What happens when a store you’ve always loved goes out of business–or your favorite brand of cookies isn’t being made anymore–or the new version of something you’ve always bought isn’t quite as good as the old? Well, that was the situation traditional Nash and Hudson buyers faced come model year 1958. The newly formed American Motors Corporation had discontinued the big Nash and Hudson cars due to poor sales. But there was an attempt to keep Nash and Hudson loyalists in the fold–a larger Rambler called “Ambassador” (a Nash name). But would this new car appeal to established full-size car customers who were ready to trade in?
Hudson buyers had kind of gone through this same experience already back in 1955. The famous “Step-Down” Hudson (introduced in 1948) was a bulletproof, solid, good-handling, fast car with decent power. Its low, sleek, “slug-like” design was very futuristic in the late ’40s, but by 1954 it was considered very out of date, especially compared to competitors Oldsmobile and Buick, with their OHV V-8s and wrap-around windshields. But to people who could appreciate them, Hudson’s special virtues could not be denied.
Nash and Hudson merged to form AMC, so the “all-new” 1955 Hudsons were based heavily on existing Nashes. Certain Hudson features were retained such as a Hudson-like grille and dashboard, and two of the famous Hudson-built 6-cylinder engines were still available, along with a Packard-built V-8.
To my surprise, Mechanix Illustrated’s automotive tester Tom McCahill (who was very into car handling and speed) actually gave the 1955 Hudsons his seal of approval:
“The 1955 Hudsons have lost none of [their superb roadability] … the car gets around the tightest bends just as well as it ever did…. These Hudsons are great, safe road cars and the brakes are as fine as any I’ve ever tested on an American car.” He added, “If you’re an old Hudson fan, you’ll find the ’55 Hudson your dish of tea.” The new Hornets (both 6 and V-8) were also faster than the ’54s in 0-60 and top speed.
The 1956 Hudson was basically the same car as the ’55, but with all-new “V-Line Styling”. The traditional Hudson emblem is in the shape of a “V”, so the idea here is to plaster “V” shapes all over the place, including the grille, fender tops, interiors, etc.
Hudson’s 1957 model featured minor styling revisions, but the big change was under the hood–a brand new AMC designed V-8 (shared with Nash). It displaced 327 cubic inches and put out 255 HP (and it did so “smoothly and quietly” according to one magazine). There were also changes to the steering and suspension that improved handling ease. To me, these improvements make the 1957 model the best of all the 1955-57 AMC Hudsons.
In the early postwar years, Nash was producing a car somewhat similar in concept to what Hudson was offering. One year after the introduction of the Hudson “Step-Down”, Nash introduced the “Airflyte” – a car with even more terrifying looks than the Hudson! Like Hudson, it was a sleek, roomy, low-slung sedan with unitized body construction. Lest the car be accused of having something as primitive as “wheels”, the front wheels were covered halfway by a single continuous fender line which extended to the rear. This gave the effect of an enormous streamlined mass levitating over the road with no visible means of support! It also reduced space for the front wheels to turn, making the cars handle more clumsily than they normally would have.
After a 1952 “Pininfarina” restyle of relative purity, the Nashes became even stranger looking with each passing year, although retaining their unique virtues. This culminated in the final 1957 model, which introduced to the public for the very first time (along with a few other makes)–quad headlights!
Now it’s 1958, and “What to do–what to do?” The compact Rambler is selling great–117,000 units! Meanwhile, Nash and Hudson are only selling about 3,500 cars each–unsustainable! So the decision was made–ax Nash and Hudson, but offer a slightly bigger Rambler and call it . . . Ambassador!
But wait, wait! Not so fast! Look:
Before AMC pulled the plug on Nash and Hudson, there was a plan to offer the 1958 Ambassador in both Nash and Hudson versions, with slightly different looks for each “make”. But this plan was scrapped as the decision was made to unify all cars under the one successful name, “Rambler”.
