Family First... AMC Next

When you mention AMC (American Motors Corporation) most motor enthusiasts usually don’t gasp and wait for you to start talking about their favorite car manufacturer. The Peterson family would be the exception. Roger, Vonda and their son Mike are die-hard AMC enthusiasts. To understand their enthusiasm for the brand, you have to understand the history of the company.

Through its 34-year existence, AMC created some of the most memorable, inspirational, and exciting cars the world has ever seen. American Motors was formed in 1954 from the merger of Hudson Motors and Nash-Kelvinator. The deal was the largest corporate merger up to that point - worth $197,793,366 - but was just one phase of a planned megamerger of Hudson, Nash, Studebaker, and Packard. In an effort to stay competitive, American Motors produced a wide range of products during the 1960s, and added innovations long before the “Big Three” introduced them. The continuing quest “in the business world’s toughest race – the grinding contest against the Big Three automobile makers” also meant annual styling changes requiring large expenditures. From 1968, AMC became known for the Javelin and AMX muscle cars. AMC purchased Kaiser’s Jeep utility vehicle operations in 1970 to complement their existing passenger car business. From 1980, AMC partnered with France’s Renault to help finance their manufacturing operations, obtain much-needed capital, and source subcompact vehicles. By 1983, Renault had controlling interest in AMC. Production was discontinued for all AMC cars except the all-wheel-drive Eagles, to focus on promoting the Alliance subcompact. Renault sold AMC to Chrysler. The AMC and Renault brands were then discontinued in America. The Jeep/Eagle division of Chrysler Corporation was formed from the remains of AMC after Chrysler’s 1987 buyout. The Jeep and Eagle vehicles were marketed primarily by former AMC dealers. American Motors was forced to constantly innovate for 33 years until Chrysler absorbed it in 1987.
Born and raised in the house just south of their current home on Bahnson Avenue, Roger and Vonda have a lot of fond memories of the area. They both graduated from Washington High School back in the days when cars were king. Roger was a car guy in high school but did not have a car of his own until college: a ’53 Ford Crown Vic. Vonda’s brothers Dale and Daryl Fritz were car guys too. “We met each other at the skating rink,” recalls Vonda. Roger adds, “I went to college at SDSU and graduated with a degree in economics in 1961. Vonda and I were married in 1959. After completing the ROTC program, I went into the Army and spent a couple years at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia. I was off the coast of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We had two girls at the time and my dad drove down and brought Vonda back to South Dakota. We were on the boat for four weeks during the crisis.” Over the years, the couple added another daughter and a son. Vonda was a homemaker and kept busy with the four children-Linda, Vicki, Sondra, and Mike. After the Army, Roger and his family moved back to Sioux Falls and he took a job with Morrells, where he was a supervisor for 26 years. Today, one of the Peterson daughters is deceased and the other two live in Florida, while son, Mike, lives in Sioux Falls.

The AMC legacy began with Roger’s father. “My dad was a salesman and drove Hudson’s. He did drive an Olds prior to that (I thought it was a piece of junk). I really liked the Hudson. I also owned a Packard for a while. It is hard to remember all of the AMC’s we have owned over the years. While I was in the service, I purchased my first AMC; a ’62 Rambler Ambassador. It was our first new car and we paid $3,380 for it. We kept that car until 1966 when we bought a ’66 Ambassador DPL, which was a top-of-the-line two-door hardtop. After we had the kids, we purchased a ’69 Ambassador Station Wagon because we needed the room. We liked it so well that in 1973 we purchased another new station wagon. I did have a ’62 Chevy that I drove to work but I have always owned AMC’s. As our children got older, we purchased a Jeep pickup in ’77 so we could pull our camper. We also owned a ’76 AMC Hornet, which one of our daughters wrecked (she was not hurt). We also owned an ’84 AMC Eagle. That was our last new AMC purchase until we started to collect them. In 1989, Daryl called with a good deal on the yellow ’69 AMX. Then I noticed an ad for a ’63 Ambassador. They wanted $300 and I told them I would pay them $100. A month later, they called and took me up on the offer. This was the first car we restored – paint, upholstery, and motor. We later sold that car to a buyer in Kentucky for around $4,000. That is when Mike and I really started working together on the cars.”

