Curbside Classic: 1961 Rambler Classic Cross Country – The Ultimate Motel

As I venture to the last wedding of summer, and have to pay the exorbitant hotel prices in a resort town, I sure wish I had a car that could double as a tent. This brings to mind the one brand of Station Wagon that came as a ready-made tent.

Nash had long been a proponent of not wasting your money on overnight accommodations. They first introduced the “Bed-in-a-Car” feature 75 years ago. Although I doubt Ralph Nader would approved of letting Suzy here relax on the road while dad drove their Bathtub Nash here.

The concept really came into its own when it was spread to Nash Station Wagons during the 1950s. It found a perfect home in the all new for 1956 Ramblers.

Now there was sufficient room for a family of four to snuggle up on the side of the highway. Well, Tommy can have the rear cargo area in the wagon.

By 1961, the rechristened Classic Cross Country wagons were among the most popular station wagons in the land. Rambler moved nearly 82,000 of the various trim and seating configurations of the Classic Wagon that year, shaking off new and recent competitors from all American Manufacturers save the luxury three.

All the more remarkable is Rambler sold these many wagons (and rose to #3 in Model Year sales in 1961) with a car that in many ways had not seen much change since 1956. Add in the fact that the American was a clever (if not particularly pretty to quite a few eyes) re-skin of the original 1950 Rambler, the truth of the matter becomes that AMC had cars that were equally moribund as anything Studebaker offered during the same period.

The (fleeting) success of Rambler in the early 1960s seems to be a combination of factors. For one they were decent cars: well assembled, competently engineered. And despite their really awkward styling cues, somehow connected to a more conservative buyer market.  I think it is fair to say these were the buyers that Volkswagen Beetles may have appealed to, but were to small or still too associated with Germany for a host of Middle American buyers that still had “The War” on their minds.

The styling of the 1961 models are particularly curious in that respect. I don’t know if I really like the grafting of the 1960s “Headlights parallel with the grille” look on such a 1950s body. Also the more flowing curves that worked well on the slightly pontoon front fenders on the 1956 body don’t work as well as the blunt cliff applied to the 1961 models.

The projectile fenders fitted to the extended wheelbase (forward of the cowl) Ambassadors balance out the stubby look. But the Ambassadors were decidedly more pricey, in actual full sized price (if not size) categories. There were other things that made the Classic such a value, even in comparison to its glitzier big brother. For the size of the engine, the 195.6 Inline 6 was decently powerful, not as powerful as a 225 Slant Six, but with up to 138hp from the 2 barrel version it wasn’t exactly a slouch either. At least as compact inline sixes went, it was no wheezing Falcon Thriftmaster or head gasket exploding Lark Skybolt.

The other benefit of producing this body for so long is that any bugs or problems that are associated with planned obsolescence that most likely sent quite a few normal Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth buyers to Rambler stores. It also made AMC seem like the more stable independent in comparison to Studebaker, whose troublesome Skybolt Inline Six was probably the last straw with all but the Studebaker loyal and avid Mr. Ed fans. But the majority of those buyers found their way back to those Big 3 manufacturers as they introduced more sensible sized sedans and wagons of their own.

Ramber tried with their all new Motor Trend Car of The Year winning 1963 models, but despite modern looks and useful updates on the tried and true formula it was losing traction to the more sensible choices from the big 3, like the Fairlane Squire.

But for a short time before the magic door gate wowed every other suburban house, and Vista Cruisers, well, cruised vistas, the Motel on Wheels Cross Country was the absolute state of the art in wagon technology. A car with a bed. I’d be saving $250 this weekend. Maybe I can interest the owner in a weekend car swap….