It never fails to amaze just how inexpensive a bad idea can be to get into. Here's a great example, a hunchy, overpowered, pint-sized, all-head-no-neck hooligan; a 96-inch wheelbase with between four and five hundred horsepower at the rear wheels. It's loud. It's ludicrous. It's dangerous. And for $6,500, it's for sale.
Hang on, I need to call my wife – it, um, it followed me home! Can we keep it? But mooooooooomm.Hang on, I need to call my wife – it, um, it followed me home! Can we keep it? But mooooooooomm.
This is Bruce Larson's 1979 AMC Spirit AMX, an orphan from a now-defunct car company with a cartoonishly insane engine under the hood. It's like Oliver Twist on bath salts.
Larson is an engineer by trade, ordinarily a breed given to rationality and sense. “This isn't really a demonstration of good judgement,” he says, “If you were a real estate agent or something you really wouldn't want anybody to see you driving it.”
The AMX has been a fun year-long experiment, a chance to own a classic musclecar. Well, perhaps not a classic – the Spirit is far more obscure than an old Mustang or Camaro would be – but the same essential experience is crammed into this budget-friendly ride as you get from the sort of shiny stuff seen on stage at Barrett-Jackson.
There's a giant hood decal (one that's seen better days, admittedly, but replacements are cheap and available). The tires are chunky and have raised white lettering. Twin pipes poke out the rear, emitting a huff-huff-huff panting exhaust beat like an overexcited dog; give the throttle a little bit and it's like waving a steak at a junkyard mutt – WOOF!
Find of the Week: 1979 AMC Spirit AMX
Exciting stuff, even just rumbling away there, but it's not exactly Bruce's cup of raw grain spirit. He's more into the European machinery, poise rather than berserker power. He daily-drives a first gen NA: “I can wind it out to redline in the first couple of gears, and nobody notices,” he explains. That definitely doesn't apply to the AMX. No. Sirree. Bob.
In an East Vancouver carport Bruce's Spirit AMX sits next to a 1955 Citroën Traction-Avant, itself a pretty unique machine. Larson recently ran it in the Spring Thaw classic car rally, where it glided through the rain, sleet, and hail, his foot welded to the floorboards. “I like machinery where I can actually use it to its potential,” Larson says. The AMX isn't that kind of car.
The American Motor Corporation (AMC) was formed in the mid-1950s, the largest corporate merger seen at the time. These days, we're used to domestic vehicles coming from the Big Three of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, but at one time there were a whole host of smaller manufacturers. AMC brought together Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson, combining their strengths to help battle against the larger three corporations from Detroit.
AMC struggled initially, but soon began to find its stride with compact cars. Offerings like the Rambler contrasted with ever-larger machines coming out of Detroit. This wouldn't be the only instance of AMC being ahead of their time – by the time the late 1970s rolled around, they'd developed a high-clearance station wagon called the AMC Eagle, basically the forerunner of the Subaru Outback.
Back to AMX. The acronym stands for American Motors eXperimental, and was first applied to a pair of fibreglass bodied concept cars shown on tour in 1966. The idea was to keep AMC from becoming merely an economy brand in consumer's minds, and public reaction was quite good. In the end, building an entirely new car was outside AMC's budget, so they applied the AMX name as a variant of the Javelin coupe.
The result was a hot little two-seater that looked like a Nova with its tail docked. Powered by a range of engines that eventually extended to a 401ci V8 making about 330 hp, the AMX performed very well and was considered a legitimate contender in its segment. From this bloodline came the heart of Bruce's little beast, a V8 plucked out of a 1974 Javelin, that same AMX 401ci but here tweaked to push more like 400+ hp to the rear wheels.
There is one AMC product you may already be aware of: the Gremlin. Designed to compete with such automotive non-luminaries as the Ford Pinto and the Chevy Vega, the Gremlin was, and is, a bad car. I actually kind of like it, but then, I like the original Hyundai Pony.
The Spirit restyled the Gremlin as a sporty-looking coupe, and eventually the once-mighty AMX badge found its way onto the nose of a little Hot Wheels with turbine-style rims, lots of orange decalling, and a 5.0L V8 with around 130 hp. It wasn't a great time for any American brand, but still, that's pretty watered down. And just weigh this car's feeble output and Gremlin-based roots against the optimism of the AMX/3 of 1970, a mid-engined machine bodied by Bizzarrini of Turin, like an AMC-badged DeTomaso Pantera.
And yet, don't discount the littlest AMC AMX without digging deeper. In 1979, a pair of Spirit AMXs competed in and won their class at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. Out of a field of 120 entrants, they came a respectable twenty-fifth and forty-third – and that was on street tires.
So perhaps this scruffy little mutt deserves a little respect, and maybe a little more love than history has allowed it. The door shuts with a pure-70s metallic clunk. I crank up the engine, put the Mustang-sourced T-5 into first. The AMX rumbles off the line easily, happy to be outdoors and sniffing around on a Saturday morning.
If you've ever taken a powerful, mildly deranged dog for a walk, I don't really need to explain what this car is like to drive. The steering wheel isn't a wheel, it's a leash – the effort is light, the feel is absent, and there's an alarming amount of slack.
It's easy enough to drive, though, and the chassis makes all the clanking, rattly noises you expect out of a seventies machine. Red light. Empty street. A canyon of glass to reflect and amplify sound.
Throw the stick.
BAAAAAHHHHGGGGHHHHH!! bellows the AMX, sitting up on its haunches and blasting down the tarmac with me clinging on tightly. “This car's basically got two tricks,” Bruce says, “And that's one of them.”
We wander around in Vancouver's back alleys and side streets, stirring up the V8 once in a while to bark madly with imbecilic joy. If this car could drool, it would; it'd massacre any tennis ball left near it, shake a tree limb to splinters, and lift its leg on the neighbour's lawn. Crawling around the junk-strewn alleys is giving this morning a bit of a '70s cop-show vibe. But this thing's not Starsky and Hutch, it's Hooch in Turner and Hooch.
“We've got to go take it through the tunnel,” Bruce says.
We take it through the tunnel.
I like tunnels.
Tunnels are good.
I love this thing deeply, madly, stupidly – but I'd be forever rescuing it from the pound. Not to mention the upkeep: this beast laps through gasoline like a mastiff attacking a toilet bowl. You can see why Bruce bought it, but you can also see why he's ready to let it go to a good home.
Some place in the country, perhaps, with wide-open empty roads and a chance to stretch its legs and chase after a few pony cars. Somewhere it can curl up and fart away happily in a big, comfy garage.
Yeah, I love the AMX, but with a friendly pat, it's time to hand the keys back. This peach of a pooch is going to make someone very happy for just six grand or so. But I think it would most definitely eat my cat.