By on January 10, 2022

AMC introduced its new Matador lineup into the very competitive intermediate (midsize) car market in 1971. It was a time when the company was making advances in build quality, streamlining, and an industry-leading all-encompassing warranty. And though the Rebel by any other name was selling decently, it wasn’t grabbing market share as AMC expected. Especially lackluster were sales of the Matador Coupe, a body style that was the top seller amongst its domestic competitors. As 1974 approached, AMC prepared to make some big changes to Matador, and introduce an all-new two-door.

The second-generation Matadors aside from the Coupe were not new cars, but a heavy refresh of the 1971 to 1973 version. The two standard body styles were offered again: A relatively conservative four-door sedan and wagon. The most notable change was to the Matador’s front end, which grew a squared-off coffin nose. The new snout added an overhang onto the Matador, for that true Coming With Length look. The rear clip of the sedan was reworked as well, while rear-end changes to the wagon were limited to the tail lamp design and a revised bumper. The four doors used the same 118-inch wheelbase as they had in 1973 but were now longer overall.

The additional styling moved the Matadors to be more competitive with other intermediates, as cars increased in size in the early Seventies. Part of the larger size was down to NHTSA requirements, which said bumpers had to have uniform heights, absorb impacts from multiple angles, and withstand five mile-per-hour impacts undamaged. Like every other manufacturer, AMC provided giant chrome bumpers in 1974 and included shock-absorbing mounts. AMC went for an integrated look and used body-colored plastic fillers between bumper and grille on the sedan and wagon. Length on the sedan increased 10 inches, to 216 overall. The wagon gained 10 inches as well, for a total of 215. Though they had generous proportions, the Matadors were still short of full-size dimensions. AMC offered the Ambassador in 1974, but it was a scant 217.8 inches long, compared to the luxurious 222.7 inches of a Chevrolet Caprice. More on size issues in a moment.

All versions of the second-gen Matador got new interiors to keep with the times. Dashboards were now fully padded and sculpted with an eye to crash safety. Gauges were in three different pods in front of the driver. The radio was a new design too, and the Rebel-sourced horn pad from 1970 was replaced by a new rectangular design that was soft to the touch. But interiors and four-door Matadors were not AMC’s focus in 1974; they’d spent all the big bucks on the new Coupe.

An all-new car for 1974, the Matador Coupe was a two-door pillared hardtop that was styled in an entirely different direction to the four-door models, and indeed the Matador Coupe sold through 1973. AMC knew intermediate buyers gave much weight to coupe styling and went all-out.

The Coupe was penned by AMC’s lead designer Dick Teague, who also consulted with Matador’s NASCAR driver Mark Donohue. The new Coupe shared no body panels with its four-door siblings and was intended as a daring showcase of AMC’s styling. Sweeping lines and a fastback-style roofline made the Coupe much more aggressive than before, with headlamps that grew from tunnels along the hood.

Matador Coupe used a flat front and a full-width grille and thankfully forewent the familial coffin nose treatment. A sweeping chrome trim strip on luxury models highlighted the curves of the Coupe, while sports trims used a full perimeter painted racing stripe instead. Doors had frameless glass, always a stylish touch. The Coupe rode on a four-inch shorter wheelbase than four-door siblings, at 114 inches. Overall length was notably shorter on the two-door, at 209.3 inches. It was lower to the ground too, with an overall height of 51.8 inches. That was two inches lower than the sedan, and nearly five compared to the wagon.

Matador Coupe was meant to be dressed to customer preference, as aging and sophisticated buyers abandoned muscle cars for more practical (and affordable) personal luxury coupes. Base models used inline-six engines, while the sporty Matador X version had a standard V8. AMC had good timing with the Coupe, as in 1974 its Matador was the only all-new model in the intermediate coupe market. Top competition came in the form of the Ford Torino, Plymouth Satellite Sebring, and the Chevy Chevelle. The Matador stood out amongst its peers with bold, unique styling that was broadly praised by consumers. Said consumers put their money where their mouth was, as Coupe sales shot up to 62,629 in the new Matador’s first year, up from just 7,067 the year prior. The Coupe outsold the Matador wagon and sedan by almost 25,000 units in its first year.

Though there were many changes to the Matador inside and out for 1974, engine choice was not among them. For 1974, two inline-six engines remained on offer, of 232 (3.8L) and 258 (4.2L) cubic inches. V8 options included 304 (5.0L), 360 (5.9L), and 401 (6.6L) cubic inch displacements. Again a three-speed manual was offered, only on lower-end models. Most buyers of the Matador chose the Chrysler-sourced three-speed TorqueFlite (or TorqueCommand in AMC speak) automatic. Emissions regulations had their way with the Matador’s engine lineup though, and 1974 was the last time the 232 inline-six and 401 V8 were offered to the public. The 401 was technically still available in 1975, but only to fleet and police buyers. The three-speed manual was offered through the 1976 model year; its take rate was low enough for AMC to kill the option.