So what does this new Ambassador offer to current Nash or Hudson owners? A potential buyer might be thinking: “Well, it’s made by the same company formerly known as Nash–a name I know. It’s got unit construction. It has the same excellent Nash/Kelvinator low-cost air conditioning. It has the same 327 V-8 engine as last year’s Nash and Hudson. There’s a V-line in the grille, like the Hudson, but no mechanical safety linkage in the brakes like the Hudsons always had. It drives like the previous models–what I’m used to. The compact size should make it easy to maneuver. But it’s a little less roomy inside, particularly width. The price is about the same as previous Nashes/Hudsons. Has the reclining seats. The trim and assembly quality seems fairly high. Might be good.”
At the end of the 1958 model year, Ambassador sales reached roughly 7,000 units–about the same as 1957’s Nash/Hudson total. So things remained pretty much status quo in this price range. However, sales of the lower-priced compact Rambler surged to a new high–119,000 units. In addition, 42,000 even smaller, bargain-basement Rambler Americans were sold. The verdict–cheap sells!
Nevertheless, the Ambassador model was continued in 1959. AMC photographers did their best to make the Ambassador look as glamorous as possible.
In theory, Ambassador should have been a hit. Compact cars were a growing trend in 1959, and the idea of a “compact luxury car”–tightly built, with high quality trim and upholstery and good performance in a more convenient size seemed like a winning combination. Sort of an American version of what Mercedes-Benz was doing in the 1960s and ’70s.
However, there were a few things wrong with this theory. Consumer Reports (and other automotive magazines) reported that despite the Rambler’s clear advantages, these cars were “not thoroughbreds.” Because they were constructed using older Nash componentry, the steering, ride, and handling were not up to the high level now set by the “Big Three” competitors in this price class.
So which would you rather have–the blocky-looking Rambler Ambassador or a sleek, all-new Wide Track ’59 Pontiac? The starting prices for both were about the same (about $2850). You could also get a Torsion-Aire ’59 Dodge or a super-plush and roomy ’59 Mercury for about the same money.
Then there’s the prestige factor (or the lack of it). When you’re spending a little over $3000 for a car once a few optional extras are added on, you want something that will impress the neighbors. Despite the Ambassador’s added length and slightly better trim, most people will see it as just another Rambler. And Rambler is perceived as being a low-priced, economy car. As Tom McCahill said, “The Ambassador looks like a Rambler with a longer name.” Maybe if AMC had called it a Nash or a Hudson things would have gone better?
Despite its identity crisis, things did get better for Ambassador in 1960. A styling refresh certainly helped, and sales climbed to 23,798–a big increase!
But then AMC stuck a really ugly front end on the ’61, the primary advantage of which was to make the 1956-57 “V-Line” Hudsons look classy and artistic by comparison. Sales tumbled.
So in 1962, the “big” Rambler body and chassis were dropped, and the Ambassador was the same size as the smaller-sized Rambler Classic. Nearly all the upscale pretense and distinction the Ambassador once had was gone.
American Motors’ identity crisis got worse from here. In 1966, the decision was made to drop the Rambler name and all cars became “AMC’s”. (Rambler stayed on for a few more years as a “series name”–the small cars were called “AMC Ramblers”.) Everyone knew what a Rambler was, and the brand had a good reputation. AMC meant little or nothing to most people. The company started to make big cars again, in a futile attempt to compete with the Big Three. Nash and Hudson were long gone, so Ambassador was trotted out again, along with Matador (a name used by Dodge for one year only, 1960) and few potential customers knew or cared what these names represented (A big car or a small car? Luxury or economy? Competing with Chevrolet or Buick or what?) This culminated in the ridiculous commercial above, in which the company actually admits that no one knows what a Matador is, but anyway it’s a good car and you should buy one!
I think the lesson here is that brand names mean something, and the intangibles they represent can be hard to duplicate once they’re gone. And when they’re gone, it’s almost impossible to revive the names once again. It could be argued that Nash and Hudson were “old hat” and no one wanted them anymore, but I think that keeping the three brands (Rambler for compact economy; Nash and Hudson as distinct mid- or full-size luxury models) would have served AMC better than the rather haphazard marketing approach the company took in the post-Romney era.