Curbside Classic: 1964 Rambler Classic 770 Coupe – A True Classic?

What are the qualifications that makes a car a true classic? Being one of the handsomest and most enduring designs of its time? Staying in production for twenty years? Having a long-stroke in-line engine with a classic alloy OHC hemi-head? Winning a big race at the Nürburgring? Having illustrious heads of state as loyal owners? Or just slapping a chrome “Classic” badge on its flanks? How does this Rambler stack up? Has it earned its chops, or is it an impostor like so many others?

In 1963, a professor in Iowa City bought a Classic hardtop like this for his wife. As I walked by it every day on my trudge to school, I gave the Rambler a whole lot more eyeball time than average. Being an OCD car gazer, that’s saying something.

This Classic challenged all my existing constructs about Ramblers: they just weren’t cool, period (not too many years later, I realized just how cool a ’56 Rambler really was). Popular enough with the thrifty folks in the Midwest, their styling was atrocious. The 1961-1963 Rambler American takes the cake as one of the all-time stinkers. And I’ll never forget the shock of going to the dealer and lifting a hood on a ’63 American: it still had a flathead six, with only 90 hp! It was the last flathead engine still being made in America.

But that all began to change in 1963, after Dick Teague became chief stylist. Teague faced a momentous challenge: how to replace both the compact American as well as the mid/full size Classic and Ambassador with AMC’s limited budget. The answer was a brilliant two-in-one deal. The dramatically clean and handsome Classic/Ambassador sedans and wagons arrived in 1963, (rightfully) winning Motor Trend’s COTY. Teague cleaned it up even more for ’64, and added this particularly attractive hardtop coupe. Compared to the bloated and often fussy competition with their huge front and rear overhangs, this Classic was almost European in size, trimness, and cleanness of line.

Teague’s Act II was the compact ’64 American. By simply narrowing and shortening the unibody Classic platform, the American recycled the same doors, roof line, and many other body parts, not to mention the drive train and suspension. Rambler pioneered then what Audi “(re)invented” for its current range: a single set of platform components to cover their compact (A4), midsize (A6), and full-size (A8).

The only thing that spoiled these cars was the engines. The six was an OHV conversion of the old Nash flathead, and the 287 cubic inch V8 was a small-bore version of the already obsolete AMC 327. The V8s were too heavy, casting a sentence of terminal understeer to the handling. But even with its Flash-O-Matic slushbox, this V8 Classic was adequately lively in its day.

In production for twenty years? Not here in ADD-afflicted America, no thank you. When the Classic was restyled for again 1966, the blueprints and dies were bought by Kaiser’s Argentinean operation, IKA.

The middle section of the Classic was mated with the front and rear of the American to create the Torino. Looks like something from Italy, no?  A Classic, if there ever was one, even without the name. In production until 1982, it became quite the legend.

When Kaiser bought the Classic from AMC, it came sans engine. So Kaiser rummaged through its US warehouse and found just the thing for the Torino: the Kaiser Tornado straight six.

Back when Kaiser still owned Jeep (before selling it to AMC in 1970), it needed something fresher than its ancient old Continental-designed flathead six for the all-new 1963 Wagoneer. On a tiny budget, Kaiser’s Italian chief engineer designed a classic European-style OHC hemi-head. But under that new alloy head sat the old flathead block dating back to the twenties. But who knew?

America’s first main-stream OHC engine, the Tornado something of a (brief) sensation, until it started leaking and burning oil, overheating, and warping its beautiful aluminum cylinder heads. So in 1966, the Tornado was given a one-way ticket to Argentina, and Kaiser/Jeep started buying engines from . . . AMC!

But the Argentineans welcomed the Tornado with open arms, and began a steady development program that ended up with the 380W.

Sporting three horizontally-mounted Webers, it cranked out over 300 hp (220 net). The Torino was the GTO/Hemi ’Cuda of Argentina. And so it went racing.

In 1969 three Torinos were sent to the 84 hour endurance race at Nurburgring. Amazingly, they won their class, and were a threat to the overall winner. Not bad, for an engine running a huge 4.38″ stroke in its antediluvian cylinder block.

The Latinized Classic earned quite a rep from its racing successes and developed a cult following. Among devoted Torino buyers were such global luminaries as Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev and Muammar Gaddafi. You know these guys wouldn’t have anything less than a genuine classic in their collections.