Rambler. Say the word, if only in your mind. Does a car jump to mind? For some folks it might be the older Nash-derived Rambler from the 1950s. For others it could be the smooth Dick Teague designed cars from later in the 1960s. But for me – this is it. When someone says “Rambler” (not a common occurrence these days, I should note) my mind calls up one of these. And why not? It was inarguably the most successful Rambler of them all.
Who might have guessed in 1953 that this car would even exist in the future? All of the independent manufacturers were in really tough shape. If you had told the man of foresight in 1953 that the following year would see mergers of Nash & Hudson and of Studebaker & Packard, that man might have put his money on S-P. After all, Studebaker had been outselling Nash for quite a few years and offered a line of trucks besides. Adding Packard’s well-known and respected engineering credibility and its fine old name as a purveyor of luxury cars would have seemed a no-lose proposition – certainly one that added a lot more value than Hudson could bring to Nash.
But it is funny how things work out in real life. For all of the advantages that the S-P combination had in theory, they turned out to be outweighed in importance by one single factor – sound management.
Both companies had product plans in place that included new 1957 models. S-P, led by James Nance (a man with a mighty thin resume in automobile manufacturing) planned an ambitious new top-to-bottom lineup while AMC was planning only for a replacement for a line of Ramblers that dated back to 1950.
We have told the story of the Rambler before. In summary, the line made its debut as a well-trimmed convertible on a compact 100 inch wheelbase. The series grew to include a hardtop and a two door wagon (1951) and a two door sedan (1955).
But the big (and prophetic) addition proved to be that of a four door sedan and four door wagon in 1954 which shared a longer 108 inch wheelbase, and which would serve as the starting point for the Rambler’s next generation.
In an excellent piece covering the development of the 1956 Rambler) that plan was described as a new 108 inch wheelbase Rambler sedan and wagon that was to be ready for 1957. The existing Rambler line was, of course, expected to last through the ’56 models. However, two things happened to change this plan. Nash/AMC President George Mason had died unexpectedly in late 1954, which moved his lieutenant George Romney into the President’s office. Second, Nash and Hudson sales had been in a freefall, with no improvement in sight – the newly enlarged 1954 Rambler lineup had outsold the big Nash by nearly 10,000 units. A heavily facelifted Nash (with a Hudson derivative) was planned for 1955 but Romney felt that the Rambler was the only model with any real chance of success against the Big Three. With money available for only one new car, it was decided that the one new car would be the Rambler, which would be pulled forward for a 1956 introduction.
Victory was by no means assured when the new Ramblers hit the showrooms. On the same 108 inch wheelbase as the 1954-55 Rambler sedan, the new car would be offered in only four door models – sedan, wagon and (for some sizzle) a new four door hardtop. Initial sales were decent, but not great. After 1955 Nash and Hudson Rambler sales of around 81,000 cars, sales of the new model (which lost all of the two door versions) dropped to 66,573. Addition of a V8 model for 1957 accounted for virtually all of the line’s production increase to 84,699. But in 1958 two things would come together to make this risky bet on the compact Rambler finally pay off.
It is received wisdom that the 1958 recession played right into Romney’s hands as he alone offered a line of small, sensible cars for those who suddenly felt less wealthy due to the contracting economy. We should not, however, overlook a second factor which no doubt helped: the ’58 Rambler’s restyling.
We have covered the 1958-59 Rambler here before but a couple of points can still be made. One is that the refreshes of the front and rear of the car finally turned a frumpy old Nash into something modern. Sort of modern, anyway, in a Checker-Visits-The-Soviet-Union kind of way. The 1956-57 model is fascinating to contrast with the Studebakers of those years. Where the Rambler’s modern midsection and angular, airy greenhouse had been let down by the dowdy, bulbous styling of the rest of the car, the ’56 Studebaker suffered from the opposite problem of nicely updated front and rear ends which augmented an elderly-looking mid-section. In fairness, the two cars were not direct competitors (the Studebaker was roughly the same width as the Rambler, but it had an additional 8 inches of wheelbase), except in the sense that they were the last two independents trying to make it in the mainstream.
In the ’58 Rambler, Ed Anderson finally added a decent front end and stylish fins to make the entire car seem new, fresh and modern. Sales of the “big” Rambler (excluding Americans and Ambassadors) jumped by nearly a third, to over 116,000 units.
Even standing largely pat for 1959, sales of Rambler’s bread-and-butter model ballooned to 259,000 cars and with a moderate restyling in 1960 they jumped again to 314,000. That 1960 restyling had been a worthwhile one, which toned down the fins and made for the most attractive tail end on a Rambler to date. The ’60 refresh also included an updated windshield with a more modern curvature and a new flatter roof treatment with a thinner C pillar.
All of which brings us to this 1961 model. AMC suddenly found itself selling cars and making money. A side effect of that condition is that there is money available for restylings and the ’61 Rambler got a noticeably new front end again as well as a new name – Rambler Classic.
AMC was also spending money on technical improvements. Chrysler and GM were not the only companies offering aluminum engines in 1961 – Rambler augmented its cast iron 195.6 cid (3.2 L) ohv six with an aluminum block version (which it called the “196” to distinguish it from the iron “195”). Although rated at the same 127.5 horsepower as the 195, the aluminum 196 offered a weight savings of 80 pounds. It seems that only about three hundred were installed in ’61 Classics (where they were optional in the Super and Custom models). After being more widely (though never exclusively) installed through 1964 (when the iron 232 cid engine would replace the older 195/196) it was quietly discontinued. The aluminum engine seems to have been a rare weak point in AMC cars of that era and surviving examples are rare today. An interesting story on the aluminum 196 can be read here.
