Curbside Classic: 1959 Rambler American – Beep Beep

(first posted 6/8/2018)         When someone says “Beep Beep”, the first thing that comes to mind can be generational.  In my age group the Road Runner (cartoon or Plymouth) is usually that first thing.  OK, that one was really “Meep Meep”, but let us not quibble.  However, for those a little older “Beep Beep” reminds people of the “little Nash Rambler” of the 1958 novelty hit “Beep Beep” by the Playmates.  But this older association will come to all of your minds today as we take a look at this surprisingly successful compact car.

Quick: What is the oldest passenger car design in production in the U.S. in 1958-60?  Most people would have guessed the Studebaker, and they would not have been far off.  There was also the Willys Jeep station wagon, but it was more of a truck than a passenger car, so it doesn’t really count.  The answer might be this curious little Rambler.

Originally introduced in 1950, the Nash Rambler was one of America’s first postwar attempts to sell a compact car to American car buyers.  In those pre-American Motors days, Nash decided that trying to sell a small cheap car was not the way to go.  Instead, the first Rambler was offered only as a convertible.  Although kind of an unusual convertible, one whose top slid down past fixed side pillars and roof-edge railings, making something of a cross between a convertible and a two door sedan.

Actually, this wasn’t the first Rambler either, strictly speaking.  The very first car put out by the Thomas B Jeffrey Company in 1902 had been called Rambler.  That first Rambler kept the Kenosha, Wisconsin manufacturer in business long enough for Charlie Nash to buy it after he washed his hands of William Durant (and the presidency of General Motors) in 1916.  The Rambler went away then in favor of cars named after the new owner.  But then Nash Motors (as with AMC after it) had a uniquely frugal way of keeping things around for use later.

The 1950 Rambler didn’t set the world on fire, but it was far from a failure.  No bargain, this version of the Rambler was priced at $1808 and included whitewalls, wheelcovers, a clock and a pushbutton A.M. radio as standard equipment.  9,330 units out the door after a mid-year introduction was not bad, especially considering that it trailed full-year production of the similarly priced Studebaker Champion convertible by only about 30 units, in what might have been the Stude ragtop’s best year ever.

It was joined by a two door hardtop and a two door station wagon in 1951 and remained in production through 1955.  In 1956 the relatively new American Motors Corporation brought out an all new line of Ramblers.

This was a larger and much more modern car that came in a full complement of body styles and engine availability, including a hot new V8.  The following year would see the end of the Nash and Hudson names as the old senior cars were killed off.  Henceforth, these new Ramblers would take the lead in carrying the company against Detroit.

AMC’s Nash, Hudson and Metropolitan lines (including Nash and Hudson Ramblers) had combined for about 148,000 units in 1955.  But 1956 saw those numbers erode to around 115,000 before eking their way up to about 122,000 the following year.  President George Romney must have been watching those sales numbers and noticing that within them sales of the big cars were in a freefall while the smaller Rambler and the teeny Metropolitan were surging.  Romney no doubt also noticed that the ultra-cheap Scotsman was proving to be a surprising success for the competition from northern Indiana.  It was clear that small, inexpensive cars were becoming a thing in a softening auto market.  “Hmmmm – what did we do with that old Rambler . . . .”

Yes, the 1955 Nash (and Hudson) Rambler that had been in its sixth year of production when it was finally euthanized in favor of the flashy new model.  It was Romney’s good fortune that Nash had finally added a two  door sedan to the lineup for what was supposed to be the car’s final year.  The ’55 version also got re-tooled front fenders that finally exposed the wheels so that the thing did not look completely like the old Nash Airflyte.

All that was left to do was dust off the 2 door sedan, strip it of all of its DeLuxe features and sell it cheap.  Introducing the “new” 1958 Rambler American.  The only parts of the car that may have actually been new were the rear quarter panels with the fabulously oddball rear wheel opening shape and the cheap flat mesh grille.  Oh yes, they also turned the taillights upside down.  At a base price of only $1789 it undercut the Chevrolet 150 by a skosh over $300.  The new American was even $6 cheaper than the bargain basement Scotsman.

After a late 1958 introduction the American was good for something over 30,000 units of volume.  After the two door wagon came back in ’59 production tripled.  With the four door sedan joining the party for 1960, something like 124,000 Americans were built, a figure that surpassed the entire output of the Studebaker Corporation that year.  That sedan, by the way, was one of the few instances of some actual new engineering for the American, in that it shared the two door cars’ 100 inch wheelbase rather than the 108 inch span of the 1954-55 Rambler sedan.

