(first posted 10/29/2012) The Rambler brand had a compact lifespan: thirteen years exactly. The first modern Ramblers wore Nash and Hudson emblems before George Romney killed those storied but moribund names for 1957. Good timing, as the 1958 recession vaulted the Rambler brand to popularity and profitability, and all the Romney-mobiles, from the bathtub American to the Ambassador proudly wore the RAMBLER emblems.
By the early sixties, that name was deeply etched into Americans consciousness as the “thrifty” brand that Aunt Mildred drove, and didn’t exactly stir the soul of the swinging sixties’ car buyers. In 1966, the Rambler name began disappearing, starting with the Ambassador, and by 1969, the only Rambler left was the successor to the original, and again just called Rambler, having lost the “American” moniker in 1968. AMC was the new brand, and the final Rambler was left to ramble off into the history books.
Since our featured car is a wagon, let’s stick (mostly) to that body style, which was always popular with Rambler buyers. Rambler had the highest percentage of wagon sales of any of the American makes in its golden years, some 50% in the ’50s. In the early sixties, Rambler Classic wagons were hugely popular with youngish families. It started from the beginning: the very first Rambler (1950) came in just two body styles; two-door convertible sedan and this charmingly-dumpy two-door wagon.
These first pre-Romney Ramblers were not cheap; then AMC boss George Mason was convinced he could do what had eluded everyone else: sell a small car to Americans, and turn a buck doing it. The trick was to make it a “premium” small car; a fairly new concept, that didn’t exactly bowl over Americans who were used to getting a full-sized car for the same price ($1808; $17k adjusted, for either the sedan or wagon).
In its early years, the Rambler was targeted to relatively more affluent and better educated buyers, and women in particular. It was the Volvo of its times.
After Mason died in 1954, George Romney had little choice but to bet the AMC farm on Rambler, and the economic difficulties between 1958 and 1961 were a huge boon for him, and the gamble paid off handsomely. But once the economy began to improve, and the Big Three unleashed a barrage of compacts and mid-sized cars, Romney’s strategy began to unravel, and AMC never really got itself unto solid footing again. It’s speculation, but if the economy hadn’t soured those years, AMC might well have gone the way of Studebaker in the mid-late sixties. It’s one of the rare examples of an automobile maker profiting from bad economic times.
There were only ever two distinct generations of Rambler Americans: the original 1950-1952 version, which was reprised for 1958 (sedan only) and 1959 (wagon).
It got some new sheet metal and an interior update for 1961, but under that dumpy little box, the same chassis and ancient flathead six were still hiding (CC here).
Ramblers finally got fresh new bodies in 1963 (Classic and Ambassador) and 1964 (American). In order to afford the tooling, AMC used key elements of the same basic body for all three lines. Clever. It was a fresh, clean and up-to date look at the time, but period road tests consistently faulted the Ramblers for dull handling. That trait came to be somewhat associated with the brand.
The compact market took a protracted dive in the second half of the sixties, as buyers gravitated either to sporty cars like the Mustang, which could be had for very little more, or to imports. This generation of Americans never sold really well, and sales drooped as the years went by.
By in 1969, to stimulate sagging sales, AMC offered a very basic Rambler two door for only $1998 ($12k adjusted to 2012 dollars), two hundred bucks more than the 1950 original, despite almost two decades of inflation. Quite the change from the original 1950 Rambler premium compact premise. It did give a bump in sales of the two-door in its final year. But in 1970, the AMC Hornet arrived, trying hard to inject some life into the segment.
A mere 13,233 Rambler wagons were built in 1969, so these aren’t exactly too common anymore. By 1969, incomes were up, and compact wagons didn’t really didn’t make sense for traditional wagon buyers: families. For a couple more bucks per month, there was a plethora of mid-sized wagons beckoning, never mind full-sized ones. It explains why GM never bothered with wagons for the 1968 and-up Novas and such; the Falcon wagon (now Fairlane-sized) went away too after 1970, and even the stalwart Chrysler compacts lost the wagon with their 1967 redesign. It was a dead end at the time, until little Japanese wagons became the rage again, within a few years.
This top-line 440 wagon bucked the trend, or more like rode it. Instead of the popular thrifty sixes of yore, it packed AMC’s second-gen compact V8, which arrived in 1966.
The 290 was offered in two versions for the Rambler: a 200 (gross) hp two-barrel, like this one, and a 225 hp version was optional on the Rogue coupe. The standard six was the 199 incher; the 232 version was optional. Good strong American motors.
Then there was the ultimate non-Rambler, the cartoonish SC/Rambler-Hurst coupe, one of the more outlandish fruits of the muscle-car era. With a 315 hp 390 V8 and Hurst-shifted four speed, it was plenty fast, in a straight line. Only 1512 of these “Scramblers” were built, and they are undoubtedly a desirable collectible. Now that was quite the send-off for the brand; the automotive version of a cherry bomb.
The Rambler’s interior is hardly memorable (that’s an aftermarket wheel). Of course, some might argue that the sparse clean arrangement of its gauges is better than the deeply-sculpted plastic caves that soon dominated in the seventies. Reminds a bit of Studebaker’s last dashboard; maybe it’s a dying brand thing.
The Rambler brand was finished, but American Motors still had a few more interesting chapters ahead of it. But unlike GM and Chrysler, that never included a Chapter 11.
