AMC had danced to the rhythm of a different drum for a few years, betting it all on its compact Ramblers during the second half of the ’50s. That lucky and prescient gamble had paid off, with the Rambler reaching third place in domestic sales by 1961. But as the ’60s advanced, with the Big 3 encroaching into compact territory, AMC was to quit with its solo dancing and try to join the rest of the party. To that end, after a one-year interlude in ’62, a 287 CID V-8 was offered once again in the Classic, attuned, and filled with accruements ready to face the sportier V-8 versions of the Big 3’s compacts. It’s this version of the Classic, in 770 Hardtop form, that CL tested in their March 1964 issue.
A bit of backtracking may be necessary at this point. AMC’s master of solo dancing had been company president George W. Romney, who got many to swing to the compact Rambler’s rhythm. But even during his term, a V-8 was offered in the economy range starting in 1957. These earlier V-8s were commended for their performance and handling, though their sales numbers never made up for the effort. It also muddied the waters with the upscale Ambassador V-8.
Starting in 1962, the company’s lineup would be simplified; the last gesture of Romney’s tenure. Only two wheelbases were offered, the 110″ for the American, and the 112″ for the Classic and the Ambassador. The latter two now shared much sheet metal, with V-8 power now being exclusive to the Ambassador. The move paid off, overall production reached new records and even Ambassador sales saw an increase.
AMC was to try a new dance under the guidance of new CEO Roy Abernethy. The new head intended to face the Big 3 directly, hoping to distance the company from the thrifty and homely image Ramblers had acquired. The new Classic V-8 was an early effort in those ambitions; “… to compete in the current trend toward smooth strong power in lower-priced cars, AMC has created… the 287CID V-8 in the Classic… this competes nicely in power and performance with the 283 V-8 Chevy II and Chevelle, the 289 V-8 Fairlane, the 260 V-8 Falcon, and the new 273 V-8 Valiants and Darts…” And with a price tag of $105 over the regular 6-cyl., the reviewers considered the package a bargain.
Extra power and luxury options were becoming the norm in the US domestic compact segment, and the new upgrades gave the Classic V-8 the cold specs to join the fray. Besides higher performance numbers, the V-8 allocated more power to the many amenities present in the test’s 770 hardtop; “… the Classic V-8 buyer gets improvements in electrical system, brakes, suspension and drivetrain components over those in the 6-cyl. Classic… this month’s Rambler, has an extremely high ‘plush’ factor… the ’64 Rambler Classic V-8 is long on comfort… and cruising ability…”
On the other hand, handling greatly suffered with the added V-8. While the model had the suspension and drivetrain upgrades expected in a higher-performing model; “the Classic V-8’s cornering is classic understeer, magnified… it plows through corners with the front trying to maintain a straight line… (with) a tendency to skip about, breaking traction at the slightest provocation…” It probably didn’t help matters that the 287 V-8 offered in the Classic was just a small-bore version of AMC’s already obsolete 327 V-8. Not a lightweight mill to begin with, leading to a 59/41 weight distribution on the hardtop.
At some point, a frustrated Abernethy is quoted as saying “… how long does it take to change an image?” Despite AMC’s efforts, the Classic remained inextricably linked to sensible frugality. The 6-cyl. carried on as the Rambler’s chore product; out of 206,300 Classics built for ’64, only 11,900 were 770 hardtops with V-8 power. Total sales were receding as well, with AMC dropping to 8th place overall by the closing of the year. Ambassador numbers also suffered, doing about half the business it had done for ’63.
For ’65, the company would keep following the Big 3’s tune, with ever-diminishing returns. A larger Ambassador and the Marlin fastback would arrive, but no matter what moves it made, AMC would remain an outsider in the party.