Our recent deep immersion in eccentric little French cars might have been a bit much for some of you, so I decided to give you something as all-American as possible: a loaf of Wonder Bread instead of a baguette.
This American certainly isn’t challenging; visually, technically or otherwise. A big, cast-iron six resides under the hood, with more than six times the displacement of the Citroen Ami 8’s little twin. Instead of an umbrella handle, a column mounted shifter operates the fully automatic transmission. And its output is sent back to a solid rear axle suspended by cart springs. The Rambler American and the Ami 8 are both from the same era, but approach their task about as differently as possible, in almost every conceivable way. And today, two of the best selling small cars in both countries, the Nissan Versa and Renault Clio/Modus are essentially siblings. That’s why I find haunting the streets more interesting than an auto show.
Yes, the challenge of finding solutions to the needs basic transportation based on local conditions once resulted in very different approaches and solutions, and the Ami 8 and American are graphic examples of that. The fact that today’s compact cars are much more influenced by the little Citroen is indisputable. In fact, by 1968, the American and Detroit’s other compacts were already in terminal decline, after their brief heyday. And the American was the pioneer in the field, arriving in 1958.
That first American was a hastily refreshed version of the original 1950 Nash Rambler, a rather gutsy move AMC President George Romney, considering that it was an almost ten year-old design. Unlike the original, the ’58 American was a stripped-down, budget-priced import fighter. Its reasonable success speaks volumes to the fact that many buyers in the import/compact market were much less concerned about the latest styling fad than other qualities. The success of the VW Beetle made that obvious, but it was a lesson that Detroit forgot, or never quite got, at its peril.
The American found acceptance, despite its late-forties styling, but in 1961 it received a re-skin, not a very successful one in my opinion. Still sitting on the same 100″ Nash Rambler platform, the boxy American looked oddly proportioned. It’s about as close as an American car ever got to the Ami 8, stylistically anyway.
AMC’s new styling chief Dick Teague did a fine job of the completely new 1964 Rambler line, and the American was perhaps the most balanced of the family. (See here for ’64 Classic CC and the Kaiser Torino offshoot). In 1964, this was a handsome and contemporary car, certainly ahead of its competition stylistically. The clean new look swelled American sales to an all-time high of over 160k units.
By 1968, American sales had drooped to less then half that amount. What happened? The American got caught between two trends, each going in different directions. The Big Three compacts, especially the Chevy Nova and Ford Falcon swelled in size and sported stylish and curvaceous new bodies, becoming almost intermediate in size. Meanwhile, buyers looking for something small and different increasingly abandoned the American brands in favor of the VW and other imports, including the now rapidly ascending Toyota Corona and Datsun 510. The compact market was having its own cultural revolution, and the American was left behind. What was innovative in 1958 now looked dull, boring and old hat in 1968.
It was a crisis for AMC, which had pinned so much of its success on catering to the small end of the market. The solution was ambitious and ultimately ill-fated: to go head-to-head against the Big Three, and start emphasizing the very qualities AMC had left behind: style, performance, and youthful appeal. We all know how well that turned out. But it did result in some memorable cars, like the AMX, Javelin, and perhaps the most outrageous, the SC/Rambler.
Talk about extremes. From the dowdy little grandma’s car, AMC created one of the most over-the-top performance car of the late sixties. Developed in conjunction with Hurst, only some 1,512 SC/Ramblers were built, but its purpose was more to shake up the American’s staid image than to sell large numbers. It certainly did that.
Our featured American is quite the other end of the spectrum, a plain-Jane stripper. It does have the larger 232 CID six, instead of the standard 199 incher version, and an automatic. Maybe even power steering, but I wouldn’t bet on it. But that six was an excellent unit, which arrived in 1965 to replace the ancient old long-stroke six whose origins probably dated back to the twenties. The new AMC six went on to have a long life, ending only in 2006, in the Jeep Wrangler.
Ironically, although young folks shied away from the American when it was new, this is the daily driver of a hip young Eugenean, the kind that are now drawn to cars like this and old Falcons in particular.
The American of this vintage suffered from the image of being a grandma’s car, SC/Rambler or not. Those wanting style headed elsewhere, and the rest fell into the import camp. The fairly handsome Hornet that replaced the American in 1970 never gained much traction either. But then it largely used the the American’s suspension and underpinnings, and that was not a good thing. For whatever reason, the redesigned Rambler family from 1964 had a rep of being very mediocre handling cars, and that at a time when most US cars weren’t exactly brimming with that particular quality.
Slow and unresponsive steering, and general incompetence at anything other than a gentle ride to the grocery store hampered the rep of the Ramblers. They just didn’t have any real chassis competence, perhaps due to a lack of resources. That alone made them toxic, especially compared to the fairly limber Chrysler A-Bodies, which pretty much dominated the segment after the Nova and Falcon’s obesity crisis.
One could say that AMC went down because it never really broke out of the basic configuration of its 1950 Rambler. What might have been innovative in 1950 became a rut, and the company wasted its final resources on disasters like the Pacer and Matador Coupe, all still in the conventional mold, while the world was quickly changing. Ironically, it would be Renault that finally brought some fresh blood to AMC, but that’s a story for another day, if I can ever find an Alliance. Wish me luck.