By on March 24, 2009

What makes a car a true classic? Being one of the handsomest and most enduring designs of its time? Staying in production for twenty years? Having a long-stroke in-line engine with a classic OHC hemi-head? Winning a big race at the ’Ring? Having illustrious heads of state as loyal owners? Or just slapping a chrome “Classic” badge on its flanks? How does this Rambler stack up? Has it earned its chops, or is it an impostor?

In 1963, a professor in Iowa City bought a Classic hardtop like this for his wife. As I walked by it every day on my trudge to school, I gave the Rambler a whole lot more eyeball time than average. Being an OCD car gazer, that’s saying something.

This Classic challenged all my constructs about Ramblers: they just weren’t cool, period. Popular enough with the thrifty folks in the Midwest, their styling was atrocious. The 1961-1963 Rambler American takes the cake as one of the all-time stinkers. And I’ll never forget the shock of going to the dealer and lifting a hood on a ’63 American: it still had a flathead six, with only 90 hp! It was the last flathead engine still being made.

But that all began to change in 1963, after Dick Teague became chief stylist. Teague faced a momentous challenge: how to replace both the compact American and the mid/full size Classic and Ambassador with AMC’s limited budget. The answer was a brilliant two-in-one deal. The dramatically clean and handsome Classic/Ambassador sedans and wagons arrived in 1963, (rightfully) winning Motor Trend’s COTY. Teague cleaned it up even more for ’64, and added this particularly attractive hardtop coupe, Rambler’s first ever. Compared to the bloated and often fussy competition with their huge front and rear overhangs, this Classic was almost European in size, trimness, and cleanness of line.

Teague’s Act II was the compact ’64 American. By simply narrowing and shortening the unibody Classic platform, the American recycled the same doors, roof line, and many other body parts, not to mention the drive train and suspension. Rambler pioneered then what Audi “(re)invented” for its current range: a single set of platform components to cover their compact (A4), midsize (A6), and full-size (A8).

The only thing that spoiled these cars was the engines. The six was an OHV conversion of the old Nash flathead, and the 287 cubic inch V8 a small-bore version of the already obsolete AMC 327. The V8s were too heavy, casting a sentence of terminal understeer to the handling. But even with its Flash-O-Matic slushbox, this V8 Classic was reasonably lively in its day.

In production for twenty years? Not here in ADD-afflicted America, no thank you. When the Classic was restyled for again 1966, the blueprints and dies were bought by Kaiser’s Argentinean operation, IKA. The middle section of the Classic was mated with the front and rear of the American to create the Torino. In production until 1982, it became quite the legend.

Pop a Ritalin, because this story gets complicated. Renault bought IKA in 1975. So Renault was actually building AMC-designed cars in Argentina five years before they bought AMC. Maybe they were impressed by the Torino?

When Kaiser bought the Classic from AMC, it came sans engine. So Kaiser rummaged through its US warehouse and found just the thing for the Torino: the Kaiser Tornado straight six.

Back when Kaiser still owned Jeep (before selling it to AMC in 1970), it needed something fresher than its ancient old Continental-designed flathead six for the all-new 1963 Wagoneer. On a tiny budget, Kaiser’s Italian chief engineer designed a classic European-style OHC hemi-head. But under that new alloy head sat the old flathead block. But who knew?

America’s first main-stream OHC engine, the Tornado something of a (brief) sensation, until it started leaking and burning oil, overheating, and warping its beautiful aluminum cylinder heads. So in 1966, the Tornado was given a one-way ticket to Argentina, and Kaiser/Jeep started buying engines from . . . AMC!

But the Argentineans welcomed the Tornado with open arms, and began a steady development program that ended up with the 380W. Sporting three horizontally-mounted Webers, it cranked out over 300 hp (220 net). The Torino was the GTO/Hemi ’Cuda of Argentina. And so it went racing.

In 1969 three Torinos were sent to the 84 hour endurance race at Nurburgring. Amazingly, they won their class, and were a threat to the overall winner. Not bad, for an engine running a huge 4.38″ stroke in its antediluvian cylinder block.

The Latinized Classic earned quite a rep from its racing successes and developed a cult following. Among devoted Torino buyers were such global luminaries as Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev and Muammar Gaddafi. You know these guys wouldn’t have anything less than a genuine classic in their collections.

