Why I Quit my Job to Make a Documentary About American Motors Corporation

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In the summer of 2015, I found myself sitting in a bedroom I rented from a stranger on Craigslist in a town I’d just moved to after starting a new job, when the idea hit me: I should make a documentary film about AMC.”

Amc Circle

In my opinion, the history of American Motors is one of the greatest automotive stories of all time.  The company was formed by the merger of two struggling automakers, Hudson and Nash.  It thrived by building small, economical vehicles, but fumbled the opportunity of the pony car boom.  Through the purchase of Jeep from Kaiser Industries, it found success with the growing popularity of SUVs.  However, an oil crisis, economic disaster, and the company’s own mistakes drove it into the arms of French automaker Renault for financial support.  As the tense partnership fell apart, Chrysler swept in and bought AMC.

It’s the tale of a perpetual underdog, which fought its way through some of the brightest heights and darkest lows of an industry in transition.  It’s a story filled with innovation and failure, wisdom and folly, loyalty and betrayal.  More importantly, it’s a story that not enough people have heard.  Which is why some friends and I decided to bring it to life.

The Last Independent Automaker is a six-part series coming to PBS TV stations and online streaming in 2024.  We’re currently knee-deep in production and have already recorded over 30 hours of interviews with former AMC employees.  From the people who installed hubcaps on the assembly line, to stylists who designed the cars, to engineers who made them work, to multiple CEOs who ran the company, they all play a part in our story.  Plus, we’re interviewing journalists, historians, and family members whose lives were connected to American Motors.

On top of that, our team has already sifted through over 100 hours of old video tapes, including vintage TV commercials, sales training sessions, and footage from inside AMC’s Kenosha factories.  It’s quite a treasure trove of material, some of which hasn’t been seen in over 30 years.
FactoryIt took a lot of hard work to reach this point.  Now, we’re asking other car enthusiasts for their support.  By donating to our crowdfunding campaign, you can help us complete this incredible documentary series.  (And if you donate enough, it’s tax-deductible!)  

So far, this project has been funded entirely out-of-pocket.  Even though we have partnered with a PBS station for distribution, we (the producers) still have to raise the money to fund this project.  Filmmaking is expensive.  I’ve personally spent thousands of my own dollars financing this already, because that’s how committed I am.  But I can’t do the whole thing alone.

It Starts with the Pacer

Pacer ClayTo explain how The Last Independent Automaker came to be, I’d like to take you back to that fateful summer in 2015.
I had just accepted a job as a video editor for the TV show, MotorWeek.  It was my second job out of college, it moved me closer to my then-girlfriend and her family, and it was my first job working in automotive media.  It seemed like a huge win for me.

As excited as I was, I couldn’t leave things well enough alone.  Just two years prior, against all advice from family and friends, I had decided to produce a short film about the AMC Pacer for my college senior project.  Incredibly, the documentary was nominated for a College Emmy Award.  Like the Pacer itself, it was done on a shoestring budget and put up against much better-financed competition.  Yet it miraculously managed to place 3rd.

Riding high from that brush with success, I wanted to produce something bigger, even if it was just part-time.  I was reading a new book about American Motors when the idea struck me.

There were thousands of movies and TV shows about Mustangs and Corvettes, but nobody had ever done a complete history of American Motors from beginning to end.  (Perhaps for good reason…)  

Why couldn’t I do it?  The Pacer documentary proved that people found AMC history interesting.  Why not do the whole cradle-to-grave history of the company?  As daunting as it seemed, I just had this irrepressible feeling that people needed to hear this story.

But where to start?  The Unfortunate History of the AMC Pacer was a 25 minute student film I made for $1,000.  Producing a professional-quality documentary that ran two hours or more could cost over $200,000.  There were details to research, places to travel to, hotels to book, people to interview, cars to film, archives to sort through, tapes and film strips to digitize, copyrighted footage to license, music rights to secure, videos to edit, computer animations to generate, contracts to negotiate, and a dozens of other tasks I probably didn’t even know about.  Unlike before, I couldn’t use the excuse of “it’s for a school project” to get people to do things for a discount.  So I did what any smart person who doesn’t know what they’re doing should do: I contacted two friends who were smarter than me.

Patrick Foster is an automotive writer whose work I first discovered when I was a freshman in high school.  While everyone else was reading Twilight and Ender’s Game, I was nose-deep in his car books.   I finally met him in person while filming at an AMC car show in 2013.  He was kind enough to spend an hour being interviewed about the AMC Pacer, and we’ve been friends since.

