By on December 29, 2021

The American Motors Matador line was many things to many people during its run from 1971 to 1978. Built domestically and abroad, Matadors occupied more than one size class, a broad range of price points, and were even dressed in fashionable luxury garb for a while. Come along as we explore the world of Matador.

Like most “new” AMC vehicles, the Matador wasn’t a new car at its debut for the 1971 model year. Underneath, it was a refreshed and renamed version of AMC’s Rebel (1967-1970). The fresh identity for the model was part of a socially conscious strategy change: There was a considerable amount of social unrest and rioting across the United States in the late Sixties, and AMC management decided it wasn’t the best idea for their car to say Rebel on the back. Marketing scientists conducted research and ultimately used a consumer clinic to pick out a new, more acceptable name: Matador. U.S. consumers thought the word sounded exciting and virile. Hey, whatever gets you going. The Matador name didn’t go over as well in the Puerto Rican market, where the word had a strong association with killing and bullfighting.

Considered a midsize (called intermediate at the time), the ’71 Matador shared its platform with AMC’s full-size Ambassador. Matador had a slightly shorter wheelbase, 118 inches over the Ambassador’s 122. Matador’s overall length was between 205 inches for the wagon and 206 for coupe and sedan, while Ambassadors were at 210.8 inches by 1971, and expanded in length to 212.8 inches for 1973.

Available body styles included a two-door hardtop coupe and four-door versions as sedan and wagon. Though the wagon was the shorty of the group, it had three more inches in height; 56.4 inches versus 53.8 for the other two body styles. Much of the trim in 1971 was a carryover from the Rambler, and knowledgeable buyers would note almost all chrome was 1970 garnish. Bumpers, headlamps, dashboards, and gauges were new that year.

AMC offered a range of engines on its first Matador, like most of its models. The smallest of the group was a 232 cubic inch (3.8L) inline-six, with a 258 (4.2L) inline-six as a one-better that was standard on the wagon. The other three engines were V8s, of 304 (5.0L), 360 (5.9L), and 401 (6.6L) displacements. Transmissions were varied and different in 1971 than the other two production years of the first generation. In its debut year, there was a four-speed manual (on the floor), three-speed manual (on the tree), or three-speed Shift-Command automatic. The following two years used either the three-speed manual or three-speed Torque-Command auto. The latter was a rebrand of Chrysler’s TorqueFlite after AMC replaced the BorgWarner-sourced Shift-Command.

The first Matador lineup was targeted specifically at the midsize family car buyer. AMC sold a lot of Matadors as fleet vehicles too, with four-door versions used in commercial applications and as taxis. US government agencies and police also liked the Matadors, as their powerful V8 engines could outperform most standard vehicles of the day. The heavy-duty police package Matador was offered from 1971 through 1975 before it was discontinued, and most often was fitted with the 360 V8.

Optional on wagon versions was a rear-facing third-row seat that increased people capacity from six to eight. The tailgate on the wagon was two-way: It opened out as a standard barn door or folded down like a tailgate when the rear window was dropped. Also optional was a new Machine Go equipment package, as a replacement for the Rebel The Machine. Muscle cars were on the way out by 1971, as emissions and unleaded gasoline combined with steep insurance rates to make them less appealing. Machine Go was an option rather than its own model like the Rebel The Machine and was offered only on the two-door hardtop. Though performance pieces were included or available on the Machine Go package, the garish American theming of the year before was too “muscle car” in its looks, and not offered. Not a popular package, only 50 Machine Gos were sold in 1971.

There were limited visual changes in 1972, though the grille was simplified. Cars had less bling this year, as chrome at the trunk and rear end that was from the 1970 Rebel was deleted. Rear lamps were new, but gauges regressed to those of the 1967 Rebel. Tuning on the three V8s meant different power levels were available in 1972. Horsepower figures were rated 150, 175, 195, 220, or 255. Notably, V8 engines mandated a three-speed automatic. Marketing changed this year, as AMC introduced a new Buyer Protection Plan per changing consumer tastes. A first across all automakers, the BPP was a factory 12-month, 12,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. AMC promised to repair anything wrong with their car aside from the tires, had a toll-free warranty number, and offered a dealer loaner for overnight repairs.

