Curbside Classic: 1961 Rambler Ambassador – Does Size Really Matter?

(first posted 10/2/2017)          Extending the front end of a car to create an upscale version was a long tradition practiced by many automakers. A long hood exuded an image of prestige, power, and…manliness. Of course there was a practical reason back in the day of the straight eight engine: they were longer than the six, and the engine room needed to be longer. But that all changed with the advent of the V8 engine, which was actually shorter than an inline six. But that didn’t stop AMC from indulging in front end enlargement, repeatedly. Given what they were starting with (a Rambler) the results were mostly embarrassing, repeatedly.

Here’s how it worked back when there was at least some logic to it. The Nash Ambassador Eight had an extra 4″ of wheelbase to go along with its 260.8 CID straight eight, which was undoubtedly more than 4″ longer than the 234.8 CID six. So the Ambassador Eight was actually being uncharacteristically modest.

That Depression-era modesty was lost to the slipstream in 1949, with Nash’s new aerodynamic Airflyte. The Ambassador got a full 9″ of front end enlargement over the 600/Statesman, but there was no straight eight in that long holster; both cars packed six-shooters. But the message was conveyed: Nash Ambassadors have high status, thanks to their long front ends. Even if the overall proportions and design balance are off.

The original Rambler was a stubby little 2-door compact on a 100″ wheelbase that arrived in 1950. Encouraged by its relative success, Nash soon gave it a companion 108″ wb 4-door sedan and wagon. Rambler: The brand that stood for compact cars, ones that were strictly going against the grain of the Big Three Bulgemobiles. It was the job of the senior Nashes and Hudsons to do battle with them, after their 1954 merger. Needless to say, that didn’t work out so well, and newly-minted AMC president George Romney had little choice but to bet the two farms on Rambler. And although it was a bit iffy in the first two years, it turned out to be the right bet, as the 1956-1957 Big Three cars kept getting bigger, and then the 1958 recession played right into his winning hand.

But the lure of the big car had obviously not yet been beaten out of AMC, and in 1958, the Ambassador returned, now as a Rambler. I don’t think I have to tell you which one it is above. And the method employed in making it was quite familiar to AMC: graft on another 9″ to the front end, like it had been done in 1949. Except this time the rationale was even weaker, as the Ambassador’s engorged front end now packed the new AMC 327 OHV V8, which was of course shorter than the Rambler inline six.

The story is that the 1958 Ambassador was essentially the still-born 1958 Hudson, right down to the Vee’d front bumper, had that brand not bit the dust in 1957. And presumably also the 1958 Nash, perhaps with a different bumper and trim. Heavy emphasis on the presumably and perhaps.

The result was clearly a bit schizophrenic. Especially so since in 1958 AMC also brought back the Rambler American, as a low-end price-leader. Despite dating back to 1950 (minus the skirted front fenders), it sold some 30k units in 1958, and a whopping 90k in 1959. That was only slightly less than what Studebaker’s new Lark V sold in its hot first year. Rambler was on a roll.

Although Rambler offered a “Country Club” four door hardtop and the Rebel V8 series on their 108″ wb compact cars, that’s not what folks were buying. They wanted genuine Ramblers, not glamorous ones. The six cylinder sedans and wagons outsold the V8s by 11:1 in 1958, and by 15:1 in 1959. A mere 983 buyers chose the Country Club hardtop six and only 410 went for the V8 version.

The hardtop didn’t do much better on the gaudy Ambassador, which sported Harley Earl-worthy chrome, fins and bright trim. All of 1,340 hardtop sedans were sold.

But even that overshadows the 294 Ambassador hardtop station wagons sold in 1958. These are unicorns, but rather odder looking than actual unicorns. Talk about mixed messages.

The non-hardtop Ambassador and sedans didn’t exactly set the world on fire either, not surprisingly. Some 15k found buyers in 1958. Of course, one can look at this as the glass being half full rather than half empty: that 15k was about double the sales of 1957 “big” Nash and Hudsons. But that’s not really saying much either, as those were utterly moribund.

The Ambassador returned in 1959, with a curved rise in its rear door beltline, which was actually rather prescient; a preview of the 1965 Chevrolet. Never mind the fin and trim. And it now sported an optional continental spare tire, to make its rear look as long as its front.

Don’t be seduced by those sexy studio profile shots with 600 lbs of sand bags in the floor to make it sit down low on its wheels; here’s how these cars looked in the flesh. They were narrow, pinched, tall, boxy, and decidedly ungainly. Which sort of worked on a plain six cylinder Custom sedan, up to a point. But it sure didn’t on the Ambassador. These were extremely rare sightings when I was a kid, whereas university-town Iowa City was crawling with Rambler six sedans and wagons. AMC managed to sell 24k of them in 1959. But then they also sold some 260k of the 108″ wb cars.

