Story and photos by Brian Earnest
American Motors Corp. was clearly looking for bigger oceans to swim in back in 1965 when the company unveiled its mid-size Marlin hardtop coupe. At the time, the company had rarely strayed from its blueprint for small, practical, inexpensive — and some would say boring — compact cars.
For three years, the Marlin lived as a curvy, handsome hybrid — a cross between a family car and the sports and muscle cars of the era. It was impossible not to compare it to the Charger. Both cars had the calling card fastback roofline. Where the Charger quickly became associated with performance and muscle, however, the Marlin never truly found its own identity. It was a little bit of everything, but maybe not distinct enough to make a serious statement of its own.
In the end, only 17,419 Marlins rolled off the assembly line of the AMC plant in Kenosha, Wis., including just 2,545 of the 1967 versions.
Keith Olson knew about such a car during his younger days, and one phone call was all it took to find it and eventually buy it. “I found this in a barn, with the original paint on it,” recalled Olson, a native of Shiocton, Wis., “I had known the guy who owned this car way way back when it was his wife’s daily driver. Then 20 years later, I saw one of these cars in a magazine and I called up the guy and asked him if he still had it, and he said ‘Yeah, I threw it in the back of the barn.’
“It just sat there. Keys were still in it. It just became an old car and they parked it and kind of just left it.”
Given the car’s low production numbers, Olson will never have too many other Marlin owners to rub elbows with. A little digging revealed that his car is a rarer than most Marlins. Actually, it’s the only one of its kind. “Only 33 of them came with a four-speed, and mine is the only one with a small-block 290 and a four-speed ever made. I did know it was one of the 33, the previous owner told me that. Then I got a hold of the [AMC Owners Club] and I talked to the president, and he remembered this car being bought in Wisconsin Rapids [Wis.] and he said ‘You do have the only car with that little motor in it.’”
Olson’s car hadn’t left the barn for many years when he extricated it. It was in surprisingly good shape, and with a little coaxing it even ran. “It sat for, I bet 15, 18 years,” Olson said. “All the tires were flat, the brakes were shot. You could put your foot to the floor.
“But it wasn’t seized up. We got some new fuel in there and pumped like heck and it fired up. It started up and ran and I drove it around for about a year before I did anything to it.”
Eventually, the car got some new seat upholstery, new Barbados Blue paint and an engine rebuild, but it is otherwise largely original. Finding the pseudo-paisley seat fabric turned out to be one of the biggest challenges for Olson. The original material needed to be replaced, but finding authentic fabric for a replacement was almost impossible. “I bought the last bolt … at a place in Portland, Oregon,” he said. “They had the last bolt of this color, and when it came in, it was all dusty.
“There’s no rust on the car. It’s got the original undercoating on it. I literally worked on this car every day for a year. I did something to it every single day for a year. That was my goal, and it all came together. It’s probably been 10 years [since it was finished].”
The new Marlin bowed in 1965 and emphasized roominess and comfort. It rode on the mid-size Rambler Classic chassis with a 112-inch wheelbase. The Marlins were based on the fastback 1964 Tarpon show car. Previously, AMC had been content specializing in smaller cars, but with a change of leadership — Roy Abernathy took over as president of AMC — the company decided to challenge the Big Three with bigger, sportier and more-powerful offerings.
For 1967, the Marlin was bigger and smoother looking, and the wheelbase grew by half a foot to 118 inches — sharing the same platform as the Ambassador. The hood was longer, the rear fenders featured a “Coke-bottle” profile and the lines of the Marlin were very Charger-like.
There were smoother body sides, a new rectangular gas filler door and Rally lights incorporated into the grille. Side marker lights could be seen on the trailing edge of the rear fenders, just ahead of the wraparound rear bumper ends. A full-length lower body molding followed the pattern seen on Rebels, arching over both wheel housings. The round medallion was removed from the trunk lid for 1967. The forward edges of the front fenders were decorated by V-shaped badges.
The cars came with one of three base engines: a 199-cid six-cylinder rated at 128 hp; 232-cid six-cylinder rated at 145 hp; and a 287.2-cid V-8 — called a 290 by AMC — rated at 200 hp. Buyers who wanted a faster fish could upgrade to a four-barrel 290 rated at 225, or a 343-cid V-8 rated at 235 hp for the two-barrel or 280 hp for with a four-barrel.
A three-speed manual transmission was the base offering. Adding overdrive was a $115 upgrade on the Marlin.
Bench seats were standard, and you had to pony up about $280 extra if you wanted buckets and a center console. “Mine has airliner reclining seats. It had the center console, which is an option. The four-speed is definitely an option,” Olson noted. “It has an AM radio. It doesn’t have power steering, doesn’t have power brakes. It’s a base car. My personal belief is somebody ordered it with a four-speed and little engine for fuel economy."
Other noteworthy Marlin options included Adjust-O-Tilt steering, cruise control, 8-track stereo, air conditioning, electric clock, tachometer and vinyl upholstery, which was actually a $15 upcharge.
The base factory price for the six-cylinder Marlin was $2,668. The 290 V-8 was about 100 bucks more.
Along with its sloping rear profile, perhaps the Marlin’s most distinctive feature was its tiny trunk lid. The curved deck lid was squeezed between the two large tail light assemblies and below the huge rear window, leaving plenty of room inside for cargo, just not much of an opening to get at anything. “The trunk lid is designed to get the spare tire out, and you can barely get it out, but the trunk goes all the way to the back seat. You can lay in there,” Olson said with a laugh. “But the way they designed the trunk lid, you can barely get the spare out."
For all its sporty styling cues and sleek silhouette, the Marlin has manners more reminiscent of a big ’60s cruiser than a performance car. Measuring more than 201 inches from tip to tip and squashing the scales at more than 3,300 lbs., it’s no obstacle course champ. “It’s a cushy ride. A big, soft cushy ride, like an old Buick would be,” Olson said. “It doesn’t handle very well around corners. It’s got sway bars, but it likes to lean. But when you’re going down the highway, it’s one of those floaters.
“It’s very, very smooth, and very comfortable. That’s what they were trying to do — do the sports car with luxury, for the family … and it didn’t work!”
Olson let one of his Marlin’s two previous owners revisit the Marlins’ plush ride a while back. He said it was a fun experience for both current and past owner. “The lady who owned it and drove her kids around in it, I let her drive it a couple years ago and she was just in awe,” Olson said. “It was her daily driver. It just brought back memories of the little kids in the back seat and taking everybody to the grocery store. She thought that was pretty neat.”
At this point, Olson can’t envision a fourth owner getting his barn-find Marlin. He’s even hanging onto another 1967 Marlin as a parts car, just in case he needs some back-up.
“This one’s going to be a keeper,” he said. “It’s rare. It’s the last year they made them. With the stick shift, it’s fun to drive. It’s not necessarily fast with that little 290 engine in there, but it’s just fun.
“I’m keeping this one. It’s just one of those cars.”
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