How Rambler Cars Work


Rambler sold more than 30,000 1958 Rambler Americans such as this 1958 American Super two-door sedan.

Rambler, the successful compact begun by Nash in 1950, became a separate make after introducing larger four-door models for '55 and new styling for '56. These and subsequent events reflected the changing fortunes of American Motors Corporation, founded in April 1954 with the Nash-Hudson merger instigated by Nash president George Mason.

Mason had long dreamed of combining Nash with Hudson, then bringing in Studebaker and Packard to form a new company with the same economies of scale as the Big Three. Without this, he warned, none of these four independents could survive over the long term.

As a halfway measure, he ­persuaded Packard president James Nance to take over ailing Studebaker, which was also accomplished in 1954 (at Packard's ultimate peril). But when Mason died suddenly that October, so did his dream of a "Big Four." His assistant, George Romney, became AMC president, completely forgot about linking with S-P, and bet the farm on Rambler to lift AMC from the financial hole dug by its parents.

It was really all Romney could do, but events worked in his favor. Rambler bounded from strength to strength, helped like no other make by the flash economic recession of 1958. By decade's end, AMC was making serious money and Rambler was firmly established as Detroit's best-selling compact.

The 1957 Ramblers were continuations of the reskinned '56 models sold with Nash and Hudson badges. Besides new "R" hood medallions, cosmetic changes were limited to reshuffled trim and a T-shaped grille ornament to fill the void above the eggcrate section. The big news was V-8 power: AMC's 250-cid, 190-bhp engine, introduced in '56 (a derivative was bored out for 1957's new AMC 327).

V-8 Ramblers were available in four body styles, each of these unit-construction four-doors on the 108-inch wheelbase introduced for '55. Variations involved sedans and Cross Country station wagons with and without B-pillars -- making Rambler the first in Detroit with hardtop wagons. As before, all offered a choice of Super or Custom trim. So did a parallel six-cylinder line retaining the 195.6-cid engine familiar from Nash days. However, that engine was tweaked quite a bit, going from 120 bhp to 125/135. Sixes also included a price-leader DeLuxe sedan at $1961. Other '57 Ramblers sold in the low-to-mid $2000s.

These were solid, reliable, smaller cars that could be quite stylish with optional two-toning. As in the Nash era, exterior "continental" spare tires were available for sedans. Wagons boasted a roll-down tailgate window instead of a clumsy liftgate, something Ford and GM wagons didn't have. Future AMC chairman Roy D. Chapin, Jr., later recalled: "We just rolled with those cars. We couldn't get enough." Indeed, of the roughly 119,000 cars AMC built in calendar '57, all but 7816 were Ramblers. The rest, of course, were Nashes and Hudsons, which would not return for '58 -- at least not as they had been.

Romney liked to assail Detroit's "gas-guzzling dinosaurs" while preaching the smaller-is-better virtues of Rambler. All the more surprising, then, that AMC had a performance Rambler for '57, a special Custom Country Club four-door hardtop aptly branded Rebel. Arriving at midyear with flashes of anodized aluminum on its flanks, Rebel carried the same 255-bhp 327-cid V-8 as the final Nashes and Hudsons, but was much quicker because it weighed significantly less than those cars. The extra power made Rebel more of a handler than other Ramblers, so AMC included stiff Gabriel shocks, a front antiroll bar, heavy-duty springs, power steering, and power brakes. Performance was impressive by most any standard, let alone for a Rambler. In one test at Daytona Beach, a Rebel covered 0-60 mph -- and 50-80 -- in scarcely more than seven seconds. It might have been quicker still with Bendix mechanical fuel injection, but that promised option never materialized.

No matter. With 9.75:1 compression, the Rebel drank premium fuel and a fair bit of it, which hardly fit Rambler's economy image. And at $2786 it was the costliest '57 Rambler, which was another likely factor that kept production to just 1500 units.