A more in-depth and detailed history of the Rambler and how the brand saved AMC is here.
Man, Mitt looks so much like his father back then…
You beat me to it…a dead ringer.
Jason Sudeikis did an excellent caricature of ole Mitt for Saturday Night Live.
I find it interesting that AMC was the only company that stayed with the compact wagon. First, this Rambler, which outlasted all but the Falcon (barely), and then the Hornet Sportabout, which pretty much had the market to itself until Chrysler came back with the Volare/Aspen wagon in 1976.
My only personal experience with an American of this era was a ride or two with a friend’s older brother who drove a 69ish American sedan formerly owned by his grandmother (of course). The kid was an early hypermiler and used to wring 40 mpg out of that 6/3 speed Rambler by such tricks as shutting it off when he turned onto his street, and coasting down a hill and into his driveway. It was excruciating riding with him. If the car had been equipped with a tach, I am sure that the engine never saw 2,000 rpm with him behind the wheel.
I love wagons of all kinds, and even though I have never been an AMC guy, I kind of like this one too.
Some possible reasons AMC stuck with compact wagons:
1) Inertia/Lack of anything better to do. GM and Chrysler both dropped their compact wagons at a point when their compacts were up for a restyle, and Ford effectively merged the Falcon and Fairlane wagons at a point when both of those models were up for a restyle. AMC didn’t restyle their compacts between 1964 and 1970. As long as someone was still buying the wagons, and there was no need to go back and re-tool them, they might as well keep making them.
2) In the article, Paul alluded to the Big Three wanting to upsell customers to midsize wagons. That may not have worked as well for AMC, as their midsize cars weren’t that competitive. If AMC dropped the wagon from their compact line, they might lose those customers completely.
(As a side note, some of the Big Three brands had strippo variants of their midsize wagons that were aimed more at compact buyers looking for wagons than at midsize buyers. The best example is probably the 1968-72 Chevelle Nomad. The Nomad was produced during a period when the Chevelle wagons used different series names from other Chevelles, and is sometimes identified as simply being the wagon equivalent of the base Chevelle 300. It was similarly trimmed and equipped, but there hadn’t been a Chevelle 300 wagon in 1967, and there wouldn’t be a Chevelle 300 sedan after 1968, or a Chevelle 300 coupe after 1969. The Nomad was, for all intents and purposes, a Nova wagon.)
3) By the time the Hornet was under development, the rise in small car sales that began around 1968 — benefitting both import subcompacts and domestic compacts — was probably apparent. Against that backdrop, keeping the wagon may have made more sense than it did when Chrysler was developing the ’67 Dart/Valiant and GM was developing the ’68 Nova. There was no Hornet wagon until the second year, so it’s possible that it wasn’t in the original plans but was added later. Note that while GM and Ford didn’t have compact wagons in this era, they introduced subcompact wagons in 1971. Small wagons were popular because they maximized the interior space in a small vehicle.
Chrylser’s motivation in having an Aspen/Volare wagon was undoubtedly similar. They didn’t have a subcompact whose wagon version could go directly up against the Japanese/Ford’s Pinto/GM’s Vega, but compact sales were strong, and a wagon in that class figured to do well for the same reason subcompact wagons did. Ford would jump on the bandwagon in ’78, moving the middle slot in its three-wagon lineup to the new compact Fairmont.
Speaking of the Chevelle Nomad wagon, I scanned this illustrated “what if” done by Keith Kaucher for Super Chevy Chevelle magazine who imagined what if there was a 1968-72 2-door Nomad wagon?
As Fred mentionned it about another what if about the Valiant, the Aussie Valiant still have a wagon and he posted a picture of the Aussie Valiant wagon https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/what-if-third-generation-valiant/
It’s odd that Chevy recycled the Nomad name on a wagon that was so far removed from the 1955-57 original. Chevy had already used the Nomad name from 1958-61 on a wagon that was a conventional 4-door, but it was at least a top-of-the-line model like the original. The 1968-72 Chevelle Nomad was not only a conventional 4-door wagon, but was also a stripped-down bargain basement model. There was nothing unique, sporty or top-of-the-line about it. It really had no commonality with the original at all.
For the first two years the Chevelle was built (1964-65), it was offered as both a 2-door and 4-door wagon. The 2-door clearly has some styling cues drawn from the 1955-57 Nomad, although it didn’t use the Nomad name, and was only offered in base Chevelle 300 trim (no sporty or top-of-the-line version). Given the similarity in size between the 1955-57 Chevy and the early Chevelle, I have to think the designers had the 1955-57 Nomad in mind when they were styling the Chevelle 2-door wagon. Chevrolet was the only GM division to offer its intermediate as a 2-door wagon in 1964-65; the Chevelle’s A-body cousins were always 4-door only.
The Chevelle 2-door wagon sold poorly and was dropped after just two years. There seems to be some interest in them today among hot rodders and wagon buffs, as kind of a “poor man’s Nomad”. Low production and a lack of interest in them for many years after they were built (unlike the original Nomad) means that few survive today, however. I would imagine that any part unique to just the 2-door wagon body style, or even shared only with the 4-door wagon, could be difficult to find.
Nomad was also used as trim line for Full Size Chevy vans in the 80’s, not sure exact years, but seen a few.
If I remember correctly, it was from the model years 1978-81 or 82.