American Motors broke records in 1961, finally elbowing itself into third place in the industry to beat Plymouth by over 20,000 units. While corporate production of 377,902 was down fairly substantially from the nearly 459,000 units of 1960, everyone else in the industry was down more. And of those Ramblers, 214,177 were Classic Sixes. Even though the model’s popularity dropped by a third, production of the Classic Six still dwarfed the Classic V8 (8,880) and Ambassador (18,842). This number also dwarfed the 67,000 car production of the ’61 Studebaker Lark (although Studebaker V8 sales virtually matched AMC V8 sales car for car). The war of attrition among the independents was essentially over, and AMC was the victor.
This car would soldier on for one more year, in which it got a new tail end. And (inexplicably) its first-ever two door body. The ’62 Classic would also get some upgrades to its antiquated front suspension, gaining lower ball joints in place of the lower trunnions. It would also lose its V8 version, making the Ambassador AMC’s sole way to buy more than six cylinders. But the car that had looked so current and modern in 1958 looked a little dated in 1962. The Classic would see an all-new version in 1963. It would be a good car but just one in a sea of many other good cars of its size and type. Nobody knew it then, but Rambler’s (and AMC’s) days of genuine success were over. But ever the scrapper, AMC would keep punching for another twenty years before finally throwing in the towel.
When I saw this ’61 Super sedan (the middle line, above the Deluxe and below the Custom) I experienced a mixture of feelings. I like the car, I really do. But as one who has always identified more with Studebaker than with AMC, I experienced that little pang of jealousy that one can feel towards the one who succeeded by the one that did not. And about those model names, is there anyone reading this who could look at a randomly ordered list of Super/Deluxe/Custom and place them in the correct low-to-high order? Three more randomly interchangeable trim level names I cannot imagine.
This Rambler (as a Six, Rebel or Classic) would be AMC’s last breakout hit, at least for something it did not later build in a Jeep plant in Toledo. For a car in its seventh year of production, this is a testament to how well the Rambler was regarded by the car-buying public. Yes, they were frumpy and dull and the sixes (which was almost all of them) were slow. But they were good cars, well (if conservatively) designed and well built. The way Nashes had always been. And well into the 1960s these were running around the middle parts of the country in great numbers, driven proudly by their elderly or idiosynchratic owners. And driven not so proudly by the teenagers who inherited them.
One other point needs to be made here – about how AMC convinced us all that the 1956-62 Rambler Six/Rebel/Classic was a bigger car than it really was. This car’s 108 inch wheelbase was identical to that of the 1954-55 Nash Rambler sedan and the ’56 model was actually two inches shorter in overall length. It was also right in the middle of the wheelbase lengths of almost all of the American compacts of 1959-60. It would not be surprising to find that Studebaker benchmarked the Rambler’s 108 inch wheelbase when it shortened its new Lark from the 116 inch span of the 1958 Champion. Yet AMC featured not the Classic but the smaller American in its “X-Ray” comparison of 1961 compacts. A look at the 1960 X-Ray booklet tells us that the larger Rambler was longer than the others. At 189.5 inches in overall length, it was about 5 inches longer than Valiant and nearly 15 inches over Lark. But in most other dimensions the car was within an inch or two of the competition. It would not be until the 1963 Classic with its 112 inch wheelbase that the model moved up a class into what would be considered mid-sized.
Also, think about this point, one that has not been made often enough in print: After Rambler had a monopoly on the compact market in 1956-58, Studebaker jumped in with the Lark in 1959 – and Rambler sales went up. In 1960 the Big Three brought out fresh, modern compacts of their own – and Rambler sales went up. A lot. In 1961 Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick brought out “senior compacts” while the others expanded their selections – and Rambler still gained market share against the entire rest of the industry.
Not just any car could have done that. Especially one with the kind of doing-its-own-thing image that Rambler had. So was this a case of lightning striking and AMC being the company with the right car at the right time? Or was this generation of Rambler just that good of a car? I think the right answer is “all of the above.”
1957 Rambler Rebel – 1957’s Really Hot Sedan (Paul Niedermeyer)
1957 Rambler Super – The Rambler Of Many Firsts (Dave Skinner)
1959 Rambler Custom Six – The Prophet (Paul Niedermeyer)
1959 Rambler American – Beep Beep (J P Cavanaugh)
1960 Rambler Deluxe – When It’s Time For Leaving (Jason Shafer)
1961 Rambler Classic Cross Country – The Ultimate Motel (Laurence Jones)
1961 Rambler Classic Cross Country – Summer Daze (Paul Niedermeyer)
1962 Rambler Classic – The Peak Rambler Experience (Paul Niedermeyer)
Rambler production figures found here.
Excellent article. I’d never seen a picture of a 108″ Rambler with a stick. The ones I knew were all pushbutton automatics. It seems to have continued the Nash pull-to-start gadget.