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40 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1964 Rambler Classic...”

  • avatar

    Great article on an often-overlooked car.

    Note that the 1963 Rambler Classic/Ambassador received Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” award for its “Uniside” construction, which eliminated the need to weld several pieces of the car together to form the sides. This improved door fit and noise control. It was also the first low-cost car with curved side glass (beating the GM intermediates by one year; Ford and Chrysler intermediates wouldn’t have this feature until 1966).

    The 1964 American is a very handsome car – particular the hardtop coupe and convertible.

    The 1961-63 Americans certainly are ugly, but in a lovable sort of way. They – along with the 1958-60 Americans – are so homely as to be almost cute.

  • avatar

    My uncle had one of those! Only a station wagon, “Cross Country,” as I recall. It was gray with a red interior.

    My brother and I would argue with our cousins about the merits of GM vs. AMC.

    My grandfather bought a new ’64 American hardtop. Quite a change from the ’51 black Chevy 4-door sedan he had been driving.

  • avatar

    That is a good looking car, to be saddled with crummy AMC engines seems such a shame. That thing needs a nice small block Chevy in it!

  • avatar

    From the rear the 61-63 reminds me a lot of the Ford Cortina a neighbor had.

  • avatar

    American Motors first hardtop coupe was the American 440 H in 63 [not including Nashes and Hashes 2 door hardtops in the 50s]. That was before the Classic 2 door hardtop.

    The “Typhoon” version introduced AMC’s built from scratch 232 Cubic Inch 6 in 1964, which became the 258 which, if I am not mistaken,was used in Jeeps for years by Chrysler as the 4.0 litre 6 until 2006. That was available in a limited edition pale yellow with black vinyl roof and interior trim.

    So much for crummy AMC engines.

    Great article.

  • avatar

    The 1961 American was the first convertible from American Motors (if you discount the Metropolitan).

    Also, the Classic/Ambassador were restyled for the 1965 model year, not the 1966 model year.

    In 1965 they were each given unique sheetmetal and wheelbases. They were still clean, handsome cars, but the original platform-sharing concept was already being watered down in the name of full market coverage.

    Unfortunately, the greater distinction only boosted costs, not sales, and when AMC debuted an all-new Rebel and Ambassador for the 1967 model year -once again with unique wheelbases and sheetmetal – sales declined even more. The company was facing bankruptcy by early 1967.

  • avatar

    The old man had a Rambler Classic. I think it was a ’62. Very modern: pushbutton transmission, and seats that folded down flat; we lived in it on vacations. It survived 4 Wyoming winters, drives all around the Midwest and Southwest, finally making it to the East coast. When the engine died he bought another motor from (I think) JC Whitney, causing the thing run until the early 70s. We wound up ditching it (literally) in a Central Florida sinkhole–sort of an elephant’s graveyard for old cars. You did things like that, in those days.

  • avatar

    Paul, thanks for a fine article on a well-remembered Independent. If Detroit were able to accomplish as much on tiny budgets as Kenosha, the D3 would still be contenders.

    “Among devoted Torino buyers were such global luminaries as Fidel Castro, Leonid Brezhnev and Muammar Gaddafi.” So they liked a car with Rambler genes? Well, finally I have to admit there’s one nice thing that can be said about those three thugs.

  • avatar

    Talk about “You did things like that in those days,” My parents owned a ’61 Classic, and it was literally held together with baler twine. After it had been T-boned, my father opted to keep the rear doors shut through the liberal use of baler twine that he had me bring him from the barn. If two of us kids sat on the twine, the doors would not open, even a little, when we went around corners. Of course, when we wanted to get out, we would have to scramble over the bench seats, but that was just part of the adventure (our neighbors in rural Michigan were all poor enough to understand my father’s decision, and my friends were jealous that I got to ride in a car that was so cool).

    I am sometimes saddened by some of the comments made by readers when they say that they would not own a car that does not have side airbags. I know that their attitude is wise, but I sort of miss the bad old days of parenting.

  • avatar

    My dad replaced his American with a Classic wagon and used it to move the family from the East Coast to California. I’m always reading here about people “needing” 3 rows and dozens of airbags and cup-holders to accommodate their toddler and Labrador, but somehow the five of us (plus Collie-hey, it was the 60’s) managed to traverse the continent many times over the years with no a/c, no radio, and no seat belts when riding around with the back folded down. What a great car, and thanks for the memories.

