Car of the Week: 1974 AMC Matador X

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By Brian Earnest

There aren’t many certainties in life, but Jim Schwartz of Hudson, Wis., can be pretty sure of one thing: When he takes his bright red 1974 AMC Matador X out of his garage, somebody is going to talk to him.

The conversation might not always be flattering, but the affable Schwartz is almost always entertained. He knows he’s got a bit of an oddball car that is pretty much guaranteed to get some kind of reaction wherever it goes — and that’s the way Schwartz likes it.

“The current Matador is probably roughly AMC No. 20 for me,” he says with a laugh. “That’s in 21 years of driving. I’ve owned a lot of them and they say you have to be a little bit off to be an AMC guy, and I think with the Matador Coupe you have to be even a little more off. Even in AMC circles, the Matador Coupe is a love-it-or-hate-it car.

“I’ve got some AMC friends that say they don’t get the Matador Coupe. They say, ‘Those things are ugly!’ and these are people that love the Pacer and the Gremlin! It’s a bit of an oddity, but I guess that’s why I’m drawn to it.”

For Schwartz, landing the Matador was a case of persistence paying off. He had been on the trail of a nice, original Matador X for quite a while when he spotted his current car in 1999 for sale in Bismarck, N.D. Before he could get there to buy it, however, the car was snapped up by a one of Schwartz’s AMC friends who lived in Dundas, Minn. “We didn’t know we were both interested, and he kind of bought it out from under me,” Schwartz recalled. “I was going to go look at it on Saturday and on that Thursday night I talked to the seller. Then on Friday night he said don’t come out, somebody just bought it … I told [the new owner] if you ever sell it you better contact me first, and almost two years ago he e-mailed me and told me he was going to sell it, so that’s when I got it.”

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Schwartz had never seen the car in person, but he was pleasantly surprised that it had remained in such fine original condition. After several years of looking, he knew that survivors that had not been beaten up or rusted out were few and far between. The car was actually Schwartz’s second Matador X, and helped take the sting out of his earlier purchase that didn’t turn out as well.

“I bought that one after the disappointment of missing the previous car,” he said. “I bought it with the understanding that it was a rust-free car. It had been patched very poorly with body filler … I bought the car, had it transported to me, and whereas I was pleasantly surprised with the Matador that I have now, I was very, very disappointed with the condition of that one … There was really no bringing it back and I wound up selling it.”

These days, Schwartz loves to answer the question that AMC posed in an advertising campaign in the early 1970s: “What’s a Matador?” They might be a bit of a forgotten model these days, but from 1971-’78 they were AMC’s contender in the mid-size market and the company’s best-selling line following the muscle car craze of the late 1960s and early ’70s. The 1974 model year marked the beginning of the second generation for the Matador, as a major restyling gave the cars a longer, lower, racier silhouette. Buyers could get their Matadors with either two or four doors, or as a station wagon. The coupes could be had in base trim, a more refined Brougham, or in the sportier X version, which was actually considered its own sub-model, even though it was more of a trim package. Matador X accoutrements included a three-spoke Sport steering wheel; bodyside stripes; hood stripes; slotted-style wheels, blacked-out grille; Matador X cowl nameplates; automatic transmission; and two-barrel 304-cid V-8 rated at 150 hp. The X’s could also be ordered with 360-cid two- or four-barrel V-8s, or the most muscular option, a 235-hp 401-cid with a four-barrel.

The X’s were available only with V-8s, but the other four Matadors on the 1974 menu could all be had with either sixes or eights, starting with the base Matador coupe equipped with a six-cylinder for $3,052. The X’s were the priciest at $3,699 with the base 304 V-8.

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AMC sold 99,586 Matadors in 1974, but only 10,074 of them were Matador X’s. That total apparently wasn’t enough to make them worth keeping, as the X turned out to be a one-year wonder. An X package was offered for $199 on 1975 models, but ’74 was the only year the Matador X had a banner of its own. Perhaps it was because they suffered from a bit of an identity complex. The public may have been a bit confused over whether the jazzed-up X’s were meant to be family cars, poor-man’s personal luxury cars or an oversized sports car. With a full back seat and weighing in at a hefty 3,700 lbs., they were not exactly stars of the slalom course, but they held their own when it came to straight-line power. Looks, of course, are subjective, but the Matador X certainly didn’t need to make any apologies.

