By on October 12, 2010

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.

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44 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1968 Rambler American...”

  • avatar

    Except for the small tail lights the top-hat on this car still looks clean and crisp.  The 2 door Matador fastback was a low point.  The concept of a large Pacer just wasn’t tastefully executed.

  • avatar

    Paul, this is a beauty. I never would’ve guessed the clue was anything other than a truck!

    The car featured appears to be in very good condition – the body, that is. If I’m not mistaken, the two door sedan version was the first U.S. car to have fixed rear side glass.

  • avatar

    Wow…what a find! A very nice overview of the car, and the company that made it.

    I think a big problem for AMC was that the relatively low-profit American was its steadiest seller in the 1960s. (Even then, its sales declined after peaking in 1964, although sales did spike a little at the end of its life cycle.)

    While the American was being hemmed in by the imports and the Dart/Valiant, the Classic/Rebel was getting absolutely clobbered by the Chevelle/Malibu, Fairlane and Belvedere/Satellite. The Classic/Rebel went from being AMC’s basic, volume car in the early 1960s to a sideshow by 1970.

    Car and Driver tested a 1964 American hardtop and pretty much ripped it a new one for its clumsy handling. They did say that it was one of the best-looking compacts, and I would have to agree. In their words, if the chassis and steering had been as good as the styling, AMC would have had a surefire winner.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    My dad was a Rambler man, having owned 5 different models (2 Americans, an Ambassador, a Hornet and a Concorde) which served him well from ’62 through the mid-eighties….I’ll always have a soft spot for ’em…particularly the Hornet Wagon, which IMHO was a vehicle DECADES ahead of its time.  The prototype for the current “crossover” craze….park an Hornet next to an Edge, a Lexus, etc. and see the same shape, rough size….

    AMC’s designers were 3 decades ahead of everyone else….maybe their engineers weren’t, but the designers were.

    • 0 avatar

      Good call on the Hornet wagon, I always liked them.  Not too big, nice clean lines.  I always thought the sedan looked awkward, but somehow they got the wagon right.

  • avatar

    Is the arrow on the hood of the SC/Rambler present to instruct the owner that’s where the air enters the engine and to not impede its entrance?
    The old man bought a Rambler American from that era. A used car that needed some work but he just let it sit next to the driveway until the constant cackling from mom led to his selling the critter.
    A shame since I thought the conveyance conveyed a certain panache and was a degree or two cooler than the 1965 Bug with the metal roof rack atop its rounded roof.

  • avatar

    I love these things for a couple of reasons.  As a young kid our family had two, one exactly like this CC and a blue ’65.  I remember Dad hauling vast loads of rocks in the trunk, and Mom telling us to wear our seatbelts on the Interstate. 
    Very reliable cars, especially compared to the Vega that came next.  A highschool friend had one as well, the nose heavy handling was not enhanced with a jacked up rear end with G60-14 tires.  Good times, that.
    What they did do very well was rust, the unit construction rocker panels and rear quarters would explode with rust after a few years, and they were tough to repair properly.

    I still think these are handsome cars though, there seems to be a lot of green and brown 4-door survivors.  Grandpa rarely seemed to order a black 2 door hardtop with red interior, and a 4 speed with the 290V8.  Ramber American is still on my list of “Mostly worthless classics I’d like to own someday.”

    • 0 avatar

      …black 2 door hardtop with red interior

      THE ugliest color scheme combo ever hatched on the potential car buyer. I don’t care what car it was available in – they were all ugly! You just shouldn’t do it. We had a term for a car so equipped back in the day which I will not repeat here, but it was a very predjudiced phrase. That’s why the gray interior color was invented.

  • avatar

    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.

    While you probably already know this, the trend started earlier than this paragraph would indicate.  In 1962 George Romney left AMC to run for Governor of Michigan.  In his stead he left Roy Abernathy as company president, who almost immediately set AMC on this course.

    Of course, with hindsight we can say that Abernathy was a damned fool to have AMC stray from its course of sensible compacts, but of course the pressures would have been immense in the milieu of the times.  Think the 2010 Toyotal Tacoma X-Runner RTR for a modern day reference point.

    • 0 avatar

      You hit the nail on the head regarding Abernathy’s impact on AMCs future.  He was a big man and didn’t like compact cars.
      The Marlin began life as the Tarpon concept car and was based on the American chassis.  Abernathy wouldn’t OK the project for production unless they moved it to the Classic platform which turned it into the ungainly, awkward car that we all know and love.

