(first posted 4/30/2014) Automakers have always been happy to borrow ideas from their competitors and proudly claim them as their own. It’s a trick even the proudest of parents have pulled when conceiving a new model, and one which has given birth to a Deadly Sin on more than one occasion. AMC, whose struggle has been well documented on Curbside Classic, found itself an unenviable position after the departure of its inimitable chairman, George Romney, who made hay by poking fun at the “dinosaurs in the driveway” produced by the Big Three, and exhorting the industry to make smaller cars.
As is often said, “be careful what you wish for.” By the mid-1960s, GM, Ford and Chrysler were offering an array of compacts and intermediates aimed right at the Rambler American, Classic and Ambassador. Romney’s successor, Roy Abernethy, was determined to meet this challenge directly and move AMC away from what he called the “Romney” image.
The 1968 Ambassador SST sedan (AMC having dropped the Rambler moniker for the Ambassador after 1965) bears Abernethy’s fingerprints. This body style debuted for 1967 as part of what AMC called the “Now Cars.” The “Now” Ambassador and Rebel sported longer and wider bodies, along with a new four-link, trailing-arm rear suspension system that finally eliminated the antique torque-tube drive. Unfortunately, showing either AMC’s split personality or lack of cash, the “Now” cars still sported old-fashioned vacuum-powered windshield wipers as standard equipment, along with some other rustic touches.
The “Now” Ambassador featured something else from the past–styling elements borrowed from earlier Pontiacs. The stacked headlights, imitation driving lights and mild Coke-bottle profile were lifted from the famous Wide Tracks.
The sensible, handsome 1963-64 Ambassador underwent constant growth for the rest of the decade. This Ambassador, along with its Rebel companion, marked the second complete restyling of AMC’s senior offerings since 1965. Each restyling made the cars bigger, with the Ambassador’s wheelbase increasing by six inches between 1963 and 1967 (from 112 inches to 118 inches) and overall length, by fourteen inches. The extra length and weight made the cars less economical, negating many of their maker’s core strengths.
AMC wasn’t the only domestic automaker suffering from Pontiac Envy in the 1960s. This syndrome afflicted corporate leadership at Dearborn and Highland Park in varying degrees throughout the decade, but AMC had made its reputation in its refusal to copy Big Three offerings in either size or style. Nobody mistook a 1959 or 1960 Rambler Ambassador for a contemporary Pontiac, nor did George Romney want them to.
AMC wasn’t just cribbing styling themes from the Big Three; quality problems with the new Ambassador and Rebel–driven by rushed development and cost concerns–weren’t helpful, and neither were noticeably cheaper interior materials. The “Not Acceptable” rating given to an Ambassador by Consumer Reports after it spilled gasoline from its tank during braking tests was a serious blow and by early 1967, AMC was in danger of running out of cash.
New leadership and the sale of the company’s Kelvinator appliance division kept AMC afloat. For 1968, air conditioning was made standard on the Ambassador, garnering much publicity and foreshadowing the days when it would become an expected feature on even the most basic economy cars. Horizontally divided taillights and recessed door handles were the main exterior styling changes.
The Ambassador still sported AMC’s extruded aluminum upper door frames, which look neater and better-finished than their counterparts on the Pontiac. This example is a new-for-1968 SST, which replaced the DPL trim level at the top of the Ambassador totem pole. It sports AMC’s 343 V-8, which was fully competitive with the Big Three engine offerings, although it was hobbled by a clunky Borg-Warner automatic transmission. AMC’s switch to Chrysler’s excellent TorqueFlite automatic transmission was still four years in the future.
Imitating the styling and size of Big Three offerings wasn’t the answer for what ailed AMC. Ambassador sales hit 71,000 in 1966, and then declined to less than 63,000 for 1967, despite the new styling and chassis bits. The new SST trim level and standard air conditioning didn’t stop the slide, with about 54,000 sold for 1968. Total AMC sales did increase in 1968, however, thanks largely to the new Javelin.
Parked next to a 1966 Pontiac Tempest sedan at a Harrisburg-area used car lot, this Ambassador clearly displays the risk of relying on borrowed ideas. Pontiac was the industry’s style leader throughout most of the 1960s, and AMC was not unique in adopting many of their styling cues. This approach, unfortunately, guaranteed that the Ambassador would look dated from the moment it was introduced. It doesn’t help that, when parked next to the Tempest, the Ambassador’s noticeably more conservative interpretation of the same theme makes it look like a Pontiac altered to suit your grandfather’s taste.
Plenty of people wanted a Pontiac in the 1960s, but they could buy the real thing at their Wide Track dealer. AMC found out the hard way that they didn’t necessarily want ersatz Pontiacs with an AMC badge.
For 1969, AMC ditched the stacked headlights and increased the wheelbase of the Ambassador yet again to 122 inches. Sales increased to 75,000, but the bump wasn’t permanent, and, even worse, a fair number appear to have come from the Rebel’s hide, as it declined from 74,000 units in 1968 to 60,000 units in 1969. For the 1970s, AMC bet its future on the 1970 Hornet, which replaced the old American (which had dropped the American name for 1969 and was known only as “Rambler” for its final year). The Ambassador, meanwhile, would be gone by 1975.
The big gamble in chasing the big dogs was met with mediocre sales and a brush with bankruptcy. The company then changed course and produced cars that no one would accuse of being imitations of anything else. That approached succeeded with the Hornet and Gremlin, but the even more distinctive 1974 Matador coupe and 1975 Pacer were additional Deadly Sins for the opposite reason the 1967 Ambassador was: they were too far out of the mainstream. Unfortunately for AMC, the reasons for Deadly Sin status are as varied as the cars which qualify for the label.