My parents bought a 1961 Classic in Chicago, when I was four years old. I was thrilled because I got to pick it out (from a line of identical cars, the only difference being the color). We had that car for years and moved to Florida in it, when my dad retired. It had a “three on the tree” shifter and a key ignition/start. Ours was the basic model, no chrome on the sides or anything. The pushbutton trans must have been an option. I’ve never seen a “pull to start” on one. Then again, I’ve only seen a few, over the years.
This style of sedan I find to be the most fascinating for several reasons, in that it looks both to be both contemporary Americarna and not all at the same time. Even more intriguing is that it’s all found in the little details. The positioning of the chrome, the angle of the glass relative to the dashboard, things like that.
On another note, while the demise of the Independents may very well be inevitable, I do hope the fanbase of those cars may be preserved at least a little in the murky future.
Yes, I’m new here, and I’m also a teenaged boy with a Studebaker. Hello, I guess!
Welcome! It is so nice to see another fan of the independents. And as a late middle aged guy without a Studebaker, all I can do is note life’s unfairness. 🙂 If you are inclined, I’m sure many here would love to read about a teen living the Studebaker life.
And as a late middle aged guy without a Studebaker, all I can do is note life’s unfairness.
And how many vehicles are in the Cavanaugh fleet now? Studebakers, and Ramblers, are readily available. There are even very appealing Renault Alliance convertibles to be had.
My grandpa seemed a dedicated Nash and Rambler buyer, at least through the earliest years of my childhood. Seems, he bought a new one every couple of years. He had a gray-with white-trim ’59 and then bought a ’61 like the featured car, only in light metallic blue. His next purchase was, I believe, a deep-teal ’65. Those cars must have resonated deeply with me, as I can still picture them clearly, nearly 60 years on.
This is a great look at the Rambler, full stop.
As one who already has an appreciation for these Ramblers, you’ve helped cultivate it even further.
It makes a person wonder what might have become of AMC had some better decision been made a few years after this Rambler was produced. The end result of AMC would have likely remained unchanged, but the path there could have certainly looked a lot different.
Bravo. Love these cars and quite impressed with the number of applicable CC links. Unfortunately I too am a middle aged man without the benefit of either Rambler or Studebaker ownership…
I think the 61 front end is the best for this body type.
Nice summary of the genesis of Rambler in those days. I think the 1961 was a vast improvement over the 1958-60 generation. There was something about the floating “Rambler” marque above the grille that grated on my eyes, the 61 tones it down nicely. For me, the 1963 is the one that comes to mind when I think of the name. It had a much nicer overall packaging, in that it had less angularity sticking out in several directions. A friend of mine had one and it went everywhere. Another friend had one that I had some rides in and it always performed reliably.
I never heard that these were bad cars in terms of quality or performance, yet they never achieved mainstream status. I think people felt safer going with a big 3 car, to be part of the crowd, maybe even to get the same car as their buddy or neighbour.
I will give Rambler / AMC lots of credit in their advertising. They did no exaggerate the length and width of their cars in the artists’ drawings. They appear very accurate to me. Maybe they wanted their cars to appear more compact or subdued.
If Rambler were around today as an independent, and Chrysler had not bought them, I wonder who would own them now? I believe they would have been swallowed up whole in the meltdown of 2008.
When you think about it, Rambler did the near impossible: it offered one of the best selling models in the industry for several years yet failed to become mainstream. The more normal they got the less popular they became.
Having spent some time living with one in the modern era, I can say that these were rather decent cars. The iron ohv 6 had enough power and stamina to cruise at current highway speeds and deliver good fuel economy also. Smooth riding with a very quiet interior partially due to the one piece fiberglass mat headliner. Mine was an automatic, to start it you would turn on the key and push the N button to fire the starter. There was a vacuum switch in the intake manifold to disable the starter circuit when the engine was running.
I never rode in one but have always understood that these cars provided a feel of quality that AMC could never quite match in later models.
An interesting article on a nice car. These Classics don’t show up too often at local car shows, although there is a mint 1961 Ambassador sedan that often pops up at the big Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) shows at Hershey and Macungie.
Even though the 1962 model was supposedly more “modern” – no tail fins – the 1961 models look better to me. The back of the 1962 model is bland, while the small tail fins on this Rambler are just right. The serve as an accent to the design, not the focal point. As such, they don’t look ridiculous.
Perhaps one overlooked reason for AMC’s 1958-63 success – the near-meltdown of Chrysler Corporation during those years. Plymouth had completely abandoned the “practical-but-boring” market niche by 1957. Then severe quality control and rust problems tainted Plymouth’s reputation. The 1960 Valiant was well-engineered and performed well, but looked strange and had serious build quality and water-leak issues.
The debut of the GM A-bodies for 1964 hurt the bigger Ramblers, but I’d also argue that, by 1965, AMC was losing a lot of sales to the greatly improved and more conventionally styled Plymouth Valiant and Dodge Dart.
Reading your reply, I now and wondering if any AMCs will show up at Moparfest this weekend near Kitchener, Ont.
A few AMC/Ramblers do show up the big Chryslers at Carlisle show held in July. Most of them are from the 1970s.
There is generally a small AMC contingent at Moparfest. They tend to be all parked together in one area.
I’d add that the 1962 Fairlane also hurt. As well as of course the Falcon and Chevy II. And even the GM Y Bodies and Corvair to some degree. Starting in 1960, the Big Three started offering a lot more smaller and medium-smaller cars. The Rambler still had a lot of momentum going into 1961, but by 1962, it looked really out of date compared to the more contemporary cars at GM and Ford.