During this period, economy imports were quickly climbing the sales charts, led by Volkswagen's already antiquated Beetle. AMC noted the trend and replied with an unprecedented move for 1958, a revival of the 100-inch-wheelbase 1955 Rambler two-door sedan. Renamed Rambler American and wearing a new mesh-type grille and full wheel openings, it offered DeLuxe, Super, and stripped "business" models at a low prices ranging from $1775 to $1874. With those prices in a recession year, the American couldn't help but sell, and over 30,000 were registered for the model year.

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1958 Rambler Cars

Rambler's 1958 Rebel came as a wagon such as this 1958 Rebel V-8 Custom Cross Country.

Regular Ramblers weren't ignored for '58, receiving a complete reskin that made the '56 bodies look a bit bulkier on unchanged wheelbases. Little canted tailfins and dual head-lamps (moved from within the grille back to the fenders) were new styling touches. Hardtop wagons were omitted.

AMC also adopted then-trendy pushbuttons for its optional Borg-Warner "Flash-O-Matic" self-shift transmission. Though V-8 cars were now called Rebel, they retained the 250 engine, which was boosted to 215 bhp. Sixes, now with 127 or 138 bhp, remained nameless, and were again far more popular -- no real surprise.

What did surprise observers was a new 117-inch-wheelbase line called Rambler Ambassador. AMC brochures implied you should think of it as a distinct make ("Ambassador by Rambler"), but this was simply the 108-inch-wheelbase platform with nine extra inches ahead of the cowl, plus a standard four-barrel 327 V-8 with 270 bhp. Offerings comprised the usual four-door sedans, Country Club hardtop sedans, and pillared and pillarless wagons in Super and Custom trim.

Visually, these Ambassadors were nothing like their Nash forebears and everything like regular '58 Ramblers. The only differences, other than the added length, were nameplates, a fine-checked grille, broad swathes of anodized aluminum on Customs, plusher interiors, and arguably better proportions. This is what the '58 Nash and Hudson would have been had those brands not been dropped at the last minute. In fact, the Vee'd front bumper guard of the '58 Ambassador was taken directly from the stillborn Hudson, which had been all but locked up by late 1956 along with a more nearly identical Nash.

Interestingly, the '58 Ambassador virtually doubled full-size '57 Nash/Hudson volume, model-year production totaling 14,570. Rarest of the breed -- just 294 total -- was the Custom Cross Country hardtop wagon, the only such model in AMC's '58 line. Despite Ambassador's modest sales, Rambler's '58 total of 162,182 was up 77 percent from '57 -- a fine showing in a generally disastrous industry year. The success ended four straight years of losses for AMC, which scored a $26 million profit on sales of $470 million.

This winning formula netted another $60 million profit on 1959 Rambler volume of nearly 375,000 -- a new record for the fledgling firm. Ramblers and Ambassadors received more complicated body trim, plus a beltline that curved up gently at the rear doors to blend more smoothly with the finned fenders. Ambassadors got a more ornate grille with a big "floating" hori­zontal bar. Powertrains were unchanged. Unlike most competitors, AMC had evidently decided the horsepower race was over.

Indisputably, the rush to compacts was on, and both Americans and the standard Ramblers had new competition in Studebaker's pert '59 Lark. Perhaps anticipating this, AMC expanded that year's American line by reviving the old two-door 100-inch-wheelbase wagon. Also offered in DeLuxe and Super trim, the compact hauler helped the smallest Rambler rack up 91,000 model-year sales. The bigger Ramblers also did very well in 1959's modest industrywide recovery. Ambassador took a satisfying leap to 23,769; standards attracted over a ­quarter-million sales. The latter were again mostly sixes, as Rebel V-8s found just 16,399 customers.

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1960, 1961, 1962 Rambler Cars

The 1962 Rambler American 400 convertible coupe was an upscaled, posh model.

