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. Needles 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 thta’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, had its origins in a design for a new ohv V8 for Kaiser, which was of course never built. AMC developed it to completion, and it 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 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 thta 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 realy 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 curvacous 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 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 line up. 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.
It’s been over 5 decades, but my reaction to the sight of the ’61 Ambassador is exactly what it was at age 11: a mix of fascination and horror. It’s definitely a unique mashup of one branch of then-current themes (’60 Pontiac, ’61 Lancer and Imperial with a touch of Hawk thrown in), but, gosh, it makes me squirm. It’s like grafting a fish head onto a phone booth with chicken wings. As you say, AMC went heavy with the nerd card in those days, which was antithetical to the concept of luxury. Festooning the Rambler shell with a big hat and cheap costume jewelry belies their claim of practicality and suggests that it could never forgive its parents for being short and stocky.
Toyota liked that shovel nose and used it on the Corona 64ish
And arguably to better effect because the Corona’s front looked like a then-modern styled alarm clock radio, not like a train wreck of jet planes.
Good, so I’m not crazy. I saw Corona as well.
I’ll admit, my automotive knowledge gets fuzzy before 1970. So I don’t think I’d ever seen a ’61 Ambassador before.
I kind of like it.
+1 on the Corona resemblance (and it being much better)
Some good zingers today. Train wreck of jets!
A train wreck of jet planes. I like that 🙂 .
Is this a SAAB joke???
I never saw one of these until I saw pictures of one in my American Car Spotter’s Guide. My reaction was exactly the same as yours, though many years after the fact. “Fascination and horror” – a perfect description!
I loved the Tad Burness books! I remember getting my first copy (still have it, covered with tape from so much use) and it unlocked an amazing world of cars I’d never seen before, as well as helping me ID ones that were still common on the roads.
Like you, I’d never seen this car before the book, and come to think of it, to this day I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person. Somehow I don’t think the car would fare any better in my eyes in person than it does in pictures–it’s an oddball, to say the least.
The ’61 Ambassador is my second favorite Rambler, the first being a ’59 Rambler Rebel. Of course I have always been a bit weird in my tastes in cars having a ’63 Classic V8 that I did some modifications to. I got a lot of compliments on it in the late 60’s-early 70’s downtown Portland, Or cruising scene. Not the fastest car but able to hold my own against similar powered cars.
The above description sounds like a mash-up of Citroën, Alvis and Renault. AMC at the time claimed the car was “inspired” by Euro-car styling.
Inspired more by LSD, to my mind.
Nevertheless, in a weird kind of way it’s attractive…in a bizarre fashion…kinda sorta. It had to be so, for Toyota to copy it a few years later in its Corona and Carina models.
the 67 body with the 69 front would have been a looker. Thanks for the write-up – a great read as always.
I’ve always been intrigued by the 1961 Ambassador. The car isn’t complete without the requisite fender skirts.
Actual fender skirts, not enclosed wheel wells on an envelope body like the first Rambler in 1950.
Thanks for providing a perfect example Mark.
There were no “fender skirts” on the front end of the 50 Rambler
I hated the fender skirts. To me the two open wheel wells looked best.
Great and fascinating article. I agree that the proportions of the long-nose ’69-’74 Ambassador are really awkward. However, I think the grille treatment of the ’74 Amby looks better than the lean-forward grille of earlier years, even if it does have an impact bumper and looks a bit Buick-like. It could have been worse – it might have had the protruding schnozz of the ’74 Matador.
One of the great mysteries of life is why AMC never figured out how to put the more subdued and attractive frontal bulge from the 74-only Ambassador onto the front end of the shorter wheelbase the 74-end Matador.
2nd in ugly only to the 61 Ambassador, Tonyola.
There was still an Ambassador 2-door coupe for 1970, the roof line was redesigned at the same time as the Rebel (who’ll became the Matador for 1971).
The Ambassador coupe was dropped when the new Matador coupe was introduced.
Interesting to note the 1965-66 Ambassador body got a longer lifespan in Argentina built to the mid-1970s in La Pampa.
Yep, we covered a ’70 Ambassador coupe a while back.
Stephane’, I also think that 1967 was the only year of the AMC intermediate and “full” size body style to have the “Sports Sedan” 2 door.
Another one year only like in 1962
Here’s a real unicorn – a ’67 police package “sport sedan” getting its Ontario Provincial Police decals.
That ’61 really has the ugliest face of any American car of the period — including the Exner monstrosities that stalked the streets like so many nightmarish deep-sea fish. I understand what you point out about the ’59 Olds influence, but there’s something of the ’59 Mopars as well, IMHO.
