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AUTOLUST | 1971 Penske AMC Javelin Trans-Am Series

Big, long and loud, the rare 1971 Penske AMC Javelin racer dominated the Trans-Am circuit in the early 70s.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is now under full steam as America’s dominant racing series begins its annual warm weather tour across the United States. In the early 1970s, stock car racing offered strong competition for the attention of gearhead’s everywhere with the Trans-Am Racing Series. One of the most dominant cars during the Trans-Am glory days was the 1971 Penske AMC Javelin. Founded in 1966, the original Trans-Am Series was conceived to bring commercially produced sedans and similar class cars together in an American racing series born from the Pony Car era.

Unlike NASCAR on the big oval tracks or F1 on the world’s most technically challenging courses, Trans-Am used the USA’s big road racing courses and pitted popular American cars against each other. Essentially, Trans-Am was a way to bring the souped-up rivals of their day — the Ford Mustang, the Mercury Cougar, the Dodge Challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro, the Pontiac Firebird and their kin — together for their own track series.

The AMC Javelin might be one of the lesser-remembered players in that class of cars amongst average folks, but car lovers remember the car for its power, its sweeping length and unique front end styling.

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For the uninitiated or anyone younger than 30, AMC (American Motor Corporation) was a U.S. automaker and rival to Ford, GMC and Chrysler. The company was forged by the merger of two classic American makes that were fading out of the market by 1954 – Hudson and Nash. Once those badges blended into one company, the same AMC that brought us the Javelin unfortunately also gave us the Gremlin and Pacer – perennially acknowledged as two of the worst and most ridiculed cars in American automotive history. By 1990, AMC was on the ropes and fully bought out by Chrysler. It was turned into Eagle (a trademark now held by FCA – makers of Jeep, Fiat, etc.).

The consumer version of the Javelin debuted in 1967 and remained in production until 1974. The standard engine varied from a 3.8 liter inline six cylinder to a 6.4 liter, 315 horsepower V8. Back in an era when men were men and could actually drive, the most common transmission versions were three and four speed manuals on the floor.

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For muscle car lovers, the Javelin was AMC’s finest hour. Once the Roger Penske crew got hold of one, it made racing history. The track transformation of this 1971 AMC Javelin was supervised by driver Mark Donahue for Penske. The work resulted in the only AMC Javelin Penske produced for the 1971 Trans-Am series. 

According to the Trans-Am legend, Donahue and Team Penske thought durability was key to winning against the other muscle cars on big tracks under warm weather conditions. They chose the Javelin’s bulk as a starting point to overcome these challenges.

Of course, like all race cars, the Javelin started with a new, bare chassis and a custom Javelin took shape around that. The entirety of the Javelin’s standard interior was stripped out, replaced by the prerequisite roll cage, racing seat, racing steering wheel, throttle controls, etc.

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This car dominated the 1971 season and won that year’s Trans-Am Championship with Donahue at the wheel. It would also be Donahue’s last year in Trans-Am Racing. The next year, Donahue sold the Penske Javelin to Bill Collins, and the car continued to run in the Trans-Am series. George Follmer took the wheel, and he drove the Javelin to three victories on his way to winning the 1972 Trans-Am Championship.

Four years later, after the racing series shifted and new cars came onto the scene, Jocko Maggiacomo won the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Championship for the Trans-Am class in this same Javelin. Fans of that racing era considered that run the end of the glory era for Trans-Am racing. So, the Penske AMC Javelin went out as the single most decorated car of its time.

Now a fixture at major car shows and racing reunion/revival events around the U.S., the current display version of the Javelin features the numbering and color scheme the car featured in 1971 during its initial championship run. The Javelin raced as recently as the 2015 Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

For racing fans and lovers of specially enhanced muscle cars, this 1971 Penske AMC Javelin is a sought after legend. In fact, the car headed to auction and private ownership in 2010 with a price tag of $995,000. 

You can get a bright, sunny and firsthand look at the legendary racer in the gallery below.
All photos by John Scott Lewinski.