Consumer Reports loved these, and in the late ’50s/early ’60s recommended them wholeheartedly. The only criticism they had was the ride/handling was not up to the full-size Ford/Chevy/Plymouth level.
In 1985, I had a summer job at a company called KDI in Whippany NJ. There was a ’61 Rambler just like this one, same colors even–although it was an automatic and had some rust on the top of the front fender (rust which this car lacks). Very clean otherwise. I thought it was a sharp looking car.
That ’61 Rambler Classic and my ’62 Comet were the only “old” cars in the parking lot!
Coming very late to these posts, but, just looked at ’61 Rambler Classics on a whim this AM. My Mom bought a new ’61 Classic from a Jersey City dealer late that summer. It was yellow exterior, with yellow/green interior, push button auto and the 6 cylinder engine. I hated the car and wanted her to buy a 283 ci Chevy Impala. I was 10 then. Seven years later, I was supposed to get my (late) Dad’s 1955 Chrysler 300, but she traded that in for a ’68 Fury III Sport and I got the Rambler. She was (rightly) worried about my hotfoot tendencies.
In a day of GTO’s, Chevelle super sports, Road Runners, etc., driving a bird yellow Rambler was definitely not cool! Six months later, I swapped the car with a guy who had a ’59 Volvo PV544 with a 4 speed. He needed a 4 door and I needed a car that wasn’t yellow. The Volvo looked like a ’40s Ford, was very reliable and was much cooler than the Rambler.
I wonder if the car in Whippany was my Mom’s old car? It was garaged when she owned it and I got it with only 20K miles in ’68.
BTW, I have owned a ’66 Jag EType coupe since ’77 that is primrose (light yellow). I have since gotten over my hatred of yellow cars.
On the merger point, I contend that they had the combinations wrong. Nash should have taken over Studebaker, to get the V8 and South Bend foundry, machine shop, stamping plant and proving ground. Then Nash could have avoided buying the foundry in Sarnia, avoided dealing with the issues of the Packard V8, avoided the cost of producing the Potter V8 and avoided the shipping costs from the stamping plant in West Virginia, and Vance and Hoffman were both willing to step aside and let Romney be the big cheese.
The Hudson deal was nothing but a dealership grab as only about a month elapsed before AMC announced the Hudson models would be dropped and the Hudson facilities in Detroit closed.
Can’t help but wonder if it had crossed Mason, or Romney’s mind to establish Rambler as a stand alone brand, along side Nash and Hudson, right after the merger. Both Nash and Hudson dealers carried Rambler, but the company went to the expense of badging the Ramblers as either Hudson or Nash, with no other styling changes, while the senior cars were made distinctive for each brand.
Saw this Hudson Rambler at the Motor Muster a few years ago. “Rambler” is stamped on the grill, but it has a Hudson badge on the hood and Hudson hub caps.
At least the adverts were treating Rambler as a stand alone brand.
Yes, a Nash-Studebaker tie-up would have been a really interesting proposition. As would have been a Packard-Hudson merger, both being in Detroit. Nobody knew that little Willys was the only one that had legs.
And that 56-57 Rambler is one homely car! It is hard to imagine any other 1956 car that still looked as good as it did by 1962 (Studebaker Hawk excepted, of course 🙂 )
As would have been a Packard-Hudson merger, both being in Detroit.
Nance had set out two strategic objectives for Packard: obtain their own body plant and establish a stand alone mid-market brand. Taking over Hudson would have accomplished both. Ed Barit knocked on Packard’s door at the same time he was shopping the company to Nash, but Packard brushed him off.
And that 56-57 Rambler is one homely car!
Compared to how far Harley Earl and Exner went off the rails at the end of the decade, I’ll call the 56 Rambler “different by design”. The front of the 56 echos the front of the senior Nashes, without looking quite so much like a chipmunk.
I believe the Hudson badged cars were a one year only thing in 1956. Rambler became a separate marque beginning with 1957. I found this on the Youtubes a while back…
The 1962-only 108″ two-door sedan is completely inexplicable. The 1955-only (until it was revived as the American) two-door sedan is much more so – not only were the round cars planned to run through 1956, I wouldn’t doubt the sedan was planned at the start and delayed in favor of the higher-profit convertible, hardtop and wagon first due to the Korean War and later the Ford-Chevy price war that killed the Henry J and Hudson Jet along with dealing a body blow to Studebaker.
The whole point of starting with the more expensive models was to counteract the perception that small car equals cheap car. They were aimed at middle class suburbanites looking for a second car. The fact that Rambler was the only 50s compact to actual succeed shows the wisdom of their approach.
An excellent read.
I had a disproportionate amount of exposure to these, as they were very popular in Iowa City during my years there as a kid (1960-1965). Ramblers and Studebakers were both decidedly favored among the European ex-pat crowd there. I assume it was because they were both more compact as well technically differentiated from they Big Three in certain ways. Certainly the Rambler in size and other aspects somewhat resembled a large European saloon, like a Peugeot or Rover or even a Mercedes.
And of course they were economical to run and big enough for the family to fit. Several of our friends had Larks and Classics of this vintage. I can still feel the texture of their upholstery on my legs. And hear their wheezy sixes. 🙂
There’s not much to add, except that as you pointed out, the 1960 restyle was relatively successful, and made what was quickly becoming an elderly body semi-doable for two more years. But by 1962, the make-over came off as clumsy, and they quickly fell out of favor, as the new stylish and low compacts and the 1962 Fairlane offered similar sizes but with much more attractive styling.
