With its dramatic styling and economy-car roots, the Marlin is one of the more intriguing domestic cars of the Sixties. Using rare facts and photos, here’s the story of how the fastback Rambler came to be—and what became of it.
Original or simply oddball? To this day, opinions vary regarding the 1965-67 Marlin, American Motors’ fastback sports coupe. One thing for sure: The Marlin remains one of the most distinctive American cars of the era. Here’s the inside story.
The Marlin story actually begins with the American Motors Tarpon show car of 1964. Based on the compact Rambler American platform and designed under the direction of AMC styling chief Richard A. Teague, the jazzy Tarpon was a sensation at the 1964 Society of Automotive Engineers convention and the Chicago and New York Auto Shows. The Tarpon’s fastback roofline was on the cutting edge of a Motor City styling trend that soon included the Plymouth Barracuda, the Mustang 2+2, and the Dodge Charger.
However, multiple factors blocked the Tarpon from ever reaching production in its original form. First, the petite American platform could not accept the company’s V8 engine, a limitation that AMC product planners regarded as a deal breaker for a sporty coupe. Next, the company was at that time distancing itself from the Rambler small-car image and moving upmarket to target more affluent buyers. Finally, AMC president Roy Abernethy was himself a large man with a preference for big cars, and he insisted that the rear seat be capable of fitting full-sized adults.
So as the deal was done, the Tarpon’s fastback coupe concept was plucked whole from the compact American platform and transplanted onto AMC’s intermediate package, the 112-inch wheelbase Classic. The midsized Classic, which had been re-engineered for 1963, was scheduled for fresh sheet metal in 1965 and the Marlin was added to the program.
A mid-year offering, the Marlin officially arrived in Rambler showrooms on March 1, 1965. And except for trim variations, the Marlin was essentially a Classic from the A-pillar forward. The Marlin’s visual excitement was found from the firewall back, with a swooping roofline and a flamboyant boomerang sail opening, highlighted with bright metal accent trim and a multi-tone paint treatment.
From the rear, the production Marlin preserved much of the Tarpon’s visual package, with elegant tunneled tail lamps and just the hint of fins in the crisply sculpted rear quarters. This was definitely the Marlin’s best angle, and it was featured often in the catalog art and road test photos of the time.
Three engines were offered: the company’s modern 232 CID straight six and the first-generation American Motors V8 in both 287 CID and 327 CID versions (270 hp max). Transmission choices included a three-speed manual, Borg-Warner automatic, and AMC’s distinctive Twin-Stick, a racy-looking two-lever affair that in fact was simply a three-speed manual gearbox with overdrive.
In keeping with the Marlin’s adult sport luxury theme, standard features included Bendix front disc brakes, bucket seats and console, and premium interior appointments, all for a base price of $3,100. The late-season introduction could have only dampened sales for the 1965 model year, as just 10,327 units found buyers.
For 1966, the Marlin received only minor styling changes, including a blacked-out grille with a single horizontal bar up front. The base price was reduced to $2,601 by eliminating a few standard features, but the option list was lengthened significantly to allow buyers more choices. The Twin-Stick overdrive transmission was discontinued and a conventional Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed box was made available.
One key change was in branding, as the venerable Rambler name was removed from all vehicle emblems and literature, replaced with the American Motors logo. The sporty fastback was no longer the “Marlin by Rambler” but the “Marlin by American Motors” as the automaker worked to rebrand itself. However, the change had no positive effect on Marlin sales, as volume fell to 4,547 for model year 1966.
In 1967, the Marlin was bumped upmarket again, this time to AMC’s top-of-the-line Ambassador platform with its 118-inch wheelbase and Pontiac-like vertical headlamps. Fully 6.5 inches longer and 350 lbs. heavier than the previous model, this newest, biggest Marlin sported a longer hood line and flatter roof profile, smoothing out the lines. The new Marlin also featured AMC’s modernized second-generation V8, available in 290 CID and 343 CID versions and boasting up to 280 hp.
One key reason for moving the Marlin up to the senior-sized Ambassador floorpan was to make room in the product lineup for the Javelin, the new American Motors pony car arriving in 1968. However, the move upmarket did nothing for Marlin sales as volume plunged again to only 2,545 units. At that point, there was nothing left to do but pull the plug, and 1967 was the Marlin’s final year.
Fortunately for American Motors, the Javelin proved to be everything the Marlin was not. A very different sort of car but for a similar sort of buyer, the Javelin found its target. While the Marlin struggled to sell 17,000 units in three years, the Javelin sold 55,000 in its first year alone. Of course, that doesn’t make the Marlin one bit less attractive as a collector car, as its many fans will tell you. The fastback Rambler remains one of the most distinctive cars of the Sixties.