Vintage R&T Road Test: 1959 Rambler American – Dorkiness Is Only Skin Deep

This review forced me to change my long-held feeling about the pudgy little 1958-1961 Rambler American, which was a revival of the original 1950 Rambler. Whereas I have always had a soft spot for the original, with its hidden wheels and very nicely trimmed interior, the revival looked decidedly out of date by the time I arrived in the US in 1960. Among other things, that big rear wheel cutout, which didn’t match the front one in the slightest, made the rear wheel look like it wasn’t centered in it. It just looked…dorky.

But looks can be deceiving, as this R&T test makes rather clear. The American’s bones may have dated back to 1950, but they were quite advanced bones back then, and that made the American still competitive and appealing in 1959; rather more so than the 1959 Lark, whose bones only dated back to 1953.

To start with, R&T notes that the American’s 3.2 L (195.6 CI) side valve six results in a quite nicely-powered compact car, certainly much better than any imports for anything near the money, and better than the Lark. Although the Lark’s somewhat smaller 169.6 CI six was rated at the same 90 hp as the American’s mill, the American’s engine made more torque , which combined with its lower weight—thanks to its unibody—resulted in quicker acceleration and just all-round better performance. The result “is a very satisfying automobile”, one which few imports would be able to match in terms of its roominess, performance and price.

The first impression was of its “extraordinary easy of driving it. All the controls are light and well placed, the clutch is innocuous, the shift lever (nicely integrated visually into the dash) neat and convenient, the brakes smooth and effective”. Performance was even deemed “brisk” (0-60 in 16 sec), and fuel economy averaged to 22.9 mpg.

 

Top speed was a corrected 88.3 mph, a “most respectable figure”. The tested curb weight of exactly 2600 wasn’t all that light, but then the American’s body structure “is extremely rigid and durable”.

The ride was on the firm side, compared to typical larger American cars. R&T liked that very much, as roll in turns was negligible and “the general handling qualities are excellent”. And there was really no understeer; it was essentially neutral. Only the most vigorous cornering brought out some “ploughing”.

The tight body was free from rattles or drumming. Overall quality was “good, even excellent in comparison to most of the sculptured ’59 models (from other makers) we have examined”. Doors fit well; the interior was “well done”; neither plain or “chintzy”. The simple round instrument panel is functional, the dash well designed.

The front bench could seat three, but the narrower rear seat between the wheel wells only had room for two.

More praise was heaped on the very rigid Rambler unibody, which has proven itself well over the years. And once again, the American’s large engine not only has that performance benefit, but also promises to have a long life thanks to its low stresses. But R&T wondered why the 127 hp ohv version of the Rambler six wasn’t optional, as that “would make an interesting high-performance package”.

Wow; who would have though that the dumpy little flathead American would come in for such praise from Road and Track? I’m going to update my opinion right now.

I had quite a bit of seat time in one of these, as I used to ride to orchestra practice in one just like this driven by my friend Dean Harless’ dad every other Tuesday. I vividly remember hopping into that back seat, and watching his Dad move that curiously-located shift lever as we rolled down Park Avenue. In 1964, it was traded in for a ’64 Biscayne six, still with a manual. It seemed so wide inside. And it had carpeting. The Chevy was such an upgrade, and I was glad for Dean that they had such a nice new car.

But today? I’d take this American over the Biscayne. I’ve come to appreciate Ramblers more over these past few years, especially the 1950s models. They were something quite unique. Now if they had just offered that 127 hp ohv six…

 

Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1959 Rambler American – Beep Beep

Junkyard Classic/Automotive History: 1955 Rambler Cross Country – How Rambler Won The Compact And Price Wars Of The 1950’s And Saved AMC