And yet, the ’63 Ambassador is surprisingly restrained, authored by the same hand. What a difference a couple of model years make.
Thank you for this look at the Ambassador — lots learned!
Modern equivalent has to be the 2003-2005 Saturn L
The 60 Imperial front end gives this one a run for its money, in my book.
I think we’ve both made this comment before regarding the ’61 Amby, I had gone looking for photos before reading the comments and had selected the exact same one! The Amby is similar down to the gold script on the grill.
Both the ’60 Imperial and the ’61 Ambassador initially struck me as weird in that early ’60s cosmic / Sputnik / space age way that seemed to hit the industry in 1960, but they’ve sort of grown on me.
With a history of products that could be described as being manic-depressive, the Ambassador name certainly had longevity regardless of what brand name was in front of it. So many hits, so many misses.
The one thing about AMC that gets my shorts in a wad is Roy Abernathy. God love him, but he really fouled things up by trying to confront GM head on and AMC never really recovered. Even when AMC looked to be in a decent position around 1969 to 1971, they weren’t. So it had to feed on itself during the 1970s, with no updates to the Matador / Ambassador line (when they could have flourished with the fuel crisis) and the Hornet later being doll-ified into the Concord by the late 1970s. Add in their screwing the pooch with the Matador coupe (what possessed Dick Teague to create that abomination?) and the conclusion is just sad.
A wonderful, and intriguing, point about a formal roof on an Ambassador beating the Monte Carlo at its own game. Truly something to ponder today.
And don’t forget the 1970s fiasco that was the Pacer. How much resources were wasted on that loser?
The Pacer was not a loser when it first came out. It sold over 145K units in the first year.
And that car was far ahead of its time with many of its features that were widely accepted 1-2 decades later: cab-forward design, doors integrated into the roof, passenger door longer for easier access to rear seat, etc.
Decent first year sales doesn’t translate into a winner, it didn’t sustain, the margins were low, it poached only AMC loyalists who would have otherwise bought a Gremlen/Hornet/Matador and the development cost was astronomical for AMC. The Pacer needed to be an Accord level game changer to be a success for AMC, not just another weird little car like the Gremlin before it (though at least that was profitable) to entrench the dorky image AMC already had.
Other than the stretched nose Ambassadors, Javelen and closely related Hornet, most earlier AMC products already were effectively cab forward designs, American or Rebel both had their passenger compartments far forward of what was typical of the big three at the time.
Fuselage doors too were sporadically used on the odd car through the 60s as well(C2 Corvette being the most obvious), the Pacer is just another odd example before Ford’s aero implementation of them actually set an industry trend during the 80s.
Did anyone else actually follow the Pacer’s longer passenger door thing? I feel like there could be a Renault example but I genuinely can’t think of anything else. Either way it was pretty much a dead end feature as 4 doors soon became commonplace in this segment.
Jason, I always thought AMC got it right with the 67 Marlin as a personal luxury car: right concept, though wrong roof by 1970. Another market they where AMC was close, but ill timed.
The AMC Hornet was sold as “The Little Rich Car”, some years before the Maverick with the LDO package and the Granada. By the time they figured it out with the Concord, there were already established players in the mainstream compact luxury arena.
So many misses, so little time.
Too thinly spread across too many markets. Yes, without the resources of the Big Three, how did Abernathy ever hope to compete with a fraction of the money ?
Another major problem was that their larger and more expensive cars used the same quality carpet, upholstery and parts that the least expensive Gremlins and Hornets did. For example, the cheap braided glove box rope that held it up was exactly the same as the one used in the Gremlin. Same grade of plastics.
My parents 72 Ambassador Brougham was scarcely better assembled than the 71 Gremlin they owned, even after the vaunted Buyer Protection Plan warranty had been implemented.
Twice the price and the same quality. Styling wasn’t the only questionable aspect of AMC by the 70s.
All to cut costs to be able to compete with Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth on a far lower volume, despite building the essentially similar Rebel/Matador.
I loved AMC cars and still do. Any of the five my family had over the years [Granny’s 60 Ambassador wagon, 62 Classic wagon, 71 Gremlin, 72 Ambassador, little bro’s 74 Hornet Sportabout] ] would be welcome in my driveway, despite the dubious workmanship of the Gremlin and Ambassador.
Especially since there was still some life left in the Romney strategy of offering an alternative to the Big Three for people not ready to go to an import.
Maybe not that much life – embracing the stodgy wouldn’t be a thing until it was, towards the end of the neverending Brougham Era, and would’ve caused them problems trying to “pull out” from it.
