Curbside Classic: 1961 Rambler American – The Hip Ugly American

(first posted 9/6/2011)    This car made me embarrassed to be a newly minted American in the fall of 1960. We had just arrived for the unveiling of Detroit’s spectacular new 1961 models, and I was in car hog-heaven. In my rambles to car dealers, the Rambler-purveyor was last, in part because of its location. But when I finally made it, and laid my eyes on the new 1961 American, I felt betrayed. It was all wrong: the proportions didn’t work, its wheels were too big–the rear ones weren’t even centered in their openings–and the greenhouse was way too skinny in relation to the lower half of the car. If Tonka Trucks had made cars, this is what I might have expected. And if things weren’t bad enough, then I opened the hood. I was not proud to be an American that day.

America was the land of dream cars come true, but this one was a bad dream. I’d never encountered a car with such bizarrely disconnected upper and lower halves.

It was as if there were aircraft-carrier runways on both sides of the greenhouse. I really struggled with this, especially after having spent a nice long session at the Chevrolet-Buick-Cadillac dealer, with their bumper-crop of delights that year.

How could they call this an “all-new” car?

Well, when I saw a on “old” 1960 sitting next to the “all-new” 1961 out in the lot, my seven-year old brain tumbled to the reality of “reskinning”.

These two were a lot more alike than Rambler was trying to let on.

Rambler 1950image courtesy flickriver/jacksnell

As out of date as the 1960 looked, given that it was just a slightly refreshed version of the Ur-Rambler of 1950, it still worked a lot better for me than the “all-new” one. Bathtubs are a timeless design.

The original Rambler’s bathtub style had lots of tumblehome, but it was in the form of a graceful arc, not the square-hipped blockiness of its successor. That also did nothing for its interior dimensions either.

While the ten years from 1950 to 1960 brought significant increases in interior space, even for the new compacts that arrived in 1960, the Rambler was stuck inside its obsolete unibody structure, regardless of how well (or not) AMC designers were trying to hide it from the outside. This is a pretty cozy car; undoubtedly the smallest interior of any American car of the period. A Corvair feels spacious in comparison.

And I liked the earlier simple but elegant dashboard better too, despite knowing it was “old”. Given kids’ predilection for everything new, this new Rambler was creating a serious dilemma for me.

The rear seat was no better; narrow in width, due to the intrusion of those large wheel wells. This was very anachronistic for modern cars by then. In fact, the Rambler’s basic architecture reminds one more of a prewar car, in the relationship of the body to its chassis. I had a classmate whose dad drove a ’59 or ’60, and this back seat brings back the snug memories of it. When they bought a ’64 Biscayne, it felt twice at least twice as wide.

In fact, the American just isn’t very American, but something you’d expect to find in the Auto-Parade of 1961 from some European country, and chuckle to yourself about its funny looks, while thinking “that would never fly in America”.

Well, the American didn’t exactly fly in America; let’s say it walked. And sometimes, that’s good enough. It was a pragmatic decision by George Romney to revive the American in 1958, as a low-end compact below the mainstay Rambler line. He knew the Lark was coming, as well as a raft of new compacts from the Big Three. What was there to lose? Nothing, really, and as the cheapest American car in its time, it sold reasonably well, enough to warrant this refresh for 1961.

By then, the Falcon had dominated its class, and the American’s sales dawdled along, about as fast as it drove along. What was I just saying about walking?

Yes, when I lifted the hood on that “all-new” American in the dealer showroom, I just about decided to head back to Austria. There, down in the bowels of its snug little engine compartment sat a flat head six. So much for “all-new”.  As a kid, I knew I was looking at 1920’s or 1930’s state of the art. This was, by far, the last flat head in an American car.

I might have been dismayed then by the primitive little 195.6 cubic inch long-stroke six that made all of 90 (gross) hp, maybe about 75 or 78 in today’s net ratings. But now, I revel in its simple visual delights. No, the jet age had not yet arrived under the American’s hood, where its flat head six lumbered on through 1965.

No, that’s not a stock air cleaner on that little carb. These sturdy-enough mills preferred to spend their lives chugging along at between 1000 and 2500 rpm. Anything much above that felt strained already.

This Rambler is best enjoyed (visually) as a humorous time capsule, as are its many details. Like the trademark finely-ribbed aluminum window frames: a better solution. Even if they did eventually get old.

The American’s odd shape in the big picture results in many curious little snippets, like the his door handle at the far end of that side protrusion. I could go on…

The truth is, I’ve come full circle, and love this little ugly American, with its too-narrow track and all. And of course, I’m not the only one. Its owner is a young woman, who recently picked it up. It’s madly cool now; even more so than all the more prolific old Falcons young folks are driving now. A wide-hipped boxy Rambler American: it doesn’t get much hipper than that, literally.

As I stood there staring at this American, reflecting on my fifty years of feelings about its boxy body, something kept tugging at me: there actually is another car out there that it reminded me of. I’d had the feeling before, but couldn’t quite place it. Suddenly, it popped into my head. Of course, the Volvo pulled it off a lot better.