I was in college in the mid-1990s when something improbable happened. At many of the coffee houses, clothing stores and eating spots that I would frequent, I started hearing a soundtrack of lounge music, swing jazz, vocal pop, and exotica from the 1950s and ’60s. Right around 1996, it was as if a rheostat had been turned exactly one hundred eighty degrees. At many places where I had become accustomed to hearing the guitar-driven modern rock of Blur, Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders and the Cranberries (RIP Dolores O’Riordan), all of a sudden I was shopping, eating and drinking my coffee to the channel-separated, space-age orchestration of Esquivel, the tropical fantasies of Les Baxter, and the choral and instrumental masterpieces of Henry Mancini. Various editions of Capitol’s “Ultra Lounge” series of compilations were suddenly the latest, greatest thing – and being played everywhere in my college town of Gainesville, Florida.
My grandparents had played Mancini on their hi-fi all the time when I was growing up, and while I had liked that music as a kid (“Pink Panther” theme, anyone?), I had no idea I’d later be listening to this music in places run and owned by people I had considered to be tastemakers. The script had been completely flipped, and at that point, it seemed like anything that had previously been considered hopelessly square was now considered the best thing, ever.
With that, allow me to present our featured car. Rambler, as a brand, was never cool. They made some cars that were great (like our featured car), or interesting (the Rogue-based ’69 SC/Rambler comes to mind), or both – all of which predated my existence, but from what I’ve read, there was never a Rambler that, when new, was considered even remotely fashionable. I have always tended to love the underdog, and there’s something I find powerfully endearing about the first Marlin fastback, which was based on the ’65 Classic. While I find the larger, Ambassador-sized, final-year ’67 edition a genuinely great-looking car (which, ironically, sold the fewest of its three years on the market), it’s the stubbier ’65 and ’66 models that really tug on my heartstrings.
They remind me a little bit of myself as a dorky middle school student, trying so very hard to be cool by emulating my stylish, older brother who was, by then, a college man. Much like it’s almost as if I had gone through a checklist of all of his admirable, apparent qualities (the hairstyle, the clothes – even trying to listen to and like some of the more, let’s say, experimental music he had discovered), it seemed as if Rambler had tried a similar approach with the Marlin. Hmmm, let’s see… “cool kid” qualities… Fastback profile: check. Optional V8 power: check. (Well, actually, shame on me, as these are the only two I’ve been able to come up with.) We all know how the Marlin’s story turned out, thanks to an entertaining read by Paul Niedermeyer. I digress.
What had struck me about our featured car, which was formerly for sale at a local, neighborhood vintage store about six years back, was that it looked like it had been a fairly well-preserved family hauler… until a surfer / skater / gearhead had turned it into his or her ride of choice, if the stickers on its windows are any indication. Skaters were another subset of kids I had gone to high school with that I had thought were eminently cool. That group’s seeming near-complete lack of care about anything spoke to a rule-following, law-abiding kid like me. That such a car as this Rambler (a station wagon, no less) had been owned (presumably) by a grown-up version of such an individual seemed to be one of the highest endorsements of this car’s newfound hip-factor.
The ’63 Rambler Classic was all-new that year, and a big step forward from the ’62 model it replaced. New unibody construction tightened up its superstructure, and also saved about 100 pounds across the entire range. A V8 option was new that year, which was a debored version of the 327 used in the top-line Ambassador. So equipped, these cars could accelerate reasonably well, able to do 0-60 mph in about ten seconds. All of these positives and more contributed to the Classic line being named Motor Trend’s Car Of The Year for 1963.
This was just two years after the Rambler make had ranked (a distant) third for ’61 in total production among U.S. makes, after Ford and Chevrolet, with close to 378,000 units built. By ’63, Rambler’s ranking had slipped to 6th (now also behind Pontiac, Plymouth, and Oldsmobile), though sales had increased for the second, consecutive year, to 464,000 units. This ’63 660 “Cross Country” wagon was the second-most popular combination of trim-level and body style among all Classics that year, with 52,000 sold, with the most popular version being the 660 four-door sedan, with 71,600 sold.
Did all of these noteworthy things finally make the economy-minded Rambler brand cool? Again, I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve been able to gather, all signs point to “no”. Competence and excellence often do not necessarily translate to fashionability. Just like my dad had been dumbfounded during my high school years when I had rescued some of his old, plaid, polyester trousers from Mom’s Goodwill donation bag and started wearing them, sometimes there’s just no accurate predictor for what people might eventually find desirable. In the case of our featured car, its original, utter lack of cool – likely in the hands of an early owner who placed a premium on this car’s capabilities over its image – probably prolonged its life. Simply by being itself, this Classic 660 Cross Country wagon won out in the end, hopefully with many more chapters in its existence still to be written.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, May 5, 2012.