Curbside Classic: 1963 Rambler Classic 660–Ed Anderson’s Departing Farewell Is A Classic As Well As Motor Trend’s COTY

(first posted 12/7/2012)     The Dick Teague era at AMC was colorful, to say the least. It covered a full spectrum, from handsome conventionality to highly questionable unconventionality, with lots of (seemingly random) points in between–some were brilliant, and others disasters. But what of his predecessor, Ed Anderson? The former Nash Design Chief ran the AMC Studios until Teague replaced him sometime around 1962. Unlike GM’s Harley Earl, who retired in the midst of a palace revolt, Anderson’s parting shot was undoubtedly his best ever, a veritable Classic.

For a decade, all mid-size Ramblers rode basically the same 108″ wheelbase platform. It started life in 1954 underpinning the first four-door Rambler. Although a new and decidedly larger offshoot of the original 1950 Rambler compact, its styling clearly reflected the influence of the earlier, Pininfarina-era Nashes that we’ll write about another time.

From 1956 until 1963, every Classic and Ambassador was based on an effective restyle of that platform. Quite contemporary at its introduction, the Classic actually was something of a design pioneer: It was one of the first mass-produced cars whose headlights eschewed the traditional fender-top position and were instead mounted down low inside the grille. And who inspired that? Pininfarina, who else?

The Italian master had been commissioned to provide designs for the new 1952 Nashes. Although his proposals for the big Nashes were reworked considerably by Ed Anderson, they clearly incorporated many Pininfarina styling trademarks. Naturally, Ed didn’t get a share of the credit; after all, “Anderson” just doesn’t have the same ring as “Pinin Farina”.

But Pininfarina’s redesign for the 1952 Nash-Healey, with the distinctive headlight-in-grille would also grace the ’56 Rambler, was left intact. They might have called it the Nash Healey Pinin. So for the record, Ed Anderson gets credit for the 1956 sedans, but the front end is obviously pure Pininfarina. Is everyone feeling properly recognized?

In 1958, when Rambler became a stand-alone brand,  Ed was finally able to put his own face on the 108″ platform, followed by a few subsequent re-touches…

…all the way through the final 1962s. By then, it had become embarrassingly out-of date, a car only a spinster librarian would be caught semi-alive in.

Anderson’s penultimate project was the reskin of the 1961 American. Some folks have praised the design for cleverly disguising its 1950-Rambler underpinnings, but I call it an unmitigated disaster that could have just as well emerged from Tonka Toy Motors’ Un-Advanced Studio. Of course, by now it looks hip, and I’ve come to accept the goofy stance and proportions. Still, it’s a good thing Ed didn’t decide to retire at that point. It wouldn’t have done much for his legacy.

The cracker-box American was merely a temporary, cheap stopgap until something all-new came along. While Rambler desperately needed something new in all three of its lines, there was just one little problem: AMC lacked the means to create at a minumum the two new platforms/unibodies to replace the aged ones: A mid-sizer for the Classic and Ambassador and something smaller for the American. Their solution–like so many inspired by sheer necessity–was quite brilliant.

top image:

AMC designed one new unibody shell to be used throughout all three series. While it would be stretched a bit for the larger cars, it allowed AMCs of all sizes to share such expensive stampings as doors and other parts. The 112″ wheelbase, wide-body version debuted on the 1963 Classic (bottom picture) and Ambassador; it was then shortened and narrowed a bit for the new 1964 American (on top): Same doors, same basic chassis. Although they covered a fairly broad spectrum of the market, AMC was, essentially, a one-platform company. Maybe they should have stayed one.

The 1963 Ambassador was nothing more than an upscale Classic; never had their differences been so minor, nor would they be again. The Amby could be had only with the big 327 cu in V8 in either 250 or 275 hp form. In 1974, the Big Three might well have wished for such a well-trimmed “downsized” sedan, but in 1963, when mega-sized cars ruled the land, it was a bit of a joke. Changing economic and other factors were now crippling AMC. The formula that had worked so brilliantly in 1956- 1961 was now very much out of sync.

The small-but-fine Ambassador essentially was DOA, and meanwhile the Classic arrived at the peak of the hot new midsize market. The Big Three had firmly stepped into what had been the Classic’s almost exclusive domain. That undoubtedly blunted sales for the new Classic, which might have been quite a substantial success otherwise. As such, it merely managed a moderate increase over its geriatric predecessor. The Big Three were tightening the noose on AMC.

