Kenosha celebrates automotive heritage with AMC Homecoming

A 1940 Nash and an AMC Gremlin outside Nash Elementary School in Kenosha | William Hall photos
A 1940 Nash and an AMC Gremlin outside Nash Elementary School in Kenosha | William Hall photos

Kenosha, Wisconsin, is a city that has never fully recovered from the 1987 loss of its American Motors manufacturing plant. Like an amputee, scars have healed and life goes on, but not without daily reminders that something is missing.

So, it was bittersweet to see the iconic cars that represent the city’s halcyon days rumble through town during the seventh AMC Homecoming, an event that has taken place irregularly since 1998. This year’s reunion benefited the Kenosha History Center, which has a renewed mission to preserve the automotive history of the city, which once was America’s second Detroit.

Candy-colored AMXs and Javelins designed by Dick Teague
Candy-colored AMXs and Javelins designed by Dick Teague

The weeklong schedule is filled with events that have hundreds of Javelins, Rebels, Marlins, Ramblers and Pacers crisscrossing town, revealing the scope of American Motors’ physical and sociological footprint on this southeastern Wisconsin city.

First stop was the Jeffery Elementary School for a meeting of AMC Gremlins. The school’s namesake, Thomas P. Jefferey, owned a bicycle-manufacturing company that was purchased by Charles W. Nash in 1916 to begin automobile production. The Nash Rambler name was actually a carryover from a bicycle made by the previous company.

Charles Nash had just resigned as president of General Motors, having engineered a turnaround of the company’s fortunes through Buick and the acquisition of Oldsmobile and Pontiac. Those merger skills would mark his career as he consolidated the companies which would someday become American Motors Corporation.

Jeffery Elementary’s head custodian Scott Balma is a Chevy guy, but he can appreciate the impact that the company still has 30 years after its demise. The school’s mascot is Jeffery Gremlin, the cartoonish character taken from the grille of AMC’s polarizing sub-compact car. The school’s hallways are adorned with images of the character and the car, urging kids to be responsible, be respectful and be safe – all traits that Charles Nash tried to emulate in his factory culture.

Gremlin gathering as seen from the roof of the  Jeffery Elementary School
Gremlin gathering as seen from the roof of the Jeffery Elementary School

Balma led me up to the top of the school to snap a group photo while he retrieved some basketballs that were kicked up on the roof.

Manny Angaretis drove his Sunshine Yellow 1974 Gremlin about 1,200 miles from his home in Long Island, New York, to the Homecoming. His first car was a 1970 Gremlin, which inspired the purchase of this car from Montana in 2005. The car was clean but mechanically a bit rough; Manny struck a deal on the condition that the seller could get it running. After shipping out a set of tires, he drove the car back to New York in February of that year and set upon a year-long restoration.

“This was not supposed to happen,” he said of his 12-year relationship with the Gremlin. “But how can you get rid of a car that served you so well on a trip like that?”

Off to the AMC Swap Meet, set at Kennedy Park on the shores of Lake Michigan. I’ve never seen a better backdrop for an automotive swap, as a gentle breeze blows and light green waves crash on the beach.

A donatedcNash Metropolitan on permanent display in the Nash school library
A donated Nash Metropolitan on permanent display in the Nash school library

Chuck Davis from Rockford, Illinois, is at the swap showing off an all-original 5,200-mile 1974 Hornet Coupe that he has owned for 17 years. Purchased from a “little-old lady from Pennsylvania,” the car is in absolute time-warp condition, powered by AMC’s venerable 232 cid. straight-6 engine. Chuck is a multiple-AMC owner who caught the bug after his dad handed down an Ambassador to him in his youth. This seems to be a common theme.

Back in the cars again and cross-town for an ice cream social, this time at the Nash Elementary School. The facade of the building is emblazoned with the Nash automobile logo, and a donated Metropolitan is permanently displayed inside the school library. Slogans and quotes from Charles W. Nash adorn the building, and it’s hard not to wonder what the city would look like had the automaker survived.

Inside, Charles Nash’s great-grandson Jim Wheary gives a presentation on the self-educated farmhand who rose to become a titan of the burgeoning auto industry in the early 1920’s. Nash’s untimely death in 1948 left the company to new leadership, and ultimately AMC became victim of the same acquisitions and mergers that Nash himself had mastered so successfully.

The cars lined-up outside the school for a police-escorted parade to downtown Kenosha, which afforded a great opportunity to see the varied range of American Motors cars. Since its inception, the company’s strategy targeted niche markets with unique products. It’s fourth-place position amongst the Detroit Three required that AMC take bold chances with styling.

AMC performance back on Kenosha streets
AMC performance back on Kenosha streets

Much of that was left to chief designer Dick Teague, who efficiently reimagined cars like the Gremlin from the shared Hornet chassis, sheetmetal and glass. Unconventional at the time, the cars today are admired for their retro-futurist design.

AMC was a pioneer in cross-branding, partnering with fashion designers Oleg Cassini and Pierre Cardin to provide special optioned interiors. A limited-edition Gremlin wore Levi’s jeans emblems and featured their trademark riveted denim as interior material.

Though innovative, these design and marketing efforts were ultimately not enough for the brand to successfully compete. AMC was eventually acquired by Chrysler, with only the Jeep product line surviving to this day.

AMC owners seems to be an extended family; a support group for the eccentric and underappreciated vehicles. There is a passion and pride amongst this gathering for their underdog cars. The Homecoming serves as that occasional family reunion, welcoming back those vintage AMCs to the city that can never forget.

Photos by William Hall

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