The late Roy D. Chapin, Jr., former chairman of American Motors Corporation, liked to tell about when AMC wanted to introduce a new car for 1958, and ended up with the 1958-1960 Rambler American. Though sales of the 108-inch-wheelbase Ramblers were climbing, additional products were needed to boost sales further. The small-car market offered the best opportunity.
Car buyers were displaying a growing interest in small foreign cars. AMC covered that market with its imported Metropolitan, but the Met was only a two-passenger car; for higher sales volumes an automobile capable of holding four or five was needed.
AMC considered bringing out a revamped Metropolitan with a wagonlike roof that provided interior space for four people but engineers and product planners felt the limitations of the Met's 85-inch wheelbase were too great. They believed a 100-inch wheelbase was needed for the roominess that most buyers demanded. When they explained that to management, Chapin recalled, "Grins lighted up our faces. 'Why, we already have such a car,' one of us exclaimed. 'Our tools are still intact for the 100-inch Rambler.'"
Chapin and then-chairman George Romney believed the small Nash Rambler, last produced in 1955, provided a perfect compromise between a big family car and a small import, so the decision was made to reintroduce it in an updated version. Of course, the fact that AMC was just about broke and couldn't afford tooling for an all-new car made the decision that much easier.
AMC was nearing the end of an epic four-year struggle. Since the corporation's birth in 1954 from the merger of Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson, sales of Hudson and Nash cars had fallen dramatically. Hope for recovery came with the introduction of a new, larger Rambler for 1956. It got off to a slow start but by mid-1957, sales started to climb.
Romney later admitted, "Frankly, we very nearly got knocked out of the automobile business in the process of succeeding in our audacious decision to challenge the Big Three by outflanking their product position." Although 1957 ended with a financial loss, it was clear a turnaround had begun. The Ramblers were restyled for 1958 and new larger Rambler-based Ambassadors made their debut.
To build on AMC's growing momentum, Romney wanted to add a third car line. Thus came the decision to resurrect the 100-inch-wheelbase Rambler as the Rambler American. To see how the American was styled, continue to the next page.
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1958 Rambler American Styling
To get an idea of how the 1958 Rambler American styling would look, engineers produced a mock-up. According to Chapin, they expedited this by buying a second-hand 1955 Rambler from a local dealer to serve as a concept car.
Styling director Ed Anderson put his men to work on revising the small Rambler. As the tooling budget was very tight, the basic car had to remain the same, with essentially all major under-the-skin stampings unchanged. There was enough money to restyle some of the exterior, but even there changes were limited.
Basic fender shapes couldn't be drastically altered. However, since fenders, hoods, and decklids are produced by a series of stamping operations, minor changes in tooling and processing could be made to affect the appearance of the finished product. Thus, even though the hood, decklid, and roof panels were redone, the original dies were used.
Anderson never liked Nash's enclosed wheels so he was happy to open up the American's wheel wells. The fronts had been opened up on the 1955 models, so all designers had to do was restyle the rear fenders, making sure to incorporate a trailing rear edge -- one of Anderson's favorite style marks.
Frontal styling was modified with a handsome new mesh grille in place of the previous eggcrate pattern. The hood scoop and bulky "flying lady" ornament of the past were deleted, the later replaced by a simpler "wind split" ornament, and the chrome molding along the rocker panels was deleted. A flatter roof panel delivered a lower look in profile, and the "greenhouse" was further modernized via a larger wraparound rear window. Deleting the decklid's raised "spine" provided a smoother appearance.
Chapin took credit for another element of the American's restyling: He suggested turning the elliptical 1955 taillamp bezels upside down so that the red lenses were now above the chrome-encased reflectors. This, too, achieved a slightly different appearance with no cost in tooling.
The decision was made to call the new car the Rambler American, since dubbing it just a Rambler might cause confusion in buyers' minds considering that was already the brand name in use for the larger AMC cars. Although the earlier Nash Rambler had offered several two- and four-door body styles, Romney worried about cannibalizing sales of his larger, more profitable senior Ramblers so only one body style was planned. To keep costs to a minimum -- and to focus on entry-level buyers -- the American was introduced solely as a two-door sedan, a style that first appeared on the little Nash in 1954.
The American wasn't introduced to the public until late January 1958. Hoopla was kept to a minimum, but an eight-page brochure proudly proclaimed that the new car was "Here By Popular Demand." AMC focused on the Rambler's basic appeal: "[T]his is the one car that the modern American demands ... a car that combats rising operating and maintenance costs by giving more miles per gallon of gasoline with lowest maintenance costs ... a car that is easier to park, garage and maneuver in traffic."
Romney explained the thinking behind the concept: "Essentially, it was simple: Let's build an automobile for the American people that appeals as much to their native intelligence as to their ego." Naturally, economy of operation was highlighted; after all, the Nash Rambler, "America's Economy King," had won the Mobilgas Economy Run more often than any other make.
For more on the 1958 Rambler American, continue to the next page.
