The AMC Matador is a mid-size car that was built and sold by American Motors Corporation (AMC) from 1971 to 1978. The Matador came in two generations: 1971 to 1973 and a major redesign from 1974 to 1978. The second-generation four-door and station wagon models did not share the design of the coupe that was introduced in 1974.
The Matador replaced the AMC Rebel, which had been marketed since 1967. With a facelift and a new name, the AMC Matadors were available as a two-door hardtop as well as a four-door sedan and station wagon. The sedan and wagon models "offered excellent value and were fairly popular", including as a prowl car. The Matador received a redesign in 1974, in part to meet new safety and crash requirements as well as a completely different model "to contend with the bull market for plush mid-size coupes that sprang up after the end of the muscle car era." The Matador was based on AMC's "senior" automobile platform shared with the full-size Ambassador line.
First generation (1971–1973)
American Motors advertising assured that the Matador was not just a name change and facelift, but in reality, it was the 1970 Rebel restyled with a longer front clip and a new interior. The 1971 Matadors acquired a "beefier" front end look for all three body designs. From the firewall back, the Matador shared its body with the Ambassador, which had a longer wheelbase and front end sheetmetal, a formal grille and luxurious trim, as well as more standard equipment that included air conditioning.
While "Matador" may have been a move away from connotations of the Confederacy inspired by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, it did not help solve the obscurity problem, as AMC adopted a "What's a Matador" advertising campaign. This self-disparaging marketing campaign "turned the styling of anonymity into an asset." Consumer-research polls conducted by AMC found it meant virility and excitement to consumers. However, American Motors ran into problems in Puerto Rico. Matador turns out to have connotations for "killer" on the island where bull-fighting was abolished when the U.S. took control of Puerto Rico.
The Matador came with straight-6 or a number of V8 engines. Transmissions for the Matador included the Borg-Warner sourced "Shift-Command" 3-speed automatic, and a column shifted 3-speed manual or a floor shifted 4-speed manual (for 1971 only).
The Matador's basic body design was essentially unchanged from the Rebel. The station wagons had an available rear-facing third row bench seat. In addition, all wagons included a roof rack and a two-way tailgate that opened when the rear window was down either from the top to be flat with the load floor or like a regular door to the left side.
Changes to Matadors were minor until the 1972 model year when the innovative "AMC Buyer Protection Plan was introduced. This was the automobile industry's first 12 month or 12,000 miles (19,312 km) bumper-to-bumper warranty. American Motors started with an emphasis on quality and durability by improving production and mechanical upgrades, followed up by a promise to its customers to repair anything wrong with the car (except for tires). Owners were provided with a toll-free number to the company, as well as a free loaner car if a warranty repair took overnight. The previous Borg-Warner sourced "Shift-Command" 3-speed automatic transmission was replaced by the Chrysler Corporation-built TorqueFlite 3-speed automatic that AMC marketed as "Torque-Command." The column-shift 3-speed manual continued as the standard transmission but the optional 4-speed manual was discontinued.
The 1973 model year brought new U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulations that required all passenger cars to withstand a 5-mile-per-hour (8 km/h) front and a 2.5-mile-per-hour (4 km/h) rear impacts without damage to the engine, lights, and safety equipment. Matadors gained stronger front and rear bumpers. The front bumper included self-restoring telescoping shock-absorbers and more prominent vertical rubber guards, while the rear bumper gained vertical black rubber bumper guards that replaced a pair of similar and previously optional chrome bumper guards.
A comparison of 1973 Matador owners conducted by Popular Mechanics indicated increased satisfaction and fewer problems than was the case with the owners of the essentially similar 1970 AMC Rebel three years earlier.
Automobile Quarterly reviewed the 1973 cars and summarized that "AMC actually has a very strong product line, but public awareness of it seems so feeble as to be negligible. ... The Matador became a typical intermediate, an exact counterpart of the Satellite/Coronet or Torino/Montego," and listed it as a good buy.