Nomad vans were more than just trim. Not only were they a bit more upscale trim-wise, like the “Beauville” vans, which could seat up to 12 people and had glass the entire length of the body; the “Nomad” had one seat row (seating for up to 5) and glass in the side door and opposite of it. It was marketed to people who needed more than just 2 seats, but also wanted to haul cargo. I remember the brochure picturing a motocross family outing in it.
In 1967, the mid-size Plymouth offered three wagons…the Belvedere II, Belvedere I, and Belvedere–priced around $70 under the I, but comparing 6 cylinder models, only $70 above the ’66 Valiant 200. Clearly it was a replacement for the Valiant…otherwise it would have been a $300 jump between a ’66 Valiant 100 and a ’67 Belvedere I.
I checked out those late 1960’s Ramblers, the Javelin, AMX and American. I was mildly excited when the SC Scrambler came out, but something about it just didn’t do it for me…until Spring, 1970 when the Gremlin was unleashed on the automotive world! I wanted one – badly!
Someone on base bought one of the first Gremlins, a blue one, parked on my barracks parking lot. I lusted over it every chance I got.
Then in June of 1970, I bought my avatar. The Gremlin, along with AMC was quickly forgotten, for with buying my 1964 Impala SS convertible, I had died and was in automotive “heaven”.
The Gremlin would return in my life in 1977, a story already told a couple of times, at least.
That’s probably the best looking Rambler I’ve ever seen. That’s got to be a rare find, especially in that condition with a V8. I like the looks & lines of that wagon more so than the sedans they built. Thanks for posting this one Paul.
The engine layout on this thing is surprisingly similar to the small-block Ford engine compartment in the Mustangs — I forgot to attach a pic..
Let’s see: the small block Ford came out in 1962; the new AMC small-block in 1966. Any similarities are purely coincidental, right?
It does look somewhat like a small-block Ford-with a Buick timing chain cover!
I have read that in it’s later years Rambler did use parts from a lot of other car manufacturers, so that’s why you see some interesting similarities. I have a 1969 Rambler wagon, so I’m wondering if some of it’s parts came from Ford or Chevy. Love my little wagon!
Rambler used quite a number of parts from other auto manufactures parts divisions. My ’63 V8 had a Delco Remy window distributor, 10″ Delco Remy brakes front and rear, Delco Remy starter, rear axle and the rear shocks were same even to the part number for 1955-57 Chevrolet’s. The 6 cylinders used Autolite distributors and starters. Your American has a Motorcraft starter. What car has what parts varied over the years and they used a lot of same parts that the other automakers used that weren’t made by them. An example is the automatic transmissions used from 1957-71 which were made by Borg Warner which was also used by Ford, Mercury, Jeep, Studebaker and Jaguar with only minor differences. They went to Torque-Flite in 1972.
Nice looking American, they should have kept building them. They still did in Argentina until 1983 and I think this is car(updated Argentine version) they should have built rather than the Hornet\Gremlin. http://hooniverse.com/2013/04/17/a-1973-fangio-renault-torino-pininfarina-anyone/
I took a look at that car, it is beautiful! Thanks for the info on my wagon, now I just have to find out when my car was made, just to see where in the production line it was. I do know it was built in Kenosha. I doubt it was the last one made, but would still be fun to find out. I found mine on craigslist back in August of 2010, and fell in love with it just from the pictures. I wasn’t even looking for a car, just browsing, but I just had to go and take a look. I brought it home the same day! 🙂
Are you interested in selling?
Hi Rafael, sorry but I’m never going to sell my little wagon. It’s like a member of my family! 🙂 But thanks for asking.
My 5th grade teacher had a brand new one of these – in white. Mrs. Kohlenstein. Nice lady; good teacher. I remember it as 1: I always noted what faculty members drove as a grade schooler (a number of VW Beetles, Dodge Darts and Toyota Coronas) and 2: She gave me a ride home in it in the pouring rain.
This article really brings back a lot of memories. In the spring of ’64, when I was four, my parents traded in their 1960 Corvair on a new 1964 Rambler American wagon. It was a white 330 with a red interior. It was the epitome of blandness; the ultimate automobile-as-appliance, painted Refrigerator White, but it served us well. We had it for ten years, and it was still running fine when they sold it in 1974.
If I recall correctly, Dad bought the Rambler without consulting Mom for her opinion, and she initially refused to drive it because she didn’t know how to operate an automatic transmission. Man, was that ever a long time ago!
“If I recall correctly, Dad bought the Rambler without consulting Mom for her opinion, and she initially refused to drive it because she didn’t know how to operate an automatic transmission.”
Makes you wonder, when was the last time that was true of any drive in the US, and not the reverse condition (not knowing how to operate a manual)?
My mother got her driver’s license back in the late ’50s in a car with a manual transmission (it was apparently required at the time), and claims to have never driven anything but an automatic since then.
I have a ’67 American wagon. Basically the same car in the pic, but mine is a different color (blue/green) 199 6, 3 on the tree. I hope to restore it some day.
It’s ironic that AMC under George Romney was the all-time, best-selling independent American automaker, yet his successors ran as fast and as far away from his recipe for success as they could.
None of their approaches worked nearly as well — for often predictable reasons. As a case in point, Roy D. Chapin learned the hard way that you can’t directly compete with the Big Three with trendy styling if you are too small to afford frequent sheetmetal changes. Particularly when you spread your meager resources across too many platforms and nameplates.