It’s interesting to note that among this expat crowd, they pretty much all bought full size cars from the Big Three to replace their Ramblers in the mid 60s, especially from Chrysler. Incomes were going up, and the thrifty mentality of having a young family and the double recession of 1968-1961 were over, and so folks felt more expansive.
I’d say that was a key factor in Rambler’s issues: from 1956 through 1961, it was the go-to car for young families starting out or thrifty old folks. But after 1962, there were just so many options, big, medium and large to chose from, and the economy was on a roll again. Suddenly the Rambler reminded everyone of thrift and economy, and that was now out.
The huge success of the Mustang starting in 1964 really sealed the deal. Even if you were of modest means, you could drive something stylish.
Meanwhile, imports were on a roll. One would think that maybe the Rambler should have stayed more or less the same, a tall, boxy car, and become the American Volvo. But that would never have happened, because imports had a cache that Rambler would never be able to have.
When I came back to Iowa City in 1971, the former Studebaker dealer was making hay selling Toyotas very briskly. A number of the folks who had been Rambler and Lark drivers and had replaced them with a Big Three car were now driving Coronas, Mark IIs, and Corollas. There were even a few Crowns around. And of course some Volvos too.
I wonder how many Studebaker dealers ended up as Toyota dealers? I know a couple around here that signed up with Mercedes when Studebaker folded and then added Toyota. One is still a Mercedes and Toyota dealer while the other dropped Mercedes somewhere along the line.
Studebaker dealers were very likely to have been selling Mercedes-Benzes prior to Studebaker’s exit from the car business (I phrased it as an “exit” because Studebaker survived as a company into the 2000s).
Studebaker-Packard was the US distributor for Mercedes from 1957 until some time between 1963 and 1965, and I’m sure that many of the selected Studebaker dealers who sold both lines held onto their Mercedes dealerships when MBUSA was formed.
The old Packard tagline was “Ask the man who owns one.” I think it demonstrates AMC’s problems over the years when I note that, over my 70 years to date, I’ve only known two people who ever owned an AMC. One neighbor bought the re-styled 1961 American, and a good friend owned a new 1969 AMX (for only two years) and later a 1978 Concord (also not owned for very long). The loyal repeat buyers either started dying off, or purchased more mainstream Big-Three cars. From my limited experience with them (I must admit that I loved the 1950-style Rambler, as driven by Lois Lane on “Superman”), I would say that Nash and Rambler products were well put together. Their cardinal sin in the ’50s and ’60s was that they lacked flash and frequent styling changes, as this was the height of the planned-obsolescence era. Neither a 1959 Cadillac nor a 1961 Thunderbird was ever mistaken in a parking lot for a Rambler!
A neat and tidy car. Apparently Rambler used up all its weirdness for the year on the hopelessly boxy American and the downright bizarre Ambassador. And no, I’m not posting too fast – please fix this!
I get that
“posting too fast”
warning, too. WTF?
I get it too occasionally these days. I queried Paul and David Saunders about it, unfortunately there’s not much that can be done
It was like 1960-61 was the last time AMC tried to really make the Ambassador stand out. But it always sold terribly. I suspect that AMC discontinued the Classic V8 in an attempt to switch more folks into an Ambassador.
I also suspect that this car’s slightly extended length was mainly because the same body had to work for the Ambassador. Although the Amby’s stretch was ahead of the firewall, the longer deck and overhang was probably necessary so that the Ambassador did not look totally unbalanced.
When I was a kid, my father’s foster mother had an older brother who owned a string of Nashes and then Ramblers. Uncle Will always drove what must have been a top-of-the-range model as I remember a couple of those cars having continental kit spare tire holders.
For some reason, none of us kids ever got to ride with Uncle Will, for that matter, I don’t remember any of his cars ever even being started while we were there on the farm. But man, were those cars…..flamboyant (?) with there flashy 2 tone paint jobs.
The Rambler story is great because it exemplifies how, even during the best of times when they had the right guy (George Romney) with the right car at the right time, the independents were always ultimately doomed, regardless.
A case in point is how, even though the Rambler was steadily increasing sales during Romney’s tenure, the Big 3 weren’t sitting idly by. After Romney left to be governor of Michigan, both Ford and Chevrolet came out with the Rambler-sized (but much more modern) intermediate Fairlane and Chevelle (soon followed by a proper Chrysler intermediate in 1966). AMC never really recovered. They gave it a valiant effort and lasted a lot longer than anyone thought they would (thanks largely to the Big 3 ignoring the Jeep Wagoneer and other AWD markets).
The point is, even when the independents did have a hit and/or solid offering in a market segment, the Big 3 would quickly move into that area and effectively crush whatever brief success the independents had enjoyed.
That’s why I can’t fault Romney’s successor, Roy Abernethy, too much for trying to go model-for-model with the Big 3. He understood that, in the long run, it didn’t matter how good AMC’s products were in the small car (and small profit) segment. He knew that the only hope any independent had for long term solvency was to, somehow, get into the big leagues. Unfortunately, that meant not just one, but a string of successful Hail Mary passes, and that just wasn’t in the cards with their limited resources. The independents were always just one economic financial downturn away from going belly-up.
