Story and photos by Brian Earnest
We all knew one of those kids when we were young. You remember him — the ornery little runt that nobody messed with even though he was kind of a shrimp. He was a little crazy and a little bit off, but he was tough as nails.
That was the AMC AMX — the sawed-off little ruffian of the muscle car world in the late 1960s. What the pint-sized bruiser lacked in stature it more than made up for in guts and attitude, and the American automobile landscape has always been a little more colorful because of it.
The little AMCs were largely overlooked by the buying public during their 2 ½-year production run from mid-1968 through 1970. Only 19,134 AMXs were built in all, but there were a few guys like Gregg Pieczynski of Plover, Wis., who got on the AMX bandwagon early and never left. “When I was a kid I remember the first time I saw one of these. I grew up in Stevens Point [Wis.] and I was walking with a buddy of mine on Main Street on a Saturday afternoon, and I saw one of these and I said, ‘Whoa, is that one of those new Camaros?’ And my buddy said, ‘No, it’s a Rambler!’ I thought, ‘No way, they never made anything that sharp!’”
Not long after that, a father of one of Pieczynski’s classmates, Dr. James Sevenich, bought a new AMX, and Pieczynski became permanently smitten. “I got to ride in Doc’s car, and I just said I’ve got to have one of these. When I finally got one, I said, I’m never going to let it go. From the time I rode in Doc’s car, I really, really wanted one.”
About 30 years ago, Pieczynski finally spotted a red 1968 AMX for sale at a used car lot in Schofield, Wis., and he talked his wife, Maggie, into letting him have his toy. “We had just sold a Mustang convertible that I had restored… so I had some extra money. So we went up to Schofield and there it sat on a lot that’s now a McDonalds. A guy was selling it on consignment for his friend, and I just looked at it and I always wanted an AMX and I looked at my wife and said, ‘We either buy it now or it’s going to be gone,’” he said with a laugh. “I’ve had it ever since.”
The car is a splendid, very original survivor with only 46,000 miles on its odometer. At some point in the 1970s, the AMX was given a new coat of Matador Red paint, and Pieczynski later replaced the matching red carpet. Beyond that, however, the mighty little AMC is largely untouched. “It was pretty much as you see it. It’s a low-mileage car. It had 30-some thousand miles on it and it’s still got the same paint on it as when I bought it,” Pieczynski noted. “The guy before the guy I bought it from painted it in his garage, believe it or not! I use dry wash on it, and I tell ya, that’s a great product. I’m not one to hawk products, but it does great. You never hit it with water.
“When I bought it I think it was painted about five years before that, so that would make it about 35 years ago, and it still looks pretty good.”
AMX was short for “American Motors Experimental” and was part of AMC’s plan to overhaul its image and attract young car buyers who were in the market for high-performance machines. For that mission, AMC turned to designer Dick Teague, who wound up creating the first steel-bodied, two-seat American production model since the 1957 Ford Thunderbird.
The first AMX was a non-running fiberglass concept car that let auto show attendees know that ultra-conservative AMC could design a car with pizzazz. A later running model had a “Ramble Seat” in place of the rear deck.
The AMC Javelin pony car bowed in the fall of 1967 as a 1968 model. The two-place AMX — which was a foot shorter in wheelbase and length — came out as a 1968-1/2 model. It was unveiled to the press at Daytona Beach and the Chicago Auto Show in February of ’68.
The AMXs came standard with a 290-cid/225-hp V-8. From there, buyers could take one step up to the 343-cid/280-hp V-8, or go for the real white-knuckler — a 315-lb. 390-cid power plant that gave the little coupe a 10.8 lbs.-per-horsepower ratio.
The short 97-inch wheelbase cut the 390-powered AMX’s curb weight to 3,205 lbs. Car and Driver found this combination good for a 6.6 second 0-to-60 mph time. The 390 AMX did fish-tail down the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds at 95 mph with a top speed estimated estimated at 122 mph.
The 390 AMXs quickly earned a reputation as one of the rowdiest machines on the road, and Pieczynski said they live up to that billing even today. “I’ve done a few bonzai runs in it in my younger days. It’s scary. It’s scary fast, it really is,” he said. “The car is so light that if you tach it up and dump the clutch, you better be ready, because there will be instant smoke off the back. It really has awesome power and torque.