Mike, who is the youngest child, drove a Rambler to Junior High School. “I was 14 years old and took a lot of grief for driving that car,” recalls Mike. “It was a two-door hardtop and had a 290 cubic inch V-8 in it. Up until that time, I was into bicycles but that car changed my life. None of my high school friends were into cars like me.” Roger remembers, “A girl that I worked with at Morrells purchased it new. She sold it to one of our friend’s mother and we purchased it from her for $500.” Mike adds, “I remember dad telling me we were going to look at a car and from that day forward, I never looked back at pedal bikes. I still have this car – and will restore it someday.” Vonda adds, “We bought Michael his first tool kit when he was eight years old. After that, whenever Roger would go out to work on one of our cars, Michael would be there with him. He was Roger’s ‘gofer’.” “I remember dad doing all the oil changes and maintenance on the cars and I was always watching him,” recalls Mike. “Dad would tell me what size wrench or tool he needed and I would get it for him.” He continues, “The Rambler was the first car that I really worked on. I remember we had to put in a new water pump and we overhauled the engine later in 1988, when I was in high school. After graduation from high school, I went to college at Buena Vista College in Storm Lake. I drove the Rambler initially and later an orange 4-door ’76 Matador with a white top, which we called ‘the pumpkin car’. We could fit a lot of people in that car, which was great for college. The car ran good so I could count on it getting me back and forth to school. In 1992, dad found an Eagle SX4. It was a sporty car but needed a complete re-build. I liked the Eagle because it was 4-wheel drive. I would leave home at 10 PM and head back to Storm Lake and never got stuck in the snow. A friend of mine had a Jeep CJ and when it would blizzard, we would be the only ones out in the streets busting drifts. That was fun.”

Mike graduated in 1993 with a degree in business management and took at job in Storm Lake for a year and a half as a sales clerk for Bomgaars. “I was home most weekends helping dad work on cars so I thought I would move back. I started working for Campbell Supply on East 10th Street and purchased a house not too far from dad’s house so I could work on the cars. I would go to work during the day, come over here, change clothes and work on cars till 9 PM. I would do that almost every day. In 2003, I married my wife, Karen. We have two children: a boy, Jacob and girl, Kari. My wife picked our son’s name so I got to choose our daughter’s name. She accuses me now of naming her after a car (car e’).”

“One of our favorite cars is the 1974 AMC Javelin,” admits Roger. “Daryl found that one in Arizona. We made the deal over the phone and hauled it back on the trailer in 1997. When we arrived back in Sioux Falls, we realized the seller had misrepresented the car and I ended up getting some of the purchase price back. His ad said it had some equipment that it did not have. Other than that, the car was pretty solid. It ran well and did not have any rust on it. The interior was also good. We drove it for a couple of years before we started working on it.” “There was a lot going on at the time, and we were pretty busy working on the Spirit, so we did not work on it for a couple of years,” adds Mike. “We knew that was going to be our next project and when we finished the Spirit, we started on the Javelin. We started taking the vinyl top off (it was not original) and did a little body work but as we got started, the project grew in scope. It had a 304 motor and we put in a 401. The 401 came from dad’s ’73 Ambassador wagon they purchased new in 1973. We wanted to have a bigger motor in it, which was an option this one did not have. You could buy them with the larger motor so we wanted to give it more power. We both worked on the motor. The upholstery work was already done. We just had to give it a good cleaning. We stripped it down to bare metal (it was blue when we purchased it) and we repainted it black. There is no trace of the original color on it.” “I even painted the floor pan on the inside,” according to Mike. “We started in the fall of ’99 and finished it in 2004,” according to Mike. “We wanted to finish it correctly and to do it right takes time. I worked on it almost every day. When I got tired of working on one part of the car, I would go to another so I never got bored with it. It was always fun working on that car. It takes patience to restore a car and you have to be very organized. Every piece (nut and bolt) is sandblasted and you have to keep track of all of the parts. “Mike is really picky and I do not do some things because it will not be good enough for him,” says Roger with a smile. “’It is good enough when it is perfect’ is Mike’s motto. He even had a sign hanging in the front windshield of the Spirit that had those words on it to remind him of that philosophy.”