To lessen the claims on their new all-inclusive warranty, AMC began pushing toward better component suppliers, improving factory production quality at Kenosha, and cutting the number of different models overall. Standard equipment increased to improve streamlining efforts. The warranty and other changes pleased dealers, who were able to use BPP as a sales tool that made AMC stand out from other manufacturers. In its second year, AMC moved 7, 306 Matador coupes, 10,448 wagons, and 36,899 sedans.

1973 was the last for the first-gen Matador, and evidence of the streamlining undertaken in 1972 appeared: All three body styles were available in a single trim for 1973, which was better equipped than before. Visually notable, all ’73 models complied with new NHTSA five-mph bumper regulations. Bumpers were chunkier and more substantial and gained front rubber shock absorbers. At the rear, optional chromed bumper guards of 1972 became rubber, and standard in ’73. Once more, the grille and tail lamps were revised for the annual refresh. One of the last signs of its Rebel history, the bullseye logo on the horn pad disappeared in 1973. Wagons gained a new vinyl upholstery called Uganda this year. By this time almost all I6-powered Matadors had the automatic transmission, as the station wagon was the only one built with an inline-six and a manual transmission.

Marketing took on a racier edge in 1973, as AMC sent the Matador to NASCAR. A two-door hardtop was driven by Mark Donohue (1937-1975). In January 1973 the racing Matador lapped every car in the race and won at the Cup Series. It won again at the Winston Western 500. All the while, AMC was watching ownership surveys to see if their changes made any difference since the Rebel. They had, and Popular Mechanics indicated Matador owners in 1973 were happier and had fewer problems than Rebel owners of 1970.

But the NASCAR and favorable consumer experience weren’t enough, and reviews of the day indicated that although AMC’s product was right where it should be, consumer awareness was not. As evidence, the two-door Matador hardtop was the brand’s slowest-selling model, when such a body style was typically the most popular, most profitable offering in the midsize car market of the day. After three (refreshed) model years, it was time for a rethink on Matador. In particular, AMC wanted to pay more attention to the Matador coupe. More on that in Part II.

[Images: AMC]

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22 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The AMC Matador, Medium, Large, and Personal (Part I)...”

  • avatar

    I know in the 60s that Chrysler did a 12 month/12K mile bumper to bumper warranty on its cars. Engine and transmission were covered for 5/50 as well. I assume the big three were doing something similar into the 70s. How was the AMC BPP different/game-changing at this time in the 70s?

  • avatar

    After decades of not seeing an AMC product a creosote black Matador coupe drove by about 10 years ago. It had a big number 3 on the door in silver duct tape.

    Ole, el matador negro numero tres, ole.

  • avatar

    Warrantees. IDK about AMC, but my Dad bought a Mercury Montego in 1968. It had at least powertrain coverage for 5 years or 50,000 miles, and when the transmission died at 48,000 miles, the local Mercury dealer fixed (or replaced it) without a peep. G-d bless warrantees. Even today I would lean more toward a Lexus than a Toyota to get that extra coverage.

  • avatar

    This post finally led me to log into TTAC after being a longtime lurker. I owned a 72 Matador sedan as my second car from 2004 to 2015! It was painted Grasshopper Green and had the 258. I named it Oscar after the Sesame Street character.

    It was originally a north central PA car (I’m from Montgomery County, western Philly suburbs). Odometer read 72k when I bought it and I put about 13k miles on it in 11 years. The only vehicle I have ever driven WITHOUT power brakes to this day.

    My best memories with Oscar were a drive up the Cross Bronx in NYC on my way to a toy auction in CT (where everyone just stayed out of my way!), & running it in my driveway to keep my cell phone charged during Sandy when my house had no power for 3 days.

    Oscar was a big old lump, but it always started up whenever I needed it, even after sitting outside in single-digit F weather for two weeks. I still miss it.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The ad with the picture of the green 72 Matador sedan looks like Get Christie Love meets Adam-12.

    I had a friend in high school who picked up at an auction a Matador with the police package. The 360ci had plenty of power and the handling package with rear sway bar and larger wheels allowed it traverse suburban and exurban gravel and dirt roads better than the standard issue models.