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1958 Rambler American
Just two 1958 Rambler American models were offered for general sale. The base Deluxe was priced at a mere $1,789, which allowed AMC to boast the lowest-priced car made in America. (It undercut the austere two-door Studebaker Scotsman by just $6.) An American Super, with a few more "luxuries," was tagged at $1,874.
Meanwhile, the cheapest six-passenger 1958 Chevrolet and Ford both started at around $2,100. Fleet buyers were offered a three-passenger Deluxe business sedan -- sans rear seat -- for just $1,775, but that model wasn't mentioned in the regular brochures for the American.
Mechanically, the American was as simple and honest as Ford's legendary Model A. The only engine available was AMC's smooth-running 195.6-cubic-inch L-head six, a sturdy cast iron inline mill producing 90 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque, the latter at a low 1,600 rpm. A three-speed manual transmission with column shifter was standard.
Admittedly, the Rambler American Deluxe sedan was a bit stark inside and out. Its low price did include directional signals, a front ashtray, manual dome light, black rubber floor mats, and a choice of vinyl-and-fabric or all-vinyl upholstery. Frankly, though, bottom-line cars from the low-price brands were all pretty Spartan in that era.
Super models offered a lot more for the modest $85 price premium including a comfy foam-cushioned front seat, front and rear armrests, two sun visors (in place of the Deluxe's driver's-side-only visor), cigarette lighter, map and glove-box lights, color-coordinated rubber floor covering, a trunk mat, two-tone interior door-panel trim, and an automatic dome light.
Supers also sported stainless-steel windshield and belt moldings and rear-quarter windows that could be rolled down a few inches, all of which Deluxes lacked. Some folks who bought the Deluxe opted to pay a little more for a factory-installed package that included the armrests, right-side sun visor, and cigarette lighter. Those items could also be installed singly by the dealer.
The options list included a number of worthwhile items. Flash-O-Matic, a premium three-speed automatic transmission produced by Borg-Warner, was far superior to the two-speed automatics found on some other domestic cars and was very popular. Manual transmission with overdrive was also available.
Other options included a custom steering wheel, two-tone paint, wheel discs, radio, outside mirror, electric clock, tinted glass, windshield washers, oil-bath air cleaner, partial-flow oil filter, Weather Eye heater, and, of course, AMC's famed Airliner reclining front seat, a favorite at Lover's Lane.
To see how the 1958 Rambler American performed, continue to the next page.
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1958 Rambler American Performance
To demonstrate 1958 Rambler American performance, specifically its remarkable fuel economy, AMC engineers Carl Chakmakian and Les Viland drove an overdrive-equipped American from Los Angeles to Miami. Driving at an average speed of 40 mph and under National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) supervision, the Rambler achieved 35.4 mpg -- better than many foreign cars. That was important because the American was being touted as an import alternative.
It had other advantages over imports. Buyers of foreign cars worried about obtaining parts and service. The American was built in the USA and backed by more than 2,300 Rambler dealers, so parts and service availability was far superior to the imports.
Mechanix Illustrated's Tom McCahill declared, "There isn't a better buy in the world today." He continued: "The Rambler American, with a minimum of chrome and nude of fins, without four headlights or built-in rattles, is an ideal-size small family car. It's as good-looking as any of the small imports I know and better-looking than most. It will give up to 30 miles on a gallon of gas (and more, with Overdrive) and will outperform any imported sedan selling for under $2,000 except in the cornering department. ... [T]he Rambler has titanic room for four, plus a good-size trunk. ... [It] is by far the most rattle-and-squeak-free 1958 Detroit product I've driven-and I've driven them all!"
After Popular Science compared an American to seven popular European cars it concluded, "[T]he Rambler American probably is the best buy, at the price, among the eight."
Shoppers apparently got the message. Production in the short 1958 model year came to 30,640 units, or slightly more than twice the projected break-even rate for the car. Of this more than half -- 15,949 cars -- were Deluxe models, including the 184 business sedans produced.
Despite adverse market conditions for the U.S. auto industry in 1958, AMC recorded its first profitable year. The corporation reported net profits of $26 million on wholesale sales to dealers of 189,807 Ramblers and Metropolitans versus a loss of $11.8 million on sales of 119,586 units the prior year. Rambler was the only domestic make to post an increase that year, and demand would continue to climb.
To read about the 1959 Rambler American, continue to the next page.
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1959 Rambler American
The 1959 Rambler American series was expanded to include a couple of two-door station wagons. As the larger Rambler Six/Rebel and Ambassador wagons were offered only in four-door versions, management believed there'd be little sales cannibalization from the American. Like the sedan, the wagon was built from 1955 dies and received the same modernizing styling touches.
AMC claimed its new model "combines the outstanding economy and maneuverability of a small car with the family room and carrying capacity of a station wagon." With the rear seat folded flat, an American wagon could hold 52 cubic feet of cargo; with the tailgate lowered, a 90.3-inch-long load floor was available.
