That Time AMC Tried And Failed To Build A Ferrari Killer

AMC may be best known for building strange-looking economy cars and years of financial hardship, but their AMX/3 prototype was one of the most exotic sports cars of the 1970s

Remind me later
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The late 1960s were arguably the glory days of the American automotive industry, but not every manufacturer in the United States was guaranteed a long-term future. Case in point: the perpetually beleaguered American Motors Corporation (AMC). Formed by the merger of the struggling Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company, AMC was never able to achieve the same market standing as the Big Three auto makers of Detroit. Yet, in spite of the persistent cash problems, there was some real automotive genius milling around the corporate offices of AMC.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the finest example of AMC’s untapped brilliance was the mid-engined AMX/3. The project was ambitious, to say the least. AMC had a reputation for building cars that lacked in both excitement and quality. This is the same company that built the Gremlin and the Pacer, so it suffices to say that the bar was set quite low for the AMX/3. Nevertheless, the AMX/3 was no mere skunkworks project—AMC wanted the car to be a serious competitor to the popular De Tomaso Pantera, a similarly-styled mid-engine sports car with financial backing from Ford.

Richard A. 'Dick' Teague, the man who designed the AMX/3 (image source: Wikimedia Commons).
Richard A. 'Dick' Teague, the man who designed the AMX/3 (image source: Wikimedia Commons).

The task of designing the AMX/3 was given to AMC’s foremost designer, Richard “Dick” Teague. Although the design of the Gremlin and the Pacer can be found on his CV, Dick Teague was a commercial genius. His work was truly visionary in the world of automotive design, despite the fact that AMC’s money problems gave him very little to work with. So when asked to design a car that might steal a customer or two from Enzo Ferrari, Teague pulled out all the stops. The end result was a genuine masterpiece, one that could easily be confused for one of Italy’s finest dream cars. In fact, Teague’s design was so good that AMC executives rejected a competing rendition made by Giorgetto Giugiaro, one of the greatest car designers to ever live.

Beneath the decidedly exotic body was the rather mainstream 390 C.I.D. V8 engine that AMC used in some of their more common models, such as the Javelin and the AMX. However, the four-speed transmission was sourced from Italian-based company OTO Melara. Although AMC had hoped for a top speed of 160mph, getting there wouldn’t be easy, as the steel-bodied AMX/3 weighed over 3000 pounds. To make matters worse, AMCs didn’t exactly have a sterling reputation for handling.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

To sort out the chassis, AMC solicited the services of an Italian man named Giotto Bizzarrini. On top of his own incredible creations (such as the Bizzarrini Berlinetta pictured above), Bizzarrini had a hand in building the legendary Ferrari 250 GTO, and even worked on projects with Lamborghini and Alfa Romeo. Bizzarrini made some crucial modifications to the chassis and aerodynamics of the AMX/3, but managed to leave Dick Teague’s design mostly intact. Ironically, Giorgetto Giugiaro’s design firm, Ital Design, joined Bizzarrini’s team of engineers to engineer the AMX/3 prototype between December 1968 and June 1969. Despite being designed in just seven months with a severe lack of resources, the AMX/3 was able to defy the odds and reach the 160mph mark.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

But there was still plenty of room to improve the AMX/3, according to the those who actually tested the car at high speed. These people were in fact BMW engineers, and they claimed the car lacked rigidity and front-end stability at its limits. But the fastidious Germans must have formed some sort of attachment with the AMX/3, because they went out of their way to tune it to as near to perfection as possible. In a subsequent test at Monza, an AMX/3 prototype managed to reach a top speed of 170mph, which was an astonishing feat in 1970. To put it into perspective, the V12-powered Ferrari Daytona was only 4mph faster.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the AMX/3 wasn’t meant to be. The creation of a world-class supercar came at a cost. Such thorough engineering ultimately resulted in a projected price tag of around $12,000, which was almost three times as much as a Ford Mustang. To make matters worse, incoming bumper regulations would have sullied the AMX/3’s gorgeous design. Ultimately, AMC decided to cut and run from the AMX/3 project after producing just six examples in 1970. Two of the cars were bought by Dick Teague, while another recently sold for almost $900,000 at auction in 2017.

Photo: Gooding and Co./Mathieu Heurteault
Photo: Gooding and Co./Mathieu Heurteault

Financially speaking, the AMX/3 project was a $2 million bust for AMC. The company fell far short of its production target of 5000 cars per year, but it can hardly be said that the AMX/3 was a total failure. After all, it was a miracle that any were even built in the first place. In what is arguably the least-told underdog story in the car world, AMC managed to put together the automotive industry’s most beautiful minds to build an honest-to-God supercar, despite having no leg to stand on. It really is a shame that AMC’s reputation will be forever captured by such lousy econoboxes like the Gremlin and the Pacer, because the AMX/3 prototype was undoubtedly among the finest American cars ever built.