with two AMC Hornet X machines, one driven by Wally Booth and second by Dave Kanners and the team of Dick Maskin and Dave Kanners. Booth won a national even in his Hornet, while Kanners had strong finishes at several NHRA national events. Roger Penske also took AMC to new heights, winning several road racing Trans Am titles in the early 1970s and then followed with NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) victories in a factory-backed AMC Matador effort.
However, not everything was rosy at AMC as the company struggled financially. Even after purchasing Jeep in 1970, which did help sales but not the bottom line, AMC needed a partner with money to invest. That’s when Renault of France entered the picture as a “quarter-partner” in 1978, and then upped the ante to 49-percent interest by 1983.
The Renault-based AMC cars were good, specifically the 1983 Alliance which received the Motor Trend “Car Of The Year” award. I also remember the 1984 sports car called the Fuego, which was pretty nice, too and the LeCar, a subcompact that sold fairly well also.
The Renault deal fizzled badly, however, when politics, lack of credit and even an assassination stopped everything. Renault’s CEO Georges Besse was killed in 1986 by a militant group upset with many job layoffs and Renault’s building of a new plant in Canada. The new Renault CEO, Raymond Levy, wanted out, and this is when Chrysler stepped in and by March of 1987 agreed to buy all of Renault’s stock in AMC. Chrysler also bought all remaining AMC shares, resulting in Chrysler’s new Jeep-Eagle division. This move put an end to AMC as we once knew it, yet to this day the Jeep brand is one of America’s most popular vehicles.
Thanks again for the nice letter, and I’ve owned four AMC cars in my day: a 1974 Hornet X (new, 258 six), a 1976 Gremlin X (new, 258 six), a 1979 Spirit with four-cylinder VW engine (used leftover) and a 1974 Matador sedan (used, 304 V8).
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist who welcomes reader questions at 116 Main St., Towanda, PA 18848 or email him at email@example.com)
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