All throughout the Midwest, towns are inhabited by the ghosts of car companies long gone; though the clatter of tools, the arcing of welders, and the smell of machine oil have disappeared, their presence is still felt strongly. South Bend, Indiana, has Studebaker. Lansing, Michigan, has its Oldsmobile. In Toledo, Ohio, there's Willys. It's not a stretch to say these dissolved nameplates are still just as much a part of the fabric of their communities as they were in their heyday.
Kenosha, Wisconsin, was once home to American Motors' bustling assembly plant, and the townspeople still have a unique connection with all things AMC, in spite of the physical building being a distant memory. At its peak in the '60s, AMC fought against the Big Three, bringing new models to market with minimal engineering resources and against long financial odds. AMC workers and their customers were a proud, independent breed, and that's how history will record them.
But don't close the history books on AMC yet, at least not on Mike Korecz and his family. If there is a better posterboy for the last great American independent, we haven't met him. Mike, a tool and die maker from Kenosha (natch), has owned three '67 Rebels, two '71 Javelins, two Gremlins, three Ambassadors, a Hornet, two '76 Matador coupes, and an '80 Concord. That's 14 AMCs, if you're keeping count. Younger readers probably haven't seen that many AMCs in their entire life, let alone owned one.
Mike's current muscle is this striking Alamosa Aqua blue '69 Ambassador coupe, which he obtained in 1996 for just $1,800. Why an Ambassador? We say, why not? Every armchair historian knows the story behind the AMX, Rebel Machine, and Javelin, but the Ambassador isn't part of the repertoire, most likely because it was known as a near-luxury car designed to trade-up the Rambler or Rebel owner while keeping him in the AMC fold. Truth is, it's identical to the Rebel under the skin, sharing near all its chassis parts aft of the cowl. They were solid, good-looking, dependable cars with a comfortable ride, great power, and a host of standard features-all at a reasonable price. (Trivia: In 1968, the Ambassador was the first car ever to come with A/C as standard equipment.)
"Sixty-nine was the best year Ambassador they built," Mike opines. "The body lines are the best-they have a sexier, more flowing shape. The taillights are very unique on this car-a one-year-only deal. I get a lot of people asking me if this car is from Australia." Mike found this particular example for sale in a local driveway, and stopped to take a look. The four-and-a-half hours it took for the owner to arrive gave Mike plenty of time to check it over. "There are certain areas where these cars rust out-rocker panels and fender sills-and this one was rock solid," Mike says.
After striking the deal, Mike swapped the 343 two-barrel and Borg Warner automatic for a mild 360 and a 727 TorqueFlite. The old wheels were dumped in favor of vintage Rocket Racing wheels seen here, and Mike just drove it like that for the next four years. Then a relatively insignificant thing happened that set into motion a cascade of events that would result in the car you see here: a wheel bearing in the rear axle failed. Mike's hot rodding instinct took over, and improvements were required. Rather than fix the bearing, Mike ordered a new Dana 60 rearend from Strange Engineering. Heck, if you order a new rear, you might as well update the suspension, right? "I was laying in bed at 2 a.m. thinking about the suspension," Mike says. "I had to get up right away, and write it all down on paper. The rear suspension is remarkably similar to a Chevelle. In fact, they use the same control arm bushings..." The next day, Mike took his drawings to a race car chassis builder, who deemed Mike's plan sound. "I raised the upper mounts on the rear axle as much as possible to give a more favorable instant center. I took very careful measurements because it was a one-shot deal." Using Chevelle control arms from the Hotchkis catalog and QA1 coilover shocks, the rearend and suspension were completed.
Unwittingly, Mike had taken the AMC off the road and put it on jackstands. Other daily transportation took up the slack. His mind imagined the possibilities, like what it would be like to make this thing a real hot rod. This was Kenosha, so attention to detail on an AMC would go a long way. "I didn't think I'd be able to handle a restoration with a family, but I was able to come up with the money from a few side jobs," Mike says. "My neighbor turned me on to his friend who had just opened up a new paint shop, so when his car was done, we picked up his and dropped off mine at the same time." The Sikkens Alamosa Aqua applied by Ron Perona of Kenosha came out perfectly, but what about the neglected wiring?