The Matador still participated in the muscle car trend. The Machine performance package was carried forward from the Rebel to the Matador as an option on 1971 model two-door hardtops, but without the bold red-white-blue striping or any special identification and badging. Far lesser known than its 1970 predecessor, around 50 Matador Machines were produced and only one is still known to exist. The package featured 15 x 7 inch slot-styled steel wheels with white-lettered "polyglass" belted tires, dual exhaust pipes, a heavy-duty handling package, power disk brakes, and a choice of either a 360 cu in (5.9 L) or 401 cu in (6.6 L) V8 engine with a manual four-speed or an automatic transmission.
Second generation (1974–1978)
A major design change was introduced with the 1974 models for both the sedan and wagon, while the two-door became a separate and radically styled coupe. These could be considered the "second generation" Matadors. New passenger car requirements called for five-mile an hour (8 km) impact protection that was accomplished with massive bumpers. The four-door and wagons received a new front fascia with a hood and grille featuring a prominent central protrusion that followed the front bumper design. Matadors with this front fascia are sometimes nicknamed "coffin noses".
Powertrains were basically unchanged for all the 1974 to 1978 Matadors. Either an inline six or V8 engines were available with a three-speed automatic transmission. A three-speed manual column-shift transmission was also available with the six-cylinder engine from 1974 to 1976. For 1977-78, all Matadors came standard with the automatic transmission.
Second generation sedans and station wagons continued over the model years with only minor trim and equipment changes.
A road test by automobile journalist Vincent Courtenay of the 1974 Matador Station wagon "praised its performance, handling, and fuel economy considering its size and 360 CID engine." He described it as "a real sleeper on the market. Its performance ranks it in the first line of cars, yet it's reasonably priced."
American Motors' executives saw an opportunity to replace the "uninspired" Matador two-door hardtop with a new design to capture people looking for exciting, sporty styling in a market segment that was outpacing the rest of the automobile market; and were looking to answer the demand for plush mid-size coupes after the end of the muscle car era.
The 1974 model year introduced an aerodynamically styled fastback coupe with pronounced "tunneled" headlight surrounds. The Matador coupe was the only all-new model in the popular mid-size car segment. The coupe was designed under the direction of AMC's Vice President of Styling, Richard A. Teague, with input from Mark Donohue, the famous race car driver. AMC's Styling Department had greater freedom because of a decision to design the new Matador strictly as a coupe, without the constraints of attempting to have the sedan and station wagon versions fit the same body lines. Reportedly Teague designed the coupe's front as an homage to one of the first AMCs he designed, the 1964 Rambler American. Many were amazed that AMC came up with the fast, stylish Matador, considering the automaker's size and limited resources.
The coupe's wind-shaped look was enhanced by a very long hood and a short rear deck. The Matador coupe stands out as one of the more distinctive and controversial designs of the 1970s after the AMC Pacer. The Matador coupe was named "Best Styled Car of 1974" by the editors of Car and Driver magazine. In contrast to all the other mid-sized and personal luxury two-door competition during the mid- to late-1970s, the Matador coupe did not share the requisite styling hallmarks of the era that included an upright grille, a notchback roof, and imitation "landau bars" or opera lights. A Popular Mechanics survey indicated "luscious looks of Matador coupe swept most owners off their feet" with a "specific like" listed by 63.7% of them for "styling".
Sales of the coupe were brisk with 62,629 Matador Coupes delivered for its introductory year, up sharply from the 7,067 Matador hardtops sold in 1973. This is a respectable record that went against the drop in the overall market during 1974 and the decline in popularity of intermediate-sized coupes after the 1973 oil crisis. After it outsold the four-door Matadors by nearly 25,000 units in 1974, sales dropped to less than 10,000 in 1977, and then down just 2,006 in the coupe's final year. Nearly 100,000 Matador Coupes in total were produced from 1974 through 1978.
The Matador Coupe was used in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun as the car of choice of Francisco Scaramanga. His 1974 Matador coupe became an airplane.
American Motors executives, including Vice President of Design Richard A. Teague described design plans for a four-door sedan and station wagon based on the coupe's styling themes did not reach production.
