The 1956 Rambler was the most important car American Motors ever built. Its importance goes beyond its obvious virtues of compact design or the way it created and defined a market segment. Plainly stated, if there hadn't been a new Rambler in 1956 there might not have been an American Motors in 1958. This car was, clearly, a "Salvation in Steel."
The 1956 Rambler had what AMC called the "Solid Gold Look,"
different from other brands. See more pictures of classic cars.
When the post-World War II auto market changed from a seller's market to a buyer's market, the few remaining independent automakers were caught off guard. Sales tumbled, profits dried up, and losses took over. Hudson and Nash merged (with Nash very much the senior partner), as did Studebaker and Packard, both couplings made in a desperate bid for the volume efficiencies enjoyed by the Big Three.
For Packard and Studebaker (and Kaiser-Frazer), it was already too late, and they eventually paid the price for their tardiness. Nash, however, was a sounder company overall than the other independents, and its management was one of the best in the business.
Nash president George Mason, a well-liked and well-respected automobile man, had been the prime mover in the merger with Hudson and was the first president of the emergent American Motors. At his death in 1954, his assistant, George Romney, took over the company reins. Romney was a hard worker, pragmatic on many matters, yet a visionary in others, and a man with both feet planted firmly on solid ground.
The world must have looked bleak to Romney on that fateful day in October 1954 when the board of directors named him to succeed Mason. The auto market had been witnessing an all-out sales war between Ford and Chevrolet. That battle had left little business for the struggling independents, and hurt Chrysler Corporation as well.
The integration of Nash and Hudson was moving along at a fast pace. The 1955 Hudson line would be produced in Nash's Kenosha, Wisconsin, plant on the basic Nash body, which had been all-new in 1952. It was beginning to get a bit stale, but an all-new body was being worked on in Styling.
A ray of hope lay in the Rambler. With the introduction, in 1954, of four-door sedan and wagon models on a longer 108-inch wheelbase (two-doors rode a 100-inch chassis), interest in the Rambler began to mount.
The 1955 Ramblers featured handsome new grilles and new front fenders without the stodgy enclosed wheelwells that were part of Nash's famed "Airflyte" styling. Production of the 1955s showed dramatic improvement: a little over 80,000 total units, about 24,000 of them badged as Hudsons. Romney was well pleased by that.
George Romney had always loved the Rambler. He felt it was a car with incredible potential, one that could grow from a niche item to become what he termed "a basic volume car," that is, the high-volume model that every big automaker must have to survive.
Romney could see that while it was dog-eat-dog in most market segments, by 1955 the compact market was pretty much left to the Rambler. His company was losing money trying to compete head-to-head with the Big Three. Of course, the all-new senior cars being worked on in the Styling studios might turn the tide -- but then again they might not. If they failed, AMC was finished. Romney considered his limited options very carefully.
Styling Director Ed Anderson also had his design studio working on an all-new Rambler for 1957, and it was to be a vastly improved machine. Romney compared the potential of this new Rambler versus the potential for a line of big cars.
The Rambler would have the market all to itself, while the senior Nash/Hudson cars would have to slug it out with Mercury, Buick, Pontiac, and Dodge. The public was shunning his senior cars already, while the Rambler was in its ascendancy.
Conventional thinking, however, still held that big profits could be gotten only from big cars. Of course, that was assuming the big cars sold. At AMC, there was money enough to fund only one new car. And to Romney, it may have come down to a simple yet strongly held belief of his. "I felt that with the Rambler I had the car of the future," he recalled.
Romney was prepared to bet the farm on the Rambler. Realizing that time was running out, he committed $5.4 million to a crash program to bring the 1957 Rambler to market a year earlier. Anderson and his designers went to work to refine the car for production.
Anderson's assistant was a smart young man named William Reddig. Reddig recalls the rush to get the new Rambler ready. "There were darned few of us [in Styling] and we were working like hell. We were working long hours and we got tired, but Romney, in his shirt sleeves, was coming in several times a day to see how things were going. He didn't have a whip; he was so full of enthusiasm it was contagious and Ed [Anderson] was right out there on the boards, with a stylus in his hand, working with the clay modelers to get the look exactly as he wanted it."
What Anderson wanted was a completely new Rambler, one that would cure the problems of the earlier model and would have true style. The previous Rambler had debuted in 1950 on a 100-inch wheelbase. Although it had sold in respectable numbers, its small size limited its appeal to families. When the 1954 108-inch wheelbase Rambler debuted, the market responded enthusiastically. It was decided that the new Rambler would come only on the longer wheel-base -- no 100-inch model would be offered.
Continue to the next page to learn more about the changes for the 1956 Rambler.
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