Chapin was convinced that the Rambler’s image was hopelessly obsolete so he replaced it with the Hornet. But even though it had a swoopy new design (e.g., bellbottom wheel cutouts!) and was introduced during a recession, initially the Hornet sold only marginally better. Meanwhile, Chrysler’s Rambleresque compacts took off in sales.
The main problem with Romney’s strategy was that he didn’t recognize the potential of European-style performance features. It wouldn’t have taken much to significantly improve the Rambler’s handling and braking. Add an overhead cam six, a decent four-speed and the Rambler could have developed a cult following as the poor man’s Mercedes.
I have often wondered if Romney’s success was really just fortuitous timing. Romney pitched small cars and built the company to provide just that. The approach would probably not have worked in the 1946-55 era, as Mason’s compact Ramblers were not selling all that wonderfully. The approach also would certainly not have worked in the 1964-71 period. Foreign producers like VW and later Toyota/Datsun had the small stuff locked up, and the Big 3 were everywhere else. 1956-62 was a unique time when sales of larger, upper-end stuff was hit hard and everyone was racing for a position at the low end of the market.
To have succeeded in the 1960s would have required an organization that was more forward-thinking and risk-taking than had been the case at Nash/AMC, which was a very conservative organization. This generation of Rambler American (which would have started development during Romney’s tenure) was much more like the thoroughly conventional Falcon than like the more radical Corvair, or even Valiant.
My read is that Romney rode the horse he had and got lucky that the market came his way for a time. Had Romney stayed around for another 5 years, I doubt that he would be as fondly recalled for his AMC management as he is now.
I’m convinced of that (Romney’s fortuitous timing). AMC was fundamentally and inevitably screwed, from the early fifties on. They were a Studebaker waiting to happen. They had no serious long-term chance against the Big Three. Any niche that they would have exploited successfully, the Big Three (and imports) would have been on it within a few years, and with lower unit costs.
George Mason knew it back in 1950 or so, which is why he knew the only solution was for the four independents to all consolidate into a genuine Big Three competitor. That was likely a pipe dream, given the overwhelming obstacles.
I think Rambler also benefited from the collapse of the other independent compacts. Until the recession in 1957-58, the U.S. compact market took about 300,000 units a year, which was sustainable for an independent automaker, but got awfully thin when divided between the Rambler and the Henry J., Hudson Jet, and Willys Aero. By the time Romney convinced the AMC board to bet the farm on the Rambler brand, all of those competitors were dead, which meant Rambler briefly had the field to itself. That gave Rambler a leg up at a useful moment.
Don’t forget that the Studebaker Champion was only a 1/2 size up from those compacts and with the little 169 cid 6 and OD was nearly as economical. But by 1957 it was certainly not selling 120K units/yr anymore.
So true Paul. AMC thrived when it had the compact field to itself in the late ’50’s, but it’s demise was only a matter of time once the big three got serious about compacts in the ’60’s. The Japanese invasion a decade later finished them off. Unlimited resources and significant economy of scale advantages win everytime.
Oh what might have been if the visionary George Mason was able to fulfill his dream of a fourth major. A full line company with Rambler as the entry level compact, Packard the luxury brand and Stude and Hudson in between could have transformed the industry. Alas, the obstacles were overwhelming, Mason died, and it was just not meant to be.
Weird comment: I always hear the term “The Big 3” thrown around. Growing up in the ’70’s, I recall the term “The Big 4”. I knew AMC was the smallest, but I don’t recall them being referred to as an “independent”. Maybe it’s because I came of age after all the “other” manufacturers had folded.
It’s possible that Romney left at exactly the right time, but it is also likely that he would have navigated through the difficult years of the mid-to-late-60s much better than his successors. A big reason why is that both Abernathy and Chapin really didn’t understand economies of scale. Romney did.
In a way it didn’t matter that Ramblers had conventional engineering. Recall that a major reason for their popularity in the late-50s and early-60s was their superior quality of fit and finish. In that regard Ramblers were the Toyotas of their era.
Romney’s successors focused on styling rather than quality of manufacture, so by the end of the 60s AMCs were no better assembled than anyone else. Indeed, the 1967s were downright horrible. AMC threw away a valuable selling point that it only partially redeemed with the Buyer Protection Plan.
This discussion illustrates how our assumptions powerfully influence how we make meaning of the past. If you think that the best hope for the survival of an independent was Mason’s grand dream, you’re going to see Romney’s gambit very differently. I think Romney recognized the futility of Mason’s attempt to go head to head with the Big Three.
That’s my take. Romney benefited from opportune timing, but he was no opportunist. Their may have been some lean years in the mid-to-late ’60s, with the Big Three now on their turf and the Mustang eating the lunch of every economy car. However, Romney wouldn’t have bet the farm on styling and diversification the way Abernethy and Chapin did. Rambler may have remained a nerd car, but it would have been a well-built nerd car with good resale, and the company would have been much better positioned for the ’70s.
My assessment of Robert MacNamara is similar. Iacocca was a much better fit for Ford in the ’60s, but MacNamara would have been perfect for the ’70s (although Henry II probably would have fired him, too).
+1. AMC could have deeply entrenched itself in the market later occupied by the Corolla. The Big 3 never had anything in that space (still don’t).