A special Oleg Cassini edition of the Matador coupe was available for the 1974 and 1975 model years. American Motors had the famous American fashion designer develop a more elegant luxury oriented model for the new coupe. Cassini was renowned in Hollywood and high-society for making elegant ready-to-wear dresses, including those worn by Jacqueline Kennedy. Cassini himself helped promote the car in AMC's advertising.
The special Oleg Cassini Matador was positioned in the popular and highly competitive "personal luxury car" market segment at that time. The Cassini Coupe was unlike all the other personal luxury competitors. The new Matador did not have the typical vintage styling cues of formal upright grille and squared-off roof with opera windows. The new "smooth and slippery" two-door featured "marks of haute couture" with the "upholstery, panels and headliner done in jet black, with carpets and vinyl roof in a copper accent color. Outside, striping, rub rails, wheel covers and a crest mark the Matador as Cassini's." The Cassini Coupes were limited to black, white, or copper metallic exterior paints, and all came with the vinyl covered roof. They also featured copper-colored trim in the grille, headlamp bezels, in turbine-type full wheel covers, and within the rear license plate recess.
The interior was a Cassini hallmark featuring a special black fabric with copper metal buttons on the individual adjustable and reclining front seats and on the padded door panels, that was set off by extra thick copper carpeting. Additional copper accents were on the steering wheel, door pulls, and on the instrument panel. Embroidered Cassini medallions were featured on the headrests. The glove compartment door, trunk lid, front fender, and hood featured Cassini's signature.
In 1976, a "Barcelona" option offered an alternative to the personal luxury cars offered by other automakers such as the Chrysler Cordoba and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. For 1977 and 1978, the "Barcelona II" coupe featured a padded Landau roof and opera windows, styling cues that were required at that time by buyers in the highly popular two-door "personal luxury" market segment. At first it was available in only one distinctive two-tone paint pattern consisting of Golden Ginger Metallic with Sand Tan. In 1978, the Barcelona came in a second color scheme: an Autumn Red Metallic on Claret Metallic combination.
The Barcelona included numerous comfort and appearance upgrades in addition to the extensive standard equipment that came on all Matadors. The special items were: individual reclining seats in velveteen crush fabric with woven accent stripes, custom door trim panels, unique headliner, headlight bezels painted accent color, black trunk carpet, rear sway bar, GR78x15 radial whitewall tires, color-keyed slot styled wheels, body color front and rear bumpers, two-tone paint, landau padded vinyl roof, opera quarter windows with accents, dual remote control mirrors painted body color, Barcelona medallion on glove box door and fenders, 24 oz (680 g) carpeting and bumper nerfing strips. The standard roll-down rear quarter windows were converted into fixed "opera windows" with fiberglass covers over the stock openings that were finished with padded vinyl inside and out.
For its final production in 1978, the Barcelona model was also available on the Matador four-door sedan.
Motor Trend magazine road tested a 1977 Barcelona II coupe and found it to be equal to all in the objective areas, as well as one of the most distinctive vehicles on the road that "makes a good deal of sense" ... "if you're nor put off by the Matador's unique lines."
Penske prepared factory-backed Matador hardtops and coupes were used in NASCAR stock car racing by Indy winner Mark Donohue and Bobby Allison, and won a number of races. The company's effort "raised eyebrows" for many NASCAR veterans because AMC was not known for cultivating a racing image. Racing pundits "initially scoffed at the notion of an AMC entry" on the circuit, but "the Matador acquired a fan following of its own."
The Matador was one of the first oval stock car to use disk brakes. After Donohue won the Western 500 with the first generation Matador hardtop with four wheel disks, other teams soon followed with the upgrade.