Yes, in terms of size, the Matador had unwittingly hit the sweet spot for a large car in the ’70s, as GM made clear with its 1973 mid-size cars and 1977 full-size cars. Thanks to AMC’s hopeless mismanagement, the Matador was almost irrelevant in 1973 and fully irrelevant by 1977.
Excellent article as usual. Following the theme of recollecting our unfiltered perceptions as kids of AMC products, I used to think AMCs were weird cars, bought by weird people. This was circa 1974, even before the launch of the Pacer. From my first early to mid 70s memories of AMC products, I always knew they were different. And mostly not in a good way. From the paddle door handles, to the strange styling of the Gremlin, and the unusual noses AMCs seemed to consistently possess. As kids are so self conscience, I was so grateful at the time my dad never bought a ‘dorky’ AMC. It seemed AMCs were cars most people would not even consider. Even the Hornet, probably AMC’s least controversial car to date, seemed like an odd ball car to me. I always found the bulbous wheel arches too pronounced and unattractive at the time. As they were on late 60s Oldsmobiles.
As Barry pointed out, AMC products had the ability to draw fascination. And if not horror, at least bewilderment, by the 70s. Of course, as we mature and are less concerned about conformity, I began to fully appreciate the quirkiness of AMC.
An exception (IMO, anyway) to AMC Cars being dorky… The Javelin and its sportier AMX sibling always looked good to me… in BOTH of its generations.
Looking at this car now I can see why Americans find them, well, dorky but in 60s Israel these never carried the stigma. A US-made car, ANY US-made car was better and more prestigious than most of the equivalent Europeans. In fact the Rambler was one notch higher than the locally-assembled Studebakers (which were cheaper) and as “good” in most people’s eyes as Ford’s Falcon or Chevrolet’s Nova. Certainly – if faced with the choice of the Rambler and something like, say an early 60s Opel Kapitan – I know which one I’d have taken.
And I do not find the styling weird; that front end has a European or Japanese air about it. It is no better no worse than a number of similar designs of about that period (cue aforementioned Kapitan).
The 61 Ambassador is as close as it gets to an automotive Picasso. I wish I could take credit for that but I heard it years ago.
I think the “Automotive Picasso” award goes to the current Toyota Prius. A guy at work just bought one, so it was my first up close look at one “in the metal” as we say here. Yikes! What an awkward looking car.
Yeah, the new Prius is uglier than a bucket of buttholes.
…and the EU spec Honda Civic, which seems to follow a similar stylistic theme…
Wow, so much here. The styling of the 61 Ambassador is truly something for the books. The rear is fascinating on its own, with a lot of 1960 Mercury influence there. Is this the only time the rear of the 60 Mercury influenced anything?
I knew that the Rambler/Ambassador 4 door hardtops existed but had no idea they were so rare. It seems that both Studebaker and Rambler catered to conservative, thrifty people. Loaded high-end Studes were rare as well.
I never knew what to make of the Ambassador, and I don’t think AMC did either. It would probably have been more successful as a loaded and highly trimmed Rambler/Rebel/Matador.
Yes, the ’60 Mercury is probably my poster child for what I see as a sort of space age influence on styling that was relatively short lived. It’s the car an earthbound George Jetson would have driven. It seems the ’61 Ambassador face lift owes a bit to both the ’60 Imperial and ’60 Mercury.
The “dorky” hub of course was carried forward long after the industry had switched to axles with integral flange, due to penny pinching no doubt.
Something else that was about penny-pinching, but this time a clever engineering advance, were the window frames. The frames (glass channel) were an easily shaped aluminum extrusion that would keep costs in check no matter how much more radical pillar angles were going to become.
Not only that but the aluminum window frame looked good, but made replacing broken window glass easier. They also hid the B pillar starting in ’62.
One thing don’t think I’ve seen mentioned is the potential that the longer wheelbase might improve the ride a little bit. On a relatively small car like the Ambassador, I suppose it may have been small help – but clearly the marketers didn’t seem to go here much, so it seems the long fronts were all about style.
In hindsight, the effort on these stretches seems silly, and for what ever they may have contributed to ride, they probably reduced in handling and performance due to length and pointless weight gain.
But, marketers clearly thought size mattered. The ad below for the 1969 Imperial, basically a stretched ahead of the firewall Chrysler Newport, is all about big. I get a special kick out of the comment about more room under the hood for extra equipment. As it turns out, they could put all the same equipment under the hood of a shorter and fully loaded Chrysler New Yorker.
