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Car of the Week: 1979 AMC AMX prototype

The surviving 1979 AMC AMX prototype is still bringing smiles to owner who has been with it since its inception.
Car of the Week 2020
1979-AMC-Gremlin-AMX-Prototype-A348

Mike Smith knows his 1979 AMC AMX is the only survivor of its type. It’s not a special color or option combination that makes his car unique, it’s the fact that his car is a prototype built in late 1977 for the forthcoming 1979 AMC AMX. As a prototype, it looks nothing like the Hornet-based AMX production model that was offered at dealerships in 1977; his car is a modified Gremlin that became the new-for-1979 Spirit model with the AMX package.

Smith can be confident in his car’s pedigree not just because he has the paperwork to prove it, but because he was an AMC employee who drove the car for business after its development days ended, sometimes with famous people at his side.

Introducing the AMX

In 1968, American Motors Corp. rocked the automotive world when it introduced the two-seat AMX fastback. Launched on the Javelin platform, the “pocket rocket” went against the grain by appealing to both the muscle car and sports car communities. The AMX was AMC’s effort to create a capable automobile with the power and handling necessary to fight in the hot pony car war.

When the AMX day-viewed at Daytona in 1968, it raised a few eyebrows when it was clocked at 130 mph on the speedway. Buyers soon learned that the AMX could not only snake its way through the corners at high speeds on raceways, it could also burn the rubber off its tires at the drag strip.

The prototype AMX is powered by the optional 304-cid V-8 with a four-speed transmission. The car was originally orange, and that paint can still be seen inside the engine compartment.

The prototype AMX is powered by the optional 304-cid V-8 with a four-speed transmission. The car was originally orange, and that paint can still be seen inside the engine compartment.

With the AMX, a jolt of excitement coursed through Kenosha, as AMC had been flailing in the years leading up to the AMX’s debut and that of the Javelin upon which it was based. The AMX was not only a game-changer for the automobile industry, it was a game-changer for AMC by bringing new customers and attention to the brand.

During its creation, the AMC development studio was considering building the AMX in fiberglass, and it even built some prototypes in fiberglass, but in the end, a steel-bodied version won out and went into production due to AMC’s ability to produce steel cars in volume. Unlike General Motors, with its advanced fiberglass technology from the Corvette, AMC lacked the expertise and resources to invest in the production of fiberglass automobiles. Other American companies were having issues with fiberglass body panels, too, so it was logical that cash-strapped AMC management stuck with steel for the AMX.

The “AMX” badge on the rear of the car appears to be handmade and applied, with signs of adhesive behind the badge.

The “AMX” badge on the rear of the car appears to be handmade and applied, with signs of adhesive behind the badge.

Using a shortened version of the Javelin platform, AMC built its first production AMX for the 1968 model year. It was the first new two-seat automobile from an American manufacturer since the 1955 Thunderbird.

The AMX evolves

After three years of being a two-seater on a shortened Javelin chassis, the AMX gained a rear seat when the Javelin was restyled for 1971. With the 1971 model, the AMX simply became a performance version of the Javelin upon which it had been based from its beginning. The Javelin lasted through 1974, and with it, the AMX package. During its life, the AMX would inspire sporty versions of other AMC models, which would likewise use the letter “X” in their names (the Gremlin X and the Pacer X among them).

AMC brought back the AMX as a sport package on the Hornet coupe in 1977, but it was short-lived since 1977 marked the final year for the Hornet. However, AMC was already developing another AMX package for an upcoming new model. Based upon a restyled Gremlin to be named Spirit, the AMX was resurrected in prototype form during 1977 with plans to make it available as a performance option when the Spirit entered production for 1979.

The AMX name was, indeed, transferred from the Hornet coupe to the new Spirit liftback body for 1979 and came with either the 258-cid inline six or 304-cid V-8. The new 1979 AMX featured a flush blackout grille with an “AMX” script; fiberglass wheel flares; rear spoiler; ER60x14 white-letter tires on 14x7-inch “Turbocast II” aluminum wheels; blackout trim; “GT rally-tuned” suspension; floor-shift transmission; an optional hood decal; and other sporty touches.

Although it has been assigned a VIN by the state of Michigan, the AMX still wears the prototype VIN assigned to it by AMC: SP94-14D.

Although it has been assigned a VIN by the state of Michigan, the AMX still wears the prototype VIN assigned to it by AMC: SP94-14D.

Mike Smith, a retired AMC chief engineer of vehicle development at Jeep, had the good fortune to acquire AMC’s prototype for the 1979 AMX. Dubbed the “SP94-14D,” this AMX prototype was built in 1977 upon a Gremlin with updates that reflected the forthcoming Spirit model. Smith bought the prototype from AMC through an auction in April 1981 and today, the car remains in original, unrestored condition. Smith was at AMC working on new product development for Jeep when the 1979 AMX prototype was developed, and his employment at the company helped put him in a position to appreciate the prototype, then buy it.

Prototype AMX Owner’s Perspective

During his time as an AMC employee working on the Jeep brand, Smith often drove the AMX prototype once it became a company transportation vehicle. He came to know the car well after spending so many hours in the driver’s seat, and kept tabs on the car while it was still in the company fleet. When he heard it was going to auction, he went directly to the auction company and made it a better-than-fair offer that was accepted.

It isn’t obvious, but the AMX prototype —and the Spirit and Spirit AMX production cars —are based upon the AMC Gremlin body and chassis.

