(first posted 1/22/2014) Sitting in a San Pedro Service Station parking lot, this little car looks somewhat unremarkable. Despite that, this 1957 Rambler Super V-8 marks the beginning of a very successful venture for American Motors.
As this car is over fifty years old, it represents a completely different time in the American car industry. Those of us born after 1960 may not remember the broad variety of cars available in the 1950s, but in addition to the big three, there were at least SIX viable independent nameplates (plus some not so viable nameplates such as Willys and Tucker).
This collage represents those six independent makes. In 1950, the nameplates were all roughly equal. Each manufacturer brought strengths and weaknesses to the table, but they all appeared to have a fighting chance in the market. However, this would change very quickly.
To balance these strengths and weaknesses, several manufacturers chose the merger path. In doing so they hoped to build on existing strengths, while minimizing weaknesses. One of the first mergers occurred in 1954, when Nash and Hudson combined to form American Motors.
Changes occurred immediately, and in 1955 all Hudson models were replaced with Nash-based designs. The new full sized Hudson included unique sheet metal to differentiate it from the Nash, but on the compact side, American Motors simply placed Hudson badges on their compact Rambler (they also did this with the subcompact Metropolitan, but that’s a different story).
Our featured car arrived the next year (1956) and included either a Nash or Hudson badge on the hood. In addition to our four door sedan and the four door hardtop pictured above, the ’56 Nash (or Hudson) Rambler also came as a wagon. This four door hardtop with the optional continental spare tire on the rear and maybe a few sandbags in the trunk helps to makes it look a bit longer and lower than the standard sedan.
These “All-New All-American” cars used the 108″ wheelbase from the prior Rambler four door (for 1956, AMC dropped the two door model with its 100″ wheelbase). Using the longer wheelbase brought AMC’s compacts somewhat closer to the dimensions of the typical US car, and the fresh styling eliminated the older cars’ rounded sheet metal, replacing it with the angular styling popular in the mid-fifties. Having identified a substantial niche in the market for a more compact sedan that could still seat six (in a pinch), these cars sold quite well. For the 1956 model year, they still wore Nash and Hudson badges, despite being otherwise identical. The loss of the two door model led to a small drop in overall Rambler sales, but four door sales held their own and pointed AMC in a new direction.
This new direction was hard to avoid: from 1954 to 1957, Hudson and Nash large car sales dropped precipitously, while the Rambler nameplate caught fire. Recognizing that the compact car segment provided them with their only viable business plan, American Motors made big changes in 1957. Among these was the plan to drop the Nash and Hudson badges and sell the cars under its own brand, Rambler. They also put plans in place to lengthen the Rambler’s wheelbase and add a new upscale model (the Ambassador).
Given there were full sized Nash and Hudson models still available in 1957, why did the company need a larger Rambler? Simple–as of 1958, there would be no more Nash or Hudson automobiles. This 1957 Rambler represents not only the first Rambler, but also the launching point for all AMC products moving forward.
This image shows all the elements critical to the success of this car. In addition to a Rambler nameplate that promised economy, Ramblers came with an upgraded trim level (the Rambler Super) and a new V-8 engine. These elements helped deliver a car buyers were looking for in the late 50s.
This V-8 had been available in the full sized Nash and Hudson models in 1956, but ’57 marked the first year it came in a Rambler. It displaced 250 cubic inches, was rated at 190 hp, and would go on to provide AMC with V-8 power right up through 1966, when the new AMC V8 engine family began to replace it. The oft-told story is that this engine was originally conceived at Kaiser, but when Kaiser began to flounder, its engineer moved to AMC, along with the blueprints. Undoubtedly, it was developed further at AMC.
A larger displacement version with 327 cubic inches powered the legendary 1957 Rambler Rebel, often considered to be the first “muscle car”, with its 255 hp (the 288 hp fuel injected version never went into production) and excellent power-to-weight ratio .
While the interior doesn’t look so “Super,” it met the requirements of the day. When it came to features, Ramblers did not short their owners compared to other manufacturers. They offered good ventilation systems, and a four speed “Flash-Away” automatic transmission option, actually a GM Hydramatic. In late 1957, the Three-speed Borg-Warner Flash-O-Matic replaced the Flash-Away. Not much to hang your hat on today, but critical technology at that time.
There’s much to be said about the styling of the ’56 and ’57 Ramblers. We could go with kitschy, or highly stylized, or appropriate for the times. It’s hard to argue the cars were ugly, since they sold quite well. Still, that’s the direction I’m leaning. Perhaps the styling makes more sense if you lived through the fifties. If so, I simply lack perspective, and I’ll leave further discussion on the subject for the comments section.
So to conclude, how did this Rambler fare? For a time, very well. As of 1957, five of our six independent nameplates were gone- Frazer, Kaiser, Packard, Nash and Hudson. Studebaker remained standing, but only by offering stripped versions of their big car, sold at fire sale prices. Our image from the early fifties now contains two badges, with the Rambler badge eclipsing poor Studebaker.
In 1958, Studebaker attempted to leapfrog AMC with their “new” Lark. While this new compact increased Studebaker sales, it was a case of too little, too late. Too broaden the Rambler line, AMC had brought back their 100″ wheelbase platform as the Rambler American. This reskinned compact helped overall sales and also staved off Studebaker’s charge.
If we look at the numbers, we can see how well this little Rambler performed. From 1950 to 1957, no independent nameplate averaged more than 150,000 cars per year. In contrast, the Rambler brand averaged over 195,000 cars per year in the final three years of the decade. A solid showing, which created the financial foundation needed to keep AMC going into the 1980s.