That’s why I can’t fault Romney’s successor, Roy Abernethy, too much for trying to go model-for-model with the Big 3.
Yup. Romney hid from the big three by focusing on compacts. When the big three started selling compacts and intermediates, there was no place left for AMC to hide, except for Jeep. A shame as I drove a 74 Ambassador wagon and a 74 LTD sedan back to back over the summer of 75. The Amby was, by far, the more comfortable, better handling car.
The mind boggles at what might have been if AMC had been able to develop a proper CUV body to put the Eagle’s full time AWD powertrain under…assuming the market was ready for something like that. But, as with everything else, if it was a success, the big three would have had “me too” products in 3 years and the AMC would have been crushed.
Maybe if AMC had hooked up with Volvo, instead of Renault?
All true. AMC (or any independent) had the burden of having to do everything right but with the disadvantage of higher costs. The big companies could afford mistakes. The GM Y bodies were expensive underachievers. The 61-62 Plymouth and Dodge were horribly ugly failures. Those companies recovered. AMC had to do everything right. If they got one big thing wrong the consequences would start a long, slow death spiral. And as models began to proliferate in the 60s-70s (subcompacts, compacts, midsize, personal car, “stamdard” car, luxury car) they got more competition, higher costs over smaller production runs and more decisions to make that could turn out wrong.
I have argued before that the 1964 GM A body turned out to be a category killer. The Rambler Classic never stood a chance against the 4 varieties of GM intermediates. And by then the American was trying to fight compacts that were as good (or better) while at a cost disadvantage. AMC should have done OK with the 67 Rebel/Ambassador, but it just didn’t sell. Same with the Matador coupe. Same with the Pacer. They tried to go where there was little competition but by the 60s and 70s the only places the big companies were avoiding were the places where the market was too small to matter. That kind of proliferation would eventually almost kill the big companies too.
It’s worth noting that even relatively minor errors had big impacts on the small companies. For example, the disastrous Marlin experiment surely took a huge toll on AMC’s future plans. Imagine if they’d have put the Marlin development money towards modernizing their bread-and-butter mainstream products to get them in step with (or even ahead of) the competition. Maybe then, Abernethy’s plan wouldn’t have seemed so hare-brained.
The Javelin/AMX wasn’t so bad but, yeah, the Rebel simply didn’t pan out. AMC recovered somewhat with the Hornet and hit paydirt with the Sportabout. The conundrum is that the Sportabout was too low profit and too low of a volume seller for the Big 3 to take much notice. And when they did, it was none other than the half-baked Aspen/Volaré station wagon (although as it’s been argued in another CC, the Fairmont and downsized Malibu wagons were really in the same market).
Even the Hornet-without-a-trunk Gremlin did okay. But then AMC put all of the few eggs they had left into the Pacer/Matador X basket, and that was pretty much it. Again, like the earlier Marlin, imagine if they’d put all that Pacer/Matador X money towards getting the game-changer XJ Cherokee to market even just a couple of years sooner. If not for the steady government contracts and Jeep, AMC would have quickly went the way of Studebaker.
But then Chrysler was having their own issues at the same time and, ironically, the size of their problems made AMC’s issues seem trivial in comparison. Iacocca and the K-car arrived to save the day, not only for Chrysler, but, ultimately, Jeep, as well. Another one of the big ‘what ifs’ is if anyone would have saved Jeep if Chrysler had folded.
If Chrysler had filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy (liquidation), the Jeep trademarks would have been up for sale, like all other corporate assets.
Great points, JP. And one could argue that the Eagle brand and the Spirit really were way ahead of their time with all wheel drive and also an SUV-like platform that was part car, part truck……nobody else was doing that, and it was a niche sales market. As a result, they were way ahead of their time, but even if the larger market followed just a few years later, it likely would have been like the comparison of the Rambler to the Falcon/ Chevy II.
The difference between the Rambler and Jeep brands is that Rambler sold sensible and Jeep sold aspirational.
That second to last photo was the exact color scheme of my friend’s father’s 1961 Rambler Classic! He learned to drive in that car and we used to bomb around in it many a Sunday afternoon!
A teacher up the street where I used to live also had one. The reclining seats always intrigued me.
These, while not style leaders, were solid, reliable cars, but when the 1965 GM models came out, they were instantly outdated.
When my friend’s dad sold his 1961, he had an Earl Scheib paint job done to make the car look better. Unfortunately. the paint color was all wrong and nowhere near the factory green, irt was much too rich and bright.
He did sell the car and bought a 1964 Mercury Comet for his wife as a second car. He bought for himself a new 1966 Buick Special.
I seem to remember trade in value being an issue with AMC cars. I’m just going by overheard conversations over the years, but anytime someone was considering an AMC new purchase, I remember people telling them they’d get clobbered at trade in time.
It was the same with any independent like, say, Studebaker. You were okay if you were a dedicated loyalist, unwavering in your commitment to stick with the marque. But woe be it to you if you ever decided to switch to one of the Big 3. Peanuts is what you’d get for your trade in that situation.
My first car was a ’59 Classic. Bought it in 1971 for $100. It came with 5 gallons of oil, which was a necessity as I had to top it up every couple of hundred miles. But it got me around, and when I left for university that fall I sold it for $75.
