Curbside Classics: 1960 and 1964 Rambler Americans – Peak Rambler x 2

I found these two Rambler Americans only a few blocks apart from each other in Berkeley.  They share a name, a hometown, a general color scheme, and both of them see regular use.  Both of them, in their own way, are “peak Rambler”.

The top one is an example of the Custom trim level, the top-of-the-line in 1960, the last year of the first generation American.  By this time the design, a direct descendant of the 1950 Nash Rambler (notable for its ground-breaking and somewhat ridiculous fully-enclosed front wheels), was quite behind the times stylistically. I actually think the styling has worn well.  The front is unique and purposeful, and from the sides and the rear it looks to me quite similar to the Volvo Amazon sedan – and who doesn’t like the Amazon?

Front view of the 1960 Rambler American Custom

Rear view of the 1960 Rambler American Custom

I don’t know if you can still fold the seats down flat in one of these, though I think you could in earlier versions.  Interesting, though, it has split-bench front seats.  I didn’t know they had those!

You could get a 3-speed auto (a Borg-Warner unit) or get your 3-speed with or without overdrive; the latter is probably the ticket for modern highway speeds.  I took these shots a long time ago, and I think I remember seeing a clutch pedal.  From looking at Rambler brochures the lever position was basically the same for an auto and a three-speed, but the auto had a little gear-position indicator to the right of the instrument panel, which you don’t see in these photos.  So my memory is probably correct that this one had a manual.

The rear seat looks reasonably inviting too, especially compared with, oh, say, an AMC Pacer for example.  Sorry this last picture has a lot of glare, I did my best.

Ramblers came with the famous Nash “Weather-Eye” climate control system, at one time the leader in the industry, and still at this time I believe top-of-the-heap.

I believe by this time the Rambler American was available with an optional, and somewhat peppy OHV six, shared with its larger stablemates, though probably this example probably has the economical ~90 hp flathead six.  Probably the biggest thing the Rambler had going against it was the 1950’s-era styling.  I’m told that the bulbous styling meant it actually was quite tight width-wise in the interior, a lot of space was wasted in those flow-through fenders.  Even so, with unibody construction it was light-weight, peppy enough, was the least-expensive car you could buy, and helped AMC to 3rd place in sales for 1960.

The next few years saw Rambler sales hit pretty hard though, as the Falcon, Valiant, Dart, resurgent Studebaker Lark, and the Corvair and Chevy II all took a bite out of Rambler American sales, which were also compromised by a restyle which to my mind was entirely unsuccessful, “nautical” in a manner that was much more successfully explored by the first-generation Corvair and the BMW 2002.  You might say the design was all-wet from the get-go.

All that was rectified with the completely redesigned third-generation American, unveiled in 1964, the year (could also be a 1965, as best as I can tell, the plates once more do not come up in any search) of our other featured Rambler.  It was considered a styling success from the start, and to my eyes its styling continued to evolve in a generally positive direction up until it was replaced by the Hornet in 1970.

Like many of its contemporaries (Falcon, Dart, Valiant) the design was clean, practical, and with performance acceptable even to this day.  I don’t really know what happened to American automobile manufacturers in the 1970’s, but they seemed to know what they were doing in the 1960’s.  I have read a number of histories, and still don’t quite understand the forces (engineering/manufacturing/marketing) that drove what I consider a devolution of the American car from a peak in the mid-1960’s, especially in the area of “compact” cars, to the lows that each and every manufacturer reached in the 1970’s.  As far as I can tell it was not necessarily the oil shocks or the prospect of emissions standards that drove these developments, because the direction had been set before the full weight of these forces had been appreciated.

In any case, this 1964 Rambler American 330 (not the top-of-the-line 440) is still running strong.  It could even have the same 196 cubic inch flathead (or optional ohv) six as its older  sibling.  This was again a banner year for Rambler, with a record number of Americans sold, more than 160,000.  You can see why, it’s actually a pretty sharp looking car to my eyes, worlds apart from the dowdiness of the previous generations, but still maintaining the same set of Rambler virtues on the inside.

It is also regularly driven, and perhaps has led a bit harder life than its older sibling.

The original owner of this one looks to have splurged though, and bought it with an automatic, which from my research was a Borg-Warner M35 three-speed, which was also available on the previous generations.

Despite the presence of the automatic, the rest of this Rambler is sensibly spartan, though again it does share the split-bench seats of its older sibling.  Quite well-worn, if still serviceable.

Seems to me there’s a little less rear-seat leg-room in the more modern of our two Ramblers (just like in the airlines!), though perhaps a little more in the width category.  That may just be an optical illusion, however.

You did get some nice steelies with some rather-fetching hubcaps.

The tinworm has taken a few bites out of this Rambler, but I betcha there are still a few more miles left in it, given the mildness of the Bay Area climate.

Looks like this one is a refugee from a less-forgiving climate – and a recent one at that.  Quite a miracle the tinworm hasn’t taken a bigger bite already.

So, there you have it.  Peak Rambler.  1960, 1964.  Just a few short years later AMC would go from the highs seen here to the lows of the Matador Coupe, the Pacer, and the Gremlin.  Here, at least, are examples of how good AMC could get, if they only could have kept the clear vision that led to these eminently practical and rather fetching designs – and some pretty nice colors on these two examples as well.  Which one would you choose?  I’d take the 1960, but I’m a little weird like that.