The new 1974 coupe replaced the previous "flying brick" two-door hardtop design. Penske was quoted as saying that they did what they could with the old hardtop, and it did better on tracks with more curves and fewer straightaways. Donohue did not survive to drive the new aerodynamically designed fastback coupe, that many believe was aimed at NASCAR racing. The five wins for the AMC Matador are:
- Winston Western 500 - Riverside - Mark Donohue - January 21, 1973
- Los Angeles Times 500 - Ontario - Bobby Allison - November 24, 1974
- Winston Western 500 - Riverside - Bobby Allison - January 19, 1975
- Rebel 500 - Darlington - Bobby Allison - April 13, 1975
- Southern 500 - Darlington - Bobby Allison - September 1, 1975
Bobby Allison also won the non-points Daytona 125 qualifying race on 13 February 1975, and finished second in the Daytona 500 three days later.
Though the AMC Ambassador was also offered as a police car, the Matador would prove to be very popular. The largest user of Matador patrol cars was the Los Angeles Police Department, primarily from 1972 to 1974, with some staying in service until the mid-1980s. It was also used by other agencies, including the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department and many other law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and Canada, as well as by military police units.
While V8 power was down for many domestic sedans, AMC used a 401 cu in (6.6 L) V8 engine that outpowered most other police vehicles. Zero to 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) times were within 7 seconds, comparable to a 2006 Hemi Charger police car. Top speed was about 125 miles per hour (201 km/h), which took only 43 seconds, much faster than the previously used Plymouth Satellites.
The high-performance 401 V8 was last available in 1975 only for fleet and police ordered sedans.
The 1974 models would be the last year for the LAPD's purchase of the Matador. The longer-nosed restyle added weight which affected handling and performance. Matadors faded from police fleets as downsized Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge Diplomat-based models became adopted in the late 1970s.
Matador police cars would appear in many television shows and movies during the 1970s, most famously, Adam-12 from 1972 until the show's end in 1975, Police Academy 1, and also in The Rockford Files beginning in 1974.
AMC Matador models were built in Mexico by Vehículos Automotores Mexicanos (VAM), where it was named the "VAM Classic", and in Australia by Australian Motor Industries (AMI) with modifications for their markets including continuing the use of the Rambler marque. AMI production of the Rambler Matador commenced in 1971 and the model was discontinued in 1978.
Rambler Matadors with RHD were also assembled until 1975 under license from AMC by Campbell Motor Industries in Thames, New Zealand from complete knock down (CKD) kits.
The Rambler name was also used on RHD export models sold in the UK up to the 1976 model year Matadors.
End of the line
During the late 1970s, the domestic automobile market was moving to smaller cars. The large-sized Matador was no longer attractive to customers demanding more economical cars as fuel and money became increasingly worrisome problems after the 1973 oil crisis and the continuing double digit domestic inflation.
Lacking the financial resources for a full redesign (partly because of the expensive tooling costs of the coupe), AMC dropped the large Ambassador after 1974, while the Matador was discontinued after 1978, around the same time as Ford moved their full-size nameplates to a smaller platform. The downsized 1977 Chevrolet Impala also spelled doom for large intermediates from AMC and Chrysler. American Motors responded to the declining demand for large cars by introducing new nameplate in 1978, the AMC Concord. It combined an "easy-to-handle size with a roomy sumptuous interior" and in contrast to the Matador coupe, with "overall styling was pleasant ... would not offend anyone". This was the first full-line of economical, compact-sized cars with luxurious trim, features, and comfort levels previously available in larger automobiles.
American Motors did not have another large car until the Eagle Premier that was developed with Renault's partnership and introduced right after AMC was purchased by Chrysler.
While well-restored examples of Matador sedans can still be purchased for under $3,000, ads have been published asking over $10,000 for restored coupes.
Hemmings Classic Car magazine listed the 1974-78 Matador Coupe as one of their 19 pieces of rolling proof that the old-car hobby need not be expensive and described the Coupé as "possibly one of the most distinctive shapes to come out of the 1970s, and arguably a style pinnacle for the personal luxury movement...", the James Bond movie role, as well as its NASCAR history.
An article in 1991 entitled "Cool Cars Nobody Wants" describes the 1974-75 AMC Matadors as a collectable, stating: "long considered the automaker to geeks, American Motors began its slow decline, we believe, when the liberal do-gooders who made up its core market began earning enough money to buy Scandinavian cars."