In all, AMC's 1957-59 sales performance was a remarkable comeback from nail-biting 1954-56. And the good times kept on rolling. For 1960, Rambler recorded about 450,000 sales -- the highest annual output ever tallied by an independent manufacturer. Rambler ranked third in the 1961 production race despite volume that was 17 percent lower.

Though production for 1962 increased substantially, Rambler ran fifth that year as Pontiac and Olds swept by. The following year found Rambler dropping to eighth place. Output continued to be healthy, yet Rambler/AMC kept slipping: down to ninth for '65 and tenth by 1968.

Two management changes greatly affected Rambler in this period. First, the hard-driving George Romney left in 1962 to make his successful run for the Michigan statehouse. His successor, the ebullient Roy Abernethy, was far less loyal to sensible economy cars, and began an ambitious model expansion that ultimately proved misguided.

Abernethy stepped aside in 1966 for Roy D. Chapin, Jr., who became board chairman the following year, with William V. Luneberg as president. This team ordered further diversification, including new "make models" like the 1968 Javelin "ponycar." They also killed the Rambler name after the final Americans of 1969. That was probably wise because by that time, Rambler's sensible image had become more of a liability than an asset.

The compact American returned for 1960 with no fundamental change, but new Super and Custom four-door sedans helped lift model-year volume to 120,600. Though prices were slightly higher at $1781-$2235, the American remained one of the country's most-affordable cars. It also remained an anachronism with its '50s "Farina" styling and elderly L-head six. But sales were more than healthy enough to justify a full restyle for 1961.

Larger Ramblers were attractively restyled for 1960, gaining smoother lines, simple full-width grilles (fine-checked on Ambassador, eggcrate on Six/Rebel), less-intrusive sloped-back A-pillars (replacing vertical), shapelier fins (still mercifully modest), and new taillights.

Ambassadors also sported a "Scena-Ramic" windshield curved at the top as well as the sides. A three-seat wagon with a novel left-hinged swing-out tailgate was added to all three series. These changes were evidently well-considered, for AMC passed the billion-dollar mark in net sales for the first time and earned a $48-million profit.

The rebodied 1961 American was a rather odd bit of work by AMC chief designer Edmund A. Anderson (a veteran of Nash days). Boxy and truncated, it was three inches narrower and 5.2 inches shorter than the old '55-vintage design. Happily, the ancient six was modernized with an overhead-valve cylinder head (actually a mid-1960 change), which boosted optional bhp to 127. Existing body styles plus a new convertible and four-door wagons were sprinkled among the usual trims.

Posh "400" models were added for '62, and Custom moved down to displace Super. Series were retitled for '63 -- low-end 220, midpriced 330, and top-end 440 -- and hardtop coupes arrived, the last a bench-seat 440 and bucket-seat 440H. Styling changed only in detail each year. Though true economy cars with fair interior space, the 1961-63 Americans were hardly beautiful.

The Six/Rebel became Rambler's Classic for '61, announced by headlights moved into a checkerboard grille beneath a lower hood. V-8s departed for '62, but two-door sedans debuted, and all models wore a more involved grille and finless rear fenders. An interesting '62 Classic option (shared with American) was "E-Stick," a manual transmission with "automatic" clutch. Though it cost just $60, it was too complex to sell really well.

Ambassador, meantime, underwent a big change. The '61s carried a dubious facelift with pointy front-fender bottoms, heavily hooded headlamps, and a raked inverted-trapezoid grille. Hardtop sedans and wagons were axed. Returning from 1960 as base power was a two-barrel 250-bhp "economy" version of the 327 V-8; the 270-bhp engine was now optional. The '62 models effectively replaced Classic V-8s, and were demoted to the same 108-inch platform and given near-identical styling.

All this reflected sluggish Ambassador sales, which were little-changed for 1960 at 23,798 but only 18,842 for '61. The '62s fared much better at 36,171. Like Classic, the '62 Ambassador offered new two-door sedans, four-doors and wagons seating six or eight in DeLuxe, Custom, and top-shelf "400" trim; the last came with an automatic transmission. Prices were $2300-$3000.

