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All By Design

American Motors Studio was a busy place

John Gunnell - February 07, 2013 10:00 AM

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This AMC Matador prototype of 1974 never made it all the way into production.

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The Matador prototype is supported by four jack lifts under the car.

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This Matador door storage pocket had a unique design of its own.

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The designers were never really sure when their work would hit the public. Front license plate says “AM 197X”

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Here’s a profile of another sporty prototype in AMC design studio.

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This one is more than just clay. It was a gratifying time to see your work make it this far.

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A May 5, 1971 photo shows three mock-ups or clays in AMC studio in various stages.

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 In rear view, this clay looks very Torino-like. Wonder what was going on over at Ford?

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A designer in white shirt and tie relaxes behind styling clay. You can also see the drawings that served as inspirations.

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No bumper or license plate holder mar this clean rear end styling, which would have to be altered.

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This May 6, 1975 photo shows an AMC wagon concept. One wonders how the public would have responded.

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The taillights on this wagon wrapped smoothly around the rear of body. For the period, this was a futuristic design.

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Design is clearly a fine art. Some of the tools used for shaping clay model were laid on the hood as the dimensions were checked.

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This design is easily recognized (and often derided). The Gremlin-type clay was photographed May 14, 1975, well after the Gremlin itself was in production.

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Two modelers work on another Gremlin concept in undated photo.

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Every element gets attention. Here, the crew is working out a back window design, starting with clay.

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More work will lead to assessing the job and taking measurements for production.

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An AMC modeler smooths out a clay windshield.

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This Aug. 16 1975 photo shows a minivan-like AMC design concept and the work that goes into making it three-dimensional.

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This 1975 photo proves that AMC was doing minivans long before 1983.

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The sketches (seen on windshield) help the clay modelers turn drawings into three-dimensional forms.

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In the auto industry, the muscle car niche boosted by the GTO and the pony car niche created by the Mustang had far-reaching effects in the design studios at all of the major automakers.

Every manufacturer soon wanted a muscle car or a pony car to sell and this led to personnel changes, adjustments in workload and everything else that went with efforts to “go back to the drawing board” and develop totally new types of cars under tight deadline conditions.

Forty-year-old Richard A. Teague was elevated to vice president in charge of styling at American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1964. As a hot rodding teenager in Southern California, he had attended Dorsey High School and legendary camshaft wizard Ed Iskendarian was one of his friends. “Teague has brought a young man’s outlook to Detroit’s styling studio,” said Gene Booth (Car Life, June 1964). Teague told Booth that bucket seats, fastback roofs and performance engine modifications would be big trends over the next 10 years.

Clay modeler Keith Goodnough was part of Teague’s team. He started a new job in the AMC styling studio on Jan. 28, 1964, after working for Ford since 1955. “My boss at Ford, Ben Barbera, was grooming me to be a team leader, but Ford was holding back on pay increases and piling on the overtime,” Goodnough recalled. He said the whole styling industry was working overtime. Goodnough finally demanded a raise for having to work such long stints. On January 16, he was called into the office and fired for refusing to work overtime.

Chrysler was quick to offer Goodnough a job, but their designers were unionized and that would have dictated that he start working at a lower pay scale, so then he took work at AMC. The pay was better, but the long hours persisted. “My first day there, we worked 24 hours around the clock,” he noted. “And the longest stint we put in on one job was 33 hours straight.” He estimated that he worked an additional 10,000 hours on models of the new types of cars AMC wanted to bring out. “It was the way of the industry then,” he explained.

The idea car had become a tradition with American automakers as a place to try out advanced and different styling concepts, component designs and control refinements. If it would excite public interest in the current vehicle which serves as its basis, it was better for the manufacturer. Goodnough joined AMC at that time when skilled modelers were needed to create production models and concept cars as well.

Goodnough estimated that Chrysler had 200 modelers in 1964. He says that GM and Ford put more clay sculptors to work shaping new forms and futuristic ideas. AMC had fewer modelers and their responsibilities were more diverse. “We worked on clays, we worked in the fiberglass shop, we helped the painters — we did what we had to do to get the cars done,” he pointed out.