“I got a kick when one of the owners who had the car before me, Jerry Mullins … he looked at the car and was so happy that somebody took care of it, and he said, ‘That car was not the car to be driving if you had a beer or two, because that car would kill you!’
“The [short wheelbase], it makes it tougher if you really get on it, because that back end wants to come around really quick. It gets a little squirrelly. I couldn’t imagine that car in the wintertime!”
Reclining bucket seats, carpeting, wood-grain interior trim and E70 x 14 Goodyear Polyglas tires were all standard on the AMX. Also included were a four-speed gearbox and heavy-duty suspension. The ’68 AMX was base-priced at $3,245. Each example built in calendar year 1968 had a metal dashboard plate bearing a special serial number from 000001 to 006175. However, the first 550 cars, which were assembled in 1967, did not have this feature.
In February 1968, on a test track in Texas, race driver Craig Breedlove established 106 world speed records with an AMX. About 50 special red-white-and-blue “Craig Breedlove” editions were then built.
Many other owners probably drove their AMXs just as hard, although Pieczynski figures his car was one of the lucky ones that was treated fairly gently. He’s not sure, but he believes the car at one time had a hotter cam installed, although the original cam was still in it three years ago when he finally took the engine apart for the first time.
“I pulled the motor out because it developed a small antifreeze leak on the back of the head. These cars were known for that. From the factory they leaked,” he said. “So I was concerned about the antifreeze leak and I pulled the engine out and had it on an engine stand and had it upside down and had the oil pan upside down and I found chunks of metal in the oil sump. And I thought, “Ohhhhh, where did this from?” I figured it just had to be a cam bearing, so I turned it back over and, sure enough, it was a cam bearing just ready to go.
“I pulled the original cam out of it, so one of the original owners before me must have pulled the original cam out and then put a performance cam in there, and then somehow bumped that rear bearing. I did pull stock cam out of it, so I went through the whole motor and I was glad I did. Brian and Dave Layden rebuilt it for me and I can’t give them enough credit. They are a couple of big AMC guys from Stevens Point and they know these engines inside out and it runs beautiful now — absolutely great."
Pieczynski was able to get all of the “pollution stuff” from a previous owner and he has returned the car to stock form. “I went to his house and he had all this stuff in boxes — he had the smog pump, the resignator, all the original tubes for the car. I just went, “Wow!” . I couldn’t believe it, so then when I put it all back together three years ago, I said I’m gonna put all the pollution stuff back on and put it back to original and see if it works, and it did. I got lucky and it worked. It had sat in a box for 30 years and it worked.
Pieczynski also put new seat cushions in the two front bucket seats and fixed his cracked steering wheel, but otherwise repairs have been few and far between in his three-plus decades of owning the car. Of course, there weren't a lot of bells and whistles that could fail on his car. It was ordered as pretty much a bare-bones muscle monster, with a few peculiar exceptions.
“This car was kind of an anomaly. I can’t believe the guy who ordered this car – he ordered absolutely power nothing,” he laughed. “No power brakes. No disc brakes. No power steering. No engine-robbing power, but he ordered a tilt wheel! It’s got an AM radio and vacuum wipers. A lot of people don’t realize, you could could get either electric or vacuum [wipers], and I’d rather have electric because vacuum, when you step on it and its raining, your wipers stop.
“But it’s quite a combination — 315 hp, no power anything, and drum brakes.”
It all adds up to an appealing little package for adrenaline junkies and guys like Pieczynski who have an appetite for something a little offbeat and different. He’s noticed his AMX has begun to earn a lot more respect from the mainstream crowd as the years go by, and he hears plenty of tales from others who survived rides in a car that famed automotive scribe Tom Cahill once described as “harrier than a Borneo gorilla.”
“The most common comment I get, is something like, ‘You can have your Torinos, or you can have your Chevelles, but I knew a guy that had one of these, and that thing would smoke 'em.’” he chuckles. “And when you get smoked by a Rambler … ohhhh, the shame!
“But I’ve always loved the car. I know a lot of guys are into it for an investment and that type of stuff. I was always a guy that, you know, buy what you like and that way you don’t care about the price. You’ll always love it.”
If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org