Following its introduction, changes to the Matador line amounted mostly to trim adjustments and the aforementioned elimination of engine options, as in 1975 AMC spent most of their development dollars on the new and quirky compact Pacer.

Looks were updated on sedan and wagon via a full-width grille that wrapped around the coffin nose, and square parking lamps that replaced circular ones. Matador Coupe retained the circular parking lamps. The body of the Matador sedan and wagon remained in their 1975 guise through the end of the model’s run, with no further changes.

In 1975 the Matador was forced to do double duty as AMC’s largest car offering, as the slow-selling Ambassador was discontinued after 1974. Ambassador had been on sale since 1969 with only minor trim adjustments, as AMC stretched it from its original 206.5-inch length to 217.8 inches in its final year. AMC attempted to keep with large car buyer demands and government regulation while spending as little as possible on Ambassador, but consumers by and large looked elsewhere for their full-size needs. Consumer tastes were also trending downward size-wise by 1974, and AMC threw in the full-size towel.

Things were still going okay for the Matador lineup in 1975, but it all went downhill rather quickly. Changing consumer tastes, the arrival of super-efficient Japanese cars, and the US energy crisis would all play their part in killing off the last midsize car AMC would ever make. More on that next time.

[Images: AMC]

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

  • avatar

    Too bad the Flying Matador option was never introduced.

  • avatar

    Wasn’t an AMC fan back in the day, but the coupe and wagon are both looking pretty good to me now. The 2-way tailgate (with retractable glass!) on the wagon is pretty slick.

  • avatar

    By the way, if you’re an AMC geek and live in Colorado, this place is a can’t-miss attraction that’s right outside Denver:

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I remember seeing sketches at the time in one of the automobile magazines of a four door version of the Matador coupe designed by of course Dick Teague as a replacement for its long in the tooth four-door. By 1978 when the Matador was dropped AMC decided to put all of their resources in the compacts like the Concord, which was the Hornet replacement and the Spirit as well as the groundbreaking Eagle.
    As a youth I would my read my folks Consumers reports magazine. In 1972 they gave the Matador wagon the nod over the Chevelle and Torino wagons.

  • avatar

    It would be nice if AMC adapted the 1974 Ambassador front end to the 1975 and up Matador. It looked a lot better. Part of what did the Matador in was the front end on the 4 door and wagon from 1974 on up. It was just plan ugly. If the four door was more “squared off” like the old 1967 to 1969 Rebel, the car would have sold better. Could have been more like an old Volvo 240 look. The fastback may have worked in the late 1960s or early 70s but fastbacks were “out of style” in 1974 and up. The age of personal luxury had begun.

  • avatar

    Back around 1984 or ’85 (long, long before I owned the 72 Matador sedan I commented about in Part 1), my sister (we were both in high school then) dated a guy who drove a 74 Matador coupe in the copper-bronze color as seen above. I rode in it a couple of times, & to this day remember that for as huge at it was outside, it had less room in back than my family’s 83 Mercury Zephyr 2-door coupe.

    In the last season of Adam-12 (74-75) Malloy drives a yellow 74 coupe in several episodes.

  • avatar

    The Matador Coupe was so beautiful :)

  • avatar

    The Matador Coupe is my favorite car of the early 70s. I’d love to own one some day

  • avatar

    I have two stories about the ’74 Matador coupe.

    The local AMC dealer was next to our synagogue (which many folks thought was an improvement over the VW car dealer which was there previously – remember, this was not that many decades after WWII). In any case I wandered over there after Hebrew classes, and they said that they would pay us $4000 as a trade in on our ten year old Riviera, which was not that much less than we had originally paid for it in ’64. However, when I convinced my dad to show up with the Riviera, they would not repeat that offer. Probably a good thing, as the Riv was a classic that would stand the test of time. We kept the Riviera for another twenty-two years.

    My other story is that I made a bet with my best friend from high school that I could build a better model of the ’74 Matador than he could – this was the tri-color Penske stock car version. We did both build our models, and of course we each thought we had won. My friend alas only lived into his ’50s, but I still have the model I built, and I think of him whenever I see it.

  • avatar

    A historical correction: while it’s true that the new styling of the coupe did a lot to kickstart sales, the real reason for this increase was that one of the coolest guys to ever exist on TV, Police Officer Pete Malloy, bought one in ’74 in the Adam-12 episode “Krash.”

    Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE who bought a Matador coupe after that episode did so only to emulate Pete Malloy. At least that’s what eight-year-old me thought.

    (All joking aside, several seasons of Adam-12 were pretty much AMC ads and I don’t doubt the Matador coupe placement in the show spurred a few sales.)

