In late 1967, American Motors introduced the Javelin – AMC's entry into the pony car market that had been defined by the Ford Mustang.
They knew that in order to gain certain potential performance-oriented customers, they were going to have to earn credibility on the race track. So in 1968, AMC contracted Ron Kaplan's group, Kaplan Engineering, to build and campaign two AMC Javelins in the SCCA Trans-Am series.
They signed George Follmer and Peter Revson as the team drivers for their inaugural season. Ultimately, Revson was released partway through the year after a management disagreement. The team signed Lothar Motschenbach to fill his seat for the next two races.
Just like the Camaros and Mustangs, the Javelin initially ran a 302 ci V8, with was producing approximately 450 hp in a car weighing approximately 3200 pounds. But getting to that point wasn't easy. Kaplan's team had to overcome some significant issues with the base car in order to make it competitive. They resolved several handling issues, engine oiling issues, and developed an intake manifold that would make them significantly more competitive. Kaplan's team needed to work largely from scratch, considering the AMC chassis and engine platform had nowhere near the history or support of either Ford or Chevrolet. The first season of the program was considered a Cinderella Story of success. They placed third overall in their first series in a brand new car, and established a record as the only factory entry to finish every Trans-Am race they had entered.
In preparation for the 1969 season, Kaplan knew they were going to need to be more aggressive in order to become more competitive. He actually went so far as to develop a new block design based on an interpretation of the AMC 390 ci engine. With the new design, he successfully addressed issues surrounding the crankshaft main bearings and the oiling system. He provided AMC with a series of the cast blocks for them to put into inventory for homologation purposes. But due to some administrative errors within American Motors, the new engine casting part numbers were not submitted to the SCCA in time for homologation.
When Kaplan showed up to the first race of the 1969 season, it was the first he had learned of the clerical miss. He had to convince SCCA officials to let him run. They did not get to spend any measurable time qualifying, and had to start last. But within 10 laps, they were challenging Mark Donohue's Camaro for the lead. After the race, the officials started to question the build of the engine, but Kaplan and the team had left the track before the officials could track him down to scrutinize his cars.
Going into the second race at Lime Rock, the officials requested he tear down an engine for inspection before the race even began. In order to avoid future conflicts, Kaplan campaigned the remainder of the season with the previous year's engines. As he had predicted, they proved to not be competitive, despite the best efforts of drivers Ron Grable and Jerry Grant.
Out of frustration, at the conclusion of the season, Kaplan dropped all of the AMC materials at one of their regional offices in California and told them he wanted a month to think about what he would do for the next year. In that time, AMC had quickly struck a deal with Roger Penske.
With Mark Donohue testing the 1969 Kaplan-developed cars, Penske made some minor modifications to the front suspension, but otherwise kept much of the 1969 Kaplan designs.
Many people were surprised at the beginning of the 1970 season when it was announced that Penske Racing was now running the AMC Javelin program. That left the Camaro Trans-Am program in the competent hands of Jim Hall.
The 1970 AMC Javelin team proved to be the closest competition to the Bud Moore Ford Mustang Boss 302 team, but the Mustangs were too much, as we covered here. The AMC Javelins finished the year in second place overall.
AMC quickly capitalized on this success, developing the Mark Donohue Javelin SST edition. They built a total of 2501 cars, and not just as promotion, but also as a way to homologate the Donohue-designed rear ducktail spoiler for use in the 1971 season.
The beginning of the 1971 season looked exceptionally promising for AMC. They were suddenly the only factory effort in the larger displacement class, with both Ford and Chevrolet pulling out of the series as manufacturers. As if that wasn't enough help, The team was still led by the diligent hand of Roger Penske and the incredibly competent driving of Mark Donohue. The American Motors team was unstoppable. They won 8 out of 10 rounds of the 1971 season, and sat on the podium for the other two.
The Javelin dominance continued in 1972. That year is largely considered the last waning year of the Golden era of Trans-Am racing. With George Follmer as the lead driver, the team won four of seven races.
Considering the relative scale of AMC compared to Ford and General Motors, as well as their late entry into the pony car space with the Javelin, it is remarkable to think of what was accomplished.