Reviving the Spirit of ‘79

It was an otherwise typical day at the office when the Spirit of ‘79 appeared in Jack Tetley’s inbox. It wasn’t a magic moment right away. His years working at Duncan Hamilton ROFGO — a renowned English firm for acquiring and selling classic and competitive motorcars — had taught him the critical skill of always keeping his hopes at an even keel. At least, at first.  

The message was from a friend of a friend of a family with a car lover’s estate on their hands. The vehicle mentioned had a stubby frame, retro striped livery, front and rear spoilers, and a V8 engine under the hood. They hadn’t seen much interest in the small AMC Spirit sedan at home, but it had a history of competing in Europe. Would the Brits at Duncan Hamilton be interested? 

Jack promptly replied. Professionally, he was intrigued. But personally, he was thrilled. 

“It didn’t take much back and forth for me to realize just how rare a find this was. I've never seen an AMX Spirit on the road in the UK or Europe, let alone racing. And it's such a unique piece of American auto history, especially with its small size. And yet it's got this huge American engine! I love the way AMC just did their own thing. They built their own engines, and they had completely different styling from everyone else. Within a day or so, I was beyond tempted. I made the man an offer, and it was done.”

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American Spirit

Jack had just purchased one of two long-lost AMC Spirits. Cars that BFGoodrich® Tires and the American Motors Corporation sent to Germany to race at the Nürburgring 24 Hour in 1979. The car had a brow-raising story, capturing a moment of American motorsports swagger — something that Jack had admired since he was a boy. 

In ‘79, the cars were sourced, prepped, and shipped across the pond in just three short weeks. They were sent with a supply of street tires to race on, actor James Brolin to co-drive, and a film crew to capture the whole wild thing. 

Nicknamed “The Green Hell,” the treacherous 14-mile track twists and turns up, down, and around the rolling hills of West Germany. Known for its nasty weather, carousel turns, and elevation changes, many drivers considered Nürburgring to be the most challenging closed road course on the planet. Not one BFGoodrich/AMC team member had ever driven it.

Only private cars were allowed on the track to practice, so the team learned the course in a rental. After a day of attempts to note its intricate topography, the team had a breakthrough stroke of luck. Their innkeeper offered to introduce them to a friend of his, a retired Nürburgring champion, Heinz Hennerici. Heinz proved to be an excellent driving instructor despite having lost an arm during WWII and not speaking a word of English. 

“Heinz showed us not just the proper lines through each corner and exactly where to aim cresting each blind rise, but also where we could deviate from those lines for optimum advantage. Despite the language barrier, it somehow sank in. I nodded off following the Friday night meeting running the entire 14.1-mile laps in my mind. And I sensed at times during the race that I knew the track better than many competing drivers.” – Gary Witzenberg for Motortrend, Team Driver and Journalist

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Feeling more confident every minute, drivers Amos Johnson, Dennis Shaw, Jim Downing, Lyn St. James, and James Brolin suited up to race. They qualified a respectable 20th and 21st in the 120-car field — but were the only cars running street tires, complete with BFGoodrich’s iconic raised white letters. Over the next 24 hours, the race threw everything it had at both cars — rain, fog, brake trouble, ill handling, broken throttle cables, burning oil, broken shocks, slippery clutches, and ill-fitted helmet headaches. 

But the team held tight, the crews thought fast, and the rubber held up. The sun rose as they crossed the finish line at last: hungry, sleep-deprived, and gleefully proud. They finished 25th and 43rd overall — first and second in class. Not bad for a rag-tag bunch of flashy, spontaneous Yanks on white-lettered BFGoodrich Radial T/A® street tires.

“Lyn went on to race at Indy, James married Barbra Streisand, and I'm still writing car stories. The trophy occupies a prominent place on a shelf in my office. A few others flank it, but I'll cherish that one forever, thanks to a great team, a tough Rambler, and the wonders of German beer.” – Gary Witzenberg for Motortrend, Team Driver and Journalist

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Back to the Future

Jack knew the story of when the Americans at BFGoodrich and AMC sent the two cars to Europe and ran away with the race. But It wasn’t until after he purchased the Spirit that he found the documentary the team made about its historic trip to Europe, narrated by actor/co-driver James Brolin. It adds fantastic color to the vehicle’s history. 

On top of having a rich history, this car checks every box on Jack’s list of favorite things. The son of a race car driver, Jack grew up as a well-fueled, full-blown car nerd with a soft spot for all things “automotive Americana” — specifically, muscle cars and racing sedans from the 70s and 80s. As an adult, he turned that life-long love into a unique and passionate career as a rare race car dealer. 

Part historian, part car-enthusiast networker, part salesman, and part private eye, Jack spends his days squinting at serial numbers, setting up alerts for niche parts, and plumbing the depths of the internet for fresh leads. Occasionally, he uncovers a long-lost automotive gem along the way. 

Usually, he does this work on behalf of his clients, fellow passionate car geeks like himself, who want to own a piece of history — and find themselves in a financial position to make that dream come true. But this car, and its wild history of winning at Nürburgring in ‘79, was just too cool to give up. 

“I'm going to keep this car, certainly for the time being. I'm too in love with the story! I need to race it a few times, too. I love the colors of the livery, so rare for that era. It's not like any other car I've ever seen.”

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Full Circle

After a complete restoration, including twenty-first-century racing safety upgrades and meticulously repainted original livery (vinyl stickers just aren’t authentic enough!) Jack plans to bring the vehicle back to Nürburgring for another go-around the famous circular track. 

 “It needed a restoration, and I was happy to do it. It’s so rare to find something this cool that hasn’t already been restored. It’s a labor of love to do it yourself, and you get to learn just how original it is as a result. This car was so authentic and untouched; it still had the cleared-to-race sticker from Nürburgring on the back bumper, dated 1979.”

Forgotten, found, and fully restored, the Spirit of ‘79 is alive and cleared to race, dated 2021. 

To learn more about Jack Tetley’s work and Duncan Hamilton ROFGO, visit dhrofgo.com. To read Gary Witzenberg’s full report on his team’s epic win in 1979, head to motortrend.com.

Photos courtesy of Amos Johnson and Dennis Shaw of Team Highball

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