Another vehicle the Peterson’s are proud of is their 1983 AMC Spirit GT, which Mike nicknamed X Spirit Mental. “Everybody thought I was nuts putting in a big motor and spending so much time on an AMC. Ever since I got the car fever, I would scour the lot at Nordstrom’s and pick up parts. In 1994, after graduating college, I was snooping through their lot and I saw the Spirit sitting there. It had turbo cast wheels and that is what I really wanted on the car. It was an original wheel from AMC. I talked to Shannon and asked him what he wanted for the wheels. He said he would sell me the entire car for $250. I told him I would take it and did not even tell dad. Dad and I went back a couple days later, put a battery in it and drove it home. It had a 5-speed transmission but only the 2nd and 3rd gears worked. The tires weren’t great either but we made it home. It sat out back at dad’s place until the spring of ’95. Although we purchased it just for the wheels, dad and I started looking at it and decided it was too good to part out. The body was in good shape. The more we talked, the more excited we got about it. Dad junked out an Ambassador years earlier and he saved the motor out of it. The Spirit originally had a 258 six cylinder in it. We had the 401 sitting here and we thought that would make it a fast street machine. We also found a ’73 Gremlin that had the V8 parts we needed. We pulled what we needed from that and junked the rest. As we worked on it, we kept making some modifications, like lowering it. The Eagle body and the Spirit bodies were much the same but the Eagle sat higher so it needed flared wheel wells to accommodate that. We took that effect and applied it to the AMC Spirit. All of the parts are from AMC but we modified the look from different models that we liked. The restoration took five years to complete and we were proud when we read what AMC magazine editor, Frank Swaggart, said, ‘This is how AMC should have built this car’.”

Both the Javelin and Spirit have won numerous awards. The Spirit was completed first and went to its’ first car show in 2000. “I competed in local shows at first and won,” says Mike. “The first show I went to was a Schulte Chevrolet show. I just completed the car and won first place and $100. That was the only show that I received money from. Mom, dad and I went to the AMC National Shows together at Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Scottsdale, Arizona. We also went to (NAMDRA) National American Motors Drag Racing Association in Cordova, Illinois. I wanted to take it down the drag strip but the car was not even broken in yet so I did not want to risk it. I have never competed on a drag strip. I think it could compete but I built it for the street.” “It will burn rubber,” says Roger. “Kenosha was the first national meet I went to,” recalls Mike. “The first year showing the Javelin at that level, it won the highest level you can achieve, Junior Gold. Next time you show it you are eligible for Senior Gold. I have also earned Junior Gold with the Spirit in its’ first show. The Spirit has also earned Senior Gold in the national AMOA (American Motors Owners Association) but I would like to earn Senior Gold sometime with the Javelin also.”

According to Roger, “I try to maintain my vehicles.” “We polish them often, keep all the fluids filled, change the oil often and perform general maintenance. I was taught that from my dad. The appearance of the green Ambassador is a good example of how taking care of a vehicle shows. “When I purchased this car, I was looking at another car with a friend. I asked the owner if he had any AMC’s. He said ‘I think so’ and took me in a barn where the car was sitting under junk. It looked terrible but after a little clean up, its’ appearance changed dramatically. I ended up paying $1,100 for it. We had to haul it home, did a few things to it and it started right up. Everything works on it. The interior is like new. The carpet had a spot where they had set a battery on it and it leaked so we did replace that. It has original paint and it needs a little bit of bodywork but I hate to repaint it to take the originality from it. It does have different wheels on it and we added dual exhaust. Mike likes bigger tires. We have purchased great looking AMC’s and have also purchased junk AMC’s. Sometimes they are only good for parts. It is tough to get parts for AMC now. There is not much of a market for reproducing parts because very few people have this brand of cars. When we restored the Spirit, it was before the Internet, so we had to scrounge junkyards. It is easier today but it is still hard to find the parts for AMC’s. It is fun for us to look for an old car sitting in the trees. We have purchased engine parts in the past and when we look back at it now, I wish we had purchased the entire engine. There is no book you can look in to buy parts like you can for a Chevy or Ford. We get a lot of leads from people at car shows that say ‘hey I know somebody that has one of those.’ It is getting harder and harder these days but there still is that occasional barn find.”