It is interesting that Studebaker never played the “long nose game”. When it got its V8 in 1951 it actually shortened the wheelbase and the doghouse on the Commanders and Land Cruisers, even though the bullet nose styling was mostly carried over from 1950. From there on out every time it did a longer wheelbase version of the car the stretch was in the rear passenger area. This showed up in the high end cars through 58 and then in the 61 Lark Cruiser (which was derived from the Lark taxi).
This makes me think that either the BOF construction made this a relatively cheap and easy change, or that Studebaker just threw money at multiple wheelbases when perhaps it should not have.
Undoubtedly the Studebaker’s BOF construction made changes to the rear easier. And GM did the same thing, with the Bonneville/Star Chief, as well as others. It’s not that hard to move an inner fender panel or such, and add some filler panels when it’s all bolted to a frame.
The Rambler unibody was a different matter, and changes to the rear would have required serious engineering and production costs. Much easier to extend the front.
The best way to extend it would have been to lengthen the rear passenger compartment, like was done by Mercedes in the next S Class. That would have required new rear doors and roof panel, but it would have created a genuine improvement in rear seat leg room. But at the Amby’s volumes and cost point, undoubtedly AMC saw that us not economically feasible. Or?
The nose length and wheelbase game is sort of maddening to look at 40 years out. Honest changes, like your Studebaker example, provided real value to buyers that could use the extra interior room.
Much is made of the ’77 – ’79 GM B body, of which my family had many. But, the 116 inch wheelbase made for a tight rear seat with tall family members. The 119 inch wheelbase GM C body put that extra length in the rear seat where it was needed, and the small change made a huge difference in real comfort and function. The stretch also made those C bodies look more luxurious from the outside The stretch provided value for your money – the base ’79 Olds Ninety-Eight C Body with the 350 engine may have been the overall best value of any full-size GM car of the ’70s, thanks to its stretch and generous standard equipment.
Studebaker did play the “long nose game” in the ’60s, though via increased front overhang (a few inches in ’62, several more in ’64) rather than longer wheelbase where it least mattered. Along with the return to long wheelbases for sedans and the 1962 tail extension, most of the length chopped off the ’59 Lark was added again by 1964.
The unnecessary hood and wheelbase stretch job on the ’67 Imperial reminded me completely of the Ambassador, which others here have already mentioned.
My late brother and I used to call the `61 Ambassador`s front clip ‘the bad dream’.Wanna guess why?
Great story of the Ambassador. Never saw the ‘59 Oldsmobile influence on the unfortunate ‘61 update.
Except for the rear license plate cut-out it’s clear to see AMC used the same bumper front and rear, a practical idea which carried on to the other models including the American and Hornet-Concord-Eagle. Studebaker also used the one bumper.
I think 1960 Imperial is rather elegant, at least compared to the freestanding headlights ‘61-‘63 MYs. The king of the ugly front end would be the ‘61 & ‘60 Plymouth and ‘62 Dodge.
Something about the bumpers makes wonder if maybe they aren’t repurposed reworks from some other run?
Maybe with enough chins being rubbed the source may dawn on somebody? LOL
Paul, you have me laughing with your commentary. I did enjoy looking at these garish cars but I had no intimate involvement with them. My aunt and uncle traded in their 1953 Plymouth Savoy four-door sedan on a 1958 Rambler American similar to what is depicted in this article. The interior was spartan. The dashboard was spartan. The handling was quite good. My brother, who is older than I, drove the car and remarked bout its handling. One day in September 1958 my aunt and uncle came up from Manhattan to The Bronx and the two families, a total of six people, squeezed into the 1958 Rambler two-door. What a squeeze!
In 1966 I had a company wreck called a 1964 Falcon. What a dog! Every time it died, I was given a 1964 Rambler American 330 four-door sedan. I enjoyed driving the car very much. Even in my halcyon days I was not a wild drier. So, the handling was adequate for me as I drove trough mountainous terrain on my business route. It EXCELLED in comfort. The seat height was good for me and I am short. The seat was well upholstered with good padding. The vision was excellent.
I’d like to make several counterpoints:
1) I know the reason for the lengthened S-class chassis was primarily weight distribution (just because the six CAN fit in the shorter nose does not mean this is the ideal solution) and secondarily prestige- what’s wrong with that? An S-class has always been a prestige car (Base model Fintails really weren’t), and visiblity of exclusivity is important.
I would not ignore the advantage of moving the heavy iron block V8 further back in the wheelbase in the Rambler, either. Not saying the prestige difference wasn’t the reason- indeed I am as certain it was secondary for Mercedes as I am that it was primary for Rambler. But not even mentioning such a thing in your otherwise excellent article?
