Marlin doomed to fail without a V8

American Motors’ (AMC) 1965 Marlin is one of the cars that converted the profitable maker of sensible compact cars into a company that could not turn a profit, all in the space of five years.

The Marlin was championed by AMC’s boss, Roy Abernathy. 

He was a big man with big ideas.

Abernathy had taken over the top job in 1962 from George Romney, who’d resigned when he was elected Governor of Michigan.

Romney had shepherded the company from its formation out of the ashes of Nash and Hudson in 1954.

He slowly built up its reputation, sales and profits by offering what the big three Detroit car makers did not — value for money smallish cars that delivered great fuel economy.

Abernathy changed all of that.

He reckoned that AMC needed to match the big three model for model, engine for engine.

All of that cost money, which the financially frugal AMC never had in any great amounts.

Meanwhile, in late 1962, AMC’s design supremo, Dick Teague could see the rapidly growing “youth” market could deliver AMC some profits if only it had a stylish sporty small car to offer.

So, he pulled one of the newly restyed Rambler American convertibles off the production line and had a semi-fast back roof, made of steel and fibreglass, fixed to the body.

Hey presto, a cheap concept car was created!

Called the Tarpon (it’s a fish) the red painted car was paraded around auto shows in 1964.

Everyone assumed that it was what AMC would introduce in 1965 as a competitor to Ford’s new Mustang and Plymouth’s Barracuda.

But there were two problems.

First, the Rambler American’s engine bay was too small to fit a V8.

It could only be offered as a six.

That made it uncompetitive against the Mustang and Barracuda.

Second, Abernathy thought the roof line looked better on the longer Rambler Classic frame and it could be fitted with a V8.

Teague thought the larger car looked ungainly.

But, Abernathy was the boss.

In fact, while Teague was in Europe on business, Abernathy had designers raise the roof line by an inch (2.5cm) because he thought it was too low for a tall guy like himself.

And that’s what was released.

The Marlin is not a pretty sight.

Car buyers agreed.

In the three years it was on the market only around 17,000 were sold.

That is a dismal result.

Further, Abernathy’s strategy of matching GM, Ford and Chrysler, was failing.

AMC’s cars looked great, but the cost of implementing the strategy was so high that in 1966 AMC lost money for the first time since 1958.

Not only that, in 1965 Abernathy had passed on buying the iconic Jeep brand when it was offered by Kaiser Industries. 

In January, 1967 Abernathy was gone from AMC.

As always with cars like the Marlin, what was once laughed at is now collectible.

AMC bought Jeep in 1970.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos


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