“My biggest draw to the car is definitely the styling of it. It’s almost one of those ‘It’s so ugly it’s cute’ things,” Schwartz chuckles. “Those bulging headlights — it just screams ’70s to me. It’s not a car that really, when you look at it, could come from any other era. It has that, dare I say, disco look, and the fact that so many people think it’s ugly makes it more appealing to me.”

Schwartz believes he is the fifth owner of his Matador, which now shows about 61,600 miles on its odometer. The car was accompanied by a three-ring binder documenting much of its ownership history, dating back to its original purchase at a dealership in Walla Walla, Wash. “From there, it was traded in in 1976 at a Datson dealership, probably for something more economical at the time.”

The car had about 59,000 miles when it made its way to Minnesota, which means it has been driven only about 2,000 miles in the past 14 years.

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“My wife says I’m overly careful with it,” Schwartz admits. “It resides in the garage and the car that’s my daily driver sits outside every day. [The Matador] stays in the garage and under a cover all winter long. I’m very careful with it … Probably 500 miles a year is about what I’ll average. It’s essentially just a show car and occasional cruise kind of car … We have cruise nights every other week in my town, and I’ll take it out for those.”

So far, the AMC has been trouble-free and exactly what Schwartz was hoping for. He hasn’t had to do much in the way of repairs, and he has no plans to ever give the car a big restoration.

“I haven’t done too much to it, mostly maintenance-type stuff,” he says. “I did have the heads sent out for a valve job and general re-conditioning. I took advantage of that opportunity and painted the engine in its correct AMC engine metallic blue. I’ve touched up what seems like hundreds of tiny little paint chips that were here and there and everywhere in the paint.

“It’s a pretty original car so I haven’t wanted to touch it up much. The stripes were kind of notorious for cracking on these things, so there were little voids and little hairline cracks that I touched up to try to give it more of a smooth look up close.”

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Keeping the white vinyl interior looking as good as the original Trans Am Red paint is no easy task, however. “I love the white. I get a lot of positive comments. It really stands out, but it is a nightmare to keep clean,” Schwartz said. “The best thing I’ve found is citrus-based type cleaners. It’s in remarkable shape inside for being nearly 40 years old now. There are no rips or tears in the upholstery. It was clearly well taken care of from the get-go.”

The original owner of Schwartz’s Matador X did not opt for any of the bigger, thirstier V-8s on the menu, but they did get power steering. The Chrysler-sourced automatic with a floor shifter was standard and available only with bucket seats and the console. Front disc brakes were standard, but power-assist cost extra. The 114-inch wheel base on the coupes was four inches shorter than the four-door sedan and wagon. Coil springs were found at all four corners and a front sway bar and insulation package was also standard fare.

“It didn’t have a lot of options,” Schwartz said. “It only has an AM radio. It has the handling package, which was heavy-duty shock absorbers and a rear sway bar. It’s not the kind of car you’d want to take on twisty roads, anyway. It’s pretty friendly to drive. It’s got the over-assisted power steering that was so common for that time. It reminds me of a car that I drove in high school — a 1978 Monte Carlo. It drives like that. Not too sporty, but not overly plush like, say, a Buick.”

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Schwartz is pretty plugged into the network of devoted Matador X lovers across the country and he estimates there are between 300 and 500 specimens remaining. “You occasionally will see one come up for sale on eBay or through Craigslist if you do a national search, but it’s not real common and the ones you find are usually pretty far gone,” he noted. “People will buy them and fix them up, but they don’t try to restore them to original, which is one of the things that makes my car so unique and gives me the hesitation to restore it.”

He’s only had it for two years, but you get the feeling from talking to Schwartz that it might be a long time before his Matador X moves on to owner No. 6. Owner No. 5 is having far too much fun enjoying the attention that his car inevitably gets when he shows it off in public. Having an obscure machine that not everyone remembers — or even wants to remember — does have its advantages.

“Very few people know what it is … and I’ve had comments all the way from, ‘What’s a Matador,’ to even ‘What’s AMC?’” he laughs. “Hey, it’s easier to love a Tri-Five Chevy or Chevelle or GTO, but I don’t know. It’s neat to have something not everybody knows or everybody likes.”

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