  • avatar

    My mom and dad’s first car was a Rambler Classic. Though I don’t remember the year, it had left by the time I arrived, I do remember my mom speaking fondly of that car, much more so than my dad.

  • avatar

    That *looks* like a Rambler. But the header…


    Wait, what?


  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    Talkin’ ’bout the Midnight Rambler….

    Man, I love this series and the great pictures.

  • avatar

    Our family had the corresponding 1963 4-dr wagon, which replaced a Buick Special wagon (remember that little aluminum V8?). My strongest memory of the Rambler was that their salesman didn’t know that the steering ratio was faster with power steering. It mostly took Mom shopping and to the golf course, so no real problems. I wished that my folks had gotten the 7-main-bearing six instead of the smaller 4-bearing version. Talk about minimalist engineering. I also recall it had extruded aluminum window frames, which looked as tacky as they did on houses of the day.

  • avatar

    Actually, the above wagon was a ’64 — the ’63 had an indented grille, sort of a baleen-whale style. Also, my brother had a 1961 American wagon. The less said, the better.

  • avatar

    I have a ’63 Classic 660. Mines a 4dr. 3 on the tree.

    I have to agree the ’64 is a little better looking.

  • avatar

    My first car was a 1964 Rambler American.
    Three speed on the column,and the Flathead 6
    I drove the bejejessus out of this car.
    the only tires I could afford were used or retreads!
    Maximum speed ..84 mph!
    The car was such a stripper it didn’t even have a cigarette lighter(optional)or carpet.
    I have so many great memories of pretending I was a sports sedan driver and really taking this car sooo far beyond its limits I cant believe i`m still here to share it with the group.
    I commuted between Columbus and Detroit weekly while in school..paid 19.9 for gas at Sunoco in Detroit
    This was in 1969.
    Never laid the old lady in it..that sucks(didn’t try,oops)
    The car was a blast
    Great times…sorry to bore you.

  • avatar

    The “Typhoon” version introduced AMC’s built from scratch 232 Cubic Inch 6 in 1964, which became the 258 which, if I am not mistaken,was used in Jeeps for years by Chrysler as the 4.0 litre 6 until 2006. That was available in a limited edition pale yellow with black vinyl roof and interior trim.

    So much for crummy AMC engines.

    The AMC inline six is one of the most reliable, unbreakable engines ever produced. Chrysler gave it a more modern head in the 4.0, but like you pointed out the 4.0 is a direct descendant of the ’64 232 I6. If you look at Cherokees on eBaymotors, you’ll see that 200,000 miles is not uncommon. You can still see 4X4 AMC Eagles (based on the Hornet) on the road today.

    BTW, the original ’61-63 Rambler American is actually not a bad looking car. Besides, it was the ideal car for dating in the ’60s since the front seats reclined all the way back to the back seat, forming one continuous surface. Ramblers may have appeared boring but fathers of teenage girls knew better. Better a hi-po Mustang with its unusable back seat than a Rambler.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    DweezilSFV, you’re right, the excellent new 232 six did come out in ’64, but only on the Typhoon, a fairly rare version of the Classic (haven’t seen one in a long time). The rest of the Classics like this one suffered on with the old 196 six. And you’re right, the American 440-H hardtop came out the year before the Classic hardtop.

    geeber, you’re right, the re-style was in ’65. I do think the ’58-60 Americans are cute, but the ’61-’63 just doesn’t do it for me.

  • avatar

    Paul Thanks for the history lesson . I once had a 63 wagoneer with the OHC six, Hot Rod Magazine had an article about this engine titled (Willys builds a cammer). Yeah I still have my collection of HRM. Three of the wrist pins ate up the snap rings and became intimate with the cyl. walls.

  • avatar

    That is a good looking car, to be saddled with crummy AMC engines seems such a shame. That thing needs a nice small block Chevy in it!

    Never! There was dark blue Rambler in my old hometown featuring a ‘built’ Mopar 440. The only clues to it’s real intentions were the Moon discs and the THUD-THUD of the exhaust. I am sure it didn’t handle, but damn it hauled ass.

  • avatar

    I had a ’64 Rambler ragtop. Gutless, but stylish. Bought it for $600, drove it for 2 years and sold it for the same price. Wish I had I now.