AMC had fewer designers and gave them more responsibilities to help speed projects to the final stage. When Teague got the OK to work on a fastback show car called the Tarpon, he ordered up a ’64 Rambler American body shell and had all the outer sheetmetal removed so just the skeleton remained. Large plaster molds taken from the styling clay were used to form a fiberglass roof panel and side and rear body sections above the belt line. This allowed designers like Goodnough to reach the final stages of the project very quickly.

The Tarpon was actually a prototype for the production line fastback Marlin. The AMC Marlin’s clean look was what others were searching for in the spring of 1964. Whether it was Pontiac’s hot-rodded Tempest GTO, Ford’s race-bred Fairlane or Dodge’s “Jumping Ramp” Charger show car, the muscle car image was locking in with Detroit designers who now had a channel through which to sell their design ideas to sales-hungry auto executives anxious to get into the new muscle car niche.

”We thought that it was great to see muscle cars and pony cars coming out,” Goodnough remembers. In 1964, American Motors boss Roy Abernethy was not ready to have his company foray into the muscle car market. At that time, his attitude made sense, because the company was doing well selling its compact cars and economy cars. By year’s end, AMC was challenging Pontiac for the third sales rank in the auto industry and even won that challenge by some measures. Problems arose when Abernethy started a movement to larger AMC cars, which he personally liked. These did not sell very well.

The fastback Marlin, with certain engine options, became one of AMC’s early stabs at a muscle car. Some saw it as a competitor to Dodge’s 1966 Charger — a muscle car for the whole family.

In 1965, Teague discussed the early 1960s upswing in his company’s fortunes and the changes in car buying habits that took place in that era. “Stimulated by a taste of variety and bolstered by continued national prosperity, the car buyers of this nation have begun asking for more,” Teague said. “They want full freedom of choice — custom ordering or as close as possible to it.”

Things were changing in American styling studios in this period. The market became more new-product driven. Concept cars for car shows and engineering prototypes became more production-car-like and more muscular.

Although Teague, Goodnough and other designers understood the youth market, Abernethy stuck to old-fashioned thinking. It took investor demands for youth market cars and a revolt by a major stockholder named Robert B. Evans to get AMC on the track towards youth-oriented cars.

Evans put Victor G. Raviolo in charge of all creative projects at American Motors in 1967. Raviolo told a writer for Car Life that he had watched women and their reactions to changes in skirt lengths. “The skirts got shorter and women who were 40 to 50 years old said that wasn’t for them,” Raviolo pointed out. “But the next year you see those women and their skirts are a little shorter. This is the influence of young people — they pull the rest of the market with them.”

Goodnough recalled that the non-Mustang pony cars that began arriving in 1967 had enough room under the hood for bigger V-8s. By this time, Chevy, Pontiac, Mercury and others were in the game and AMC’s pony was right around the corner.

“Chuck Mashigan took over at the AMC Advanced Styling Studio and he was the one who designed the hot pony cars like the AMXs,” Goodnough noted. AMC hired Mashigan away from Ford and Goodnough says that he respected the studio chief as a talented designer who had experience with pony cars in Dearborn. “AMC even sent Chuck to Italy and had him build a couple of metal body prototypes that were named AMX IIIs,” he noted. “I think there was a total of about seven sheetmetal versions of those cars made.”

The early ’70s inspired some super cars that qualify as “ultimate” muscle machines. AMC brought a Javelin show car with styling modifications and super performance equipment to the 1970 New York Auto Show. However, the tides began to turn very quickly as the big-cubic-inch engines and big horsepower ratings of 1970-1972 became targets for insurers and government watchdogs.

Goodnough became a crew leader and continued working on AMC prototypes through the time that Chrysler took over. “We were working on three or four cars when Chrysler came to look at us,” he recalled. “They asked where we were sending our prototypes out to be done and we told them we did everything in-house.” According to Goodnough, when Chrysler bought out AMC in 1987, his design team was kept separate from Chrysler’s.

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