  • avatar

    I am ambivalent about the design of the actual vehicle. It loosely reminds me of the ’73-4 Chevelle coupe, the base model with the triangular quarter window.

    But I think the overall decision was a ridiculously dumb idea. AMC was never gonna compete with the Monte or GP, or Cutlass. A complete waste of very scarce resources. All to sell (I’m guessing, the post doesn’t have complete sales figures) 100,000 units? I don’t think they covered development and tooling costs, not even close.

    • 0 avatar

      No complete sales figures because we aren’t done talking about it yet! But your figure is correct.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve Biro

      eggsalad…One of the reasons the Matador coupe was styled that way was to make the shape aerodynamically more competitive in Nascar. And Mark Donohue did, in fact, win with the car. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But you would have been in a very small minority at the time. The car was very well received – even by those who didn’t buy one.

  • avatar

    I was a child of the 80’s, and a school friends family had a Matador sedan and a Buick Century sedan, both mid-70’s. I think the Matador was pre-refresh (coffin nose) because I remember the radio was vertical. Anyway, in the mid-80’s in my teens we were going somewhere and I asked about it b/c I had never seen one. Friend’s mom said it was the most reliable car they’d owned so far. I had a roomate after college who had one before I met him and he said it was his favorite car. I thought the Matador coupes were weird. Still do. I think a more conventional (and probably for AMC, cost-effective) rework of the square body could have made a more competitive PLC.

  • avatar

    That white one at the top is the cool hip designer Oleg Cassini one.

  • avatar

    I’ll take my Matador coupe in “X” trim, thank you. Watching the former muscle cars degenerate into broughamy PLC’s, the swoopy coupe w/ the floating bumpers looked a lot better, AND the rear windows rolled down! Perhaps if it had been a little trimmer in size might have helped sales. As previously stated AMC tried too hard to be all things (here’s looking at you, Oleg Cassini coupe!)

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    These came out early in my “car formative” years. Then, as now, I’m thinking “what the hell is AMC drinking?”. The coupe was just plain odd looking, especially the front and rear. Maybe I’m just more of a simple guy, but I find the Hornet hatchback and Sportabout much more palpable. (Truth: I owned 2 ’73 Hornets and enjoyed them both).

    The subsequent Pacer showed AMC was struggling to find their niche amongst the domestics, since the Big Three were making competent compact and intermediate cars, which was AMC’s tour-de-force since the late ’50s.

  • avatar

    Jeep needs to offer an Oleg Cassini package across the entire lineup, like Now. It would be a great way to honor their AMC origins, and I bet it would sell like wildfire. Americans want to be pampered.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      The current Grand Cherokee Limited offers an X package. I frequently see them and think it’s an homage to their AMC heritage.

      • 0 avatar

        They should have called that porker the XXL. While I appreciate that homage, I still think the Oleg would do much better, and would be more fitting for those large wagons, which are seldom used off-road, much less at a track.

  • avatar

    A person I once knew owned a Matador coupe. I wen t out to take a closer look at it and noticed the rear windows opened, but always wondered how far they rolled down. Sorry – the old me rises again!

    The sedans always amused me because of the extruded aluminum window frames – reminded me of lawn chairs!

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    When these were first introduced they looked much better in pictures than in person. The proportions just seemed ‘off’. They do appear to have aged much better than some of their contemporaries.

    Saw very few of the previous generation of Matador.

    But I do seem to remember an Ambassador commercial stating that it was the first model to offer A/C as standard equipment. Can anyone add, confirm or correct my memory regarding this?

    As previously stated, with the Eagle 4wd Wagon, the Cherokee, the design that became the Chrysler LH models, the design for the Grand Cherokee and with its subsidiary/progeny designing the Hummer, AMC appears to have been the domestic manufacturer that best predicted the emerging trends in the auto market.

    Rather than pouring money into Ford, GM and in particular Chrysler perhaps the governments should have instead propped up AMC?

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    My old HS tennis coach had a weary blue 4 door. If my memory serves me right it was a second gen. This was the the late 80s. He was a strange fella, he wore classic white polo and shorts every day , but was also a chain smoker, so his shirt collars were grungy yellow.
    One day summer day it stallede on a busy (for Springfield,MO)
    intersection. He limped it to a large parking lot, unscrewed the plates, emptied the glove box, pulled out his Pioneer tape deck, racquet bag , ball hopper and called a cab. He never retrieved the blue beast. I think he did finally receive a ticket for abandoning the car. After that I think he ended up in a brown LTD, perhaps a 77 or 78.

  • avatar

    I still own a 74 Matador ‘coffin nose’ sedan.

    While ‘interesting’ or ‘different’ is usually sales death when new, those same traits generally make for more interesting classic cars. Pontiac Azteks for example will no doubt draw crowds at cars and coffee if they aren’t already.

