In the first great era of muscle, back in the 1960s and early-‘70s, the preponderance of American performance cars came from the stables of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.
As you may know though, there were a number of niche players that also contributed some legendary, and often rare examples of street and drag strip beasts that could hang with the best from the Big Three.
One such company was the American Motors Corporation, the smallest domestic automaker of the time. Formed by what was the largest corporate merger in American history, when the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company joined in May of 1954, AMC was known to specialize in exploiting market segments unexplored by the giants.
Although those two cars were rather bold and flashy examples, American Motors was also not shy of shoehorning a large engine into a lightweight platform, creating sleeper versions of existing models in their lineup.
One such exemplar of this was unleashed upon the world in 1971, when AMC chose to put one of their most powerful V8s into their humble and sedate Hornet. What resulted was a prime specimen of understated fury and one of the great low-volume muscle cars of the period. In this month’s edition of Rare Rides, we’re going to have a look at this beast – the 1971 AMC Hornet SC/360.
The first vehicle to bear the name Hornet was a product of AMC’s forbear, Hudson. Introduced in 1951, the car was a full-sized model built upon an, unusual for the time, “step-down” design, that unlike a unibody, did not have the body and chassis merged into a single structure. Rather, it featured recessed floorpan footwells fitted between the chassis rails. This concept allowed for a lower center of gravity for better handling, and had the added benefit of affording a stylish, low-slung appearance.
In future years, this body on frame concept would see wider adoption across the automotive landscape and become known as a perimeter frame, but the Hornet was groundbreaking in this respect.
Available as a two-door coupe, a pillarless hardtop coupe, a four-door sedan, and a convertible, the Hornet was powered by the largest and most powerful six-cylinder engine in the world at the time, a 308 cubic-inch H-145 unit of inline design. Featuring a two-barrel carburetor, it produced 145 horsepower, and a respectable 275 lb-ft of torque.
Of note, the Hudson Hornet achieved considerable success in stock car racing, where its step-down design contributed to the Hornet winning twelve of the thirteen AAA races, as well as 27 of the 34 NASCAR Grand National events held in 1952. This constituted an astonishing 83% win rate.
The car’s design and racing prowess proved a hit with the public and 43,666 Hornets found new homes in its first year of sales. The model would continue in production with minor updates and one complete redesign until the end of the 1957 model year when parent company AMC dissolved the Hudson brand.
The Hornet name would remain dormant for the next twelve years until AMC decided to resurrect it for a new, low cost, compact model to be released in 1969 as a 1970 model. Its production marked the end of the Rambler American brand, which was previously the compact marque in the AMC umbrella.
Development of the Hornet was an extended process, taking over three years, and some $40 million in pre-production costs.
Sanctioned by AMC chief operating officer, Roy D. Chapin Jr., and conceived by legendary designer Dick Teague and his team of stylists, the Hornet was to adhere to Chapin Jr’s. new “Philosophy of Difference,” which dictated that to convince buyers to purchase an AMC, the company had to offer models and features the Big Three, and the surge of imports hitting America’s shores, didn’t offer.
As such, the Hornet’s design process included a host of lofty goals, including the incorporation of many groundbreaking features and safety equipment for a compact car, and an options list that its competitors couldn’t match.
Starting with a clean sheet of paper, Teague and his team developed a car that could be offered in two-door and four-door notchback sedan configurations (and beginning in 1971, a “Sportabout” four-door station wagon variant) all on the same platform and 108-inch wheelbase. Trim levels would be limited to just two – Basic and SST premium.
Styling, though decidedly conservative, was crisp and handsome, with a long hood/short deck layout, and short overhangs front and rear. There was a full-width slatted grille that encompassed twin head- and parking lights, and a full-width chrome bumper up front. A straight hood with center crease followed and led to an upright greenhouse.
The sloping rear deck gave way to a simple rear with twin taillight clusters at the corners and a center-mounted gas cap. Integrated fender flares and a sole character line were the only features that defined the car’s flanks.
Exterior options included bumper guards, a locking gas cap, side moldings, vinyl roofs, two-tone paint jobs, and pinstripes.
Inside, the Hornet was clearly on a budget, but the layout and appointments included everything essential to a driver. There was an abundance of molded plastic and other very basic materials, but in contrast to this, the driver was treated to a full three-pod instrument cluster that included a full complement of gauges.
What’s more, an extensive options list included such upscale niceties as air conditioning, rim-blow steering wheel, tinted glass, a push-button AM radio, an electric clock, and a choice of front seat types and upholstery.
Four engine options were offered for the 1970 Hornet. Basic trim level models made due with a fairly anemic 199 cubic-inch straight-six as standard that, by virtue of its one-barrel carburetor, could only muster 128 horsepower and 182 lb-ft of torque.
A 232 cubic-inch, one-barrel straight-six worth 145 horses and 215 lb-ft was optional on the Basic model and standard on the SST, while a two-barrel version, optional on both trims, cranked out 155 ponies and 222 lb-ft.
Available on the SST only was the lone V8 option, a 304 cubic-inch, two-barrel that yielded 210 horsepower and a very respectable 305 pounds of twist.
Transmission options depended on engine equipment. Six-cylinder Hornets came standard with a three-speed manual column-shifter, and could be outfitted with a three-speed Borg-Warner “Shift Command” column-mounted automatic. Oddly, V8 cars could only be had with the Borg-Warner unit.
