Curbside Classic: 1959 Rambler Custom Six – The Prophet

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(originally posted 5/24/11;  updated and revised with additional new pictures in 2014)

Hindsight is 20-20 vision. And with that acuity, seeing the Rambler’s historical significance is easy: it was the St. John the Baptist of cars, crying in the wilderness of obese bat-winged barges: Repent ye, for the kingdom of Toyota is at hand!.

So what is foresight? Is it the brilliance to see key automotive trends before they really take hold? Is that what caused George Romney (Mitt’s Dad) to bet the AMC farm on “right-sized” cars? Or was it sheer desperation, which drove so many subsequent decisions at AMC? Does it make a difference?

Either way, Romney’s gamble was not only the right one, given the outcome of Detroit’s morbid obesity crisis unfolding in the late fifties as well as the very nasty recession of 1958. It was also highly prescient, in the bigger picture of the energy crises yet to come. But the Rambler was too early for that; by that time, AMC was already mortally wounded chasing the Big Three with its own bigger cars.

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But the spirit of the Rambler six lives on, in every Camcordimafusibunatima and all the other cars that are almost its exact size and format. The Rambler was a bold attempt to redefine the American car on global terms, not the fleeting terms of America’s “exceptional era”. So why did it eventually fail in its bold mission? The usual reasons:

Cheap oil, and Americans’ irrepressible love of the big and flashy. Well, those are the biggest and most obvious reason. But by far not the only ones, since the Rambler’s demise in the sixties and seventies happened simultaneously with the rise of smaller cars like Detroit’s compacts, intermediates, pony cars, as well as the imports. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, or just about size alone. But there’s no doubt about it, the Rambler was “right sized”.

I use that term, because actually all the Rambler brochures, ads and press at the time used the term “compact”. But given the Rambler’s more upright and boxy stance and 108″ wheelbase, it was really the predecessor of Big Three intermediates to come rather than a proto-Falcon. But then those compacts morphed into the realm of what had once been full-sized.  No, the Rambler was “right-sized” and it wasn’t the only one.

There’s plenty of similarity to the Mercedes’ new W111 sedan that arrived in 1959, even though Rambler took the fins to a higher level of silliness. I suspect that both Rambler and Mercedes execs both regret their brief fling with fins even more than the rest of their cohorts. But if one can see past the useless appendages, the general size, profile and space utilization is all-too obvious. Keeping in mind that this basic Rambler body shell goes back to 1956, one wonders if Mercedes wasn’t looking at Kenosha just a wee bit when it laid out its W111.

Yes, both of these “right sized” sedans sat on 108″ wheelbases, and had the upright stance that is now thankfully back in favor. That dramatically benefited their passengers: sitting in this Rambler instantly reminded me of sitting in a W111; in fact, it’s what inspired this comparison.

This is just the right size for seating four adults in comfort, with room for the optional interloper in either the front or back middle position. Keep in mind that there was a reason the Mercedes had a column shifter; it also came in a six-seater version, not commonly seen over here though. But both these cars acknowledge the reality that six adult passengers was always the exception, as is the likelihood of finding yourself in the back of a Rambler between two gorgeous women. Yes, it could be done, with a bit more compromise than say a 1959 Fury, but the reality was that the folks in the middle generally liked it no more than now; they were just used to it a bit more and maybe a bit thinner. Or they were just exceptionally lucky, like this guy.

It wasn’t just the Rambler’s size alone that made it so significant, and prescient too. It had a slew of basic construction and design features that foreshadowed the future, even if it only paralleled European practice at the time. The most significant one was of course its unibody construction. That alone makes the Rambler a true pioneer. Not that it hadn’t been done before, but nothing like the across-the-board grand unification at AMC. The Big Three took notice, and adopted it in 1960 to varying degrees.

The Rambler (Nash, actually) also pioneered the first truly integrated heating/ventilation and air conditioning system. It was a huge step forward, compared to the crude add-on approach and giant A/C units in the trunks in practice at the time. Also note the “Telovac” push-button controls for the Flash-O-Matic transmission, a Borg-Warner unit.

Rambler’s Weather-Eye was highly prophetic of the future adoption of modern automotive ventilation and air conditioning across the board in American cars, which eventually spilled over into European cars too, of course.

And those famous Rambler seats! Anybody who was a teenager or young adult during the Rambler’s era will never forget them, especially if they had a chance to fully utilize them. And not by going car-camping with their parents, I mean. Yes, ironically, the Rambler was the ultimate date-mobile, despite its image. Which was of course the gist of the Rambler’s problem. BTW, Rambler always showed the married couple in bed with a little girl between them, just so nobody got the wrong idea. Now if only they had shown the three-some in the earlier picture…

The Rambler was anything but sexy, except for those that were so secure in their manhood to be able to see and utilize its true potential. But then there’s a big difference between catching the eye of a girl, and…catching the girl; even if it was just one.