Th mid-sized segment’s appeal and growth was quite logical. With the relentless growth of full-sized cars, midsizers made perfect sense to folks who wanted basic transportation roomier than a compact, but not an excessively long, full-size Detroit barge. It was at the heart of a sensible sweet spot, on that Rambler essentially created in 1954 and popularized starting in 1956.


What’s more, the price was right. A 1964 Classic 550 four-door cost all of sixty bucks more than the cheapest American four-door. Of course, except for the Classic’s wider interior and maybe slightly better ride from a longer wheelbase, they were pretty similar.

This rear end is signature late-period Ed Anderson–a wee bit goofy, perhaps, but he didn’t want the boxy Classic to be too dull and dreary. The un-Classic?

Those extra few inches in width allowed three-across seating in the Classic , not that many ever did so. In their day, these Ramblers had an utterly bipolar effect on kids. On one hand, they were reviled as dumb, dull and stupid, the complete opposite of the 1963 Grand Prix ultimate date-mobile–at least when it came to getting a first date.

However, once the date had been secured (and was willing), young people simply revered the Rambler’s front seats that famously folded down to create a big, flat bed. In contrast, the contemporary GP’s bucket seats-and-console formed a very effective cock-blocker (in my younger son’s parlance). The ultimate irony.

Part of the Rambler’s image problem came from the wheezy old 195.6 cu in OHV six, whose flathead roots date to a distant era, that powered virtually every Classic. By 1963, AMC’s experimentation with an aluminum-block version was at an end. Like the Vega engine of a decade later, its standard cast-iron head had been slapped on a lightweight aluminum block, a combination whose issues included overheating problems related to unhappy chemical interactions between the aluminum, iron and copper radiator, as well as other problems. Once standard in all 1962 Classics (unless the cast-iron version was specified), by 1963 it was now standard only in the top-line Classic 770. And by 1964, it was another historical footnote, one preferably forgotten.

A 287 cu in, 198-hp V8 was optional, but not really common in Classics. Ramblers were all about thrift and fold down seats. While rugged and reliable, it also was heavy, having been designed in the pre-thinwall era. The V8s in these cars only exacerbated a weakness shared by all Ramblers of this vintage: Handling that was mediocre, or worse.

Most contemporary tests made note of the malady, which had plagued Ramblers from the  beginning. Chassis engineering was not AMCs strong suit, which only helped reinforce its dull-car image. The new chassis that arrived in 1967 went some distance to ameliorate that, but AMC could never hope to keep up with GM’s rapid progress in that area, especially in the seventies.  There was a reason it was called Rambler rather than Rusher.

While hardly flamboyant, the very clean lines of the ’63 were both commendable and contemporary–something like the Volvo 240 of its time. Or the 740, since this is the wide-body version.

Dick Teague joined AMC around 1962, and his influence is first seen on the 1964 Ramblers. The new American that debuted in 1964 was a very fine effort. He not only managed to make it distinctive despite its shared body parts, but also gets credit for the new hardtop roof, as there just weren’t any for 1963.

Teague obviously wasn’t too keen on Ed’s concave front end, since the ’64 Classic and Ambassador each sported a more conventional nose. Again, it’s quite apparent that these two hardtops share quite a bit of skin.; in fact, this body went on to enjoy a very long life in Argentina, where it was badged Torino. I did that story here, except I mistakenly credited Teague for the ’63. It’s never too late to learn; my apologies, Ed, even though Dick actually did the hardtop roof that appeared in ’64. Shared honors!

At least this clean and boxy body didn’t have to last nearly as long as the previous one. Or the next.

By 1967, Roy Abernethy’s push to go mano-a-mano with the Big Three resulted in the bigger 1967 Rebel. It was quite a handsome car before subsequent restyles thoroughly mucked it up…what else is new?

But in 1963 AMC could bask in the glow of Motor Trend’s COTY award for their new Classic. In retrospect it seems a dubious choice, given the other cars that debuted that year–the Buick Riviera, Corvette Sting Ray, Pontiac GP–august competition indeed. Even so, any car named Classic deserves some serious Curbside love here, don’t you think?