I think so too, just happened to be the right time. Once the D3 got into compacts AMC was in trouble.
> It’s ironic that AMC under George Romney was the all-time, best-selling independent American automaker
News update: AMC’s peak recently surpassed by Tesla (I’m getting all sorts of different figures when I search online, but they’re all well above AMC’s best years in the early-mid 1960s). And they did it with a rather expensive line of cars. Will be interesting to see if the new wave of American independents (which also include Rivian, Lucid, etc.) will do any better in the long run than the 1950s ones did.
I never realized that machine-turned trim was used on more than a few Chevy vehicles. Just goes to show I’m fairly narrow-minded when it comes to cars back then, but that’s due to my immediate experiences.
That being said, in examining that trim, I’d like to see Chevy’s and Ford’s version alongside the AMC’s machine-turned trim and see which looked the best. By the photo, AMC’s looked somewhat crude.
Not the first Rambler of course. Tom Jeffery built the lightweight 1897 Rambler using wheels from his Rambler bicycles. Nash bought the Jeffery company in 1916, and revived the Rambler name in 1950.
Rambler was the first car to include a spare tire.
I was wondering who would notice that when I wrote it. I’m hardly surprised it was you. 🙂 Let’s say the first “modern” Rambler.
There were quite a few of these around when I was a kid and the always seemed to be owned the the neighbourhood odd-balls, like the 60 year old spinster librarian up the street or the weird old guy who collected junk. For a youngster, there seemed to me no reason to by a Rambler other than the fact it was from the (formerly) Big Three.
I think what did AMC in was when they left their formula of a smaller, more efficient car that had nice interior trim. Problem was in that era, bigger was better and it was pretty hard to sell a premium small car. GM came to the same conclusion when they decided not to go ahead with their Cadet after the war.
A brand needs some sort of long term vision and that is what AMC lacked. Instead of sticking to Romney’s ideal for brand, they tried to compete with the Big Three. Experience has told me first hand that trying to compete with huge companies with practically unlimited resources is not a recipe for success. What you need to do is find a niche the big players don’t want and go there. All the time AMC was trying to compete with the other American makers, imports were steadily filling America’s roads and that mostly meant the Beetle which was about as far removed from a Caprice as one can get. Therefore, at least to me, it seems rather a bad idea to try to out-Chevy a Chevy when there is no way you can compete on price and still make money.
The 1960-1961 Big Three compacts offered lots of nice versions with nice interior trim. And in 1962, the intermediates came along. And Romney’s strategy was toast.
He lucked out, thanks to the Bulgemobile era of the Big Three in 1957-1960 and the recession. Timing and luck, but short lived.
Paul, I’d agree that consolidation has been a dominant characteristic of the auto industry. The smaller players that survived the longest often benefited from some type of good luck. But there is also skill involved.
AMC did well only when it bucked the dominant trends in ways that mattered to the average Joe (but not necessarily a gearhead). You offer the example of Romney successfully exploiting the Bulgemobile era of the late-50s.
Where I’d disagree is your assumption that you’re toast once the Big Three invade your market. Auto analysts predicted that Rambler sales would collapse once the Big Three compacts were introduced in 1960-61 — but they instead held firm (in contrast to Studebaker’s). AMC had a decent year in 1964 despite the introduction of GM’s big wave of mid-sized cars. And as late as 1974 AMC was holding its own in compact car sales relative to the Big Three.
I’d argue that AMC lost altitude not because the Big Three was so overpowering but because Kenosha stopped offering substantively different products. Detroit was still building Bulgemobiles in the 1970s; that’s why the frumpy but efficient Chrysler compacts sold so well. That was the core of Rambler’s old market, but AMC effectively abandoned it for the likes of . . . the Matador coupe.
That’s bad management.
“…as late as 1974 AMC was holding its own in compact car sales relative to the Big Three.”
For all that’s been said in this thread about AMC, they did manage to muddle through to 1974 in relatively good shape. What really doomed tham after that point was the the changes in the U.S. auto market brought about by the Japanese invasion and the energy crisis. The industry was swept by downsizing, and by the early ’80s small cars were expected to not only be smaller than before but to have 4-cylinder engines and front-wheel drive. AMC initially benefitted from the 1973 energy crisis due to their small-car orientation, but over the long haul they seemed to lack the resources to develop anything fundamentally different than what they had been selling since the ’50s. As the market evolved but their products didn’t, their passenger car operation gradually withered away.
Aside from withdrawing from certain markets that no longer made sense for them (full-size cars, ponycars, intermediates), the cars AMC was selling in 1980 were basically the same cars they had been selling in 1970. That just didn’t cut it anymore. Without Jeep, I think AMC would have died by the time of the early ’80 recession, if they even held out that long. I guess with Renault’s involvement they may have lasted long enough to build the Alliance and its derivatives, but I’m not sure that Renualt would have wanted to get involved in a company in as bad of shape as a Jeep-less AMC would have been in the late ’70s. And without Jeep, there would have also been no Eagle.
Speaking of the Matador, I spotted that one on the following forum then I quote http://macc.chevelles.net/images/2006show/chucks_66wag.jpg
“…2) Scrapping the 1972 new Matador line tooling, cost some thing like $68 million down a rat hole. This was the last of a new car line every 6 month pledge AMC made about 1970 to redo or come out with a new vehicle every 6 month. AMC had a new Matador intermediate line including 2 door , 4 door and Station wagon ready to go and canceled them for some reason I can not confirm. I can only speculate that AMC found out too late that there 1972 Matador line looked too much like last year Ford Torino and they scrapped the whole car line to redo the face lift on the old cars for a few more years.”
