In 1964, American Motors cautiously ventured into sporty car waters with a sleek fastback show car based on the compact Rambler American. Here’s the unlikely tale of the Tarpon.
Briefly called the Spectre before an early name change, the Rambler Tarpon was created in the summer of 1963 by Richard A. Teague and his small but talented staff at the American Motors design studios in Detroit. While the show car never made it to production in its original form, much to Teague’s disappointment, its sleek fastback roofline was transplanted whole to the intermediate-size Marlin introduced in 1965. To this day, many AMC enthusiasts are still wishing that the Tarpon, not the Marlin, had been produced.
Constructed in steel and fiberglass, the one-off Tarpon was based on a production Rambler American convertible with 106-inch wheelbase. And except for a mildly customized grille, the Tarpon was virtually identical to a standard American from the firewall forward. Two inches lower than a standard American at 52.5 inches tall, the Tarpon rode on 13-inch aluminum wheels to lower the profile a bit further, while the revised quarter panel styling stretched out the overall length three inches to 180 inches total. The cockpit sported four racy bucket seats, a console, and a pair of levers to operate the Rambler Twin-Stick transmission.
The Tarpon’s striking rear view, with its finely chiseled tail fins and elegant tail lamps, is so handsome that many never notice there was no deck lid—the single hand-built prototype was constructed for show, not go. First displayed to industry pros at the Society of Automotive Engineers convention in January of 1964, the Tarpon made its formal debut with the general public a few weeks later at the Chicago Auto Show.
While the Tarpon was a sensation on the show car circuit of 1964, several factors conspired against the cute fastback becoming a production model. First, the compact American platform, designed around the company’s economical straight six, was a poor fit for the bulky first-generation AMC V8, and product strategists regarded a sporty car without an available V8 as a non-starter. Next, American Motors was in the midst of a rebranding campaign, led by CEO Roy Abernethy, to transform itself from economy car specialist to full-line automaker, with the emphasis on more profitable intermediate and full-size cars.
And so the call was made to take the Tarpon’s fastback styling theme and transplant it from the compact American platform to the intermediate Classic, which had received a complete styling and mechanical redesign for 1965. By mid-1964, work was already underway on the car that became the Marlin, as shown in the full-size clay model pictured below. But that’s another story—and you can read about it here at Mac’s Motor City Garage.