Automotive Alter-History: X-Ray Specs – AMC Spins a Tale of the Tape

x-ray cover post

(first posted 1/16/2015)    Recently, I heard a story on National Public Radio about the symbiotic but ironic roles played by reason and emotion in the process of making choices. A young man who had survived an operation for removal of a tumor on his prefrontal cortex lost the ability to feel emotion. Left with only rational brain function, he was paradoxically unable to make decisions because all options proved equally reasonable to him. It seems our irrational side is primal in the act of making that final choice.

From 1958 to 1965 (according to the info I have found), American Motors produced a series of X-Ray ad brochures, distributed alongside the conventional make/model catalogs at dealerships, targeting the rational element in decision-making in hopes of selling cars. In the guise of factual compilations, they spun info on the turntable of opinion. IMHO, the 32 page 1960 edition was the best of them; it featured a gray-templed man in a white lab coat demonstrating what were claimed to be superior features of Ramblers in comparison to their rivals. Since my first view of the 1960 X-Rays, I’ve wanted to do a parody, and thanks to CC and 50+ years of experience in visual arts, I finally have a theatre for the act and the skills to carry it off. As some of you have noticed, I like to take the chance that my stuff will make people scratch their heads. Following are some of those X-Ray comparisons, pulled from the brochure and re-imagined.

x-ray cover reimagined 1

American Motors, under George Romney, if not succeeding to counter the influx of Volkswagens and other imports head-on with the Metropolitan, did score a success by dusting off the 1950-55 Rambler body dies and re-inventing it as the “compact” American in 1958. The X-Ray brochures even take the trouble of making that claim with an asterisk every time they use the word “compact”, leading to a note that declares, “Pioneered by American Motors”. To be sure, the high pockets design of the American, rooted in the early ’50s’ ideal of headroom for Dad’s Sunday fedora, did retain many user-friendly and practical features, and many of the comparisons in the brochures are fair. For example, there was a huge advantage in range given American by its 22 gallon gas tank, compared to the 11 to 14 gallon tanks of its Big Three rivals. But even the most ardent AMC fan had to admit that the “facts” in the X-Rays were sometimes skewed or simply irrelevant.

x-ray door thickness reimagnined

Lauding the American’s width (not only wider than all the other compacts, but even wider than a standard Rambler by nearly an inch!), the X-Ray leads the reader down a garden path of exterior avoirdupois that doesn’t translate to interior dimensions. Lark, at 3 inches shorter than American, is chided for being “harder to maneuver in traffic” with its “bulky” 8 1/2″ longer wheelbase (How long was the list of adjectives in the meeting that yielded “bulky”?). Unmentioned is the intrusion of wheel wells into the American’s rear seat, severely limiting hip room which, at a meager 45″, was a whopping 15″ less than in the Studebaker (itself a compact refashioned from a standard sized car). And without mandated crash tests as proof, AMC had only gut feelings to back up the claim that American’s thicker doors added to side impact protection.

In the photochop above, I’ve re-imagined the door thickness comparison as a way to promote American’s ample display space for oil-change stickers. Note how the Rambler’s pic is cropped more tightly by the art director, giving the impression of even greater width.

x-ray engine reimagined

As might be expected, the Corvair is singled out for much of the X-Ray brochure’s scorn, losing to American in 17 direct comparisons (followed by Valiant at 13, Falcon at 9 and Lark at 5). Corvair is criticized for being too low, too narrow and too downright weird. The main complaint lay in the engine bay. “Corvair has twin carburetors that must be kept in constant synchronized adjustment”. By comparison, the spin doctors make Rambler’s ancient flat head sound like the pinnacle of engine design, with its “Iso-Thermal Intake Manifold” cast into the block that “allows engine coolant to preheat the fuel-air mixture, increasing operating efficiency” (intercooler, anyone?). But the 600 lb. gorilla in the comparison was placement. American is implied safer with its front mounted engine whose “mass and weight may help absorb impact”.

In the illustration above, our Technician gestures with shock and surprise at the Corvair’s front compartment, wondering why it looks so darned different from everything else.

x-ray fuel fillers reimagined

The Corvair’s fuel tank is also a sore spot. Not only is it just half the size of American’s at 11 gallons, its location is “in a dangerous position” just ahead of the passenger compartment. Implications of flaming catastrophe are in the air with a fuel filler “forward of the driver creating a hazard”, a “hollow front end” that “affords limited protection” and “light gauge bumpers, set flush against the body”.

Above, the Corvair’s front mounted fuel filler puts your alert, uniformed attendant in position to foil any driver hoping to beat the tab on a gas purchase.

x-ray shifter quadrant reimagnined

Even the Corvair’s transmission indicator is found to be wanting. X-Ray complains about the lack of a Park position in its quadrant, or a modern, step-on parking brake. One is led to imagine the sight of hill towns overrun with driverless rogue Corvairs.

In the above illustration, American’s shift lever signals changes to the engine room, while Corvair’s quadrant indicates a ship dead in the water.

x-ray rear view reimagined

Under X-Rays, Ramblers are taken for granted as superior in every way to the small imports. Hillman shows up in only one direct comparison–in station wagons–easy pickins for the American in a cargo volume shoot out (The Simca Le Chatalaine wagon suddenly appears, takes its lumps, then disappears). But the X-Ray manages to single out the VW for looking “small”, a direct swipe at VW’s most famous advert, “Think small.”. Its only direct comparisons with American are for the diminutive engine and for its smallish rear window, of all things.

Above, The VW rear view mirror is criticized for not matching the rear window’s shape.

x-ray basic excellence

All in all, the X-Ray does a Senator’s job of calling itself unbiased while claiming Ramblers as the best cars, “in terms of usefulness to the user”. It indulges in double talk to the point where my head spins even while I chuckle at the hutzpah it took to produce such a hagiographic tract under the guise of fact. I’m still not sure what “The New Standard of Basic Excellence” means. This kind of advertising is the domain of the 4th banana, and that makes it rather benign. The X-Ray makes the automotive world a funnier place, and I’m happy with that.

AMC X ray sides

Update: Here’s a late addition of another page.