In the late 1960s AMC took a shot at the big time, with this Bizzarrini-engineered supercar. Winston Goodfellow examines the results
At 1963’s Geneva motor show, the 150mph ATS 2500 GT became the world’s first roadgoing mid-engined ‘supercar’ – even before the term had been coined. Then came the landmark Lamborghini Miura
. Yet a ‘supercar’ boom of a different sort was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Muscle cars had regularly been called ‘supercars’ since Car Life used the term in May 1965, and even the Americans weren’t immune to the mid-engine movement. One-offs such as the original Mustang and Monza GT were seen in 1962, and experimental Corvettes such as the XP-882 dazzled the show circuit at the same time that American V8s started powering mid-engined exotics including De Tomaso’s Mangusta
, and later, Monteverdi’s 450 SS Hai.
While GM, Ford and Chrysler spearheaded America’s performance binge, there was a fourth player in the game. The American Motors Corporation (AMC) came into existence on 1 May 1954 with the merger of Nash and Hudson, and focused on producing sturdy compact cars. But AMC didn’t have the budget to compete with the Big Three, and over the years the product line became dated.
In an attempt to revitalise its image, in 1968 American Motors introduced the two-seat AMX coupe. Power came from a 315bhp 390ci V8 – enough oomph to get the fastback to 60mph in 6.6 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 14.8. While respectable, those times were nowhere near the sub-6- and sub-14-second sprints and quarter-miles the big-block ’Hemis, Pontiacs and Fords were routinely turning.
So how could AMC gather the limelight and leapfrog its larger, better-financed competitors? Its tiny design studio (only 50 strong) was masterful at coming up with interesting but inexpensive show cars, and by far the company’s most intriguing and radical proposal made its debut in early spring 1969. ‘American Motors showed [an] exciting new sports prototype at the Chicago Auto Show,’ Road & Track reported that June. ‘Called the AMX 2, it isn’t an operational car but is planned as a mid-engined road or race car using an American Motors V8 engine and independent suspension of “a unique design”… Nice – we hope they are serious about it.’
AMC was indeed serious. In Volume 19, Number 1 of Automobile Quarterly, author Robert C Ackerson noted how Gerry Meyers, AMC’s vice president of product development, felt the company needed a new halo car, and something mid-engined was the way to go. Agreeing wholeheartedly was Dick Teague, AMC’s styling director who, like Meyers, was a true auto enthusiast. In March 1968 the two travelled to the Geneva motor show and then Turin to meet with a 30-year-old rising star of Italy’s bustling design world. Giorgetto Giugiaro had recently left Carrozzeria Ghia to set up ItalDesign , and the AMC executives asked him to create a mock-up that would compete against their design studio.
In truth, it wasn’t much of a shoot-out. AMC received ItalDesign’s proposal in November 1968 and, as the crate was disassembled, Meyers, Teague and company found ‘this white styrofoam carving inside this great box’.
Period photos of Giugiaro’s proposal show a somewhat undistinctive shape with excessive scoops and detailing, and a heavy and unresolved rear. By comparison, the AMX/2 was low and taut, with a sharp beltline, pleasing curves, and no scoops or vents to distract the eye.
Design decision quickly made, and with the AMX/2 model ready for the show circuit, it was time to create a running car. Another trip to Italy for engineering talent found one name continually popping up. Giotto Bizzarrini was then in his mid-40s, the ingegnere’s career having begun 15 years earlier at Alfa Romeo. In 1957 he moved to Ferrari, and went on an engineering tear with the 250 GT SWB, 250 Testa Rossa and 250 GTO, to name just three cars on his lengthy resumé.
However, in the autumn of 1961 Bizzarrini found himself embroiled in a senior employee walk-out that became known as The Palace Revolt, in which a number of Enzo’s top lieutenants left en masse over the firing of the company’s sales director. In the blink of a highly annoyed eye, Ferrari fired all the walk-out participants.
Bizzarrini’s unemployment didn’t last long though, for he quickly became Italy’s (and the auto industry’s) top gun-for-hire in developing and engineering new GT cars. First up was ATS, then Iso and ASA, followed by Ferruccio Lamborghini, for whom he designed the V12 engine. Bizzarrini’s consultancy with Iso lasted from 1962 to 1965, and then the engineer made American-powered sports, GT and racing cars under his own name. This included three mid-engined models: the P538, the one-off Duca d’Aosta and ItalDesign’s wild three-seat Manta, which made its debut at Turin in 1968.
Not long after the Manta’s headline-stealing unveiling Bizzarrini’s company cratered, thanks to the financial shenanigans of two of his shareholders. The engineer hardly had a chance to reflect on the sudden, surprising bankruptcy before AMC came calling. ‘We had a meeting to see if I would do the work on a mid-engined car styled by Dick Teague,’ Bizzarrini recalled. ‘They wanted a chassis and suspension, and we signed an agreement.’
AMC supplied several of its 325bhp 390ci V8s, and Bizzarrini went to work. The chassis was a semi-monocoque design with a central backbone and boxed sills so, once the steel body was welded on, it formed an extremely rigid package. The engineer wanted to use a ZF five-speed gearbox but AMC rejected the idea, feeling it would not be capable of handling the V8’s 420lb ft of torque. The car would therefore use an Oto Melara four-speed gearbox.
For the underpinnings, Bizzarrini drew on his experience with the competition P538, Duca d’Aosta and Manta derivatives, and the GT America. All had fully independent suspension, and the AMX/3 followed suit. At the front were AMC spindles and special wishbones, coil springs, Koni dampers and an anti-roll bar. The rear had much the same, with aluminium castings for the uprights. The ATE discs were vented, with twin calipers at each rear wheel, and had power assistance.
