Just take a moment and consider the full name of this car: the American Motors Corporation Cowboy. Just saying all those words together should materialize a waving flag behind you and cause an eagle to alight on your shoulder. Pretty amazing for an economy car trucklet that never happened.
We've talked before about some AMC concepts, like the amazing mid-engined Pacer and the proto-Hornet designed for part-reusability, but compared to those, this one seems pretty tame and plausible. Essentially, it was a Hornet-based pickup, called the Cowboy.
The development of the Hornet was a big, expensive deal for AMC, and right around this same time, in 1969, AMC had also just bought Jeep, giving them an iconic name and a big hole in their pockets. They'd need to really make both the Jeep name and their newly-designed Hornet platform work hard to rake in the cash, and this common need is how the Cowboy was born.
AMC was, cleverly, avoiding direct competition with the Big Three and focusing more on niche markets, which put them in closer competition with the growing tide of imports. One of the areas where imports from Datsun and Toyota were starting to make real inroads was in the small truck market, which AMC, now armed with the Jeep name, saw as a chance to make a stand.
AMC took their new Hornet to Jeep's styling department and instructed them to turn it into a little truck. Jeep's first passes at the design were very El Camino-looking, with an elegant, sweeping panel from the rear of the cab, flowing into and becoming the side of the truck bed. Sleek, pretty, and just about impossible for AMC to do.
AMC, remember, was always pretty much broke. They poured about $40 million into the development of the Hornet, and that was a colossal amount for them. There's no way in hell they'd be able to scrape up the cash to stamp out those huge, elegant side sections like GM did with the El Camino.
This looked like it would be the end of Jeep's little Cowboy. At least until Jim Alexander, an AMC product planner and ex-AMC designer, someone used to the sort of compromises that AMC design often meant, took a look at the problem, and came up with the refreshingly novel solution: why don't we not make it like an El Camino?
He calculated that a separate-box cab was as sharp looking as a integral-box cab. The project unsnarled.
See that? That's some of the best of what AMC was good at. The El Camino looks sleek with that unbroken cab-to-bed design? You know what looks almost as good as that? A divide between cab and bed! Because, fuck it, it's good enough! And I think he was right.
The resulting prototype, the Jeep Cowboy, was a handsome little pickup. To get around the issue of how to add a pickup-bed frame to the Hornet, Alexander had other good, rational ideas:
He reasoned "if you can build a car with a stub fame at the front-like GM's Camaro—then why can't you do that at the back?" The truck progressed. An Ambassador gas tank was welded under the front half of the cargo bed and the spare tire fit neatly under the back half.
That one is great because it's not just logical and practical, it steals another company's idea, leveraging all the money they spent proving it worked. Alexander was a hell of an AMC man.
Pictures from the design process show in addition to the Hornet-cab'd version, there were some made with some pretty terrifying-looking Jeep-style grille treatments, and at least one Gremlin version was made as well.
Because of limited production facilities, AMC had to chose between building the little Cowboy truck or a hatchback variant of the Hornet. It was 1973, and hatchbacks were on the rise in popularity, so the hatchback won, leaving the Cowboy with just three prototypes and probably some 10-gallon hats flung to the ground.
It's too bad. I suspect that a small Hornet-based pickup could have done quite well against the Chevy Luvs and Ford Couriers and other little pickups that became popular in the 70s. AMC would have been free from the Chicken Tax that doomed most of the small imported pickups down the road, and if they kept with it, they could have become a dominant player in the little pickup truck market.
Plus, I would have bought one used about ten years ago. A yellow one. Maybe a '79.
(Looks like an Oppo post covered this, too! So check it out as well.)