Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1963 Rambler Ambassador 990 Twin-Stick – Only Rambler Offered A “5-Speed Manual”

For all the endless bitching I’ve done over the years about the lack of a proper manual gearbox with a wide spread of ratios, why do I keep forgetting about the ’63-’65 Ramblers with the Twin-Stick? Five nicely spaced gears, including a long-legged overdrive for relaxed and economical cruising. Sure, it’s just a three-speed manual with overdrive on 2nd and 3rd, but there’s a very important difference: the Twin-Stick made it super easy to actually use all five of those gears. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case with the typical 3/OD combo in American cars, at least not without some contortions.

And it was available on the all-new ’63 Rambler Classic and Ambassador, which is also right up my alley: smaller, lighter and more space efficient than all the standard sized American cars. Car Life called their 270 hp 327 V8 equipped tester a “luxury compact with a big kick”; true that. Now if only the clutch hadn’t blown up…

This was a very well equipped Rambler, the top of the line 990 and with a number of options, including bucket seats, the 270 hp 327 V8, air conditioning, power steering, brakes and windows, and a slew of other convenience items. The total was $3355, not exactly what the old flintskin bachelor down the street drove.


Car Life pointed out that the new ’63 Classic and Ambassador was a significantly better package than its predecessor, which dated back to 1956. Even though wheelbase was up 4″, to 112″, overall length was actually one inch less, and interior width was up thanks to the curved glass thin doors, definitely an industry first. In size it competed against the Buick Special, Old F-85, Tempest, Studebaker Lark, Dodge Dart and Mercury Comet. But none offered such a spacious interior, essentially the equivalent of a full-size car. And with the exception of the Tempest/LeMans, none were available with such a wide range of engine choices, up to the 327 V8. Yet the new ’63 Ambassador was a full 270lbs lighter than its predecessor.

The simple reality was that the downsized 1962 Plymouth and Dodge and the 1963 Rambler Classic/Ambassador were in a league of their own, in terms of packaging, space efficiency, weight, and the numerous resulting benefits. They were the prophets of what would come to be the norm in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Overall fuel economy was 16-18 mpg; with the automatic-equipped car averaging 16-17, and the Twin-Stick yielding 17-18. performance was brisk, with the Twin-Stick car timed at 17 seconds in the quarter in its first run, when the clutch blew up. Car Life estimated that it would have done it in 16 seconds with a couple more passes.


So now we get to the meat of the matter: the Twin-Stick, which is of course just the venerable B/W three speed with a planetary overdrive. But the key difference is that the Twin-Stick made it very easy to split gears, which is not at all so easy in the typical overdrive setup, where once O/D is enabled, then it engages automatically above a certain speed when the throttle is momentarily let up. The problem with that is that once in 2-OD, it’s not so easy to shift into 3-Direct; that would require un-enabling OD by pushing in the OD handle on the dash, letting up on the throttle to disengage OD, then shifting into 3-Direct and then pulling the OD handle again to enable it, and then letting up on the throttle to engage 3-OD.

With Twin-Stick, the shifter on the left is for the three speed transmission, and the stick on the right enables overdrive. But the little button on the main shifter is what engages or disengages OD (if enabled). That makes splitting gears essentially manual, just the same as it is in my truck. One puts the right stick in OD (enabled), shifts the left stick from 1st to 2nd, pushes the button to engage 2-OD, then pushes the button again to disengage OD while shifting to 3-D, and then pushes it again to engage 3-OD.

It’s actually better than my truck, in that the button right on the shifter knob is more convenient than the toggle switch I have on the dash.

Car Life points pout that although four speeds (like the T-10) were the hot new thing, the Twin-Stick has pretty much all the same gear ratios through fourth, but the an overdrive 5th. They included this comparison of the gear ratios, but there’s a typo: 2nd gear on the B/W T85-89 is on the Twin-Stick is really 1.59.


Related reading:
Automotive History: The Mysteries Of Automotive Epicyclic Or Planetary Overdrive Revealed – The Predecessor To Modern Overdrive