Grandcherokee

Pat knows more about American Motors than any other person on the planet, and that is not an exaggeration.  His personal archives include decades’ worth of corporate documents, car brochures, personal interviews, and over 20,000 historical photos related to AMC.  Almost no artifact is too insignificant or too esoteric for him to collect.  To date, he’s written 34 books and scores of magazine articles covering a wide spread of automotive topics.  He also owns a 1967 Rambler American, a 1980 AMC Concord, and a four-wheel-drive 1985 AMC Eagle.

Jimm Needle is a good friend and mentor that I met in college.  As a digital media producer with over a decade of experience, he’s taught me a lot about the technical side of our work.  Whenever it’s a question involving camera equipment, lighting, editing, or effects, Jimm usually has the answer.  Plus, as an entrepreneur who’s started several of his own companies, his business experience has really helped guide this process.

Either through pity or naivety, Jimm and Pat both accepted my invitation to work on this project.  We didn’t have a budget, a plan, or even a name, but we knew we were going to make a documentary about AMC. 

 

The Interviews:

VincefamOne of the most important people Pat introduced me to was former AMC designer, Vince Geraci, who started there way back in 1959.  For nearly three decades, he had a front row seat to almost all of American Motors’ most important moments.

Along with that, Vince Geraci also happens to be an incredibly generous person, who I am proud to call my friend.  In the spring of 2017, Vince and Pat helped line up interviews with nearly a dozen former employees who worked at AMC’s Detroit headquarters.  Turning Vince’s Michigan home into a makeshift studio, we filmed hours of material with his friends and coworkers, discussing everything from the engineering of Jeep Quadra-Trac, to the effects of government regulations on interior design, to the challenges of being a female car designer in the 1970s.

Later that summer, we traveled to the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, to what once was the home of AMC’s largest manufacturing facilities.  Working with the Kenosha History Center, we interviewed former factory workers.  It was fascinating, listening to their uncensored stories of the loud, dangerous, physically demanding jobs.  Some remembered it fondly, saying how the good union wages helped them buy homes and put their kids through college.  Others hated it, complaining about racial prejudice, corporate mistreatment, and lazy coworkers.

Gremlin ServiceThe more interviews we did, the more I found my conventional wisdom about AMC challenged.  People who work in automotive media make a living by comparing and criticizing cars; it’s a requirement of the job.  But sometimes that power feeds a certain type of arrogance.

When I talked to the designers, engineers, line workers, and salespeople without the protective varnish of a corporate PR spokesperson, I started to feel more sympathetic.  They shared incredible, fascinating, complex stories about just how difficult it is to run a car company.

When it cost thousands of dollars and months of engineering to get an EPA certification for adding a manual transmission to the 1977 AMC Hornet AMX that hardly anybody would buy, it makes sense why AMC didn’t bother to spend the money doing it.

While enthusiasts today complain that the AMC-Renault merger was the downfall of the company, for thousands of laid-off Kenosha employees it meant a return to work and job security building new products.

Listening to the people who had to make these decisions in the moment, it gave me a better understanding of their thinking.  The more I learned, the more I learned I didn’t know.

 

Dusty Boxes on a Shelf

RamblercakeAnother thing I didn’t know, it turned out AMC’s Kenosha factory had its own closed-circuit TV station from the mid 70s until the mid 80s, which included a small production team who made videos to broadcast internally.  A former employee kept many of the tapes, and his family donated them to the History Center when he passed away.

Hundreds of EIAJ, Umatic, and BetaMax tapes sat in cabinets, just waiting to be watched.  I was desperate to reveal their secrets, but hiring a company for digital conversion can cost upwards of $30 a tape, and we didn’t have $15,000 to burn.  We would have to do it ourselves.  With the help of a friend and fellow AMC enthusiast who also owns a lot of obsolete tape players, we sat through hours of material, performing the tedious job of cleaning and adjusting the vintage tape decks as the ancient tapes literally flaked apart inside the machines.

We captured incredible footage of factory tours, employee interviews, a song and dance routine about the AMC Gremlin, and even an official announcement of the Renault-AMC partnership.  Thanks to our efforts, not only can we use this footage, but it will be saved forever digitally.

From this wealth of modern interviews and archive footage, it seemed like we were off to a strong start.  But then, as it typically does, life got in the way.

Jimm had to move across the country, Pat got offers to write more books, and I was promoted from my MotorWeek editing job to the head producer of another show, called Maryland Farm & Harvest.  Big things were happening in our careers and personal lives, which ate into the time we previously could devote to our documentary.  Then, a worldwide pandemic came, and everybody found their schedules and priorities turned upside down.

My new job was fun, but a lot of work.  Having grown up on a farm, I loved having an excuse to drive antique tractors and eat all kinds of tasty things people grew.  I worked with some incredibly talented people, and we won a real Emmy award (not a college one).  Yet I still couldn’t leave things well enough alone.