From his previous life as a parts counterman and mechanic, Mike knew the similarity between the Ambassador and Chevelle. So without hesitation, he ordered a complete wiring harness kit for a Chevelle from Painless. "I figured the length was about the same, and all the cars pretty much had the same electrical system. It was pretty straightforward, and I had more than enough wire to do the job." Who'd a thunk?
During the chassis and paint work, Mike built a 401, using parts accumulated over the years. "I had so many AMC parts at one time, I didn't realize I had enough stuff to build a nice 401 without buying anything. That's when I built the standard-bore 401." That recipe included an Edelbrock Torker intake, Holley 850 double-pumper, a pair of '71 iron heads (6291 castings), and a Crower hydraulic cam. It would be a solid street piece with enough sauce to peel the hides, but not so much as to start breaking stuff.
A painted body, a built motor, and some strung wiring hardly makes a finished car, and nowhere was that more painfully obvious than in the exhaust system. "The passenger-side header was the most difficult because I had to keep modifying the strut rod bracket," Mike snarls. "After getting the headers Jet-Hot coated, I had just under a grand in these things. And I had to reroute two of the primaries where it was touching the bracket."
And there was other stuff to do, like engine compartment block-off plates, plumbing, interior trim, and instruments. Fortunately, Mike's job as a tool and die maker came in handy. "My company didn't care, so they let me use the shop to fabricate the parts," he says. "I'd make the parts at work, try 'em out at home, and then go back to work and make the changes."
Many of those block-offs and trim parts were made with a wire EDM and a vertical machining center, two of Mike's favorite workplace tools. Of particular note is the wiper motor block-off, which features an intricate billet carving of the pre-'69 American Motors logo. The detail simply blows us away, and it cost Mike nothing but his time.
What started out as a minor repair for a wheel bearing gone bad was finally coming to an end two years later. On the eve of the big all-AMC show at Kenosha's lakefront Kennedy Park in 2002, Mike put the finishing touches on the Ambassador, and cruised it out. It was an instant hit, but there was one thing missing: tire-frying horsepower.
Enter long-time friend and fellow AMC-lover Louie Savaglio. Many years of friendship and hundreds of bench-racing sessions meant the two were of the same mind when it came to AMC power. But there never seemed to be enough clams to make it happen. Over the years, parts had been traded, and false starts had been made, but with Mike's Ambassador looking so good now, it only made sense to make the big push to the finish line. Louie stepped in and sold Mike his unfinished 444-inch short-block at a fire-sale price, which, ironically, was a combo originally spec'd by Mike. The added cubes come from an offset-ground forged OEM 401 crank, and the short-block is capped by Indy SR aluminum heads and an Indy 401-3 single-plane intake. A lofty COMP solid roller cam helps the Holley 950 HP carb breathe. A grab bag of MSD, Mallory, and Taylor ignition pieces light off the thing.
How can you not love a shape like that? The '69 Ambassador can hold its own parked next to
Mike's not really a true-blue drag racer, but he does like to roast the baloneys on occasion at the track. Making that happen without undue carnage means building a beefy trans, which Mike did himself with fresh 727 guts from TCI. A Dayco 9-inch converter and a set of 4.10 gears loaded on an Eaton posi makes short work of the quarter-mile. This Kenosha killer ran a best ET of 12.05/111 right before our cameras at Great Lakes Dragaway, and Mike says there's more in it, too, once he gets the carb tuning on his eBay special 950 HP worked out.
All told, Mike's got about $21K in his Ambassador, not counting his own labor, and figuring in trades and Internet auctions. Considering what it's really worth, and the fact that 401 cubes have been stretched into 444, we say that's a real 401-K plan. And what's the "K" stand for? If you live in Kenosha, you don't have to ask.
AMC fans take note: Mike Korecz used GM A-body control arms from Hotchkis with only minima
They look like Cragar S/S wheels, but they're actually vintage Rocket Racing wheels.