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1963, 1964 Rambler Cars

1964 Rambler Classic Typhoon was a limited-edition sporty hardtop.

Richard A. Teague had joined the AMC styling staff by this time and would soon succeed Ed Anderson. But it was Anderson who shaped the Classic that was named Motor Trend magazine's 1963 "Car of the Year."

Featured was a wholly new 112-inch-wheelbase unibody platform -- the first since '56 -- with a lower silhouette, smoothly rounded flanks, and curved door glass. One-piece "Uniside" door-frame structures were a Detroit first that saved weight, increased rigidity, and reduced squeaks and rattles.Though styling remained a bit chunky, these Ramblers had never looked better.

They also went better thanks to a new 287-cid version of the familiar 327-cid V-8. Rated at 198 bhp, the 287 would remain through 1966. V-8 Classics combined good go with good mileage; even with "Flash-O-Matic" they could run 0-60 mph in about 10 seconds and return 16-20 mpg. Of course, the V-8s weighed more than six-cylinder Ramblers, so understeer was ­pronounced.

Teague refined the '63 Classic once Anderson left, giving '64 models stainless steel rocker moldings and a flat grille that replaced the concave design. Hardtops returned, but were now two-doors. Two- and four-door sedans and pillared four-door wagons returned in 550, 660, and 770 trim (replacing Deluxe, Custom, and 400).

Hardtops comprised the bench-seat 770 and bucket-seat Typhoon. The latter introduced a new short-stroke 232-cid "Typhoon" six (later "Torque Command") that began replacing the old 195.6-cid unit throughout the AMC line. Arriving with 145 bhp, the 232 spawned a destroked 128-bhp 199-cid version for '65-model 550s. The Typhoon itself was a year-only limited edition (2520 built) offering a black vinyl roof, Solar Yellow paint, and a sporty all-vinyl interior for $2509.

A new Classic implied a new Ambassador, but the '63 again shared Classic's wheelbase and styling (save the usual extra chrome bits). Series were retitled 800, 880, and 990, each with the previous three body styles. 800s were a tough sell and vanished for '64. So did 880s, leaving just 990s in four-door sedan and wagon body styles, plus a new hardtop coupe with altered styling a la Classic. Also listed was a sporty bucket-seat 990H hardtop with a standard 270-bhp 327 V-8.

Teague succeeded Anderson as AMC design chief on the strength of his pretty 1964 American. Ironically, this was a clever adaptation of Anderson's Classic, with Unisides shortened ahead of the cowl to give a 106-inch wheelbase. But that was still half a foot longer than American's previous span, and Teague used it to produce a well-proportioned compact with only modest brightwork. This styling was good enough to continue with only minor yearly changes through 1969 and the end of the Rambler marque.

The '64 American line repeated 1963's, then thinned for '66, when the bucket-seat 440H became a Rogue. A convertible Rogue was added for '67, only to vanish for '68, when the roster showed just a Rogue, two base-trim sedans, and the 440 as a four-door sedan and a wagon. Sixes continued to dominate American sales, with new-generation 199- and 232-cid engines delivering 128/145 bhp for 1967. But that same year brought American's first V-8 options: a new 290-cid small-block, derived from the 287, in 200- and 225-bhp tune. V-8s continued through Rambler's last stand, when American prices still began just shy of the magic $2000 mark.

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1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 Rambler Cars

For 1965, the Rambler Ambassador came in both hardtop and convertible models. The Ambassador 990-H Hardtop Coupe is shown here.

All 1965 Ramblers were advertised as "The Sensible Spectaculars," but that fuzzy logic applied mainly to a much-revised Classic and Ambassador. The former wore a new convex "dumbbell" grille, recontoured hood, and a longer, squared-up rear deck.