2) the other point is- what the heck is wrong with this? They had a cheap V8 from Kaiser, and all they had to do to produce a substantially more expensive car was lengthen the front subframe and slap on some gingerbread. I’ve seen Ambassadors- they were nice cars, and with the relatively low weight, better than average weight distribution for an American car, and a relatively powerful engine, I bet they were a hoot, and the interiors are nicer than that of a lot of competitors in the form of fit and finish.
They didn’t sell too many, granted, but I don’t think sales would have been much if any better with the shorter nose, and they didn’t have the resources to really develop a true Nash/Hudson successor. So why the heck not?
3) I also don’t see what’s wrong with their marketing. Compared to other luxury cars of the time it was compact. What were they supposed to say? “We put a Jewish schnoz and a bigger motor, now pay us more?”
I would not ignore the advantage of moving the heavy iron block V8 further back in the wheelbase in the Rambler, either. Not saying the prestige difference wasn’t the reason- indeed I am as certain it was secondary for Mercedes as I am that it was primary for Rambler. But not even mentioning such a thing in your otherwise excellent article?
I guess you missed this line in the article:
I suppose one could argue that the extended front axle centerline on the Ambassador improved the weight distribution a bit.
Of course the question is whether the extra weight of the increased front end negated any benefit of the engine being relatively further behind the front axle center line. Unfortunately, I can’t find any source for the F/R weight distribution of these cars. I’d be quite curious as to how the Ambassador’s compares to the 108″ wb Rambler with the V8.
2) the other point is- what the heck is wrong with this?
Did I imply anything is wrong with the Ambassador? 🙂
I’m simply asking the question, as the headline states: “Does Size Matter”? Obviously, it was a cost-efficient way for AMC to have a more prestigious car. But it also obviously wasn’t all that successful, or why else would they have dropped the long front end in 1962, and not bring it back until 1965?
Well, the real answer is that it obviously didn’t matter, because the Ambassador sold equally poorly both with long and short front ends. Given that reality, it’s pretty easy to come to the conclusion that they might have been better off just not bothering, and instead selling a high trim version of the Classic as the Ambassador like they did in 1962-1964. But you’re welcome to disagree.
They might have put more of the money into a truly nicer interior instead of the long front end, and into suspension improvements, so as to position it better against the imports. Why not make it into a Mercedes-fighter; a Seville 15 years ahead of its time?
The engine wasn’t further back from the engine centerline, at least on the later Ambassadors. The engine was perched on the crossmember that carried the lower control arms and moved forward with the axle line. If you look under the hood of say a 1969 Ambassador you’ll see a large amount of space between the engine and the firewall.
I’d say the ’63 and ’64 models were the best, when the body was identical to the Classic and the Ambo was differentiated by the way it was equipped. I used to have a 1964 Ambassador 990 with the 327 4-barrel engine. It was very comfortable (coil-sprung reclining seats), good interior space, airy cabin with good visibility, got decent fuel economy for the time, and was surprisingly quick – at least in a straight line.
I’ve read that the intent was to keep that basic body shell until at least 1969 with an outer panel refresh along the way. AMC probably would have been better off sticking to that plan and avoiding later fiascos like the Matador Coupe and Pacer.
Oops, that should have been “The engine wasn’t further back from the front axle centerline.” Definitely weird-looking under the hood to see the engine so far ahead of the firewall on these cars.
As to why AMC produced the Ambassador, there are two versions that I’ve read.
The first is that some AMC executives got cold feet about completely regrouping around the compact “standard” Rambler and the American. They wanted AMC to offer at least one larger car. The old Hudson and Nash were going away, and that platform was too dated to be remotely competitive. Adding a few extra inches to the Rambler, and attaching the well-known Ambassador name to the resulting car, was an inexpensive way to placate them.
The second is that some top AMC brass wanted something more impressive to drive than a standard Rambler. Hence, the Ambassador.
The first is obviously it. Well, actually something close to it. As I said in my article, the ’58 Ambassador was planned to be the replacement for the Hudson and big Nash. I didn’t mention it, but the ’58 Ambassador was actually called “Ambassador by Rambler”, had its own brochure, and might not have had any actual Rambler badges. They were clearly trying to distance it from the rest of the Rambler line somewhat.
Your second one is the same one that’s unfortunately been tossed about as the creation myth of the Chevy Caprice. And it holds about as much water. 🙂
In addition to the logical explanation for the ’58 Ambassador, I seriously doubt George Romney would have gone for #2 anyway. That was not his style, as best as I can tell.
I believe that the second reason was offered by retired Nash/AMC executive John Conde.
