image courtesy hemmings.com
For many blue collar kids, Rambler wagons were the minivans of working class suburbia. These were perfect as a family vehicle or as a second car since they had, by the 1960s, earned a reputation for dependability and economy. Since they were popular as new vehicles, there were a lot of used Ramblers filling the niche of families looking for dependable, second-car transportation as well. My Chicagoland neighborhood was filled with AMC products, especially wagons. And the back of those wagons were filled with us kids, exercising our all-American freedoms.
This was before it was common to have two-income families. During the 1970s, half of America’s families earned between $3000-$7000 a year and more than half of all married couples in these homes were raising more than a few children. Ramblers fit the image of no-nonsense parenting and families had over a decade of new and used AMC products to meet their needs during the era.
Us kids grew up riding in the way-back, rear-facing Rambler wagon car seat. Riding in the third seat was the best. We didn’t have to stand on the transmission hump to see over the front seat. We were spared the full effects of the Winstons or Kents saturating the front seat with second-hand tobacco goodness and of the ripe diapers our baby siblings were filling. The Rambler third seat was too small for an adult, and too far from mom for a baby. When Mom or Dad let us sit back there, it was an acknowledgement that we could be trusted to behave, big enough to be on our own with the other kids. The Rambler way-back seat was where a kid could be a kid and get away with it! Freedom!
In the way-back there was little between us and the car following us, except a rear bumper, and a tail gate. We had huge windows surrounding us on all three sides and without air conditioning, it wasn’t unusual for the rear window to be down. This created a buffeting of air at the back of our heads, through to the rear. Can you imagine going 80 miles per hour in reverse? I can! We did that on the Dan Ryan Expressway, or when making any trip into the Loop when traffic was light. The feeling of speeding backwards at expressway speeds while facing the giant bug-encrusted grille of a Pontiac Bonneville a few yards away is something few experience today.
We behaved for at least a few miles on these trips, but the moment an opportunity presented itself, the fight was on! During more peaceful moments, our three prepubescent dinosaur boy brains would kick in and get us to begin wondering how we could fight the boredom creeping into our skulls. It usually began with a whispered, snickering, “Watch this!”, followed quickly with an older child’s cautionary, but muffled, “NO!” A tissue mom gave me to wipe my snotty nose would then “accidentally” fly out through the tail gate window, then strike quickly onto the speeding pavement and be driven over by the car following us. “Way cool – now watch this!” Out goes a Dairy Queen cup!
“MOM!” “I didn’t do it!” “He’s littering!” “It was an accident!” “DAD!?”
“What the hell-heck’s going on back there! God help you if I have to pull over! I’ll be damn-danged if I let you ride back there again! YOU HEAR ME? I’m not in the mood for a butt whipping, but if you throw one more piece of shit-CRAP out of that window…YOU HEAR ME?! GEEZ – dropped my cigarette!”
“Feel under the baby seat – pick it up before it burns another hole! Stop yelling at the kids and drive, dammit!”
image courtesy allthatspam.blogspot
Rear-facing kids also become expert at entertaining the drivers following a Rambler. It often began with a stare at the pipe smoking guy behind the wheel, wearing Ray-Bans driving with his cute wife and baby riding across the bench seat of a Chevy Impala. Then when we believed he was looking into our faces, we would stick out our tongues, pick our noses, shake our heads, or smile like we had just been released from a psych ward. Most drivers seeing us do this would politely ignore us. Women would often smile or wrinkle their noses like they smelled a delinquent. If we got too disgusting in our antics, the cars would drop back, pass or…
“Why the hell is that idiot honking at us? What the hell-heck are you kids doing back there?”
A drawback to this seat was nausea. If any of us were in any way queasy before climbing into the rear-facing seat, riding backwards only aggravated it. My littlest siblings were often carsick and we had a plastic bucket for when they puked. When they were riding in the Rambler’s way-back, we would feel a need to stare at them if they got too quiet or looked like they would hurl. If one of them started, the other usually joined in and we’d have two kids barfing in the Rambler’s way-back. Whenever this happened, I’d hold my breath, close my eyes and try to climb over the seat like a panicked rat escaping a fire.
“DAD! SHE’S GONNA THROW UP! AHHHH!”
“What the hell is going on back there? HOLY MOTHER OF ALL THINGS HOLY – GET THE F’N BUCKET! Why is that idiot honking at us? WE KNOW! WHAT? WHO threw the barf bucket out the window for Crap’s sake?”
I can’t help but look at a Rambler wagon and fondly smile.