      We will never know, of course, if AMC could have survived by continuing to follow Romney’s vision, but we certainly know what happened when they strayed from it.

    • 0 avatar

      A big reason that AMC built the Marlin instead of the Tarpon was that, in 1964-65, it didn’t have a V-8 that would fit in the American. Abernethy felt that this would doom an American-based Tarpon, and he was probably right. AMC didn’t have a modern, thinwall V-8 that would fit under the American’s hood until the 1966 model year.

      So, in some respects, the company was between a rock and a hard place. Releasing a Tarpon based on the American without a V-8 would have doomed the car, but, as we all know, moving it to the Classic platform didn’t work.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll never understand why the Marlin or the Tarpon weren’t named Motor Trends Carp of the Year.

  • avatar

    Their stuck-in-a-rut decline, to me, is a mini version of GM’s. Love the reflection of the dumpster in the interior pic, so fitting! AMC did, however produce great engines, both 6 & V8

  • avatar

    It’s somewhat ironic that AMC eventually became owned by Renault, causing people around here to call it “Franco-American Motors”.

    While some AMC cars looked pretty nice, the generally incompetent persona of the rest of the car relegated them to niche status.

    AMC was also known as the Rodney Dangerfield of the car buisness: They don’t get no respect.


    • 0 avatar

      What’s really ironic is that Renault assembled Ramblers in Europe for the Benelux countries back in the 60’s.
      Also, IIRC, the old 232 & 258 sixes came with seven main bearings. Not a rocket, but very durable.

  • avatar

     My Aunt once bought a near-new mid-seventies Hornet and after a close inspection of the car, I wondered about the point of assembling a car from other manufacturer’s parts. Major components were from Chryco, GM’s Delco and Saginaw and others. If not for the 232 six, the body may have been the only AMC part. The instrument cluster was vitually unchanged from the CC pictured, and the “WeatherEye” logo on the heater control sounded awesome but didn’t seem to offer anything out of the ordinary.

    • 0 avatar

      The original WeatherEye heating and ventilation system developed by Nash before World War II WAS a big deal. It was the first really modern automotive heating and ventilation system, and set the pattern for all subsequent automotive systems. 

      If I recall correctly, Nash was also a leader in the effort to locate all of the components of automotive air conditioning systems under the hood (with early automotive air conditioners, the components were located in both the trunk and the engine compartment). I also seem to recall that, during the 1950s and 1960s, Ramblers had an unusually high rate of air conditioning installations for a low-price car.

  • avatar
    SOF in training

    1967 – Dad and I went out car shopping, as the MG Magnette (Varitone) was due for replacement.  I had a soft spot for AMC (as a teenageer? whodathunk?) and so talked Dad into checking out the American.  Exterior may be pleasant, but it and the interior screamed “Basic Transportation!”  However, the main NON selling point was that the brake pedal was about a foot above the throttle.  The reach was absurd and unsafe. 

    We ended up with a ’66 Valiant 200… for the next 20 years.

  • avatar

    A mechanic at a repair shop I worked in years ago admonished against selling new rear shocks for Ramblers. “The whole rear axle falls off when you pulls the old ones!”

  • avatar

    Nice finding Paul,
    Actually it almost drew a tear…
    It was the very first car I drove when a teenager, my Dad bought one in 1968, sky blue, 2 door (yes it had fixed rear windows…) 3 Speed MT,it was made in mexico by VAM (Vehiculos Automotores Mexicanos) AMC’s branch in Mexico, the original engine was the 232, when the oil crisis arrived (one of many in Mexico) he bought a Renault 12 TS, by that time his options were, to let me drive the TS or the Rambler, so I learned to drive on the 3 speed on the column.
    That car stayed with us as the “Spare Car” until probably 1993, always started without problem till the last day it stood on the garage.
    I did overhaul it twice, on one we used the parts of his bigger sister, the 258, and it worked much better, and changed the Carter Carburator for a Holley.
    It had a very curious and difficult to repair front end suspension, used a Trunnion which was a PIA to repair. Also it was very prone to let you stranded if you drove over water filled streets, due to the lower position of the distribuitor.
    But it handled decently, another teaching of that car was that the engine oil and transmission oil was not the same… I was 16 and thought that it was leaking engine oil therefore ruined the 3 sp because of a seal leak, however with help from my friends we adapted a Javelin 4 Speed on the floor lever transmission from a totalled car.
    Noble car without a doubt.