  • avatar

    The car that inspired my name! Someday I’d love to have a Matador Coupe. They just look so pretty to me. I know the front ends on them is polarizing, but I love the look personally

  • avatar

    That last picture of the blue Matador… the front half of the car looks a different shade than the back!

  • avatar

    Will someone get rid of the annoying 2022 Tundra video, or will it continue to plague us throughout 2022?

  • avatar

    My high schools driver ed program had a Matador in the fleet, or maybe an Ambassador. It was a good car for driving slowly.

  • avatar

    I am loving these in-depth pieces on lesser-known makes/models. Who needs another article about Mustangs or Corvettes? I can’t wait until this piece gets to the ’74-and-later Matador X and Barcelona.

  • avatar

    IIRC, the front seat on this generation would fold down to a flat bed.

  • avatar

    Will the American manufacturers introduce actual fun cars again? The Japanese still seem to be interested–they have recently introduced the new BRZ/86, and the new Integra and Z-car are on their way, and we still have the evergreen Miata–but Ford and GM seem to be content with crossovers and more crossovers. Does anyone think this will ever change?

    And speaking of crossovers, is the Mach-E the next Mustang? The current Mustang must be expensive to produce–I don’t think it shares components with anything else in Ford’s international portfolio–and having the Mustang name on a crossover (it doesn’t even have to be electric) seems so…darn…profitable. Does it look like the Mustang as a sport coupe and convertible is doomed?

  • avatar

    I urge anyone interested in this article to visit the Rambler Ranch
    in Elizabeth, Co. (in the summer). A truly stunning collection.
    Nash, Rambler, AMC Gremlins, Matadors, Marlins, Pacers and so many others,
    not including any of the above. The owner Terry is an outstanding host.

    By far the best museums (he has several buildings) of all I have seen.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I have seen a youtube video of the Ramble Ranch looks like a great place to visit. I believe they also sell AMC parts to collectors looking for parts for their Nashes, Ramblers, and AMCs.

  • avatar

    Major reason to never buy some dumb Toyota? The continuing stupid already-playing video ad for the world’s newest and ugliest V6 pickup truck, foisted off on TTAC readers to make a $1.29 a day extra for the overlords at Torstar. Customer service? What’s that? Those readers are just there to be fleeced and cheesed off.

    I think in making this precis of the Matador Wikipedia entry, it was squeezed a bit too tight for this article. The ’73 Matador front big bumpers had telescopic shock absorbers, not rubber blocks. They were kind of obvious to see. The race that the Matador won in January ’73 was a Penske car driven by Mark Donohue at the Riverside CA road course, not some unknown NASCAR “series”. Etc. But I digress.

    The Matador was a unit-body car, not separate frame and chassis like Malibu/Cutlass and ’73 Ford Torino, whose predecessor had been a unit body. However, it wasn’t till ’70 that AMC discovered balljoints for their front suspension on their cars. Prior to that, they ran around on a 1950 design trunnion front end which was none too wonderful in service when it wore a bit, being a sort of souped-up kingpin arrangement. The fabricated stamped A-arms usually bent over time throwing off the alignment, and “repair” of the unusual suspension by your average mechanic who had about zero clue was incorrect most of the time.

    We all have our biases, and I found the AMC large cars of the ’70s to be a higher mechanical quality than the Chrysler intermediates like Satellite which still trundled around on rear leaf springs instead of 4 bar coil rear suspension. The AMCs certainly rode far better than those Mopar jolters, and seemed to wander far less on windy days. I hated renting Mopars for my work in those days, and they were last choice.

    Another thing one can say is that AMC knew how to make a very decent reliable engine. From the 1954 V8s to the new 232 six in the early 1960s that eventually became the Jeep Cherokee 4.0l, there really wasn’t a duffer. The six often had about zero power as in the Pacer, but didn’t buck and stall with emission controls like most everone else’s malaise era chokers. Before anyone chimes in that AMC copied other Detroit V8s, well then, you’d better read the extensive Wikipedia entries on those V8s and the six. The V8s were completely redesigned in the mid 1960s to be lighter, but as my old driveway snowplow man and his ’79 Grand Wagoneer 360 proved for over 20 years, even when worked like a dog so that they smelled of very hot oil, the damn things kept on truckin’, no problem.

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