Curbside Classic: 1966 AMC Ambassador 990 Convertible – Abernethy’s Asinine Assumption

(first posted 7/9/2012)    Call it what you may, but this rather handsome convertible was one of the nails in the coffin of American Motors. How could something this good looking, and relatively luxurious and competitive be such a failure? Well, it’s just one of dozens of sad 20/20 hindsight stories in the American auto industry.

There had always been an “Ambassador” as long as there was an American Motors. But the first truly American Motors themed one arrived for 1958, when the name was transferred from the decidedly dated 1952 Nash based model to a freshly stretched version of the 1956 Rambler body. All of the additional length was ahead of the cowl, so you didn’t get any more interior room. But you got more luxury, and in my opinion, far better balanced looks.

But folks considering Ramblers weren’t really looking for something the size of a 1955 Oldsmobile Eighty Eight, despite all of the luxury and quite vivid performance of the “Big” Ambassador, so it was downsized to merely a trim and engine package for 1962. It really should have been called “Return of the Rebel” since it was still equipped with the 327 AMC V8 in a body barely weighing 3,000 lbs. That meant 0-60 came up in Corvette-territory, in the low seven-second range for manually shifted examples. Wanna embarrass a few GTOs? Look no further than the humble sedan above.

The same philosophy was kept for the Mid-Century Modern update of the Classic/Ambassador that won Motor Trend Car Of The Year for 1963. But a regime change happened, as George Romney left AMC to run for governor of Michigan, and Roy Abernethy took his place at the helm.

Abernethy favored competing more directly with the Big Three, as GM, Ford and Chrysler had encroached into AMC’s traditional market of smaller cars with all their new compact and intermediate cars in the early sixties. A revived (and quite handsome) American set out against the rapidly aging Falcon, Nova, Lark and Corvair for 1964.

But the real change happened in 1965, when the Ambassador said goodbye to being completely joined at the hip with the Classic, put on some 4 inch heels (well, wheelbase stretch) and well, moved into the same size category the 1962 Plymouth resided in: 116 inch wheelbase, and 200-202 inches long. But along with ever-escalating luxury.

Actually this generation of Ambassador was probably closer to true international luxury standards than almost any mid-1960s American car could prove to be. They were often lauded in the press for their build quality, fit and finish, ride and handling – along with the virtues of economy AMC was known for.

In terms of volume, this branching out that Abernethy so wanted worked, with Ambassador sales going from a mere 18,000+ units in 1964 to 71,000+ units by the end of 1966. But with so much new product development, going point-to-point with Chevrolet without even Plymouth’s budget would soon put a strain on developing more than just extensions and restyles.

Soon there would be the Javelin, a freshly updated Rebel and an even bigger Ambassador, now with the DPL label to compete in brocade broughamness with the VIP and LTD. Actually, among all the missteps, this year the Ambassador adopted the unloved Marlin (CC here), which was upsized to the 118 inch 1967 Ambassador platform. Maybe it helped, maybe it hurt; probably the latter. Thank god for the handsome Javelin.

But with so many new AMC models at that flashpoint of 1967-68, all reaching in the same fracturing directions Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth were reaching, left little resources for American Motors to update engines, transmissions or successfully update all of those models released in the first place. And the deserting of traditional economy values started to turn off loyal AMC buyers. Sales for the Ambassador slumped in 1967.

And soon the rot set in, with models equally as moribund and out of date as Studebaker’s last Larks. So was Abernethy’s exercise worth it? For a nice increase in sales for the Ambassador models (at the expense of the Classic/Rebel), American Motors shortly became “Also-Ran Motors.” They weren’t truly “full sized” in the ever bloating way that Big Three cars were becoming, sticking true to their heritage. But they didn’t steal enough away in sales or profits to continue the quest of being unique, more sensible ways of being “American.”

It turns out being the Ambassador to the vast landscape of the American auto industry of the mid to late 1960s was the hardest task any dignitary could handle.