Rare Rides Icons: The AMC Matador, Medium, Large, and Personal (Part IV)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

We finish up our Rare Rides Icons coverage of the AMC Matador today by spending some time abroad. The Matador maintained a few different passports as it donned new branding and nameplates for its various international adventures. And unlike many domestic cars of the period, AMC saw sales success when its midsize arrived in other markets.

We start closest to home, in Mexico. South of the border the Matador was sold by VAM, or Vehículos Automotores Mexicanos. The company began as a licensed builder of Willys-Overland vehicles in 1946, when it was known as Willys Mexicana. In 1963 it became a state-controlled company, with AMC as a minority holder. VAM’s history is interesting and worth covering separately. For today’s narrower subject, VAM began sales of the Matador during its debut year in 1971. The company never used the Matador name, given the violent association the word had in Spanish, and called it Classic instead. VAM Matadors were not made from knock-down kits, as the company used its own complete assembly line located in Mexico City.

Initially, the hardtop coupe was called Rambler Classic SST, while the sedan was called Rambler Classic 770. In their first year, VAM offered a single trim level which had a lower level of equipment than domestic Matadors. No power steering, no power brakes, and a three-speed manual were standard equipment. An automatic was optional, and the only way to get power brakes and power steering. Matador sedans were marketed as the Classic DPL from 1972 onward, while the slow-selling hardtop coupe was called Classic Brougham. VAM did not market the Matador’s wagon variant.

The hardtop was a very slow seller in Mexico too, so it was dropped after 1972. Classic DPL remained, and VAM dealers encouraged coupe buyers to check out the Javelin instead. Things looked more positive in 1974 when the second-generation Classics arrived in Mexico. The new generation closely matched those in the United States, including the five mph bumpers mandated by the U.S. government. VAM did not engineer out this more expensive safety feature, which marked the Classic DPL as one of two cars (with the Pacer) ever produced by VAM that used a safety feature over and above what was required by the Mexican government.

New for 1973 was the exciting new Matador Coupe, which VAM split into two distinct trims: Luxury versions were called Classic Brougham like before, and sporty Coupes were called Classic AMX. Neither version of the Classic Coupe was sold with complete Oleg Cassini or Barcelona trims, though bits and pieces of each were integrated into the VAM versions.

Classic DPL and Coupe were both canceled abruptly in the middle of the ’76 model year, as VAM chose to focus on the more modern Pacer. The end of Classic was partially forced by the Mexican government, as the introduction of the Pacer would’ve been a fourth product line for the brand. The government only permitted three per company, so the Pacer became the largest and most luxurious VAM offering. Mexican consumers were also turning away from larger cars at the time, which aided VAM’s decision.

Matadors were also built in San Jose, Costa Rica. A company called Purdy Motor built Matadors there, via knock-down kits provided by AMC in Kenosha. Purdy was not a new enterprise, as it owned the rights to market American Motors cars since 1959. The business started as an import venture only, again restricted by government intervention: Prior to 1964, laws prevented the domestic assembly of any vehicles. Once the rules changed, Purdy had an assembly line in place in 1965 and immediately started production of the 1964 Rambler Classic. The Rebel followed and was succeeded by the Matador in 1971. All Costa Rican AMCs wore the Rambler brand.

Because the Costa Rican Matadors were assembled from kits, they matched North American Matadors. Purdy sold off its distribution and manufacturing rights in 1974, to a new local company called Motorizada de Costa Rica. Production continued under the Motorizada umbrella through 1978, as the new entity consolidated AMC production with CKDs from Jeep and other car companies. But Motorizada wasn’t entirely above board and was shut down by the government in 1979 after it neglected to pay taxes. That was the last anyone built or bought an AMC in Costa Rica.

The third and final international production location for the Matador was at Port Melbourne, Australia. Matador’s benefactor there was Australian Motor Industries, more commonly known as AMI. AMI was founded in 1926 and built various British BMC-brand vehicles, and later Mercedes-Benz and Toyota. Then it turned back to building Triumphs and Ferguson tractors, which it sold together in rural areas.

In 1960 AMI rebirthed itself via an agreement with AMC to make Ramblers from knock-down kits. All AMI versions of AMCs wore a Rambler brand and had right-hand drive. AMI sold AMCs full range, with kits shipped directly from Kenosha to Australia. AMI used a fair number of locally-made components in the kits, which granted a tariff exemption at a specified percentage of Australian content. Wheel covers, seats, and air conditioning units were all locally made. Australians liked longevity in their vehicles, which prompted AMI to keep using locally-sourced steering components from the old Rambler American.

