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Garner’s Ground Pounder: 1969 AMC S/C Rambler

AMC Delivered a Hot Ride that Helped “Maverick” Conquer Baja

Scott LachenauerPhotographer, Writer

Actor James Garner became famous in the ‘60s for portraying cowboy anti-hero Bret Maverick in the popular TV show Maverick. Later he solidified his spot in American culture by starring in the huge hit The Rockford Files.

Interestingly enough, a lot of people at the time never knew that James was not only a great actor but also a professional race car driver—and a pretty good one at that! Garner immersed himself in the motorhead lifestyle as both a driver and a race-team owner, and he realized some pretty good success in many of his race ventures.

During the mid ’60s, interest was growing for the sport of off-road racing, and Baja, Mexico, was the proving grounds for experimental cars, trucks, and their drivers who wanted to show their worth in this type of grueling event. Though conditions there were not suited for standard sedan-type autos, several trailblazers decided to run standard AMC “intermediates” through the rigors of Baja racing.

After some very successful outings, AMC had shown that their designs could live up to the not-so-forgiving courses of American off-road racing. With that earlier success came a three-year deal between Garner, AIR (American International Racers), and American Motors—a brand eager to get involved with all types of sanctioned racing. AMC shipped 10 new Hurst-prepared ‘69 SC/Rambler two-door hardtops to Garner’s shop for a total makeover, turning them from stock street avengers into blistering off-road racing machines. Since these cars were already equipped with potent 390ci 4bbl engines, these drivetrains were kept with the vehicles, though they were disassembled and rebuilt to blueprint tolerances. Horsepower was increased from 315 to 410 at the flywheel with a few modifications, and these cars were capable of going over 140 mph and hitting 7,000 rpms in the smoother straightaways.

The Baja 500 went off on June 11, 1969. It was a 30-plus-hour race, covering a treacherous 558-mile route through some of the roughest terrain in North America. In the field were the 10 AMCs; nine four speeds and one automatic. Eight of the cars were sedans, and two were equipped with four-wheel drive running in the Experimental category. Amazingly, a Garner AMC brought home first place, along with a third and fifth-place finish. In the experimental class, a four-wheel drive Garner AMC driven by Carl Jackson and Jim Fricker came in fourth; and that’s the very car you see here.

After the race, there was a falling out between Garner and one of their major sponsors, and the program collapsed. All but this car was lost in the process with rumors spreading that cars were sold or donated to colleges and learning institutions.

This is the only known survivor of the 10 Garner-prepared cars, and the last built of the originals. It sports a four-wheel drive system (one of two made), and is the only automatic of the original ten cars. This particular car surfaced out of obscurity a few years back and now is being preserved in its original race-ready form by owner Fred Philips.

It’s been rumored that this car did a few more races after Baja, and since there are 3,000 original miles on the odometer, that is quite possible. Luckily, this car will be saved for future generations as a piece of history. If you are ever in Alberta, Canada, look up Fred and check out his collection of classic cars. He can be found at www.focusauto.com/collection_tour.html.


Vehicle: 1969 AMC S/C Rambler
Owner: Fred Phillips
Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Chassis: AMC unibody with rollcage
Engine: AMC 390ci V-8 modified to 450-plus horsepower
Transmission: Borg-Warner M27
Rear Axle: Dana
Front Suspension: Stock Jeep
Rear Suspension: Stock Jeep
Steering: Stock Jeep
Brakes: Stock Jeep
Tires/Wheels: Originally Goodyear suburbanite Polyglas L-78-15, Presently Remington wide brute 32X11.5R15LT
Interior: Bostrom seats, early Pinto shifter, 44-gallon fuel cell, dash is original with added Stewart-Warner gauges
Exterior: Original paint from the 1969 Baja 500
Other Parts: Dual Monroe shocks front and rear, reinforce unibody, custom headers, engine is moved back 11 inches and down 1 1/2 inches to improved weight distribution, custom radiator, air cleaner relocated to below the glove box in the passenger compartment. battery relocated to behind the passenger seat

Notice the medallion riveted to the right-hand side of the dash—stamped into it is the car number, 110. And check the air-cleaner sitting proudly underneath the glovebox.

Since the engine was moved back, the transmission tunnel was also increased in size. Because of that, the pedals were repositioned a few inches to the left, to clear the tunnel. The steering column was also moved over, and the Jeep manual steering boxes installed in these cars were of Jeep issue. A cool thing about the interior is the operating directions that are scratched, etched or drawn on the sheet metal in the cab—special instructions for driving one of these beasts.

The unibody was reinforced to take the rigors of off-roading and designed to take the Jeep-based suspension. Axles tubes were also reinforced and dual shocks were added to dampen the rough terrain. Suspensions were modified greatly to handle the harsh environment of Baja. Dual front and rear Monroe shocks were added to the undercarriage, along with heavy shock and suspension mounts. Lift kits were added for more ground clearance, while the rear springs were re-arched for even more height.

Look at the huge wheel wells. S/C Ramblers came with slightly enlarged wheel wells on the back, but not this much. Doors are functional, but are bolted closed for reinforcement. 

All 10 of the AMCs wore the trademark red, white, and blue racing colors. Other modifications included removing all the glass as a safety precaution, and the installation of a heavy-duty rollcage, which was necessary in the treacherous lands of Baja. The AMC’s race weight was just over 3,100 pounds—basically the same as a stock Sc/Rambler.