A convertible appeared in the 770 series, where Typhoon returned, this time as the 770H. Engine choices widened with an optional 155-bhp, 232-cid six and Ambassador's two 327 V-8s. The 770H became a Rebel for '66, when a light facelift featured new grilles and minor trim, a "crisp line" hardtop roof, and a reworked rear end for wagons.

Because the '64 Ambassador sold no better than the '63, the premium Rambler reverted to its own longer 116-inch wheelbase for 1965. Also back was an 880/990 lineup that included a pillarless 990H. Standard power was now the 155-bhp 232 six. The base V-8 was that year's new 287, with optional 327s, as before. An outer-sheetmetal redo bestowed rectilinear lines reminiscent of the Classic, plus a Vee'd bilevel grille and vertically stacked quad headlights. Ambassador also followed Classic in '65 by offering its first convertible, a 990. Trunk space improved on all nonwagon models, but passenger room didn't because the extra wheelbase length was again ahead of the cowl. There were no huge changes for '66, when Ambassador became a separate AMC "make."

Also new for '65 was the Classic-based Marlin, a fastback to battle Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda in the burgeoning sporty compact wars. A sweeping pillarless roof tapered down and inward at the back, and elliptical rear side windows helped keep it light-looking. This treatment had been previewed on a 1964 show car called Tarpon, based on Teague's new American, which carried it much better. Teague suggested a showroom version. Abernethy agreed, but insisted on besting rival 2+2s with a "3+3." Thus was Marlin molded on the Classic instead -- and suffered ungainly overall proportions from that car's fairly stubby hood. This likely explains why the new image-maker sold none too well despite decent performance and a reasonable $3100 base price. Only 10,327 were produced for '65, after which Marlin sold with diminishing success as its own "make" for two more years.

Rebel replaced Classic for an all-new group of midsize '67 Ramblers. A roomier new body/chassis rode a two-inch longer wheelbase (114 inches), and Teague contributed handsome contemporary styling marked by a floating rectangular grille, squarish front fenders flowing into "hippy" rear flanks, and a shapely deck with large, canted taillights. Besides the expected sixes, Rebels offered a new "thinwall" 290-cid V-8 option with 200 bhp; a bigger bore made for two new 343-cid engines packing 235 and 280 bhp. Other new features included extra-cost front-disc power brakes, available floorshift transmissions, and weight-saving Hotchkiss drive in place of Rambler's old torque-tube. Model choices diminished to two sedans and one wagon in 550 trim; midrange 770 sedan, wagon, and hardtop; and the sporty SST convertible and hardtop. Rebel then joined Marlin and Ambassador as a separate AMC "make."

Bidding an outrageous farewell to the Rambler name was the limited-edition 1969 SC/Rambler. This was basically a Rogue hardtop carrying a big new 315-bhp, 390-cid V-8, a working hood scoop, a four-speed manual transmission with Hurst shifter, heavy-duty suspension, and a cartoonish red-white-and-blue paint job. Priced at $2998, the "Scrambler," as it was inevitably nicknamed, was hardly sensible in the Rambler ­tradition, but it was a pretty spectacular junior muscle car. Published road tests confirmed AMC's claim of standing ­quarter-miles in the low 14s at around 100 mph. From rest, 60 mph came up in a reported 6.3 seconds. Production was only 1512, though that was triple the planned run.

Not many Rambler convertibles were built, no surprise given AMC's much smaller volume versus the Big Three. Though the ragtop American ran a full seven years (1961-67), the open Classic/Rebel lasted only four (1965-68), and the counterpart Ambassador just three (1965-67). AMC's most-productive soft-top year was 1965, when 3882 Americans, 4953 Classics, and 3499 Ambassadors were produced. All stand to grow in collector esteem and dollar value as the years roll by, as do interesting closed models like the '57 Rebel, the '64 Typhoon, and, of course, the "Scrambler."

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