Jay Leno Shows Why the AMC Javelin Deserves More Respect

“What’s in a name?” Memories. And with them, pop culture presence. It’s why the news of the Acura Integra’s resurrection sparked such an Internet uproar. And it matters just as much in the world of classic muscle cars. While cars like the Mustang, Challenger, Camaro, and even the Oldsmobile 442 command strong followings and market values, ‘alternative’ contemporaries like the AMC Javelin wallow in relative obscurity. But as Jay Leno shows in his latest video, an ‘alternative’ choice isn’t an inherently inferior one.

The 1968-1974 AMC Javelin can more than keep up with its muscle car competitors

A 1968 AMC Javelin SST parked on a hill
1968 AMC Javelin SST | Eric Rickman/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

It’s not around anymore, but the American Motors Corporation’s impact can still be felt and seen. Because it owned Jeep in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s responsible for many of the brand’s beloved classic models. And in an indirect way, it’s because of AMC that the Hummer exists. AMC also created the Eagle, arguably the crossover’s direct ancestor. Plus, it also had muscle cars like the Rebel SST.

And then there was the AMC Javelin. Technically, the Javelin wasn’t a muscle car at first, but rather a Mustang-rivaling ‘pony car.’ But while it couldn’t quite match its competitors in straight-line speed at first, the AMC Javelin handled significantly better. In a vintage test, Car and Driver said the Javelin “felt very much like a British sports car.” Handling was consistently the Javelin’s strong suit throughout its run, MotorTrend says, as was its greater interior and luggage space. And it soon solved its acceleration issues.

At first, the range-topping AMC Javelin SST had a 280 (gross) hp 5.6-liter V8, enough for an 8-second 0-60 mph time with a manual. But in mid-1968, it gained a 315-hp 6.4-liter V8. That was also when the optional Go Package, with its power-assisted front disc brakes, dual exhaust, wider tires, stiffer springs, and thicker sway bars, became available. And for the dedicated enthusiast, there was the two-seater Javelin AMX, which was lighter and had a shorter wheelbase.

In 1970, AMC updated the Javelin and AMX with new interiors and upgraded suspensions. The SST’s V8s also grew from 4.8 and 5.6 liters to 5.0 and 5.9 liters, respectively. And that same year, the Javelin went racing.

With Mark Donohue’s help, the Javelin sparkled in Trans Am racing

Mark Donohue racing his red-white-and-blue AMC Javelin at the 1970 Laguna Seca Trans Am race
Mark Donohue racing his AMC Javelin at the 1970 Laguna Seca Trans Am race | The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

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Besides NASCAR, one of the biggest racing series in the 1960s and 1970s was Trans Am. Because all the entries were production-based cars, a win here offered not just bragging rights, but also more potential sales. As a result, everyone from Ford to GM to Chrysler was taking part—including AMC, Autoweek notes.

Even with less prep time than the larger manufacturers, the AMC Javelin did surprisingly well in its inaugural 1968 season. The factory team finished third overall, right behind Chevrolet. However, with some of its drivers jumping ship in 1969, the second season didn’t go quite as well. But things changed significantly in 1970 when Mark Donohue and Penske Racing came on board from Chevrolet.

Among other tweaks, Donohue crafted a new, ‘ducktail’ rear spoiler for the Javelin to improve its rear downforce. He originally tried to do the same on the Camaro, but GM didn’t make it as tall as he thought it should be. And with that extra rear-end stability, the AMC Javelin came second in the 1970 Trans Am series. The next year, AMC won the series outright; it did the same in 1972.

Because of Trans Am’s homologation rules, AMC built a limited number of street-legal Mark Donohue Special Javelins. Besides the ducktail spoiler, these muscle cars came with the Go Package, woodgrain interior appliques, and a choice between a Borg-Warner three-speed automatic or a four-speed manual with a Hurst shifter. These cars also came with the 6.4-liter V8 and an optional Ram-Air hood that added 10 hp. As a result, the Javelin Mark Donohue could go 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds, MT reports.

Jay Leno drives a 1970 AMC Javelin Mark Donohue that lives for the road

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Although Jay Leno owns a lot of cars, the 1970 AMC Javelin Mark Donohue in his latest video isn’t his. Leno saw it parked on the street near an automotive bookstore. And he was so impressed by its condition, he asked the owner to come on the show.

That owner is one Mark Fletcher, the co-author of 1970 Maximum Muscle: The Pinnacle of Muscle Car Power, who also owns a 1972 Javelin. And despite the Javelin Mark Donohue’s rarity, Fletcher doesn’t keep it in his garage; he regularly drives it. He’s even kept the makeshift replacement horn button that the previous original owner got from a mechanic.

“The independents don’t get a lot of credit,” Jay Leno muses, even though “they built some fascinating cars.” And the AMC Javelin “was pretty close to the equal, if not more so in some respects, than some of the other pony cars.” Out on the road, it’s easy to see why.

The Javelin has Mustang-level power, but it’s still drivable on a daily basis. And it can keep up with the contemporary Camaro Z/28, Fletcher says, thanks to its greater low-end torque. “It’s got plenty of torque,” Jay Leno agrees, and it pulls well. Admittedly, it could use another gear for highway use, Fletcher notes. But despite its age, this AMC Javelin is reliable enough to serve as a regular road-trip car.

An AMC Javelin is still a classic muscle car bargain

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After 1970, AMC gave the Javelin a new look and larger engines and even collaborated with noted designer Pierre Cardin on some additional special editions. But despite the added luxuries and Trans Am victories, sales never really took off. And so, AMC canceled it after 1974.

However, the Javelin’s relative lack of sales success is a boon to budget-minded buyers today. Even the rare Mark Donohue Special models are noticeably more affordable than their muscle car contemporaries. A pristine manual Javelin Mark Donohue only costs about $30K, Hagerty says. Considering the low financial barrier for entry, this might be an alternative choice worth investing in.

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