But, yes, I can’t see Romney giving the green light to the 1958 Ambassador for that reason.
AMC executives just couldn’t envision completely abandoning the “standard” car segment. That they could drive around in a larger Ambassador, as opposed to a regular Rambler, was a bonus for them.
A fair number of them probably chose the Ambassador as their company car, and Conde simply guessed that this was one reason for AMC offering it. Over the years, and a few interviews later, his guess had probably morphed into the actual motivation, at least in his mind.
While “Ambassador by Rambler” was used in the marketing materials, the cars themselves were badged “Rambler Ambassador” on the front fenders.
Mitt Romney might have gone for #2, but his dad George wouldn’t have!
In the rust belt their Achilles’ heel was at the cowl structure area… the stretch seemed to make it that much worse.
There used to be a lot of cherry “Granny” Ramblers around that just weren’t practical to save.
I keep going back to this car. Nobody has yet mentioned (and I had to look it up) that when you popped for the automatic transmission you got pushbutton controls, too.
The picture is very dark but I do not see a shift lever here, meaning that this car is likely so equipped. Was GM the only American company that never did a pushbutton automatic? Studebaker-Packard, FoMoCo and AMC all did, though none of them for as long as Chrysler.
AMC used pushbutton controls for the automatic in the Rambler Classic and Ambassador until 1963.
That year it switched to a conventional column-mounted shifter, and also began placing more emphasis on the optional bucket seats and console-mounted floor shifters.
The Rambler American, from what I can tell, never offered the pushbutton controls.
It’s off topic but I just put 2 and 2 together and realized that Chrysler’s back in the pushbutton shifter business. FCA says Chrysler (with a little help from Bosch) electrified the Fiat 500, not the folks in Turin, so these buttons are from the same roots as the ’57 Plymouth’s.
And of course Lincoln has been using pushbutton shifters for the last few years
Interesting analysis, and some great shots.
One question – in the ads for the 1937, it offers “ride stabilizer and sleeping car” – one sounds like an anti-roll bar but do we know what a “sleeping car” is or refers to?
Looking at the rear of the feature car, we can see where Rooted got their inspiration for the first Hillman Super Minx and Humber Sceptre.
I’ve never actually seen this, but supposedly the seats would all fully recline to make a bed so you could sleep in the car. An interesting idea, if you are a bit thrifty and didn’t want to spring for a hotel while on the road.
That is “fully recline” with a pretty good lump at the hinge point.
Wow, lookit there. I’m seeing an unexpectedly large amount of ’61 Dodge Lancer in the lead shot.
IMHO that would have been an improvement. Just turn the grille “right side up” and you’ve got a Lambassador.
From a John Trotta photo
“Kenosha Kadillac” is what AMC people called the Ambassador in it’s day. One thing AMC did well with the Ambo was to put some really nice upholstery options into these cars, starting with the ’62 “400” trim level. They used real coil spring seats after most automakers had gotten away from them. In ’66 you could get a neat ‘houndstooth’ upholstery option with 2 matching ‘throw’ pillows! In ’69 you could get velour, which was before GM and others made that fabric so popular. The individually adjustable reclining seats meant that a person had real seating and comfort options (though AMC never put power seats into an Ambo.)
My view is that size did matter. It distracted Nash and AMC, especially in the crucial 1960s. The whole series of longer Ambassadors, from 1949 thru 1974, amount to one extended Deadly Sin. Ambassador money spent on luxury and high-performance Ramblers would have paid off in the long run, especially from 1974 on.
What-if George Romney had stayed at AMC and resisted the big-car fling? (Can’t resist the what-if.)
I think I saw an AMC Rambler (not an Ambassador) for sale on Ebay a while ago that was supposed to have been owned by George Romney. Not commenting on celebrity owned cars, but interesting that it was a regular Rambler (if indeed the records are accurate that he owned that car, and of course that doesn’t mean he didn’t own/drive other cars).
I think that Ambassador was trying to distinguish itself as what people thought of as “luxury” which changes with time. In the late 50’s and early 60’s the length of the car meant luxury, and AMC added length to the non-passenger dimension of car (which in the V8 era didn’t mean much, since straight 8s were no longer being sold and a long hood was no longer needed to accommodate the engine. Chrysler did similarly in the 80’s with the variations on the K car (where the width of the car was constant, but the Chryslers did add length to the passenger compartment instead of the engine bay). In the late 60’s Air conditioning was a premium feature that wasn’t standard even on most luxury cars, but it became so on the late 60’s Ambassador (guess they could have gone with power windows/locks instead of AC). Nowdays Air Conditioning is pretty much standard on most cars, so the definition of luxury has shifted…I think leather seats connoted luxury for awhile until the inevitable trickle down to less expensive cars…and so on. I’m sure if Ambassador was still around it would have the “luxury” feature of the day (whatever that is now?).