    Btw the one made by AMC/Renault was the Alliance in 1984-86

  • avatar

    You’ve made me very nostalgic for my 68 Rambler American, which I had as recently as 2006 (here’s a picture
    It was a a great car, but not particularly suited to being a daily driver, which it was for me. So I went and got a boring modern car. And that Rambler remains the largest eBay purchase I’ve ever made.

  • avatar

    I always wanted to turn one of these into a super-sleeper with a small-block Chevy under the hood, leaving everything in sight as original as possible.

    I would disagree about the Pacer being a disaster, sure, it wasn’t built very well, but it did have a lot of advanced features (cab-forward, doors that extend into the roof, reverse-opening hood, longer passenger-side door, etc) that were copied by other automakers decades later.  Sales of the Pacer were brisk for the first two years, selling almost 150K the first year – hardly what I would consider a failure.

  • avatar

    A friend’s grandmother had a light green 69.  A stripper (the car, not the grandmother) with the small six and a 3 speed column shifter.  When his grandmother died in the mid 70s, my buddy’s older brother got the Rambler.  They were made for each other.

    The new owner was a very frugal and conservative fellow.  He figured out how fast he had to be going when he turned the last corner to his house.  He would shut the car off and coast down the street, into the driveway and into the open garage.  If he misjudged and didn’t make it, he would get out and push the car rather than starting it back up.  My friend swore that his brother eked 40 mpg out of the thing.

    To this day, this is the kind of person I associate with a Rambler American.  This was a perfect example of a car and a driver being made for each other.

    • 0 avatar

      “A stripper (the car, not the grandmother)”

      Heh – I laughed out loud, for real. Maybe there should be LOLFR as a replacement for the original, which has now replaced the period for tween girls (the punctuation, not the bodily function)?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    One of the beautiful things about these cars is that if you get your hands on a basic 6cyl model it’s not that hard (relatively speaking) to drop a Jeep 4.0 I6 and matching transmission into it.  Old style, modern fuel injected reliable power plant.  Great combo.  I’ve seen at least one Rambler convertible for sale online that this had been done to.  Even gave it the modern 4-speed auto.

  • avatar

    Here is a rambler I wouldn’t mind owning.

  • avatar

    Great Find ! Ramblers, Novas, Valiants, Falcons and thier ilk were the Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas of thier day. Cheap, reliable and very unfussy in thier demands. They were never more than transportation appliances, unless you consider a few odd balls like L-79 Novas or SC/Ramblers, but they filled a large need and kept a lot of North American factories working.
     For some odd reason these types of cars do seem to be enjoying a resurgence with young people today. I have seen several 60s compacts running around with $3000.00 stereos in them driven by kids not old enough to vote. Weird, but kinda cool. When I was 17 a car like this would have been a source of acute embarrasment.
     There was an SC/Rambler in my hometown and most of us found out the hard way that not all Ramblers were granny cars. I wonder where it is now?

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree about some young people and their fascination with the old compact cars. Its’s something of a trend that I’ve noticed, too. My 20 year old kid loves old Ford Falcons, and my 17 year old kid likes the old CJ series Jeeps. I have no idea how they got interested in them. Of course, if they really had to live with one, I think they may have a change of heart…

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Some times you have to “live the dream” to convince yourself that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  If you’re lucky you make some good memories while you do it.

  • avatar
    Jerry Sutherland

    Here’s a 67 that the owner was smart enough to buy brand new and keep for life-he reported that this little beast ambushed many a big block in its day.

  • avatar

    There were not 5,000 SC/Ramblers — the grand total was only 1,512. That was more than AMC originally planned, but some dealers apparently had trouble selling even that many, as it was pretty far removed from the tastes of the typical Rambler buyer.

  • avatar

    That yellow two-door hardtop is beautiful.

  • avatar

    This could be my grandmother’s car, actually. I remember it, same model, same color, though with the standard “3 on a tree” transmission, sitting silently in the garage in her little house in Oklahoma for years. I got to drive it once before my grandmother died.

  • avatar

    Damn, I was sure you were hinting against a French station wagon (= Break). I’m sure I never saw a Rambler around here.