Great article! One of the reasons that I like coming here to CC, is that I like reading about cars that I never really had much interest in…….the more off the beaten path they are, the better. The Rambler, for a while, was a decently attractive car, and modern. It was definetely the right car for the right time, and that helped it succeed. The issue that likely contributed to AMC’s demise, is that with the success of the Rambler, they couldn’t properly parlay it to the rest of their line. The Rambler was affordable, available transportation, but the problem with any business model that succeeds on the basis of selling volume in the “quantity over quality” aspect, is that there is often the stigma and backlash that comes with the reputation of something being cheap.
Especially as the Rambler aged and it became well ensconced in the buying public’s consciousness, it became more difficult to break that stigma. GM has always had vehicles that were cheaper and more affordable ways to have a variant of something that they already carried (ie: instead of the Camaro, there was the Vega; instead of the Corvette or Camaro, there was the “if you squint hard enough” sporty aspect of the Cavalier), but the Rambler was kind of an island of its own. The Falcon had already pretty much morphed into the massively successful Mustang (itself positioned already as a poor man’s Thunderbird). The Rambler didn’t have enough sporting pretenses to get someone into a Javelin, and by that time, AMC was already seen as a cut rate company, so a Javelin would have already been seen as a poor man’s Camaro, Corvette, or Mustang. The whole company became a “step down”, as a brand and once you do that, you’re doomed. The company should have created halo cars as soon as possible, but even with the additional cash flow of the Rambler’s success, it was short lived and most likely didn’t provide much of a cushion to develop better, more premium products within its own brand.
That being said, I don’t think that any car company did more with less. God bless ’em, AMC staved off death for at least 20-30 years.
Romney receives accolades for the success AMC achieved under his leadership but he may have been one of the luckiest CEO’s in automotive history, to wit:
With both Hudson and Nash losing market share, only the 108″ wheelbase Ramblers demonstrated potential market strength. The limited funds to renew just one of the three makes pretty much had to be directed to the Rambler.
Fortuitously, the Big Three were just then abandoning the sensible-sized family car familiar to millions to chase the upscale opening up to an increasing affluent America He stumbled onto an unserved niche which AMC exploited for four years building sales momentum before they had to face direct competition once the Big Three compacts and intermediates arrived. That momentum carried them for 1960-’61, abetted by a minor recession, but the frumpy ’62 proved they “milked that old original cow” one year too long.
Riding on AMC success, what did Romney do as that situation arose? He left! If he had a brilliantly successful strategy for AMC to pursue in the later 1960’s, we’ll never know. Abernethy faced a market situation worse for a small independent in that there were no niches into which they could take refuge. When they broke out by appealing with flashier cars, they alienated the sensible, frugal base. Any failure such as the Matador coupe and Pacer drained resources, while there was no good stead seller such as the Rambler had been to keep them solvent. Amazing they lasted as long as they did.
What a great article!
My grandparents drove Ramblers in the early 60’s, then switched to Fords by the 70’s.
I had a ’75 AMC Hornet powered by the good ol’ 232 6. A boring car, but good transportation.
Nash-Hudson-Rambler-AMC products, good and bad, have their place in American automotive history. It was mentioned once on a CC that although Jeep is the main thing remembered when Iacocca bought AMC, he also inherited quite a good, efficient team system of engineers and designers.
To this day, I think some of that effective, lean AMC system lives on in every Chrysler product.
Not sure where the guess that only 300 aluminum block 196s were installed in ’61 Classics. I think that is way off. The engine was much more popular than that, and standard equipment in the higher trim Classics.
I followed the link to the site where someone made a calculated guess at that based on some limited information available. While I’m not in a position to contradict him with specific facts, his rationale seemed iffy to me, and the 300 number too low. As you said, it was available for three years, and standard on some trim levels. I don’t see how he could square that with his guess.
You make a good point, I did not really check the math of the source I cited. The engine was listed in the brochure as standard in the top series, which would have probably put it into about 20% of production. It was also optional in the lower two series as well. If we figure that some Custom buyers would have chosen the proven iron engine and some DeLuxe and Super buyers would have opted for the new design, I would expect that 20% figure to be close. However, Rambler buyers did not tend to be “early adopters” of new technology so I could see an argument that the take rate might have been lower. 20,000-40,000 aluminum engine cars in 1961 would probably be a reasonable ballpark. I think 1962 and 63 put that engine in more cars than was the case in 1961.
The problem with Rambler is that it could never shed its image as a budget brand. There were just so many cheapskates and those who viewed cars as appliances, which was the natural constituency for this brand. People just preferred more stylish offerings from the Big 3. Romney was an excellent manger and for a while exploited niches where he could compete with a smaller car, but by 1964 this advantage was gone as the Big 3 now had a full range of compacts and intermediates. Abernethy then learned the hard way that a smallish independent just didn’t have the economies of scale to compete model for model with the Big 3. I’m surprised AMC lasted as long as it did.
Bravo! A classic Curbside Classic article. I didn’t laugh or cry, but it was certainly better than “Cats”, and I learned a lot about a car I was previously only barely familiar with.
Nothing screamed “Nerd-mobile” and “Dweeb Driver” more than an early/mid 1960’s Rambler.
Someone has to be the grinch in this Rambler love-fest. In the ’60s, I was the teenage son of Rambler-owning parents.
I can offer personal testimony that showing up to a high school game driving your parents’ Rambler was the social equivalent to wearing a letter jacket saying “Equipment Manager”.
