Curbside Classic: 1961 Rambler Classic – Classic Rambler

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.

1956 Rambler Super sedan (top) and 1956 Studebaker Commander sedan (bottom) as shown in factory photographs.


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.”

Further reading:

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.