    Prior to that I owned a ’59 Ambassador. Build like a tank. Bought it for $100. It came with a 5 gallon pail of engine oil in the trunk, which was totally necessary. Drove it all summer before smashing it into the back of Mrs Genovy’s ’69 Caprice. Totaled her rear end, but only broke 3 of the 4 headlights on the Rambler. Still got $75 for it a few weeks later!

  • avatar

    I love the style

  • avatar

    There was a ’61 American station wagon in very good condition near where I lived in DC, at least until I left, in 1999. They are cute-ugly, in a way that I find disarming, although they are not good-looking.

    I coiuld swear that the Van Uiterts’ ’58 or ’59 Rambler wagon had curved windows. I could tell even back then that it was well put together, with an awful lot more pickup than the ’57 Chevy wagon (six) had, and a lot fewer rattles.

    I also love this series

  • avatar

    Ramblers had a fully reclining front seat (driver and passenger sides) during the heyday of drive-in movie theaters.

    No other statistic matters.

  • avatar

    Gawd I love that car. Throw some urethane bushings at the ends of the crazy control arms and they’re actually fun to drive.

  • avatar

    Great write-up, Paul.

    Back in high school in ’62 or ’63, the focus used to be how long a black strip of rubber you could lay with your machine. Local champion was an International pickup with a V8 that had such poor traction it was capable of hundreds of feet of stripe.

    Not to be outdone, the school madman showed us how it should be done in a ’62 Classic. Rev the engine like crazy, and then drop the Flash-O-Matic into drive. Everyone would fall about laughing, as the car would leap, swerve, bunny-hop, slew from side to side, and show elements of that rugged torque tube drive bouncing up and down. Took about two weeks to ruin it.

    Just one more victim for the driver. First was a ’53 Chev that broke its crank after being put in reverse at 50mph. Then a Renault Dauphine – life measured in hours, followed by a Fiat Abarth 850. All those 3 cars showed that the actual rev limit of ’50s and ’60s engines was at least 2 grand more than you would have thought from reading the specs!

    Had forgotten about that OHC engine — nice reminder.

  • avatar

    The interiors were funny. Especially the dash. The speedometer had 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 instead of decade numbers. Truly an ugly dash.

  • avatar

    What’s kind of fun on these cars is the optional Twin Stick transmission, a three-speed plus overdrive setup that basically gave you five speeds forward. Its main drawback was that low gear wasn’t synchronized.

  • avatar

    Ahhh, the memories. My dad had a ’60 Falcon which was the last straw between him and Ford. Ever. I was about 7 (the car was only 4 years old) when he took the engine out and literally rebuilt it on the kitchen table. I learned several useful new words that day…

    So the next thing I knew, my dad had gone down to the AMC Rambler dealer (also sold Jeeps and Studebakers) and bought himself a nice fresh new 1964 Rambler Classic 770 4 door sedan, V8, automatic, radio, heater, two tone (white, red top, white & red interior). No power anything, except the engine (198hp). Drum brakes. The 287 V8 was a boat-anchor, yes; but reliable and quiet. In fact, they’d periodically try starting it while it was idling (oops). The seats reclined.

    Years later, my dad bought me my first car, as payment for helping the family biz during summer between semesters in school. I was 16, the car was a 1966 Ambassador 4 door, green (ugh!), 327, 4 barrel Holley, 270hp. Power steering and brakes, radio, heater. The seats reclined.

    None of the girls I wanted to date were allowed to go out with me in the Ambassador. I remained date-less for about a year until moving on to a 1968 Pontiac Catalina 2 door hardtop.

    I always figured these dads knew what Nash Rambler seats did, due to past experiences…. and of course now that THEY had daughters….

    You get the picture.

  • avatar

    Paul, The first Rambler hardtop coupe, called the Nash Rambler Country Club, appeared for the 1951 model year and continued in production through the 1955 model year. You’re right that the 64 was the first Rambler 2d hardtop in a while but not the first ever.

  • avatar

    “If Detroit were able to accomplish as much on tiny budgets as Kenosha, the D3 would still be contenders.”

    50merc deserves an award for the most insightful comment on TTAC in 2009. GM/Ford/Chrysler’s failures as auto makers can indeed be traced to their formidable powers at beancounting, in so many ways.


  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    @chuck:(and 50merc) +1. Spot on.

