Curbside Classic: 1969 Rambler 440 Station Wagon – The Last Rambler

(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.