No, the Rambler was the favorite of practical young families in its day. Folks who realized that there was an awful lot of wasted real estate and steel in the Big Three’s Big Cars. And the Rambler’s rise, and fall, directly mirror the rise and fall of the Bulge-Mobiles.

I personally favor the original ’56 styling (above), with the lack of the ridiculous fins, and its close-set headlights that still reflected Pininfarina’s influence on AMC/Nash styling. And that pretty much was the last vestige of that era, except for the reincarnated 1958 American. And although Rambler’s success was already underway then, it was only a modest foreshadowing of what was to come.

That’s because in 1956, the race to imagine what the car of 1960 should look like hadn’t yet begun, at least in the showrooms.

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Rambler’s explosive growth took off in that recession year of 1958, while Chrysler’s imagining of 1960 blew up in its face. If imagining 1960 involved a creaky, leaky, fall-apart piece of junk, plenty of sensible folks wanted nothing to do with it. Romney’s vision of 1956 was looking pretty good in comparison.

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And it wasn’t just the recession though. Rambler sales continued to swell in 1959 and 1960. Which of course coincided with the swelling of the Big Three cars. Actually, 1960’s sales of some 300k Rambler sixes (not counting the American) was the peak, and pretty damn good considering the compact onslaught that the Big Three launched that year. They knew Rambler and the imports had finally found the soft underbelly of the Big Beast, and the threw everything they had at it.

Rambler made a lot of money in those golden years, before it all slowly started to dissolve. By 1964, The Big Three had every size and shape of car on the market, boxing in Rambler. Checker-Mate! AMC tried to fight back, and we’ve covered that here in numerous posts. But this 1959 Custom six sedan perfectly epitomizes the Rambler’s heyday.

That clean dash might as well be a…Simca’s, or a Peugeot. Nicely trimmed, and practical too.

So what were these cars like to drive? Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of Ramblers were the six model. There was a V8, which was a small bore 250 CID version of the big and heavy 327 Nash/AMC V8, but folks were actually wise to avoid it unless they really needed it. It was too heavy for the fairly light Rambler, which weighed a bit less than 3,000 lbs. Whatever semblance of balanced handling the Rambler six had was upset by that that big hunk of cast iron in the front. Unless of course, it was that 1957 one-year only hot-rod, the Rebel. We gave that a bit of attention here.

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Yes, the six and the Rambler were meant for each other, even if meant that peak Rambler ownership excitement best took place on the fold down seats, here covered with ill-fitting seat covers.

The Rambler’s biggest dynamic weakness: very modest handling. If AMC had hired a couple of Europeans to put a bit of tightness in the steering, and perk up the handling, and stick a second carb on that six; who knows what might have happened. Oh, and hire a couple of Japanese engineers to really get the quality up to a level that the Rambler’s reputation might have become something that superseded anything the Big Three threw at it. Could the Rambler have become the American Toyota/Mercedes…? Dream on.

Back to reality. Best to avoid the automatic too. The way to go was the optional two-barrel 138 hp six with the three-speed manual and overdrive. That combination not only gave fairly decent performance for the times, but could also deliver excellent fuel economy, as Rambler endlessly bragged about in its ads.

My older brother Tom had a Rambler six with that combination (above), although I doubt it had the two barrel carb. His was a couple of years later than this ’59, but still the same basic car. And compared to the ’58 Chevy he also had, the Rambler definitely felt…somehow European, yet in an utterly Midwest manifestation. I repeat: in comparison to the ’58 Chevy. Well, we both had a thing about American sixes and overdrives, and the Rambler was no BMW Neue Klasse. A Humber Super Snipe, perhaps.

The Rambler six, which displaced 196 cubic inches, was a successful conversion of the old flat-head six to an OHV head. Its old-school small bore-long stroke configuration meant excellent torque from idle; but just don’t expect any sporting pretensions, despite the optional two-barrel carb. Rambler sixes did the job at hand, admirably, but not excitingly. Best leave that to someone else….

The Holley carb on this one has a glass float bowl, so that one can check on its function or how bad your gas is contaminated, or just admire it for what it is: a relic from another time.

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My own feelings about the Rambler parallel America’s at large. I’m quite fond of it now, despite, or because of its quirky and hardly Harley Earl-worthy styling. Hey, at the moment, I’d pick it to own over any other of its Big Three competition (don’t ask me tomorrow; I’m fickle). And certainly over those aero-GM-mobiles in front and behind it. Right Sized Indeed. And reasonably thrifty too with the stick and overdrive.

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But I had nothing but disdain for them at the time, but then I was seven years old. Give me a Fire-Dome, Turbo-Thrust, Golden Commando V8, please! Ramblers with their nasal sixes wheezing through the streets everywhere at the time were an auditory blight. I only had ears (and eyes) for the biggest, baddest burbling V8, and it turns out I was hardly the only one. But as I said, I was seven, or eight. Was the rest of America seven or eight too?