I would like to see the drawings and some clay models pics of that 1972 Matador that wasn’t…..
That’s a good question. Perhaps Patrick Foster has come up with some photos. The link you gave to the Brook Stevens Rambler also includes a proposed 1972 Ambassador; perhaps its basic design echos the in-house proposal.
A number of factors could have been at play in the delay of the mid-sized redesigns. One might have been cashflow problems; AMC lost money in the early-70s due to mediocre sales as well as the high cost of the Jeep purchase, and the launching of the Hornet and Gremlin.
In addition, Chapin was clearly fixated on fielding a NASCAR contender — and never displayed much of an interest in sedans and wagons. He seemed to see the 1974 Matador coupe as a replacement of sorts for the Javelin.
I saw those pictures of the abandoned re-tooled Matador. It did look very much like a ’72 Gran Torino. The picture were in a back copy of Motor Trend Classics. I personally always loved the ’71-’72 Matador sedans. Looked good. Or maybe because back then every cop on TV drove one unless they were driving a ’71-’72 Satellite (another great car).
Wasn’t any manufacturer interested in competing with the VW? That was a big niche that the Big 3 couldn’t/wouldn’t breach…
The name “Rambler” was indeed etched into American’s consciousness as a thrifty brand.
I was born in 1955, and for a number of years after the death of Nash and Hudson, I remember many people of my parent’s and grandparent’s generation who continued to refer to them as “Nashramblers”, as if it was one word.
One minor point: The last year it was offered (1969), the car was simply a Rambler; the “American” name was dropped (as there were no other sub-models of Rambler).
Not so minor; it slipped past me. I’m going to amend the title and text to reflect that. Thanks!
One minor irony: A friend of the family’s last name was Ford. He drove a Rambler and worked at Chevrolet.
That has absolutely nothing to do with this article. FWIW, lots of Ramblers in my area when growing up, including a school teacher’s very nice wagon – the first car I ever saw with reclining seats! I believe it was a 1962. Really cool car in that nice mist green they used. Matching interior, too.
Im regularly surprised by the number of Ramblers over here they seem to be coming out of the woodwork lately mind you Campbell motors used to assemble Ramblers in NZ but the number of survivors is amazing, They were probably the last US brand to have local assembly here.
AMI also did some local assembly of AMC and Rambler models in Australia and the Hornet was badged as Rambler Hornet Down Under. Here a vintage Australian Rambler Hornet ad http://www.flickr.com/photos/aussiefordadverts/5246013180/
And the “final Rambler” soldiered a couple of additonnals years in Argentina as the Renault Torino.
Yes, I’ve noticed a surprising number too Bryce. Wikipedia says Campbell assembled AMC products here until 1975, and that they were badged as Ramblers right to the end – I always wondered why our Matadors were called Ramblers instead of AMC, so that explains that. Apparently Australian Motor Industries assembled AMC products as Ramblers until 1978.
The Rambler name had positive connotations here in Australia, as it denoted a sensibly-sized American car. Like Studebaker.
On the other hand, in the late sixties there was a lot of anti-American sentiment around due to the Vietnam war and Australia’s involvement with it, with lots of academic arguing and student protests, and “American Motors” would most decisively not have been a wise choice of name to use here.
There is a big following of Studebaker in Australia. They are buying container loads of Studebaker cars and parts. They even manufacture parts that are no longer available and selling them worldwide.
And check this hidden gem for a possible “what if”. Besides going with the Hornet, they once asked to Brook Stevens to study the possibility to update the Rambler American for 1970. I spotted a picture of a clay model at http://amccars.net/cgi/yabb2/YaBB.pl?num=1200153142/24#24
A blast down Memory Lane…this car, the 1969 Rambler wagon, was a friend’s first car…a half-rusted-out family castoff he got with his driver’s license in 1975.
That Rambler wagon went the way of many old kids’ cars: he hit a traffic island at speed, and instead of bouncing off, he bounced the wrong way and on top of the thing. Peeled oil pan, transmission case and bent frame; DOA.
The comparison with Studebaker is inevitable; but in reality the two were different cases. Studebaker-Packard was a “predatory” combination; one eating the other…and then getting serious indigestion and becoming sick of the whole mess.
Studebaker, like AMC, had moments of serendipity as well as boneheaded moves. But while AMC management, although often clueless, held enthusiasm for the car biz…Studebaker used its Grand Chance, the Lark success, to diversify out of the auto industry.
AMC, by contrast, was a well-meaning combination of basically honest leaders of two failing brands. If they were not more than the sum of their parts, it was at least a chance to break with their history and try a new direction.
And they made a go of it, for far longer than seemingly likely. And if Studebaker and Packard neglected to join Mason’s conceived Grand Independent Company, at least the remnants of Willys and Kaiser did. The purchase of Kaiser-Jeep, if not a merger of equals, at least led to smiles on the Kaiser family side, and a shot in the arm at AMC. The synergies and serendipities involved in that timing, kept AMC alive to its emergency aid by Renault.