    The 74-78 sedans were oddballs no doubt, with their bizarre front end styling (esp. in 1974. The 1975-78 sedans had a more conventional grille) to their 1960s era residual finned rear fenders still in place.

    For the limited sales numbers, the 74-78 sedans/wagons were near ubiquitous in 70s and early 80s TV and film – from Police Academy to Straight Time to CHiPs to Dukes of Hazard and so on. With only 27,000 sedans built in 1974, it seems most went to fleets, and a good number of those were destroyed on TV or Film.

    Mine came with power drums, a landau top, a 304 and automatic, and that’s about it. Clearly a private sales vehicle, it was also probably owned by a federal or state employee based on the stickers on the body and literature found in the glove box. I also work for my municipality, so it’s continuing that duty near 50 years on.

    Handling too wasn’t bad by the era. They were relatively light (curb weight 3800lbs vs 4300lbs for a 74 Monaco and 4400lbs for a Caprice) and steering responds quickly (again, being relative). On the other side, as they really were stretched mid-sized cars dating back to 1967, they didn’t have the plush comfort of their weightier competitors.

    Who bought them? Almost exclusively governments, AMC loyalists, and mid-western skinflints.

    Today who would want one? Pretty much AMC loyalists, possibly someone who wants something a bit different, or even someone wanting to yell at kids to get off his lawn c.1975 suburban Wisconsin.

  • avatar

    Probably the biggest mistake of AMC’s history was Abernethy’s decision to go toe to toe model for model with the big three, and lose focus on parts compatibility that had been done to save costs.

    While Rambler in the 50s to mid-60s had an identity as good value, reliable compact car transportation, by the mid 60s their identity and derivative styling meant that they were being lost in the crowd (rebel, ambassador, american, classic).

    Enter the 1970s where there was a push to stand out, and stand out they did. The Hornet/Gremlin was the start, and to that was the added the Pacer, Matador Coupe, and 2nd generation Matador sedan/wagon. Looking good was less important than looking different. This is the context for the tooling spent on the Coupe design. AMC needed to be noticed and needed to be relevant. To their credit, for many when you think American cars from the mid/late 1970s the Gremlin/Pacer are near if not the top of the list.

    If AMC had remained focused on smaller cars and dealt with the frumpy image by getting a bit further into racing/performance, they may have had some bumps in the road in the 1960s, but they would have been well positioned 1973 onwards. Hindsight is 20/20 however.

    The Pacer and Matador coupe however were probably the two biggest errors in product lineup, for the simple reason that massive amounts were spent on short term success, and there was no where to go once they were no longer flavour of the week.

    In contrast, the larger Rebel/Matador/Ambassador platform for example lasted from 1967-1978 so not a terrible run, with minor tweaks.

    The Hornet/Gremlin/Spirit/Concord/Eagle lasted even longer from 1970 to the bitter end, so they more than paid for themselves over 17 years and millions of sales.

  • avatar

    My AMC heritage included a 72 Gremlin and an 82 Concord. The Gremlin was worn out when I got it but gave me a year of service and sold for the same $275 I’d paid for it. I paid $1100 for the Concord around 1990 and got about 5 years of use out of it, so one of the better purchases I ever made.

    Both of my AMC cars had the same feature. You could remove the key from the ignition while the car was running and then use the top and bottom knobs to turn the car on and off as long as you didn’t move it back into the “Lock” position, which in those days required pushing a lever to engage the steering wheel lock. It was nice when going to the beach to not have to bring keys with or worry about losing them.

  • avatar

    My mid 70’s intermediate experience was owning two different 76 Fury Coupes. They were obscure enough that I had to explain to people that they looked like the Cordoba. One was a sport model with bucket seats and a floor console that was very nice but the 360 engine was a pig that wouldn’t start below 10 degrees which was not very practical in Minnesota at the time. As soon as I saved up enough money I traded it for an 82 Ford EXP.

    The other one was an el-strippo base model – Bench seat, slant 6, 3-in-the-tree, no a/c. Paid $300 for it in 1988 and got 18 months out of it before the back bumper mounts rusted through and the left side of the bumper hit the ground. Still a fun car to drive, though.

  • avatar

    Rumor had it that Roger Penske had some say about the two door body being more suited to Stock Car Racing. Penske had some sucess in the USAC stock division with the 2-door. I liked the 2-door styling but the 4-door and later models were some of the ugliest American sedans ever made.

  • avatar

    That coupe used to make me laugh, it was so hideous. A neighbor had a white Matador coupe for a couple of years. It was a base car, so the giantic wheel openings looked even more “off the deep end” then they did with some halfway decent sized tires. The Matador joined in with the rest of the “car belonging to nerds and other weirdos” vibe the Pacer, Gremlin, and Hornet had at the end.

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