Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Bob Wunrow just chuckles when you ask him if his shiny, bright-yellow 1977 AMC Hornet AMX has ever been restored.
The answer is sort of a qualified "yes," and the story of the restoration is about as unusual as the sight of a Hornet AMX at a vintage car show these days.
Suffice it to say that Wunrow was glad he had his high-visibility Hornet rustproofed after he bought the car new 34 years ago. And he is even happier that he kept the warranty valid by faithfully taking the car in for rust checkups every year.
“Nobody restores the Hornets because they kind of rusted out and nobody did much with them. I drove it daily for 10 years, and when it started getting all that rust on it I’m glad I had the lifetime warranty on the Rusty Jones rustproofing,” said Wunrow, a resident of Marshfield, Wis. “I took it in every year and did the service checks on it with the AMC garage, so every year they’d say, ‘OK, it’s getting a little rust.’ Then the fenders got holes in them and it kept getting worse. I guess the key thing was when I got a flat tire and tried to jack the thing up with the scissors jack under the rocker panel and the only thing that I jacked up was the rocker panel.
“It was rusty, so Rusty Jones gave me new rocker panels — both inner and outer — new fenders, both sides, rust-free doors from down South. They restructured the back. It was OK, just below the AMX name there was a little bit [of rust]. Then they checked the floorboards out and the shop manager told me they worked on it for about a week and they had the car practically cut in half! They pulled the fenders off and the rocker panels, and at that point I was sure glad I had the rustproofing!”
Wunrow can’t be sure he has the only collector car still around that was restored courtesy of Rusty Jones, but it gives him a fun tale to tell about a decidedly fun little car. The compact Hornet was a fixture of the AMC menu from 1970 through 1977, and Wunrow probably didn’t realize his senior year in college would also be his last chance to get one of the little three-door hatchbacks new. They were gone by the following year, but not before Wunrow stalked and eventually purchased one with the sporty AMX package. It was his first new car and, against all odds, he still has it.
“This sat in the showroom of the local AMC dealer for six months, and at the time I was a student (in college) and I didn’t have a job or nothing,” Wunrow recalled. “I looked at it every day thinking, ‘Boy I wish I could get a job as soon as I get out of school and buy this.’ And I got out of school and worked three months and it was still sitting there for sale. I guess I had good enough credit after three months of working, and the ’78s were out, so it was discounted like $1,500. I figure that was the only way he was going to get rid of it.
“The AMX package added a couple thousand more, because it came with the wheel flares and louvers and the Targa band. It came with a few extra things that most people didn’t want to pay for back then. But as a 21-year-old kid, it was something that appealed to me, even though I preferred the red color. Now the Sunshine Yellow has kind of grown on me after the 34 years I’ve had it.”
The AMX moniker had first appeared on the AMC menu in 1968 as a muscular little two-seater aimed at performance car fans. The cars lasted in that format through 1970, when the two-seaters disappeared and the flashy AMX package was applied to the Javelin. The AMX name came back in 1977 as a $799 dress-up package for one year only on the Hornet, and the following year it was shifted again to the Concord after the Hornet was killed off.
The base Hornets were available as three-door hatchbacks, four-door sedans, two-door sedans and four-door wagons. AMC built 11,545 of the two-door hatchbacks, but there are no exact figures confirming how many were given the AMX treatment.
“They didn’t do too many, but AMC didn’t keep track of it back then,” Wunrow lamented. “They had the Hornet model hatchback, but they didn’t really declare how many were AMX packages and how many were the Hornet X. There is an AMX registry … and the guy has 50 of them documented that are left in the world. I’m sure there are more out there, but he’s only found 50 so far… Mine’s the only one around that I see. In fact, mine’s the only Hornet around here. Not many people kept them.”
It certainly wasn’t a true muscle car, but the Hornet AMX had all of the exterior trappings of a muscle machine. The cool louvered rear window was a definite nod to the Mustangs of the era, and pronounced wheel flares were the first time AMC tried such a fender treatment. Then there were the paint colors; the Hornet AMXs were available in four eye-catching flavors: Sunshine Yellow, Alpine White, Lime Green and Firecracker Red — the most popular choice.