Studebaker, seemingly institutionally angry, spent its last five years in deliberate slow suicide. The Packard management, foolish in purchase, left the mess to a contract management team. That led to more craven and foolish moves, and finally to their choosing deliberate asphixiation of their brand and resultant contraction, purchases and absorption.
AMC, in the main, was luckier than could be expected. To gamble on small cars at a time when a recession would materialize just in time; to have the marketing savvy to capitalize on its difference from Detroit, as in the Gremlin and the Levis packages; to buy Kaiser JUST before the SUV craze, unseen and unpredictable, took off wildly.
And then to find a decent if incompetent parent in Renault, which kept the joint open and supplied with new, well-designed Jeeps until Lido could get the cash to buy what was left.
What a story!
It is very hard to find parts for it.
I bought my 1969 Rambler 440 Wagon about 2 1/2 years ago, and I absolutely love it! It has the 232 straight six with an automatic transmission. No power steering or brakes, an AM radio that still works, and it’s in great condition. I get so many comments from people who remember having them as they were growing up. It’s a ton of fun to drive! Still has the original California black & yellow plates, plus the dealer license plate rim.
Beautiful Car! Thanks for showing us the photo.
You’re welcome, and thanks for the compliment, That Guy!
ORIGINAL black and yellow California plates are worthy of note, now that IMITATION black and yellow California plates can be ordered from the State, at a small price (revenue being the likely reason for their doing it) just as any other vanity plate. There is something jarring, and phony, about a black and yellow plate on a recent-year BMW or Lexus or a Toyota Camry.
My 1963 Corvette no longer has its original black and yellow California plates. The State decided that their state-issued letter combination CUK was offensive and they were ordered replaced by a blue and yellow set which themselves now look old. I am not allowed to order new black and yellow plates with the original letters/numbers…no previously-issued combinations are allowed.
I like this body style from AMC/Rambler too. It is clean and pleasant. The prior facelift may have dispensed with the old, inverted-bathtub shape, but the clumsy, boxy shape, over-creased sides and angry-looking front visage were offputting.
My dad traded a 61 VW camper , who complained much about the powerless 40 hp, for a blue 64 Rambler American Wagon, with 3 times the power. One of our neighbors liked it, so he got a white 65 American wagon. Good reliable car with the 3 speed, 6 cyl. We spent many summers traveling around the U.S. I liked the front fold down bench seat for camping, and remember sleeping on it many times. When we visited our great uncle in Wisconsin , he had an older Rambler 4 door sedan from the late 50s. We saw many Ramblers there , because that’s where they were made. I believe AMC could have kept producing the Rambler American through the 70s , rather than retooling for the Hornet. It would have saved the company a lot of money. While the Hornet Sportabout was stylish with fast back like hatchback , it had less cargo capacity than the Rambler Wagon. AMC could have kept up with the American with small restyling changes every year, like removing vent windows , installing square headlights , etc.. If you look at Volvo, that’s what they did. Same basic design for many many years , with minimal restyling changes . If AMC had done that, they still might be in business today.
Interestingly enough although there was an AMC dealer in Gallup, NM – the only vehicles produced by the corporation that see around are with the Jeep brand name on them. Old Grand Wagoneers, CJs of various descriptions, Cherokees from right before the Chrysler buyout, Eagle wagons with 4×4, and then the odd Gremlin or two.
Never a Rambler or Ambassador or Matador or Pacer or anything else they built. I would think that the odd one or two would have survived somewhere in vicinity. The climate is harsh to paint and interiors but being so dry I would think someone’s grandmother or elderly aunt would have had one squirreled away in an old garage that someone would now be driving.
I came across this gem at the Street Rod Nationals last year, I don’t think I have ever seen a Rambler wagon before. The Magnums look original and it had a six with an automatic. Rare cars indeed.
In regards to a V8 powering this pretty little wagon, you could order one from the factory with a 280hp 343 4V in 1967 1/2. They called them Super Americans, and you could order one with a 4 speed. Few were sold and I doubt many found their way under the hood of a wagon, Apparently hardtops would flex badly and crack their windshields. I can’t find any production numbers on them or much info online. Apparently Motor Trend ran one 13.90 in the 1/4 mile. The option was kiboshed ’68, but the 390 powered SC/Rambler appeared in ’69.
As for Hornets, you could get a SC 360 with 285 hp (with the 4 barrel) in ’71 only. Then, from ’72-’74 you could get a 360 2 barrel in any body style. All very rare, but I’m sure there’s some still out there.
Part of the problem with these is that they still carried engineering that was obsolete even in 1969. Trunnion upper front suspension, vacuum windshield wipers, 3-speed manual trans with non-synchronized first gear come to mind. Still, with appropriate options these were pleasant enough cars. Also by 1966 AMC had dropped the old 1930-era sixes and their engines were among the newest domestic designs.
The Rambler name was continued into the 1970s in some non-US markets. (In Mexico, for example, what we know in the U.S. as the Hornet was still badged as a Rambler American.)
The Rambler brand went out of style faster than Hula Hoops, the “Macarena”, and Pet Rocks.
Saturn lasted longer, though Geo ?
Theoretically, AMC is still around, under Chrysler, with Brampton plant still running. Of course, Jeep brand too. Just the Kenosha facilities are now beachfront housing.
I wonder if Fiat got the naming rights to the Rambler brand when they took ownership of Chrysler.