Diffs also related to drivetrain configuration, with 2.37:1, 2.73:1, 3.08:1 and 3.31:1 ratios available in the six cylinder cars, and a 2:97:1, or an optional 3.15:1 in the V8 Hornets.
Suspension consisted of independent unequal length control arms with coil springs and an optional (standard on V8 cars) anti-sway bar up front, with a rigid axle and semi-elliptical leaf springs out back.
For slowing down, 10-inch drum brakes were standard on all Hornets, with power assist available as an option. V8 cars could be trimmed with power front discs for an upcharge.
Other optional mechanical equipment included a “Twin-Grip” LSD, variable-ratio power steering, a handling package, a heavy-duty engine cooling system, a cold-start package, and an engine block heater.
Where the Hornet really shone brighter than its class rivals was in the realm of safety. Standard features included an energy-absorbing steering column, high-strength windshield glass, tempered side and rear glass, a padded instrument panel, a double-safety brake system, and side impact protection in the form of guardrail beam doors, a first for an American car.
The automotive press loved what it saw, with one magazine stating, “it has a LOT of good things in a not-too-small package,” and another proclaiming “It offers more interior and trunk room, excellent visibility in all directions, achieves the highest fuel economy, and is a practical family car… with better value than any of the others.” The buying public ate up the Hornet too, with 101,092 Hornets rolling off dealership lots in 1970.
If there was a fly in the Hornet soup, it was straight-line performance, with the top-of-the-line SST V8 only being able to muster an 8.1-second run to 60 mph, and a quarter mile trip in 16 seconds at 85 mph. Not exactly a tire-burner, and it was something that wasn’t about to be shrugged off by AMC.
Early in the 1970 model year, AMC began to tinker with their new car, and develop a drivetrain and add-ons that would transform the little Hornet into a legitimate pocket rocket. Since 1971 was to be a carryover year for the Hornet, with very few mechanical or aesthetic changes, they used a 1970 car as a test mule.
What they came up with would, in short order, become the two-door only 1971 AMC Hornet SC/360.
For an engine, AMC engineers chose their ubiquitous 360 cubic-inch V8, in part because its exterior dimensions were nearly identical to the 304, which meant it would fit in the Hornet’s engine bay without fuss.
The 360 made its power from an 8.5:1 compression ratio with a nodular iron crankshaft and connecting rods. Hydraulic flat-tappet camshafts nudged 2.025-inch intake valves and 1.680-inch exhaust valves located in AMC’s “dogleg” heads. Fed by a Motorcraft 2100 two-barrel carb, this lump churned out 245 horsepower and a serious 365 lb-ft of torque. Quite a lot for a car that tipped the scales at barely 3200 pounds.
Behind this, AMC offered a choice of transmissions. The floor-shifted Borg-Warner T-15 three-speed manual was standard, with that manufacturer’s M-12 “Shift Command” column-mounted auto as an option.
AMC’s Model 20 rear contained 3.15:1 gears in cars with automatics, and 2.87:1s in manuals. AMC’s “Twin-Grip” limited-slip could be added, as was the case with standard Hornets.
The Hornet’s optional Handling Package came standard on the SC/360. Brakes and brake options were the same as on lesser Hornets, with power assist and front discs available. In lieu of the Hornet’s steel wheels with covers, SCs came with AMC’s 14 x 6-inch, eight-slot mag wheels dressed in D70-14 Goodyear Polyglass shoes.
Several other unique features differentiated the exterior of the SC/360 over its run-of-the-mill brethren. An understated body stripe with an SC/360 callout was available in black, white or red to contrast the body color. A reflective red panel spanned the area on the rear fascia between the taillights, and a chromed gas cap with Hornet logo was located in the center of it.
The SC/360’s interior differed very little from a standard Hornet, except for an 8000 rpm tach, individual reclining front buckets, and an aluminum SC/360 emblem on the glovebox door. Air conditioning was not offered.
These changes alone would account for a pretty potent performance car, but AMC wasn’t finished just yet.
For $199, buyers could add the Go Package. A bargain for what it yielded, Go substituted the two-barrel for a four-barrel Motorcraft 4300 carb fed by a hood-mounted ram-air induction scoop, replaced the standard single exhaust with dual pipes, put either 3.54:1 or 3.91:1 “Twin-Grip” gears in the rear, and made a Hurst-shifted GM Borg-Warner Super T10 four-speed manual transmission an option.
Outfitted with the Go Package and a four-speed, the four-barrel, 285 horsepower, 390 lb-ft Hornet SC/360 was capable of a mid-six second burst to 60 mph, and was able to cross the quarter-mile in 14 seconds at 95 mph. With a bit of simple tuning, hot-rodders were able to get the car into the 13s. While not on par with big-block ‘Cudas, Challengers and Chevelles of the day, the SC’s performance was nonetheless dramatic, especially when one considers it was half the price of those other cars.
Universal praise was lavished upon the Hornet SC/360, with the automotive press writing things like, “just a plain gas to drive… handles like a dream,” and “Unbelievable. I think it’s one great little car!”
While AMC had originally planned to build 10,000 SC/360s, rising fuel and insurance costs, plus tighter EPA emissions standards, meant that only 784 examples rolled out of the AMC factory. Only 304 of those had the magic combination of the Go Package and a four speed with 3.91 gears.
As such, 1971 Hornet SC/360s are highly sought after by AMC fans today, and have fetched as much as $55,000 at auction. Certainly a fair amount in contrast to today’s multi-million dollar prices for some Rare Rides.