Curbside Classic: 1961 Rambler Classic Cross Country – Summer Daze

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(first posted 6/7/2013)     It’s morning on a bright summer day in Iowa City in 1962. I may have fallen asleep with a Corvette brochure, but now they’re lost somewhere in the folds of my sheets. The fantasy is over, and its time to face a reality of rampant Rambler Classic wagons with wheezing sixes piloted by boozy but anything but sexy Moms. Instead of rolling in a ‘Vette to a fancy night club where a jazz band is playing, we’re off to Lake Macbride, and if we’re lucky, a stop at the Purple Cow drive-in for milkshakes or floats afterward. The distinctive pattern of Rambler upholstery seared into the backs of my thighs and the stain of artificial strawberry on my trunks will be the tell-tale of having crowded in with half a dozen other hot and sticky kids in the back seat. Why did I have to wake up and find you at the curb, Rambler Classic Wagon? I was so enjoying my fantasy memories.

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These Rambler wagons were everywhere at the time, the choice of the younger families that were so busy birthing and brooding baby boomers. This picture, which includes a house that is much more Iowa then Oregon, takes me back to riding in my friend Chris’ identical family Classic wagon, wishing it was a Pontiac Bonneville Safari like the family across the street had.

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Lets face it, Ramblers were about on the same pecking order of a passionate nine-year old piston head in 1962 as a ten year old Kia does today. These cars were the Kias of their time: the most frugal and pragmatic transportation in the land, if you needed more room than a VW. Eugene’s Kia dealer once was the Rambler dealer, and a Daewoo dealer in between. Rambler wisely turned away from trying to compete with the Big Three after a couple of disastrous years in 1954-1956, and identified a niche for frugal Midwesterners, no matter what part of the country they lived in.

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And it worked like a charm, as plenty of folks were sick of the over-sized chrome-winged flash the big guys were serving up in the late fifties. In 1960, Rambler set new records for an independent, and in 1961, a recession year, Rambler was Number Three in the land! A truly remarkable accomplishment; kind of like Hyundai’s momentum a few years ago, but  shooting all the way to third.

Of course it wouldn’t last. The Big Three threw their barrage of compacts and mid-sized cars at Rambler, the Studebaker Lark, and the imports, and it hit hard. Rambler’s heyday was brief and inglorious, inasmuch as the cars were rather dreadful bores, and unevenly styled (that’s being charitable), like the boxy 1961 American and this somewhat but only slightly better Classic. The Ambassador? That was truly a joke, trying to compete with the stylish and toned-down new ’61s from GM, especially the Pontiacs.

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Obviously, a nine-year old isn’t thinking about the practical virtues of a Rambler. This Classic Cross Country was the Volvo 245 of its times, with a healthy sprinkle of chromium-laced fairy dust in two tones. It had practical big 15″ wheels when everyone was doing 14 and 13 inch mini-donuts. And AMC actually dropped the V8 option in the Classic line, which probably had everything to do with the fact that the ’62 Ambassador lost its larger platform and was now just a tarted-up Classic. That made all Classics dogs, because that six was a pretty modest affair.

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The 195.6 cubic inch 127 (gross) hp engine had its origins in 1941, and was updated with an OHV head along the way. But it was an old school chuffer, with a tiny 3.13″ bore and a massive 4.25″ stroke. Plenty of low-end torque to haul the kids around with, but I remember seeing these struggling up in the Rocky Mountains, with the camping gear lashed to the standard luggage rack over that weird lowered rear roof section and three kids in the back. And was an aluminum-block version for a couple of years, in that brief US fad that resulted in lots of warped heads and the scratching heads of unhappy owners. Cast iron was here to stay, for another forty years or so.

Rambler seats

Rambler’s accent on frugality extended to its famous reclining seats, which meant one didn’t really have to take a motel room. Although where everyone changed into their pajamas wasn’t fully explained. With the younger demographic, pajamas were not usually a part of taking advantage of the seats anyway. Mom, can I borrow your Rambler Friday night? Sure, but why don’t want to you take Dad’s Pontiac?

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This 1961 Rambler was one year away from the end of the line for the 108″ wheelbase body, having first seen the light of day in 1956. Of course, it was a unibody, a fairly light one at that; even this wagon barely topped 3,000 lbs. The next year, the Classic got the handsome new body that we (mostly) praised here. It was long overdue; eight years was an eternity back then, and it was all-too obvious to me at the time that this ’61 was already a rolling antique. Enough Rambler ragging; I’m not nine anymore, but childhood impressions are hard to totally purge. And I’d be happy to drive this one out to the lake, and stop for a milkshake one the way home; just not with a half-dozen kids in the back, please.

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