You'll get some argument as to whether the 1958-1959 Rambler American is really a "great" car of the 1950s. Plain, unimposing, and dull, it was anachronistic even when new -- which is precisely why it fascinates today. For this was the first -- and so far only -- instance when a U.S. automaker dared resurrect one of its old models.
The car in question was the original Nash-designed, 100-inch-wheelbase Rambler of 1950-1955. For a time, its bigger and bolder 1956 replacement seemed sufficient to see American Motors (heir to both Nash and Hudson) through the rest of the decade at least. But AMC president George Romney had noted the growing popularity of small economy imports.
When a recession began making itself felt in 1957, he decided that AMC might need a smaller, budget-priced car of its own to compete with the foreigners at the bottom end of the market.
Alas, neither time nor money allowed for an all-new design. AMC was busy making its sensible 1956-1957 Rambler somewhat less so for 1958, and readying a stretched Ambassador version to replace the moribund big Nash and Hudson. But Romney, nothing if not a maverick, had an idea: Why not just take the little Rambler out of mothballs?
Reviving an obsolete design was unheard of in those days (and still is, come to that), but it made sense. AMC still had the original Nash tooling, and it had long since been paid for. This allowed the firm to field its import-fighter quickly and cheaply, which promised handsome profits even with low list prices.
And the size slotted in perfectly: a bit bigger than the top-selling foreigners, smaller and thriftier than anything offered by the Big Three.
When the recession deepened, Romney put the rush on his new/old car, which arrived late in the 1958 model year as the American. The name was right, too: a patriotic pitch to those cash-short buyers who'd plunk for a domestic econocar where given a choice.
To find out how Rambler handled the styling and engine of its revived model, keep reading on the next page.
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The outmoded styling of the 1958-1959 Rambler American, being a reprise of the 1950-1954 model, couldn't be hidden. But AMC freshened it up a little in 1958 by adding a mesh grille and opening up the odd, semi-enclosed front wheel arches that had made for tricky tire changing and a yacht-like turning circle on the 1950-1954 Ramblers.
Naturally, AMC had no choice in its resurrected Rambler but to use the veteran Nash-designed 195.6-cubic-inch six-cylinder, rated at 90 horsepower and teamed with a standard three-speed column-shift manual transmission.
To keep prices down, only a two-door sedan was offered, in basic DeLuxe and slightly fancier Super trim, plus a DeLuxe business sedan sans back seat, a $1,775 price leader. Options were restricted for the same reason; overdrive and "Flash-O-Matic" automatic transmission, radio, heater, and whitewall tires being the main choices.
No-nonsense simplicity, near 30-mpg fuel economy, and a made-in-America label constituted strong selling points in recession 1958, and the American found close to 31,000 buyers despite its late start. If it caused the larger Ramblers to seem almost pretentious, it also made a good many imports seem cramped, underpowered, and overpriced -- which some were.
Even though there wasn't much need for change, the American saw a few for 1959. A two-door station wagon returned from 1955, still offering 52 cubic feet of cargo space with the back seat folded. DeLuxe and Super trim continued, the latter distinguished by bright window frames and nicer upholstery. Brakes were now self-adjusting on all models.
Options expanded to include the inevitable rooftop luggage rack for the Super wagon, plus tasteful two-tone paint and a $59 continental kit for sedans. The last looked incongruous on the dowdy American, but it opened up more trunk space, just as it had in 1950-1955.
Despite new competition from Studebaker's Lark, AMC's Truman-era compact had a field day in the twilight of the Eisenhower age. Helped by a full selling season and the 1959 market's general recovery, the American soared to over 90,000 sales, far ahead of DeSoto, Chrysler -- and Edsel.
Though the American became sportier, somewhat faster, and much prettier in later years, it's the 1958-1960 generation that's become something of a minor collectible. Like the VW Beetle, it made its fame as a "reverse-status" car that succeeded by flying in the face of most everything Detroit stood for at the time. That may not make it a great car -- but it's one you've got to respect.
Check out 1958-1959 Rambler American specifications on the next page.
For more information on cars, see:
1958-1959 Rambler American Specifications
The 1958-1959 Rambler American was actually a reprisal of an early 1950s Nash model, rushed into production to fill a gap in AMC's product line.
1955 Engine: ohv I-6, 195.6 cid (3.13 × 4.25), 90 bhp
Transmission: 3-speed manual; overdrive and Borg-Warner 3-speed “Flash-O-Matic” optional
Suspension front: upper and lower A-arms, coil springs
Suspension rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes: front/rear drums
Wheelbase (in.): 100.0
Weight (lbs.): 2,439-2,554
Top speed (mph): 85
0-60 mph (sec): 14