It may be wise to expand one’s perspective beyond that of a teenager.
That is a particularly interesting piece, given my close familiarity and long affinity with and for Chrysler’s die-cast aluminum 225 Slant-Six. The linked article calls the Rambler motor first to market. Maybe or not that’s true; the aluminum 225 was introduced in the ’61 models, too, so figuring out who beat whom to market would come down to calendar dates I don’t have access to.
These two engines (AMC and Chrysler) that built iron and aluminum variants of the same engine are mind boggling to me.
Buick and Olds went all-in on aluminum for the 215 V8 they used from 1961-63. Interestingly Buick switched back to iron for the 1962 V6 even though it shared many elements of its archetecture with the 215. Perhaps it was for cost reasons or perhaps they learned their lessons early that aluminum engines in American cars were not yet ready for prime time.
But Chrysler and AMC chose to hedge their bets, which probably turned out to be a good thing in the end, seeing how neither possessed the deep pockets of GM.
Let’s keep in mind that these two engines had only aluminum blocks; they both kept the cast iron cylinder heads, unlike the Buick V8, which also had aluminum heads.
Of course the issues of having these two different metals became one of the sources of issues with these engines apparently, due to their interaction via the coolant.
Curiously, in Europe iron blocks and aluminum heads had been widespread for some time, and without apparent issues. The Peugeot engines all had that combination since at least WW2, and their engines had legendary durability and reliability.
Clearly AMC and Chrysler were dipping their toes into the aluminum vat instead of jumping in head first, like GM, which invested in a huge aluminum foundry facility for the Corvair and the aluminum V8. That’s undoubtedly the biggest single reason they used an aluminum block in the Vega, so as to keep this foundry’s capacity utilized.
I think the iron head/aluminum block issue and the coolant issue weren’t quite so connected as that, they were more like two separate problems.
The head issue was primitive gasket technology of the time (aggravated by the industry’s tight cost constraints) applied to the challenging problem of getting a good and durable seal with metals having significantly different coefficients of thermal expansion, one on each side of the poor, beleaguered gasket, whose job was made even harder by the Chrysler engine’s open-deck design. I don’t know if the Rambler engine had an open or closed deck. The Chrysler aluminum motor wasn’t really known for blowing head gaskets—I’ve pulled apart several of them with high miles and original head gasket—but it was less tolerant of abuse, neglect, and slipshod service procedure than the iron version was.
The coolant problem was primarily that Americans were still widely in the habit of running glycol coolant only in cold weather. After the weather warmed up they’d drain it out and save it for next year, filling the cooling system with plain water instead—no matter how many advisory decals the automaker stuck under the hood near the radiator. Plain water or worse, that is; the factory service manuals strongly advised against running alcohol-based coolant, and the owner’s manuals had bold-type admonishments not only to avoid alcohol or plain water, but also not to use solutions containing salt, sugar, honey, etc, from which I infer these nutso ideas had currency at that time.
Not using corrosion-inhibiting coolant was a bad idea no matter what the engine was made of, but an especially bad idea with an aluminum block. No matter what the head was made of, there were enough different metals in the cooling system—brass and copper, lead and steel and whatnot—that electrochemical corrosion would happen. Aluminum corrodes much more readily and rapidly than iron, so right there that’s a problem that ate up a lot of the aluminum Slant-6s, and probably the aluminum Rambler 196s, too. Now add a battery positive cable attached to the starter near the back of the engine and a battery negative cable attached to the block near the front of the engine, and we’re aggravating and accelerating that electrochemical corrosion.
Having inspected a fair good lot of the aluminum Slant-6s over the years, I think it’s apparent that if factory instructions were followed and glycol coolant were used consistently and changed often enough to keep up with depletion of its anticorrosion properties, the blocks held up just fine even over many years.
Fascinating discussion on this car. When I first saw the post, I thought it was going to be about the car itself, but glad to see that it was expanded.
In my childhood neighborhood in small town Ohio, our next door neighbors had a series of Ramblers. As a young kid I remembered they had a 1961 like the featured car, but in a light metallic blue, with a white roof. We had our 1962 Fairlane at the same time and I found it amusing how much the front styling of both cars was rather similar.
Our neighbor had the 61 Rambler until about 1968 or so. We lived near a thoroughfare that had a number of restaurants and bars, it wasn’t unusual for folks to get quite drunk and drive home. One such person came down the hill and slammed into our neighbor’s Ramber, pushing it about 100 feet and into the other neighbor’s cars on the street. In total there were four cars wiped out that evening.
Like others noted, by the time the mid 60’s had rolled around, attitudes had changed and people left behind their thrifty ways. Our neighbors bought a very nice 1968 or 69 Dodge Dart two door in gold with a black vinyl interior. They had that car until the husband passed several years later, and by then, the wife sold the house and moved to Florida to live out her years.
VW Beetle and Toyota/Datsun took some of Rambler’s frugal customers in the late 60’s. If the Hornet had arrived in 1968, maybe would have helped? Pacer and using NASCAR to try to “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” with Matador coupe, killed their independence.
My folks had two Ramblers in a row, ’60 and ’64, but were “sick of them” and got Big 3 or Toyota afterwards.
I really liked AMC thorough the 1960s up to about 1972. They had interesting cars that may not have always been cutting edge designs but were well built. Their 1963 line was a great design with the curved side glass and uni-side door panels.