My Father owned a couple Ramblers in a row right after the compact heyday (he owned a ’61 and a ’63 Wagon) framing right before and right after Romney left AMC for politics. They were nice cars; the last one he was in an accident in Catonsville when we were moving to Vermont (replaced by an Oldsmobile F85 Wagon). We really never owned a “luxury” car, always a “family” car, but I do remember when we got our first Air conditioned car (which also had Stereo radio and power locks)…in the 70’s…it was a big deal to us (especially since we had moved south and it became important to us).
The ’61 Ambassador front end reminds me of the Ford Consul Capri. Just me?
Thank you for an entertaining read too.
There’s more AMC there…. how about the “Marlin” window light?
I’m surprised nobody mentioned one of those:
Only the Packard Hawk and the Daimler SP250 beat the Ambassador in the pouty underbite department. All horrible.
Great article Paul! It’s your articles like this that drew me into CC years ago. Thanks for the enjoyable read.
In the decades prior to the mid-1970’s, size really did matter to middle and luxury segment customers: they almost universally equated size with luxury. How an each automaker choose to apportion the additional length was the main difference, some definitions.
Extended front axle-to-cowl: straight-forward, easily the least-costly option whether BoF or unibody, practiced by nearly every automaker.
Extended deck with additional length added behind a common, shared central body shell. Also a low-cost option, pioneered by GM under Misterl, carried on under Bill Mitchell, becoming universal to all GM lines except Chevrolet. Approach also applied to two door styles.
Lengthened rear seat passenger compartment: required unique rear doors, floor panels and roof shell as well as ancillary components beyond the volume body on which it was an extension. Useful only for four door styles. Benefits yielded directly to rear seat passenger legroom, when properly trimmed equated to genuine luxury. The most costly method.
A rational for the extended-front 1958-‘61, ‘65-‘74 Ambassador models: Although Nash and Hudson were dying marques, they were sold to a loyal core customer base for whom that type of car had to be kept available to retain them as AMC buyers. The most cost-affective way to do that was utilize the familiar extended-front method. The resulting sales were simply plus volume without great additional investment, sold at a premium price, likely a higher unit profit per car than the standard Rambler. True, the Ambassador amounted to only 5% to 8% of total ‘full-sized’ Rambler sales excluding the American but it kept an important group of more affluent customers in the fold for when competition stiffened in their prior strongholds. While the lengthened rear passenger compartment was the genuine method to create a luxury sedan with passenger benefits, given the significant increased cost on a unibody, it was out of the question for AMC.
To the specific 1961 styling and details: it was bizarre on par with the Plymouth and Dodge so not a complete outlier that year. In its defense, it is the first Ambassador with frontal styling and taillights designed to give a real visual differentiation from the Six/Classic. The first three years of “Ambassadors by Rambler” are, other than length and trim details, recognizably dolled-up Sixes and Classics. The 1961 is a preview of what would be the corporate approach from 1965-’74: applying Ambassador-unique styling as a further enticement to upscale buyers.
On how successful were the 1965-’74 Ambassadors: my source is the “Standard Catalog of Independents, The Struggle to Survive Among Giants”, Edited by Ron Kowalke. The production is given as follows:
1965: 64,115; 1966: 71,000; 1967: 62,615; 1968: 60,872; 1969: 76,194; 1970: 59,941; 1971: 41,674; 1972: 44,364; 1973: 49,294; 1974: 24,971
The conclusion one might draw from these numbers is the Ambassador was a solid, steady, if unspectacular, seller especially compared to the relative failure of the Rebel/Matador in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. Although the extended-front Ambassador concept had run its course by 1974 (even the Chrysler Imperial had abandoned it) a Matador-platform Ambassador could have sold well through the end of the decade.
Thanks for the great article on a rarely-seen Ambassador, explaining its development and market response. Its dorky styling makes it one of the most interesting cars of the era.
Allrighty. Stock market closed today, and the ballgame doesn’t start until 8, so time available to comment.
Starting with the late 40s-57 Nash: the Statesman used the 184/196 Six. This engine was designed to be cheap to produce so was made very compact, with little expansion room and only 4 main bearings, rather like the Studebaker Champion Six.