As the responsibilities from my day job encroached into my nights and weekends, I felt increasingly guilty that we might never finish our AMC project.  I was reminded of a video where documentarian Ken Burns talked about his first film, The Brooklyn Bridge.  He said at one point he’d shot some great raw footage, but his career as a freelance cameraman was keeping him busy and paying the bills.  Burns said he had a realization that he didn’t want to become so successful that in 40 years he’d come back to find those dusty film canisters on a shelf and realize he never finished his movie.  So he quit his work and jumped all in to finish his project.  Thinking about the terabytes of footage I had sitting away on dusty hard drives, I understood his feelings.  I couldn’t do both my jobs simultaneously, and like a magnet, American Motors was pulling me back.


A Far Better Thing

BigwigsSo, we made a plan.  Jimm, Pat, and I wrote a budget and filed for an LLC.  Rather than a single film, we chose to produce a series of episodes.  We officially titled it, The Last Independent Automaker.  We even managed to score an interview with Senator Mitt Romney, who talked about his father’s time as CEO of American Motors.

Finally, I made plans to leave my current job.  My very patient wife and I sat down and calculated how long we could afford to be a single income family while I worked on the documentary.  Without her, none of this would be possible.  In March of this year, I officially left my job to work full time as an independent documentarian.

We all know how the story of American Motors Corporation ends.  Chrysler bought them out, closed down the plants, and made billions selling Jeep products that AMC designed.  But, just like seeing Anakin slowly turn to the dark side or waiting agonizingly for the Titanic to sink, what enthralls us all as viewers is the drama of the journey.  The journey of American Motors Corporation is a story for the ages.

I remembered all those employees we interviewed.  I remembered the way Vince Geraci’s voice perks up on the phone every time he calls to ask “how’s the film doin’?”  I remembered how people trusted us with their memories and the responsibility that entailed.  I remember why we had to tell this story, because nobody else was going to do it.  I had a promise to keep.

The thought of leaving my job behind was scary.  What if it didn’t work out?  What if I threw away a good career in television just so that I could go broke talking about weird old cars?  As scary as that was, the thought of staying at my job and never finishing this project scared me more. 

As Dickens said,

“Like the mariner in the old story, the winds and streams had driven him within the influence of the Loadstone Rock, and it was drawing him to itself, and he must go.”

Thank you to everyone who is helping make The Last Independent Automaker possible.  We can hardly wait until 2024.

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38 Responses

  1. Look forward to seeing the documentary. Its a great story but must be challenging to put together as most of the people that ran things at AMC are dead. I had 4 generations of my family work in the Kenosha plant. My grandfather was on the UAW local 72 Executive board during the glory days of 50-60’s. My mother worked for Nash/AMC for 44 years. She was last person to have an office and work out of the old main office before it was closed and torn down. A lot of great memories of growing up in the auto business in Kenosha.

  2. Thank you for having the courage to leave something comfortable to do something you are passionate about. I’m looking forward to seeing this. I’ve owned a number of AMC/Renaults, an Eagle SX4, and a ’70 Kaiser Jeepster (that I still have).

  3. Maybe you’ve already thought of this; but have you considered going to someplace like Tubi, that needs content and might be able to help fund you? You might also hit a larger audience on a place like Tubi

  4. I was born and raised in Kenosha. Two houses from my house on one side was an AMC engineer. Two houses down the other direction lived an AMC assembly line worker. I’m very much looking forward to this and wish you more success than AMC managed. I hope you have time to cover the insane assembly procedure of stacking half-finished cars on tractor trailers to drive them across town to the other factory building to be finished. That had to be pretty unique among car factories?

    1. The fact that they were unsuccessful? I think that’s really it – if anything they were less “independent” than Ford given that they were a result of a merger and then a partnership with Renault whereas Ford is still controlled by the Ford family. It just doesn’t feel right because we’ve come to associate an “independent” business with a local/small/scrappy business that all-to-often gets driven out of business by walmart/amazon/starbucks. It no longer seems to have anything to do with their independence. Either way, the most interesting business books are the ones about struggle and AMC isn’t something I’ve read much about relative to Ford/GM, so I’m now looking forward to what sounds like a promising series.

    2. Independent was a title given to any American car company that wasn’t Ford, GM, or Chrysler. They were smaller and ran on tighter budgets. It’s like how production companies in the film industry are independent if they’re not Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney, etc.

    3. Independent of the Big Three automakers that dominated the domestic industry – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. At one time, there were dozens of small automakers, but, by the end of the 1930s, the Big Three had largely consolidated control of the industry between them, with only a handful of smaller independents struggling on into the post World War II era. American Motors was very literally the last one standing at the time of its takeover by Chrysler in 1987, since International Harvester and Checker Motors had both shut down early in the 1980s, and, of course, Studebaker didn’t make it out of the 60s.