It isn’t obvious, but the AMX prototype —and the Spirit and Spirit AMX production cars —are based upon the AMC Gremlin body and chassis.

The following is Smith’s recollection of the car during its years with AMC:

This automobile was one of the original prototypes built for the 1979 model year under the AMX label. It’s powered by a 304-cid V-8 engine and four-speed manual transmission.

It was built in September 1977 in Kenosha, Wis., at the American Motors engineering facility using a Gremlin as the donor vehicle. This vehicle still retains its AMC corporate VIN, which reads “SP94-14D,” and still has most of the original paperwork, including the sunvisor card that described the vehicle for people evaluating it. It also has its original keys that have identification tags with the car number stamped on a metal disc, and a bright-green plastic key fob to identify it as an AMC prototype. The documentation paperwork also includes the meeting minutes and work orders for the car. Many of the parts on the car still have chalk marks identifying them with “SP94-14D.”

A performance feel abounds inside the AMX, with its three-spoke steering wheel, bucket seats, console and brushed-aluminum-looking accents on the instrument panel.

A performance feel abounds inside the AMX, with its three-spoke steering wheel, bucket seats, console and brushed-aluminum-looking accents on the instrument panel.

SP94-14D is one of three AMX prototypes built for the 1979 model year. This one was a development car. The other two were used for testing purposes, then scrapped. Each of the prototypes had a specific role in the AMC Gremlin AMX development program. One was used for safety impact while another was used for durability study research. This third car was used as a Vehicle Development Car for engine cooling, braking, performance, ride and handling, and a series of other tests. Since this prototype was used for ride-and-handling development purposes, it is one great riding and handling machine. The prototype suspension components are still on the car, including front and rear sway bars.

After it was used for development purposes, it went to Dick Teague, chief stylist for AMC, and his group. They used it as a mock-up vehicle for various styling themes, like the final AMX theme for 1979 and beyond.

This prototype was originally painted orange at the AMC Kenosha assembly plant and appears within the 1979 AMC sales brochure in its orange paint scheme. Teague and his group then had it painted black for their purposes, however, they only required the outside surface be black, which accounts for the under-hood and other unexposed surfaces still being the original orange color. Only the exterior and doors jams are painted black on this prototype. It also appears in advertising literature with this black scheme.

“SP94-14D” can be seen handwritten on the inside of the glove box door.

Teague’s department used it often and then returned it to Vehicle Development Group. Since it was useful and did not appear on the books as an expensed vehicle that had to be accounted for in the corporate ledger, it was simply ignored. As far as the corporate bean counters knew, it did not exist. That made it very desirable among employees since it could drive in and out of the gate with a manufacturer’s license plate, but no other identification.

Since it hadn’t been used for testing purposes like the other two prototypes, it became a run-around company “pool car” and was mostly used to transport people back to Jeep engineering in Toledo, Ohio, where it sat until someone within the AMC company needed a ride back to AMC engineering in Detroit. Some people passed on using it, because of its four-speed transmission, yet some well-known people drove or rode in it, including Dick Teague.

AMX prototype owner Mike Smith retains heaps of paperwork on the car, including this sheet from AMC product engineering. He also has the logbook kept by AMC when the car was undergoing testing.

Jim Thornton, “Mr. Ramcharger” and former driver of the Dodge Ramchargers drag race cars (and also eventual AMC Director in Advanced Engineering), used it on occasion, along with me, to commute from Toledo, Ohio, to Detroit for meetings and various other activities. Jim was over 6 foot tall and did not find it particularly comfortable, and hit his head when getting in it, but was impressed with its handling.

Most of the AMC executives drove the car at one time or another to experience different themes, like a handling demonstration versus the competition, or a new transmission, such as the SR4, which came from the Mustang and is still in the car.

Some of the people who drove the car were not kind to it and hammered it, so to speak, and simply left it in the engineering garage with a note to repair it, or to explain what they had done. One note, which is still with the vehicle from the director of engineering at the time, simply asked why this car was still around and instructed the fleet manager to scrap it. It is a crude, handwritten note on a Speedimemo. Fortunately, he did not follow up; it simply was not on the books so it got ignored.

MX prototype owner Mike Smith retains heaps of paperwork on the car, including this sheet from AMC product engineering. He also has the logbook kept by AMC when the car was undergoing testing.

MX prototype owner Mike Smith retains heaps of paperwork on the car, including this sheet from AMC product engineering. He also has the logbook kept by AMC when the car was undergoing testing.

After it was used for various engineering and styling exercises, and then as employee transportation, the car became lost in the shuffle. It sat for over a year before it was “discovered,” then deemed scrap by AMC. Its saving grace was when it appeared in the corporate books as a company vehicle. Had it appeared as a prototype, it would have been sold for scrap years before. In today’s world, it would have been accounted for and charged to the company fleet budget.

I purchased it in 1981 as scrap from APTCO auction in Michigan, then the state of Michigan issued a special VIN for it. However, AMC’s original corporate VIN, SP94-14D, is still visible and riveted on the driver’s side of the instrument panel where the original VIN would normally have been attached.

Turbocast II wheels were definitely en vogue during the 1970s and give the Spirit-based AMX an aggressive look.

An appreciative owner

Although sold as scrap, prototype SP94-14D remained an intact unit, and today, more than 44 years after its development, SP94-14D remains an unrestored original. Despite its value as a piece of AMC history, Smith isn’t afraid to use it, and he frequently drives it to car shows in the Detroit area. 

Smith with his special AMX prototype

Smith with his special AMX prototype

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