AMX graphics were placed between the doors and rear wheels. The package also included a front air dam, color-coordinated bumpers, blacked-out grille, Euro-style brushed aluminum roof band, twin flat black mirrors, floor console, gauges (including tachometer), soft-feel steering wheel and brushed aluminum instrument panel overlay. Flared fenders topped DR78 × 14 tires. The simple rear bench seat could be folded forward to give the AMX decent cargo room.
The base Hornet engine remained the 232-cid six coupled to three-speed floor shift, with a 258-cid six or 304 V-8 optional. Sixes could get the new four-speed manual shift. AMX hatchbacks required the 258 with a four-speed, or V-8 with automatic. The cars rode on a 108-inch wheelbase and measured 186 inches from bumper to bumper. Aluminum wheels were a popular option.
MSRP for a 258-cid, 98-hp six-cylinder AMX like Wunrow’s was about $4,300. Swapping in the V-8 tacked on about $160 to the total bill.
“Mine’s the 258 two-barrel, automatic,” Wunrow said. “It’s got power steering, but no power brakes. You’ve got to really stomp on the brakes. It’s got the floor shifter, of course the window louvers and Targa band. It’s got special gauges on the floor — temperature and oil gauges, and clock and battery [gauge]. It’s got the wheel centers over the rims … They didn’t really have a lot of options. It does have air, but it didn’t come with air. That was an AMC factory add-on that goes under the dash. It was about $500 and I had the AMC garage put it on the following year after I bought it. They even painted it to match my dash. And it works. I haven’t put Freon or anything in it and it works like a charm.
“The yellow has kind of grown on me. This thing sticks out like a sore thumb wherever I go. It’s a good thing it’s only got a six-cylinder. It’s all show, but not much for go. For my insurance, I list it as an economy car, but they did have a V-8. It does go pretty fast. It was the last year for the non-pollution stuff and no catalytic converters, but my ’67 Marlin with the 343 with 4-barrel will go from 0 to 60 really fast and I have to be careful because I can really turn the rubber. This one, not so much.”
Wunrow said he’s fixed a few rips in the upholstery over the years, but the interior is all original. The six-cylinder under the hood has lasted 106,000 miles and has never been overhauled. Rusty Jones had to give the AMX a new coat of Sunshine Yellow paint when it fixed the car’s rust issues back in 1987.
“They sprayed the whole car, because the AMC garage said, ‘If we have to do this much, we can’t just do one fender or one rocker panel, we have to shoot the whole car.’ But they didn’t take a few hail dents out that I had in there. They shortcut it a little bit. I think they were kind of at their limit.
“For me, the paint job, I was happy with it. I was happy to pay for the decals, but there were a few boo-boos on it. The only thing I had to pay for was the AMX decals. For some reason, Rusty Jones didn’t want to pay for the decals. I guess they figured I could pay for that… The interior I’ve kept it pretty good. I’ve had a few little rips corrected in the seats, and I’ve put new carpeting in there. That was the only thing, really, from driving it 10 years. There is a company out of Ohio that reproduces the exact carpeting, and that fit right in there. It has leaf springs, and just sat on three. A couple years ago I replaced the springs and went with the heavy-duty springs, and it has five now, and it brought up the rear end quite a bit. It used to sit pretty low, and it really helped the performance and handling of it to, sitting up a little higher.
“I did put a timing chain on it, but that’s about it. Mostly what I’ve done is spend a lot of time detailing it.”
Wunrow gets plenty of attention when he shows up at old car gatherings and shows behind the wheel of his colorful AMC. He can be pretty certain he’ll be the only Hornet on hand at almost any local or regional shindig. These days he gets compliments on his Hornet after spending years getting ribbed for it.
“Yeah, you’d hear a lot of it,” he laughed. “You got that driving any kind of AMC car. Even my former Driver's Ed. teacher made fun of them!
“When I take it out now, basically a lot of people ask me who made it. A car show I was at a couple weeks ago, there was a man who came up asked me if he could sit in it. He was pretty sure he worked on it and he hadn’t seen one of these in years. He was so glad I bought it to the car show, because you just don’t see anybody bring a Hornet out, you know?”
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