      Also, interestingly AMC was something of a family business, the founder of Hudson Motor Car, Roy Chapin, lead Hudson until his death in 1936. His son, Roy Chapin Jr, continued to work at the company though the merger with Nash-Kelvinator, and eventually lead American Motors from 1967-1978, and, his son, William Chapin, was a senior executive at American Motors, in charge of their international operations, including the Beijing Jeep joint venture, at the time of the Chrysler takeover in 1987, likely would have been the 3rd generation chairman/CEO eventually had the company stayed independent

    4. Traditionally, all US auto manufacturers other than the Big Three have been referred to as “Independents”. I think this started because these companies were usually made up of individual brands, rather than the full portfolios offered by Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Of course, some of them did add brands or merge, but the shorthand persisted and is so accepted that I hadn’t stopped to think about until now. Thanks.

      1. Like a ‘craft’ brewery? This always makes me laugh. I’m a huge proponent of what’s happened to the beer scene around the world in recent decades, but I always bristle at the people who declare ‘independent’ is better. So a ‘craft’ brewery owned by a bank or a bunch of financiers is somehow in a better position that one owned by another brewery that actually knows that they do?

        It would seem more accurate to describe AMC as “the last of the runts”.

  5. When I was very, very young, my mom had a 1979 AMC Concorde that her MIL (my paternal grandmother) had given her. If I remember correctly, it was black with a black landau top, a red pinstripe, and red velour interior. Mom wound up totaling it when she slid on the ice and rear-ended a dump truck at speed, while she was pregnant with my sister (this would have been late 1998 or early 1999). The car did its job and she walked away without injury.

    Anyway, I can’t wait to see the docuseries. It would seem that a lot of the ingenuity and creativity that we’ve seen in 90s-and-later Chrysler/Mopar products originated with AMC.

    1. The Hornet and Gremlin did perform surprisingly well in IIHS and NHTSA crash tests in the 1970s, surprisingly well at least compared to other compact and subcompact cars of the same era, and the Concord was the same platform and body shell, with an updated front clip and bumper structures. You’d certainly be better off in a ’79 Concord that most other compact cars from 1979. Unusually heavy gauge sheet metal, too, which probably added some structural integrity

  6. The church I attended bought the pastor an AMC Pacer around 1977. It was pretty clear he didn’t like it. It was wide but the rear wheel wells intruded so far into the car that it wasted most of the space. It was small, but not efficient, a gimmick on wheels. I did enjoy the documentary and look forward to the AMC series..

  7. Looking forward to it! My father was a Chrysler lifer who ended up spending a lot of his later career working at the Jeep/Truck facility in Detroit… He spoke of how the Chrysler guys were considered “outsiders” at the time and that everything AMC had done was ingenious, if a little janky, due to the lack of funding they had. The XJ was a beautiful mess of compromises and updates just to keep it going even after coming under Chrysler.

  8. I remember watching your documentary on the Pacer years ago when you first put it up. It is a pretty impressive video. I truly look forward to what you will be able to do with the whole of AMC’s history.

  9. I’ve been a fan of Pat Foster’s work for almost literally as long as I’ve been a car enthusiast (I used to have a few of his HCC columns hung on my wall), nice to see he’s still working.

  10. An AMC doc is a brilliant idea and I can’t wait to see it. Always loved that crazy brand! Joe, you are doing what many of us wish we could do or should have done in the past, here’s hoping for nothing but the best and I’ll definitely donate. I was in tv and a photographer for all of my 20’s and so wanted to do some things very similar, but life, a wife and kids meant doing more than barely making ends meet, to now having worked corporate till my brain is numb from the monotony. So go do this for all of us who just couldn’t pull it off, we are here for it!

  11. Maybe Aaron Severson from Ate Up with Motor can be a resource. I find his site fascinating although it appears he has had some issues in the last couple years. My understanding is that he has some good connections and a lot of knowledge

  12. Wow, what a fantastic project idea, and a fascinating subject! Looking forward to seeing more.

    And as I sit typing this at the desk of my boring soul-crushing day job, thinking of the passion projects I’m not working on because I’m here, let me say kudos to you for having the guts to just go for it! I wish you all the best, and I’ll see if I can swing a modest donation to help the cause.

  13. The Pacer documentary is very, very good. As a classic Renault geek I have always had a soft spot for AMC, and I was very happy to learn that Renault execs at the time loved the Pacer. I hope you hit the funding target for the documentary, not only because of the theme but also because you seem like a talented director who can put together a great full-length piece. Best luck for this project!

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