Teague and his studio modified the AMX/2’s slinky shape to make it easier for production and, after the running prototype was completed in June 1969, it was sent to BMW in Germany for evaluation and refinement.
Why BMW? In fact, AMC had asked BMW to engineer the AMX/3 but the request had been turned down. However, with BMW looking for a North American production facility for the 2002 model, the German management felt that some form of co-operation would help negotiations. The two companies signed a DM1.5m contract for BMW to test the quality of the prototype and verify its performance, which included checking on its ability to reach 160mph. Subsequently, the chassis was strengthened, anti-roll bars and brakes upgraded, and some BMW components were used for the clutch.
Once sorted, the car returned to Italy, Gerry Meyers flew over and Bizzarrini gave the AMC executive a thrilling ride. The new AMX/3 prototype was then transported to Rome and photographed in front of the Colosseum on 23 March 1970 at its low-key press introduction.
‘Cautious optimism seems to describe American Motors’ plans for the AMX/3,’ Pete Coltrin reported in Road & Track’s June 1970 issue. ‘An initial series of 24 cars is to be built at the rate of two per month within the next year. If there is an enthusiastic acceptance of the car, the rate of production will no doubt be accelerated and this, of course, is what enthusiasts at the company are hoping will happen.’
As was Giotto Bizzarrini. ‘When I took it to Monza,’ the engineer told me, ‘it turned 1 minute 56 seconds, which almost bettered the time of a competition Strada. It was a very good car, very comfortable with very high speed, air conditioning and fantastic brakes. [Much of that can be attributed] to the chassis and dual coil-over-shocks, for AMC gave me the money to do [the job correctly].’
AMC was so pleased with the results that the company flew Bizzarrini to Detroit to drive the prototype at the Michigan Speedway. A number of journalists were there to sample the company’s new compact Gremlin, the affair capped by the surprise appearance of Bizzarrini piloting the AMX/3 at speed. ‘I pulled out [of the pits],’ the engineer recalled, ‘and did three or four laps around the Speedway at a very rapid rate. I was very impressed by the car, for it was very stable.’
The competence of the package had AMC executives contemplating larger production numbers than Bizzarrini (or R&T’s Pete Coltrin) knew. According to the Automobile Quarterly article, coachbuilder Karmann in Germany was tapped to make the body, and backed the idea of a run of 1000 cars called AMX/K. But reality soon hit cash-strapped AMC. According to designer Dick Teague, ‘a number of very sharp people were trying to pull it together, working in Italy as well as Germany’ to have the AMX/3 meet a $10,000 list price, a figure that was proving to be almost impossible.
Just as daunting were EPA smog regulations and Department of Transportation bumper requirements. ‘The state of the art in soft bumpers really wasn’t there; it was still being invented,’ Teague pointed out in Automobile Quarterly. ‘To hang 5mph bumpers on a car with that configuration is a tough job. That was really the final blow.’
As this painful realisation set in at AMC’s headquarters in Detroit, Bizzarrini was back in Italy, feverishly building the first production cars with his former production line foreman Salvatore Diomante at Diomante’s shop in Turin. Only five AMX/3s had been made when AMC pulled the plug, and Diomante had enough parts to make a sixth for himself.
Our feature car is likely to be AMX/3 build number two, though it has been referred to as number four in the past, probably because it was heavily tested by both Bizzarrini and BMW, and improvements incorporated along the way. How do we know? One clue is the format of an interior cooling air duct, which shows clear signs of having been updated to the later specification.
It’s this very car that BMW evaluated, and that Bizzarrini and his test driver Bepo Nieri tested so thoroughly at Monza. When the AMX/3 programme was cancelled it remained in Italy until 1971, when AMC agreed to sell AMX/3s to Jerry N Werden, a VIP customer of AMC, and his corporate scretary Bill DeMichieli. It was the latter who ended up with this, the Monza car. Over the following years it passed through three more US-based owners, the last of whom showed it at the 1990 Pebble Beach concours, before heading to its current keeper in Germany. Under his ownership, the Monza car won the Bizzarrini class at Pebble Beach in 2016.
Many years ago I spent an afternoon driving it with its previous owner, and came away mightily impressed. The cabin was quite roomy and comfortable, and the steering nicely weighted and talkative. The rigid chassis had a taut yet compliant suspension, and the engine made a soothing growl under hard acceleration while offering smooth, refined performance, thanks to its broad torque curve. The brakes grabbed well and had good feel, and the car’s only letdown was the Oto Melara four-speed gearbox, which was not fully developed and felt vague in comparison to a De Tomaso Pantera’s five-speed.
That drive really surprised me, and highlighted the tragedy that more AMX/3s weren’t made. It was much more refined than the burly Ford-backed Pantera that appeared at the same time, and Bizzarrini certainly recognised the car’s potential, telling me: ‘I would have to say the AMX/3 was the best car I built in terms of mechanical components and roadholding.’
More examples were almost made: not long after AMC cancelled the project, its people came back to Bizzarrini and offered to supply parts for another 30 cars. ‘AMC would take ten at $6000 each,’ the engineer told me, ‘and leave me another 20 to sell. My idea was to use the name Sciabola Bizzarrini, [but] my company’s bankruptcy was too fresh in my mind. I just didn’t have the courage to proceed.’
On the evidence here, that’s a great shame.
Words: Winston Goodfellow // Photography: Mathieu Heurtault/Gooding & Company
Thanks to Gooding & Company, who offered the AMX/3 at the Scottsdale auction in 2017 where it sold for $891,000