The story of my Matador, Part 1

by Bill Dettman

The inspiration for my current Matador project goes back to my first Matador X Coupe, purchased new by my Dad in January 1975. The two cars share a common thread and some common history.

The original Matador X

The story begins in January 1975 when my father and I walked across the street from my Grandmother's home in LaPorte, IN to the local AMC dealership, Rembold Motors. We took the car on a test drive together, and even though I was only 8 years old, I had a great interest in THIS car. I remember the new car smell it had, and the odometer showed 6 miles on it. I was amazed at such a new car. My Dad showed me how to take care of it, and he taught me the value of keeping it clean. My Dad was not very mechanically inclined when it came to a car, but he can design and build a house. I remember an attempt he made at a tune up, which resulted in the car being towed to a service station!

I began to show a marked interest in owning this car in 1978, when my Dad decided to buy a new car. He bought a brand-new 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix. My Mom was driving a 1974 AMC Gremlin, which was also bought brand-new. I was actually asked which car I wanted to have at age 16, and the Matador was my choice. This car did not come without a cost or investment on my part. When my Mom bought her new car about 6 months before I was to get the Matador, the expectations and conditions of me getting this car were fully explained.

The Matador in the driveway, 1984

The summer of 1982 was when the relationship between this first Matador and myself became a reality. I remember getting my license and heading up to the beach with some friends. I was a happy 16-year-old! The car had 63000 miles on it. Two months later, I met Christina, my current fiancée. The first encounter we had was when she was walking home from band practice and I asked her if she wanted a ride home. It took a little time, but she accepted. She was my first love, and that first nervous encounter was in that Matador!

Later, the following year, the 304 and transmission needed to be freshened up. The heat riser valve had stuck closed, resulting in a burned exhaust valve on the right head. The transmission developed a major front seal leak. I had developed a major interest in engines, and was taking a lot of Auto Shop in high school. Between a few of my friends and my zest for learning, the wrenches were turned and out came the 304. Four of us lifted the engine out of the car and laid it in the grass. It had been stripped of everything that could be removed to lighten it up. I went to a local speed shop and found a cam for it and ordered the needed parts to rebuild it, while I was working at my first job, a stock person at K-Mart. I had to pay for everything and do the work. When it was finally done, the engine and transmission were mated together and installed properly - with a hoist. I drove that car everywhere. It was mistaken for a Camaro by those not familiar with a Matador. I street-raced it, cruised it, wrenched on it, made mistakes with using 360 head gaskets on the 304, among other things, but I loved that car. It was good to me.

The original 304 V8

I enlisted in the Air Force in 1984, and the Matador took me to my duty station, Langley AFB, Virginia. The 304 was replaced with a 360 in late 1985. This engine was bored .030, had a decent cam, headers and a Holley carb. I drove this car from Virginia to Indiana probably over 20 times while in the Air Force. During that time, I found out how stable this car was at high speeds! I had a '72 AMX that I bought in 1985 in Virginia that had a strong 360 in it. That AMX would get real light in the front end at high speeds. For some reason, I began to experiment with 120+mph speeds on the back roads down there. The AMX was just not safe up there, and I did not like to take it over about 100, even though it was pulling hard at 100. When I took that Matador up over 100, it was simply very stable and smooth. The needle would just bounce off of the bottom of the 120 mph speedometer, and as I insisted on further speed, the bouncing of the needle would just stop. I really do not know just how fast (or dangerous) I was traveling, but I feel it is safe to assume that Matador was a 140 mph car with that 360. It would run mid-14s at the track.

The replacement 360

I remember one instance worthy of mention here that will always stand out in my mind as a time when that Matador took a stubborn Firebird owner and put him in his place. I was at Langley AFB, living in the dorm. A friend of mine, Doug, who was also from Indiana, and who I had spent time running around with before graduating from High School, brought a friend of his, from the Navy Base in Norfolk with him one day, as we planned a weekend trip to North Carolina, about 2 hours away. He thought that Firebird 400 of his was going to beat that Matador with its slow AMC 360. The Firebird looked nice and had a good running 400. I think it was a '72. My Cousin Todd, who lived in the North Carolina town where we spent the weekend, showed us a prime spot to take our cars for some fun. Scott, the Firebird owner, was surprised when I showed him what that Matador was made of. I remember heating up the tires and getting the signal to go by flashlight (we raced at night). One race ended up a tie when I spun the tires off the line and lost some time. We raced two more times before we were done that night. I beat him by over a car length the other two times. He was rather upset. The next time he came to the base for a visit, he was so upset, he kicked the fender of my Matador in disgust. I kept my cool at the time. We raced again. I beat him again. Funny thing, not long after that, I never saw him again. Doug bought a Torino and we played around with the cars, but the Matador seemed to have just enough power to stay on top.

I drove that car until December 1989, when I sold it to a car collector in South Carolina who collected AMC 'X'cars. I sold the car with over 175,000 miles on it. It was still going strong, but rust was taking its toll on the underbody from the Indiana winters.

I had picked up a 1970 Javelin and sold the AMX in 1987. The Javelin was a lot of fun, and a joy to work on. It just could not take the place of the Matador. I still have the Javelin to this day. The Javelin has a totally different personality from the Matador. With strong 401 power, it is a more serious car than the Matador (past or present). The Javelin is lighter, very quick, rides rougher, drinks gas, but is a joy to have. The Matador felt more refined. It was missed.

The Javelin at Indianapolis Speedway, 1989
I got the chance to drive it around the track - very cool!

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