Vintage Car Life Road Test: 1965 Rambler American 440-H – Hot Six!

0-60 in 10.9 seconds? With a six backed by the less-than-stellar B/W automatic? That’s very much V8 territory. AMC’s new 232 cubic inch six, in this case with a two-barrel carb rated at 155 hp, did the the V8-impersonation trick. That’s less than a second slower than Pontiac’s 1966 Sprint HO with the 207 hp 4-barrel OHC six and a four-speed manual! Holy Kenosha!

Car Life was impressed by the American’s zip, along with a few other qualities.

CL starts off relating how they suggested to Design VP Dick Teague that AMC build what they dubbed an “Executive’s Commuter Car”; an American with a European-style leather interior, a proper instrument panel set in wood, air conditioning, the new 232 six and disc brakes. In other words, an American BMW, Mercedes, Rover or Alfa Romeo.

What CL was suggesting was this, which ironically is the interior of the IKA Torino, the Rambler American variant that was built in Argentina. Delicious!

Pininfarina was hired to clean up the American’s exterior a bit too, to make the Torino look a bit more European. The Torino used the Kaiser 3.8 L SOHC “Tornado” hemi-head six that had been used briefly in the original Kaiser Jeep Wagoneer. The Brazilians kept refining and tuning it, with well over 200 hp on tap. Something very much like this is what CL had in mind.

Teague responded:”We already have such a car; it’s the American 440H hardtop. And instead of the leather and hardwood, it has luxurious vinyl-pleated bucket seats and a console”. Or something to that effect.

Close, but no cigar. The American’s dull and dreary cheap dashboard alone was not going to make this a genuine import fighter. But CL was willing to give it a shot, and some of the 440-H’s qualities were within the parameters that CL envisioned.

In reality, the 440-H was what it was: a top line version of a basic American economy car, with the interior accoutrements that had come to define these trim levels: bucket seats upholstered in vinyl, a console, floor shifter, nicer trim and better carpets. But otherwise, it was still an American, for better or for worse. CL characterized the instrument panel as “‘gauche’, which upset Teague”.  The reality was that no American manufacturer was going to invest in a genuine high-end small car at the time, as that was not seen as their function. But one does wonder if AMC had done so, if it might have worked. It did, back in the early-mid ’50s, when the Rambler was just that: a high-end compact car, appealing to an upscale, sophisticated buyer. By 1965, that train had long left he Kenosha station.

The one genuine bright spot was the new AMC six, came in three versions: a de-stroked 199 CID making 128 hp as the base engine in the Classic six; a 145 hp version with a one-barrel carb as the base version of the larger 232 CID variant, and a 155 hp version with a two-barrel carb. This was available only with the “Shift-Command Flash-O-Matic”, Warner Gear’s three-speed torque converter automatic.

The “Shift-Command” part reflected the ability to hold gears via the floor shifter. It was an improvement over the previous version of this less-than-stellar box, but there was still some “looseness” that sometimes “produced embarrassing lags in gear changes“.

The 232 six pulled hard, and the acceleration was on par with AMC’s own smaller V8 in the Classic and just off the numbers for the Chrysler 273 V8 in a Dart. As pointed out at the top, its 0-60 time was just a tick under the 1966 Pontiac Sprint, with its 207 hp four-barrel SOHC six backed by a four speed manual.

Somewhat surprisingly, CL deemed the 440-H to be a reasonably competent handler. That rather contradicts Car and Driver’s assessment of a 1964 American, which called out its mediocre handling qualities.  CL did say its handling wasn’t going to gladden a sports car buff. There was quite a bit of plowing in turns, which a front anti-roll bar could have ameliorated. But the much quicker Saginaw power steering was “a joy” compared to the very slow Gemmer manual steering in their previous American test.

The drum brakes were marginally adequate. The optional front discs available on the larger AMC cars were not yet available on the American.

The American shared significant parts of its body with the Classic and Ambassador, resulting in a somewhat heavy but very solid structure.

Overall, CL’s impressions were quite positive. It was frisky, handsome enough, and engendered some pleasant driving experiences. It wasn’t what they proposed to Teague, but it did much of the job they envisioned, minus the fine interior and disc brakes.

Related CC reading:

Vintage Road & Track Review: 1966 Pontiac Sprint – Nice Engine; Wrong Car
Curbside Classic: 1971 IKA Torino TS – The Legendary Rambler European South American
Vintage Road Test: Car & Driver Tests The New 1964 Rambler American, Rather Unhappily