The Ramblers got a badly-needed refresh in 1960, ditching the silly fins which never suited it in the first place. And along with them the ridiculous continental spare. And the Amby even scored a unique new windshield, one that extended up into the roof more than on the lesser Ramblers. That reflects a certain degree of commitment.

Now instead of pretending to be (or look) as long as the big boys, the Ambassador was actually being pitched as “America’s Only Compact Luxury Car”. Well, they should have lopped off the long front end if they really meant that, as a 117″ wheelbase was hardly “compact”. That would come soon enough. AMC managed to find another 24K buyers for them in 1960.

The Ambassador got a decidedly curious new front end restyle in 1961. It is credited to AMC Design Chief Ed Anderson, as are all these cars. Let’s take a closer look.

Since our featured car is lacking a complete front end, this one will have to stand in.

The inspiration clearly comes from the 1959 Oldsmobile front end, with the strong horizontal leading edge that drops down for the center section and sweeps around the corners and extends back to the front door.

The front fender blades and character line leading to them from the front wheel openings remind me more than a bit of the 1958 Lincoln’s, but there might be some other sources of inspiration.

The result is not greater than the sum of its parts; rather less so. It looked like a mash-up of two quite different cars. But it sure was a treat to see one of these back in the day, from a car-spotting point of view. The next best thing to an Edsel.

I’d long given up on finding one, but then one day this summer I was forced to take a detour in our sister city of Springfield, due to road construction. And there it was, sitting forlornly along with this GM X-Body coupe.

It’s not exactly in running shape anymore, and looks to have been parked here quite some time ago.

The Ambassador had unique taillights and protruding rear bumper to give a bit more complexity and depth to the rather flat and plain Classic’s back end.  But the body stampings are undoubtedly all the same.

The wrap-around rear window is not partially retractable, as might be suggested by this one.

Although this is a higher-trim Custom, the door trim doesn’t exactly quite convey luxury. And although it’s a bit hard to tell, the leg room is not exactly luxurious either, given it’s the same as the 108″ wheelbase cars. That’s not to say it was actually cramped, as the Rambler’s relatively upright seating position ameliorated quite a bit of that. More like a “Flossen” Mercedes than a Cadillac.

Speaking of, there were some other similarities to the “Flossen” Mercedes (W110/111). One obvious one is that the Mercedes’ controversial fins and concave rear fender sides seem to show more than a hint of influence from the 1958-1959 Rambler. And maybe a few other genuine hints. Certainly, the basic package is similar in size and proportions.

And the other similarity is that there were also short and long-nose versions of the Mercedes. One might be tempted to assume that was due to the longer six cylinder engine used in the 220/230 S/SE W111 (lower), a logical and typically pragmatic Mercedes-style solution. But…there was also a six cylinder version of the more commonly four cylinder W110 (top), the (non S) 230. So it was…prestige. And a substantial price differential It’s a universal phenomena.


The Ambassador’s Rambler origins are also on full display in the front. These seats were obviously recovered, but they were the classic split and reclining seats as had been used by Rambler and Nash for a long time, which were prized by all, especially those who found the Rambler’s interior ambiance to stimulate romantic feelings. The only ones who were not so hot about them were those forced to sit in the middle, but that was not the narrow Rambler’s forte anyway.

I couldn’t get a good shot of the Rambler’s ovoid instrument nacelle and speedometer, which of course omitted the zero on the number markings. So maybe Ramblers just felt so slow because the speedometer said you were doing 6 instead of 60?

Needless to say, it’s not exactly a Pontiac dashboard. And the horn ring is just dorky. Which goes with the general image perfectly.


This one’s front end has lost a lot of its bright work, but I assure you the first thing I did when I got out was to see and confirm that it really was a ’61 Amby. Of course a ’60 would have been a good find too; just not quite as.

Thanks to that front end extension, the Amby’s hood has nothing to hide in comparison to the big boys. It’s what’s up front that counts, right?

But what’s it hiding underneath?

A 327 cubic inch V8. And no, Virginia, it’s not a Chevy 327. It does share the same 4″ bore and 3.25″ stroke as the venerable Chevy, but that’s where any resemblance ends.  The AMC V8, also built in 250 and 287 CID versions and made its first appearance in 1957, including in the very hot Rambler Rebel, the first compact-mid sized muscle car, capable of a 7.2 second 0-60 run. But that was a very short-lived phenomena, a bridge too far for Rambler. Until the late 60s, anyway.

The Ambassador’s extra front end length is on full display here, with the considerable distance between the engine and radiator.

This is the standard 250 hp version with a two barrel carb. A 270 hp four-barrel version was optional. And it obviously has air conditioning. The automatic transmission is courtesy of Borg Warner.

This was a rather heavy engine, given its origins in the pre-thinwall casting era. A complete engine weighs in at around 670 lbs, which did nothing positive for the handling in a car already known for weakness in that area. I suppose one could argue that the extended front axle centerline on the Ambassador improved the weight distribution a bit.