For those who have never listened to it, the Beep Beep song was a novelty tune that involved a guy driving a Cadillac, surprised at being overtaken by “the little Nash Rambler” that kept honking its horn, all despite the Cadillac’s faster and faster speeds.  The punch line that finished the song was that the Rambler’s driver passed the Caddy at 120 mph.  It turns out that he was only trying to ask somebody how to get the Rambler out of second gear.  It was a funny gag because everyone knew that the Rambler, with its ancient “Super Flying Scot” flathead six, could in no way hit triple digit speeds short of being dropped from an airplane.  At a 90 bhp rating, the 195.6 cid mill (3.2-ish liters) was even weaker than the smaller and equally old 185 cid (3.0 L) Studebaker Champion flathead six of 1958 which was good for a muscular 101 horses.

The song could have more realistically substituted a six cylinder ’58 Plymouth for the Cadillac because the lighter Rambler might have at least had a chance against that one.  But who would want to listen to a song about a race between two ancient wheezing flathead sixes?  It should come as no surprise that the Beach Boys never sung about one of these.

This American offered car buying Americans a state of the art new car at an attractive price.  If state of the art was measured by Nash from 1950.  The same old unit body, same old Nash trunnion suspension and the same old Nash flathead six were not exciting, but they were all known quantities which proved to be increasingly popular in uncertain economic times.  The good old 3 speed stick with optional overdrive gave the plain little American some appeal as basic transportation.  The addition of an optional Borg-Warner Flash-O-Matic transmission undoubtedly made the American appealing as a second car for the person then known as “the little lady”.

This particular American is an interesting combination of stock original and rat-rod with its flat black paint and snazzy paint stripes.  Of course, the artist behind the graphics would be sued for artistic malpractice if he had not included some reference to Beep Beep on the car.

If they are original, the padded armrests might identify this as one of the Americans that came in “Super” trim.  So this might have been the luxurious one.  What year is it?  I have no idea, so perhaps some real AMC fans can enlighten us on the difference between the ’58, ’59 and ’60 versions of this car.  I cannot, so let’s split the difference and call it a ’59.

Speaking of AMC, American Motors had a bit of an identity crisis in this era before “AMC” became the commonly used brand name in the ’70s.  I can recall never being quite sure what to call these.  OK, everyone knew they were Ramblers.  But like Ram and Imperial, everyone also knew that there had once been a real brand name (Nash) in front.  Was the company Rambler?  American Motors?  AM?  Or just American?  So this was an American American?  Or a Rambler Rambler?  I guess this really didn’t bother that many people because in the grand scheme of things Rambler was such a puny player.

Or maybe not all that puny because Rambler (as a whole) made it to sixth place in the industry in 1959 and fourth place in 1960.  That was actually kind of a lot of Ramblers. Or Nash Ramblers as a lot of people were still used to calling these back then.

The American would prove popular enough that it would get a thorough restyling for 1961, although the basic car was still pretty much the same ancient car under the awkward new lines.  Was there really no money to re-do those rear fender openings?  Buyers of an American would not really join the mainstream (to the extent that anything from AMC could be considered mainstream) until the all-new 1964 car that would anchor the lineup before the 1970 Hornet would come along to finish things off for American Motors as an independent company.

Still, I prefer the honesty of this one to the later cars.  “Sure it’s old, but it’s good and it doesn’t cost much” would have made a good slogan if AMC could have borrowed Volkswagen’s advertising team.

There is something about this little American that is uniquely associated with the Upper Midwest, something that shows a people who will make do with what they have and figure out ways to re-use old things.  Waste not, want not, and all that.  The final Hudsons were called Hashes (because of their recycled Nash underpinnings) and this little American was a bit of a hash as well, combining a whole lot of old and a precious little bit of new.  But sometimes the old thing you have laying around in the basement can be plenty good enough.  Good enough to inspire a song, even, which is something that a lot of bigger and more impressive cars of the late ’50s cannot claim.  Beep Beep.

Further Reading:

1950 Nash Statesman – Did Somebody Say Bathtub? (Tom Klockau)

1953 Nash Statesman – AMC’s DNA (J P Cavanaugh)

1957 Nash Metropolitan – Toy Cars Are For Kids (Paul Niedermeyer)

1959 Rambler Custom Six – The Prophet (Paul Niedermeyer)

1961 Rambler American – The Hip Ugly American (Paul Niedermeyer)