My folks had a ’69 sedan, 232cid, automatic, power nothing, 25mpg, and you could get six full-size teenagers in it.
My entertaining Rambler story: I was at my girlfriend’s house and she took that car to the store. She came back and was squawking about how hard it was to get the key to work. I looked out the window and discovered–to my alarm–that it wasn’t my folks’ car at all, though one that looked much like it–same year, color, etc. After much wiggling of the key, I got it started and went back to the store where I discovered a very agitated elderly lady standing by my car who wanted HER car back.
I can laugh about this episode, now, but it pretty much maxed out my teenage excitement budget.
I don’t think there were too many different keys used back in the day. A buddy had his cousin drive out from Louisiana to California back in the late ‘70s. The ignition key to her ‘65 Fairlane was an exact match to that of our family’s Mustang. We figured it out because the tooth pattern looked awfully familiar. Why I was carefully looking at her car keys is perhaps another issue all together…
When I started driving in the early ’90s my first couple of cars were AMC Concords. I dealt with a small independent mechanic for a while, and his Dad was very old-school and always referred to my cars as Ramblers.
Why were these Ramblers such dull handlers? Was it the old-fashioned trunnion suspension setup? I remember my Concords being competent on the road and no better but no worse than the late ’70s/early ’80s rear-drive Fords my BIL had at the time.
The suspension geometry of the trunnion setup was pretty awful. Combine that with soft springs, weak shocks, and ultra-slow manual steering… Road & Track summed it up in a test of the Rambler American 220 circa 1968. When referring to the car’s handling they said “It doesn’t have any.” (Though overall the review was positive in terms of evaluating the American as an economy people-mover.)
The Rambler’s design hails from a time when people talked about cars in terms of “handling ease.” This pretty much means how easy it is to maneuver at low speed and park. Getting around corners at speed was not on most people’s radar.
Then again, as I recall when Tom McCahill tested the 1967 Rambler Rebel on the track he had high praise for its handling and that car has the same trunnion front suspension as the American. Heavy-duty springs and shocks may have helped.
I had a ’63 V8 Rambler in the mid 60’s to mid 70’s that would flat out handle. There was considerable differences between the 6 and V8 cars, enough so that almost none of the running rear would interchange. About the only thing in common was the body and the steering gear. Cost me maybe $250.00 in parts to make it handle the way I wanted it to.. One time made it between Seaside and east Portland Oregon in 55 mins. Regularly used to make the trip between Portland and Lincoln City in 1hr 5 mins to 1hr 15 mins. Both routes have about 1\3rd of the distance through on twisty 2 lane mountain roads and were about 95 miles from start to finish. The road to LC had more towns to go through. People may say what they want but my Rambler Classic did handle and I regularly ran it at 85-95 mph. And I never had a problem with the steering, in fact in cruising downtown Portland I would turn a corner at 25 mph and no lean, the rear end would just slide around the corner. Years later I had a stock ’63 with a 6 and it would really lean in the corners when pushed, the difference in the two cars was night and day.
AMC best luck was get Jeep – small production but big margins – billchrest
Great article, Paul. I have never been a Rambler fan, but I think that the testament to your writing (as well as others’ here) is that CC can write about cars that people may not even like, but they get a history lesson that is interesting.
AMC, I think, held onto some styling and bodystyles for too long in some cases. Especially towards the end of the 60’s, you had some cars that had changed bodystyles fairly radically, or had some refreshing of the same platform that helped to stimulate sales and interest. I suppose that when the Rambler was doing so well, that AMC didn’t feel the need to update it, but by then–as you point out–their idea quickly became stale with buyers after the Rambler’s popularity had peaked, and then even as a grandma cruiser, it became passe. That’s the problem with vanilla–it has historically sold well as a flavour because it’s a bit of everything to everyone, but the issue becomes that some people get sick of the anonymity and interchangeability of it and look towards something with more taste and diversity. AMC swung too hard the other way with the Pacer and drove some of the final nails into their coffin.
AMC’s biggest mistake, in my opinion, was throwing away the brand equity that they had in the Rambler name to go with AMC instead. There was nothing wrong with the name Rambler. In fact it was a good name. The problem was that the bread on the shelf got stale, and Noone likes to eat stale bread. A Rambler Hornet or Gremlin would have still flown without confusing the customers.
A wagon similar to this what’s featured here, suspended in midair by its roof, once graced Super Glue packaging—implying that a few drops of the glue were all that was holding up the car.
The Rambler name continued in Australia right up through 1978 or so, as evidenced in part by this 1972 Rambler Javelin and this ’75 Rambler Hornet (with right-hand drive, amber rear turn signals, and other Australian-spec equipment).
Kenosha boy here, worked 6 months on the line. They failed because I left.
Making and selling care must be kind of tricky. Nash/AMC had some winners
and more than a few losers. But hey, Superman drove one.
Thanks for all of you providing me with this flash-back.
I enjoyed driving my granpa Rambler SW when i was 6!!!
I shot this 1966 wagon on the street about 8 years ago. It still says ‘sensible car’, and looks good as well, to my eye at least. I’d still gladly have this in the driveway.
Very clean design, that could have sauntered into the 70s, with some refreshing. But in all honesty, the Sportabout looked like a spaceship, compared to this wagon.
It would be interesting to imagine a mid-80s Eagle wagon based on this car rather than the Sportabout.
This one may be a record for the amt of commenters.