  • avatar

    I’ve looked at this the last few days.
    Not a classic, nothing special or intriguing.
    More like a Falcon of that year.

  • avatar

    No, no, no, Floorit. Looks are deceiving. My own father had a 1960 Falcon – absolute cheap drek. He rebuilt the engine with maybe 30,000 miles on it, and was so disgusted that he went out and got a 1964 Rambler Classic brand new.

    The Classic was built WAY better than the ‘typical’ Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth.

    The extruded aluminum window frames were very classy and looked far better than the crummy steel (usually without chrome coverings) on Chevy, Ford, Plymouth doors. The car was built with enough precision that ‘guest riders’ would often slam the sh*t out of the doors and I could see my dad’s neck turn red as he would force himself to calmly say ‘this car does NOT need to have doors slammed’.

    The weak spot was the drum brakes; the V8 simply overwhelmed them. They were the same brakes as the weak-kneed, nasal sounding 196 cube six.

    By 1965 Ramblers could be had with front Bendix disc brakes as an option. Far far ahead of the big 3.

    Comments about AMC engineers, stylists and executives herein are accurate; the big 3 should be so lucky as to have as much talent and if they had, they would not have begging bowls out for our taxpayer monies.

    It’s just that the juggernaut of GM vs Ford vs Chrysler literally ran AMC over and left it dead alongside the road.

    But the universe has an interesting way of balancing things out.

    Now it is GM and Chrysler that are road-kill and Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are juggernauts.

  • avatar

    Thanks, Chuck and Paul; you’re making me blush. And once again, Menno, you’ve said it well. No one would argue those old cars are “just as good” as yesterday’s classics or today’s advanced vehicles. But we can admire the pluck, cleverness and budget-stretching ingenuity of the Independents such as AMC and Studebaker. Last year I bought a ’60 Lark VIII in nice original condition (except for engine work and an inexpensive paint job). It’s a lot of fun, even if I do wish for A/C and power steering. It also reminds us of the advantages of upright seating positions and lots of headroom and window glass. God didn’t mean for passenger cars to slip under shadows like F1 racers.

    Those ’66-’68 era Ambassador sedans were nice, and surprisingly quick. Maybe a good survivor will turn up one of these days …

  • avatar

    If you love these I have one I have to give up. Beautiful machine, I just replaced all the brake lines and did a complete drum job and carb rebuild. It is in north texas near dallas and ft worth.

    [email protected]

  • avatar

    pretty good article to mention IKA cars, but author’s innocence lacks major details such as *’64+ Rambler American was all new unique compact unibody chassis sharing very few ancillary interchangeable parts -not even suspension parts, only engine, trans and a minor assortment of peripherals such as window crank arm, wiper blades? gas cap? Next of note is all too typical comment about Rambler 327 being dated when actually in real time context of comparison most of the US competition were all still using variations of their same mid fifties design V8 engines. -but the Rambler V8 was anywhere from 26 lbs. heavier (Chevy’s new 327 variation) to 124 lbs lighter (Ford, Chevy, Chrysler ‘big blocks’), hence it was not obsolete, but a competitive offering. Mentioning the last flathead made in ’63, avoids the mention of the first die cast aluminum US engine made by AMC in ’63. Lastly, apparently the person who said AMC engines are crummy must have overextended their vocabulary and used the word in an incorrect sentence when they really meant to say ‘superior’ AMC engines, also forgetting to mention those GM engines that failed the high standard of excellence miserably such as the ’62 Pontiac four cylinder, aluminum cylinder wall ’71 Chevy Vega four cylinder, but I’d put the mickey mouse Chevy 2.8 V6 on that list too.

  • avatar

    Thank you, amcramblermarlin, for trying to enlighten those who have spoken unkindly of the Rambler/AMC engines.

    I’ve driven the 327 and the 401. A LOT. I prefer the 327 with an automatic. I still have one. Back in the day, all one had to do was keep your foot on the brake, drop into second, wind that baby up, take your foot off the gas and blast off…leaving some poor soul in a Mopar/Ford/Chevy to ponder how he just got beat off the line by a GIRL driving her mother’s pink Rambler wagon.

  • avatar

    AMC has never gotten the credit it deserved. Their cars from the mid to late 60s were actually quite beautiful.

    I’d die for a Rogue convertible myself.

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