The Deluxe wagon was tagged at a mere $2,060, and the Super version, which included a standard cargo-area mat and roof rack, started at $2,145. By comparison, an Opel wagon cost around $2,400 and a Volvo PV 445 two-door wagon was $2,490! Even a new domestic rival in the compact field, the Studebaker Lark, charged $2,295 for its base two-door wagon.
The revival of the station wagon body also stirred up a return of the Deliveryman commercial wagon. Previously made in limited numbers from 1951 through 1955, it was essentially a three-passenger wagon with no rear seat and an extended cargo floor. The 1959 was the rarest yet: Just six were made, three with glass side panels and three in true sedan-delivery form with all-steel sides. After this, the Deliveryman disappeared for good.
Sedan prices were up by $46 from 1958 but still represented exceptional value. Standard equipment for 1959 was about the same as before, though Deluxe models gained the roll-down rear side windows. (All wagons featured sliding windows to provide ventilation for rear-seat passengers.)
Two surprising new options were a "Twin Grip" limited-slip rear axle and dealer-installed air conditioning. The availability of the latter boosted Rambler's popularity in southern states and was a sign of its growing popularity with more affluent buyers.
Rambler sales took off in 1959, helped perceptibly by the American. For the model year, production tripled to 91,491 cars as AMC struggled to keep up with demand. Of these, 32,639 -- almost 36 percent -- were station wagons.
See the next page to read about the 1960 Rambler American.
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1960 Rambler American
The 1960 Rambler American line grew further with a new body style and a third trim level. A four-door sedan was added to all series, including the new top-line Custom range.
Unlike other Americans, the four-door wasn't hewn from old tooling. There had been a Nash Rambler four-door sedan in 1954-1955, but it was built on a 108-inch wheelbase with a commensurately longer body. This new four-door was mounted on the same 100-inch platform as the American two-door sedan and wagon.
Engineers and stylists were able to come up with a good-looking design that allowed a large enough rear-door opening. No four-door wagon was planned; with a complete restyling due for the following year the cost of tooling up a new roof panel couldn't be justified.
It's probable that the four-door sedan was added to counter Ford's new Falcon. Internal memos show that as early as May 1957, AMC executives knew Ford was working on a compact car. That probably motivated AMC's 1960 slogan: "The Most Imitated Car in America."
In March 1960 came the new Custom series. Its features included color-keyed upholstery, custom steering wheel, full wheel discs, carpeted floor mats, dual horns, and bigger tires. Perhaps the most intriguing item on the Custom was a 125-horsepower six-cylinder engine. It had the same bore and stroke dimensions as the engine in Deluxes and Supers but featured overhead valves and a compression ratio raised to 8.7:1. Because of space problems, air conditioning wasn't available with the ohv six.
In a test of 10 domestic station wagons, Motor Trend found that the American Custom could hit 60 mph from a standing start in 12.9 seconds. "Even some of the big V-8s do not perform that briskly. Yet it delivered mileage rivaling that of the Falcon," MT said. In the 1960 Mobilgas Economy Run, a Custom two-door sedan returned 28.35 mpg over a route of more than 2,000 miles, finishing first in the compact class.
Further proof of the American's exceptional fuel economy came when an overdrive-equipped car driven coast to coast under NASCAR's watchful eyes averaged 38.9 mpg. However, the most astounding demonstration was the record set in the Pure Oil Economy Trials, another NASCAR-supervised event: 51.281 mpg, which AMC sagely noted, "No car owner should expect to approach in everyday driving."
The 1960 American benefited from several improvements and refinements. The doors were redesigned to open at a 75-degree angle -- they previously opened 55 degrees -- so entry and exit were much easier. Bonded brake linings replaced the riveted type used previously, linkage for the manual shift was improved, and fuel capacity was increased to 22 gallons. Exterior color choices were expanded to 12 solid and 22 two-tone combinations. Power steering was a new option.
There was more to the American's appeal than just low price and high gas mileage. Rambler resale values ranked among the highest. Demand for the American continued to grow, climbing to 120,603. While the Custom series provided not quite 7,700 units to that total, the four-door sedan was a hit. It accounted for nearly 39 percent of assemblies, surpassing the two-door as the most popular American.
In fact, these truly were AMC's "glory days." In 1959, sales vice president Roy Abernethy noted that two years earlier, a dealer could qualify for the list of Rambler's 100 best dealers by selling only 100 cars a year; now, he said, "The lowest dealer on the list is selling more than 500 cars a year and the top dealer is traveling at the rate of 3,300 cars a year."
That same year, AMC reported a pre-tax profit of $105 million, and the $60 million it got to keep after taxes was still well more than double 1958's figure. AMC's total sales for the fiscal year 1960 were 478,249 cars. The corporation reported a net profit of $48 million on revenues that exceeded $1 billion!
The former underdog was now riding high, and Rambler had an enviable image as a "David" against the "Goliath" of the Big Three. The cleverly recycled Rambler American had certainly done its part to help make that happen.
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