The Ambassador used an OHV, 7 main bearing 6 that dated from the 30s. I have not had the opportunity to measure an engine of this family, but I can infer it’s length from the fact that, after the 54 merger, the Hudson 308 could fit in that engine bay. I have measured a 308: the head alone is 30″ long. For comparison, I measured the head of a 54 Packard 359 straight 8: 32 1/4″.
The mid 50s Statesman’s wheelbase was 114.3″ while the Ambassador’s wb was 121.3. It is not unreasonable to think that the entire extra 7″ in front of the firewall was needed to accommodate that big 6 with it’s 3/8″ bigger bore per cylinder and 3 additional main bearings.
The new 56 Rambler’s engine room was designed around that same compact 196, so was made short.
Now to the 58. Yes, I think the front clip looks too long. A stretch of 4-5 inches maybe, but the 9″ stretch looks excessive. Why would they do what they did?
When the 58s were being designed in 55-56. the Hudson engine plant in Detroit was still going, providing 308s and 202s for the Hudson badged Nashes. The AMC 327 did not exist and the V8s being bought from Packard were both expensive and troublesome. I too have seen the pix of the proposed 57 Hudson. It occurs to me they made the front clip of the 58 so long so it could accommodate a 308. By the time the 58s entered production, the Hudson plant was closed, the 327 was available so they no longer needed the long engine room, but, as with the Pacer a generation later, they already had so much invested in the platform, they didn’t scrap it and start over when engine availability changed.
As for the 67 seniors, the late 60s were the time of the “long hood, short deck” look. I remember a road test of a 69 Gran Prix that commented there was enough room under the hood for two engines. Both my 67 Thunderbird and a 72 Gran Torino have 6″ or more of void ahead of the radiator. In that era, to my eye, the Rebel, especially in two door hardtop form, looks pug nosed. I think the Matador and Ambassador both benefit from their longer front clips.
As to the noses stuck on the Matador and Ambassador in 74, I asked Vince Geraci about that. He didn’t know as he was head of interiors at the time so he referred me to Pat Foster. Foster said they did it to make the front end look longer, period. Someone must have decided that the Matador needed a longer lengthening that the Amby.
A pug nosed Rebel.
A malaise era Ford. No wonder AMC thought their cars needed longer front ends!
I still wonder it the extra long bulge on the front of the 74 Matador was necessary to share some hard points in the front radiator support or hood latch area.
Jim, there was a late Matador sedan at the show the year I asked Vince about the extra long nose, so we both looked at the front of that car. There’s nothing in there but air.
I remember those Ambassadors in the late 60s, and how it didn’t really fit any market segment. The wheelbase was up there with the big 3 (Mercury or Dodge, even) but the rest of the car was an intermediate like a Coronet or Cutlass. They were attractive cars in those years and did some things decently in the 4 way road test magazines used to do, lumping these in woth the Impala, Galaxie 500 and Fury.
I still maintain that the only era where the Ambassador had a real shot at success was in the mid 70s when smaller luxury became a thing. And, of course, AMC killed it in 1974, the year before the Granada found that market. Also, its front end was actually attractive in comparison with that monstrosity on the front of the Matador.
Part of me sees the dorkiness of c1960 Rambler styling, but another part sees an essential rightness in the package, as evidenced by the mid-size Chevy parked next to it and the Mercedes comparison. I remember the mixture of fascination and derision I felt towards Ramblers as a kid at that time, but even then they were always somehow worthy of respect – unlike an increasing number of other far more ‘successful’ (and bloated) models from the Big 3.
It can be interesting to speculate whether a domestic industry (& market) based on Rambler design directions might have avoided the design abyss of the decades to come. And yet if my father had come home with a shiny new 1961 Rambler it would have been a letdown – mea culpa.
Also: Volvo 164 vs. 140.
In my earliest memories of childhood, we lived one mile from the AMC main plant. I remember having disdain for the 1958-62 Ramblers. Obviously with the same greenhouse, they were just the same car (even if there were substantial improvements such as dual-circuit brakes for 1962, but as a small kid I didn’t know any of that). The 1961 Ambassador, particularly. I thought the front end was a worthy effort, looking expensively sculpted and way different than anything else they made. But there’s that same greenhouse as the cheaper looking Classic. And the odd taillights, which obviously bolted into the same holes of the dorky clothes-iron shaped Classic taillights. This was a kid’s perspective. My parents drove a GM spaceship mobile, and regularly updated to a new car as was the fashion. The GM cars of the time seemed way cooler, with the fashionable bigness and radically varying styling inside and out. Even though the chassis wasn’t that much different from year to year, but as a 3-7 year old I didn’t know that. I even got the impression from Mom that Ramblers were unsafe (due to the smaller size and the unibody, I suppose).