The distinctive pointy axle stub that is so characteristic of Ramblers is on full display here. I know it’s silly, but when I was a kid, it was one of the characteristics of Ramblers that proved their intrinsic dorkyness to me. The Big Three cars don’t have that! Looks stupid!

Well, despite the unusual front end styling, some 19k loyal Ambassador buyers still stepped up and put down money on its long nose in 1961.

For 1962, the Ambassador got its nose clipped. It was now really just a high-trim Rambler Classic, and a pretty modest looking one at that. They didn’t even bother to show the main brochure shot of it without the optional full wheel covers? In basic black?

And it was available as a two-door sedan. Well, that was a big change for the Classic too; all Ramblers except the little 100″ wb American had ever only come in four doors, one of the odder omissions of the line. Which of course also meant no two-door hardtops, a body style that was becoming increasingly popular. But for 1962, AMC decided to not only give the well-aged Rambler body, which dated back to 1952, a final one-year refresh, as well as two door sedans. All for one year. I assume they were getting a bit desperate, as AMC’s market position was dropping alarmingly fast since its peak in 1961 in third place.

At this stage of the game, the Rambler was starting to exude Studebaker Lark vibes, not only in certain aspects of its styling (like the somewhat similar front fenders), but just in the sense of its desperation to stay relevant with an aged tall and boxy body in the go-go early 60s, amid the onslaught of compacts and mid-sized cars from Ford and GM, mainly.

Even with full wheel covers, the Ambassador couldn’t escape it looking like a tired Rambler with a bit more trim. But apparently that was just what some 34k buyers were looking for in 1962, a 55% increase. Slightly lower prices might have helped that a bit, but the short-nosed package obviously resonated with its buyers, who presumably were not looking to compensate. 1962 would be the nadir in the Ambassador’s on-going length issues.

In 1963, the tired old box was replaced by a fresh, new box. It was Ed Anderson’s farewell gift to AMC, as he retired once it was mostly in the can. And of course, the Ambassador continued to share the same new 112″ wheelbase and body with the Classic. Unfortunately, it was eleven years too early; if a refreshed version of this had arrived in 1974, it would have been hailed as the nigh-near perfect for the new post-energy crisis era. But this was 1963…  And the Ambassador continued its modest ways, with only a small uptick in sales over the ’62. Sad.

But 112″ was too modest for AMC’s new plan to go up against the big boys again. For 1965, the first round of numerous front end augmentations began, with a 4″ stretch up there. And of course stacked headlights to show that it too could imitate Pontiac. The 1966 version got a few minor tweaks, but the really big news was that the Ambassador was no longer a Rambler, but the AMC Ambassador.

In 1967, the Ambassador and Rebel (formerly Classic) were treated to the last major restyle they’d ever get. It was a heroic effort by Dick Teague, to capture the fresh and curvaceous look that GM had pioneered in 1965. And it was a good looking body, for as long as it was left unmolested. The 114″ wb Rebel’s proportions looked best, since the additional 4″ the Ambassador got were once again in front and did not improve the balance of its front, middle and rear. And its stacked headlights and front end were hardly inspired. But it was as good as it was going to get, ever.

Did you know that in 1967 you could get an Ambassador 2-door “Sports Sedan”? How’s that for a unicorn?

But all the effort was not working. Only 24k Ambys found homes in 1968,a tiny fraction of the millions of big cars being sold by the Big Three.  AMC diagnosed the problem as insufficient wheelbase. So the Amby was sent back to the surgery department for a really good stretch, all the way to 122″!  That was more than any of the Big Boys! Mine is bigger than yours is!

It reminds me of a four door version of this. Just needs some side-mounts. Maybe AMC had some left over continental spare parts they could have used for the purpose.

The front end enhancement looked especially…prominent…on the Amby coupe. Presumably AMC’s execs tumbled to that too, and the coupe was cut for 1970; I mean eliminated in the lineup. So that’s the one to really have. Now if they’d just put a formal roof on it, they would have beat the Chevy Monte Carlo by one year. And…AMC might still be around today. Ponder that, you AMC alternative-reality speculators.

Well, that might be a bit of stretch (figuratively), but the reality is that AMC utterly failed in what became the hottest and biggest segment of the market: the formal-roofed mid-sized coupe, as typified by the Monte Carlo and Cutlass Supreme. That was AMC’s biggest and final deadly mistake.

AMC wasn’t quite yet done with its front end butchery. For 1974, they wanted an even longer front end, but presumably another wheelbase stretch might have caused the venerable unibody to buckle. The solution was a protruding nose, lovingly bestowed upon the tip of the Ambassador’s lengthy prow. It turned out to be its coup de grace; the long end of a long, sad long story.