The dash of all AMI Matadors belonged to a different car, the old Ambassador from 1967. Australia picked up the dash design and used it for years after it was created by AMC in Kenosha, for the US Postal Service. There was apparently some demand at the post office for Ambassador mail vehicles (what?) which came in handy for Australian passenger car purposes.

AMI painted Matadors in colors they liked rather than official AMC colors, and in fact, applied the same paint to the Toyotas and Triumphs made alongside the Matador. AMI owned some of its own distribution network too, so customers in specific areas shopped all three brands at one AMI lot. AMI is worth its own coverage, too.

Unlike their Mexican cousins, Australian Matadors were always well equipped. Standard was an automatic transmission, power steering, AC, a fancy AM band radio, and power windows. Rambler Matador options were limited to stick-on bits like a vinyl roof, a sun visor at the front, and mud flaps. AMI built wagons and sedans from 1971 onward, while the coupe existed as an off-limits tease. The second-generation Coupe was very rare, and not offered in Australia until the very end of production. AMI built the Coupe in 1976, and it was sold only in 1977.

Though Mexico eagerly dropped the Matador for the Pacer, Australia was not so impressed by the new small car. AMC shipped over a Pacer, AMI took it for a spin, and then declined. It was the same thing they’d done with the Gremlin years before. No small cars for Rambler Australia.

The limited product offering made sense, as AMI focused mostly on other brands by this time: In 1974 AMI built just 145 Matadors in total. Their sales were mostly to die-hard American car fans, as AMI Ramblers were the only U.S.-designed cars available on the market. There was considerable lag in the production process. Matador revisions debuted in the U.S., the kits were adjusted, and then had to be packaged and shipped to Australia. Often times a 1972 was assembled and sold as a 1973. In 1974 for example, AMI had enough 1973 kits for the year and simply called it a 1974. This strategy continued in 1975, as AMI was particularly fond of the 1973 version. The Matador line was discontinued by AMI after the 1977 model year, though the sedan and wagon were still US market 1974s. By then AMI was about finished producing anything American, as it became a subsidiary of Toyota in 1985.

The Matador found a couple of smaller markets too, in Norway and the United Kingdom. U.S. market Matadors were imported by a company in Norway called Kolberg & Caspary AS, a firm that imported various cars and machinery since its establishment in 1906. The company had two dealerships (Oslo and Drammen), which sold a lineup of Hornets, Javelins, and Matadors. The company still exists today and is still importing cars, boats, and construction equipment.

In the United Kingdom, those very special select Britons who wanted an American car were offered the Matador, again branded as a Rambler. Imported via Rambler Motors (A.M.C.) in London, the dealership also sold the Javelin, and both four-door versions of the Ambassador. U.K. AMCs were shipped directly from Kenosha with right-hand drive, apart from the Javelin that was too niche to bother converting.

Here, the right-hand drive layout was a unique design to the U.K. market cars and did not share the USPS/Australian Ambassador dash. Once they arrived at the port, all examples had their plastic dash trim removed and replaced with a more luxurious burled walnut. The walnut tradition went back some time, as previously imported Rebels and prior-gen Ambassadors had the same treatment. The U.K. AMC sales wound down in 1977, and all final year cars were left-hand drive.

And there we conclude the AMC Matador story. A midsize from Kenosha that touched many across the globe, assembled by many different hands. Look for separate coverage of VAM and AMI soon, perhaps as some Abandoned History.

[Images: VAM, AMI, AMC]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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  • Myllis Myllis on Jan 28, 2022

    U.S. market Ramblers were imported also by a two companies in Finland called Voimavaunu Oy and Suomen Maanviljeliöiden Kauppa Oy. Later Wihuri Oy/Autola take impoter role (1960). Rambler lineup was American, Classic and Marlin. Rambler was cheapest US -car in Finland and American/Classic models were popular as a taxi-car. Best years were 1964 (600 Ramblers sold) and 1967 (over 700 Ramblers sold). At the end of sixties totally 2.629 US Ramblers has been sold. Seventies was low selling time (energy crisis and japanese car's landing eq. Datsun 200/220, Mazda 929 and Toyota Crown). Autola drop-off Rambler in 1975. The company still exists today and is importing agriculture brands like John Deere. Wihuri Foundation is also remarkable sponsor in Finnish autosport. Following link you can find video from 1966 where Finniah TV -program test drive Rambler (winter time). Sorry for the language... https://areena.yle.fi/1-50142520

  • Arthur Dailey Arthur Dailey on Feb 01, 2022

    Corey a great series and another reason why you are the best contributor to TTAC. Lots of good information and interesting points to follow-up. What is disappointing is that this article has only a dozen comments and articles about a protest of less than 10,000 has received close to 200 comments.

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