Another car the Peterson’s are proud of is their 1967 AMC Marlin, a blue two-door limited production sports car. AMC made the car for three years but this was the only year they made this particular body style. This is also one of a hundred that has the power window package. “They all work,” says Roger with a big smile. “They were stuck when we purchased it in Arizona in 2001. A lady was selling it for her dad who was the original owner of the car. They wanted $3,000 and we purchased it for $2,500. We spend our winters in Arizona and I always scan the ads down there for a deal. The car was drivable and we drove it to our home in Arizona but trailered it back to Sioux Falls. The original owner installed truck lights on the back fender and also a shoulder harness that was JB Welded to the glass of the back window. We definitely took all of that off before we brought it back to South Dakota.” The Marlin is Karen’s favorite car. “Of all their cars,” adds Karen, “It is the only one that caught my eye – it is just different, and I like the color!”

“The Spirit and the Javelin are ‘mine’,” jokes Mike. “I know every nut and bolt on those cars.” Roger adds, “Mike does most of the work any more except the upholstery work. None of our cars are restored back to exact original. Some are close with minor changes like different wheels.” Mike says, “I like to make each car our own. For example, we have a spoiler on the front and back of the ’69 AMX. The front spoiler is a roof air reflector for an AMC Gremlin. I admire guys who can take things back to original but I want to modify it and make it my own. Sometimes they are subtle but they are mine.”

“All of the AMC cars were unique,” says Roger. “Today all the cars look the same. These cars all have a personality. AMC was never popular and so there were never many around. Every car show we go to, we are probably the only AMC car there.” Around 1960 they were the third largest producer of cars. Years after that, they could not compete with Ford and Chevy and their sales fell. They also made some strategical errors. George Romney was the head of American Motors in the late 50’s. His son, Mitt, even referenced him in his speech at the Republican National Convention. AMC did purchase Jeep in 1970 and did well with that brand for the next decade. Eventually Chrysler purchased the company and today is no more.

“Vonda’s brothers would always give me a bad time for owning AMC cars,” says Roger. “Today I get a lot of thumbs up from people when they see me driving them. Even kids that were not born when these cars were produced, think they are great. We like to go to a lot of car shows so we can talk about AMC to people. We always have people come up to us and saying ‘my dad owned one of those cars’. It is fun to talk to them. People will ask what is that? Another benefit of owning AMC’s is that you can also get into one and not spend a bunch of money. You do not have to spend a fortune fixing them up. The Hudson we are currently working on may be worth some more money eventually but that is not why we do it. We don’t do it to make money. We just love the brand. We are having fun working on them. It is a passion for our family. We are just AMC guys at heart. The fun for us is to fix them up. It is not fun to buy one that someone else has already done the work on.”

“We have purchased at least 40 AMC’s over the years,” recalls Roger. “Some we drove and others we parted out. Today we are out of room to store any more and, other than the ‘68 AMX, we do not want to sell any of them. So I do not think we are in the market for any AMC’s today.” Roger and Mike are working on a 1951 Hudson Hollywood Hornet hardtop, which they started in 2005. “It is slow going because I have kids now,” says Mike. “My son is eight years old now and is starting to show some interest in cars. If he doesn’t last, maybe Kari will be my little car girl.” TMM

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