  • avatar

    AMC actually had some great engineers, but with very little money you can only do so much. The 232/358 straight six was an excellent motor, smooth running and very reliable, and eventually became the modern fuel injected 4.0 used in jeeps until a few years ago.
    The family of V8’s brought out in 67 were also good running, smooth engines, which consisted of the 290, 304, 343, 360, 390 and 401.
    Those were good engines, with good performance potential. AMC had a good lineup of performance parts for those engines in the late 60’s and early 70’s, called “group 19 performance parts.”
    The list of parts was impressive, and included different edelbrock manifolds, carbs, high performance ignition systems, steel cranks for the smaller engines, headers, rear gears as steep as 4.30, and a bunch of other stuff.
    AMC”S have been gaining in popularity over the past few years, and a few AMX’S and S/C ramblers have recently sold for as high as 60k.
    Parts at swap meets have also been on the rise pricewise, there was a time when you could get AMC parts for free, not anymore.
    About 3-4 years ago edelbrock introduced a couple of sets of heads for AMC V8’S and recently introduced an intake manifold designed for fuel injection for those engines.

    • 0 avatar

      The 232 had a decent fuel economy for that era, the only sin of that engine I can recall are the Hydraulic valve lifters, they became noisy after a few thousand miles, even with good quality oil they sounded at 20k or 30K Kms…
      Other than that good powerplant.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Paul, my sense was that a properly optioned Hornet, circa 1973, had reasonably balanced handling, braking and performance compared to the other American compacts of that era.  To my eyes AMC’s high-water mark was the Hornet X hatchback.
    You make an important point about the homogenization of the auto industry.  Once upon a time, if Detroit didn’t get it right you could expect that the Germans or the Japanese would.  Not anymore.  This has resulted in a weird irony:  American consumers may have more choices of brands than 40 years ago but the diversity of auto design is much more constricted.  For example, I find it amazing that I can’t buy a new subcompact truck in the US.
    Brock Yates famously stated that the Big Three suffered from “Grosse Point myopia.”  That myopia is in key respects still with us — and has now infected most of the imports.

    • 0 avatar

      My cousin who was a pilot for Lufthansa would only rent AMC’s back in the 70’s when he was in the States. Back then it was unheard of to have a ‘furrin’ car in Avis’ rental lot. And he said that the AMCs handled the best.
      When he came over for his honeymoon (1977), he bought a used Gremlin to drive across the country with his new wife. He drove from Cleveland to the Grand Canyon and points west. When it was time for them to go home, he came back to our house in Ohio and sold the car to a local guy and took home a few extra dollars, too.
      My cousin’s endorsement of AMC’s changed my mind about them entirely.

  • avatar

    The reason this car and others similar to it are popular with today’s young drivers is because they represent an honest vehicle without magical mysterious elements within them. An owner can know and understand every part of these cars. An owner can see how these cars operate and understand how each part works together.

    Their design is simple to understand. Their styling is based on proportions, balance and function. They are simple machines and younger people are appreciating their simple beauty.

    There is a market for simple machines that have honest unpretentious designs. Honda killed the market during the 1970s and into the 1980s by “We keep it simple”, meaning that they offered vehicles that you could wrap your head and lifestyle around. Honda sold simplicity at a time in our cultural history when foundational beliefs were cracking and the horrific uncertainties of the Carter Administration seemed to offer no solutions to 20% inflation and Islamic hostages held for 444 days, and Carter’s Malaise Speech. Honda, Toyota and Datsun/Nissan offered vehicles that freed their owners from the confusion around us by offering honest, understandable vehicles at a time when so much was out of control.

    What we buy reflects how we view ourselves within our world. By the late 1980s and through the 1990s, this quest for understandable simplicity within our daily drivers was reflected through the SUV boom. SUVs offered escape. They offered freedom, independance, nature, forests, scenic beauty, and durability. As with these simple 1960s era compact cars, SUVs were simply trucks with comfy options. Buyers understood and also appreciated that simplicity. As they lost that simplicity, this market started losing those buyers. Yeah – SUVs became profitable, but they “jumped the shark” with their original buyers when we started seeing Navigators, Escalades, Lexuses, and luxury SUVs.

    Simplicity and understandability are all qualities many car buyers still seek today.

    There is a market for a new honest simple machines. While the Fiesta is awesome, the Prius is popular, and the Leaf is set for “green”, these vehicles do not satisfy what many car buyers seek out with their vehicles.  Seniors may be impressed with robotic electric cars that paint pretty digital pictures across their IPs and interpret these vehicles as progress, many car buyers struggling to meet their daily budget want a high quality box that is simple to understand, maintain, get from point A to point B with.

    Remember, cars are not as big a deal as they were for us older drivers. They are disposable. A lot of potential muscle-car drivers of the 1960s, (today’s younger drivers), are not into cars the same way as we were.

    Scion totally blew it when they scrapped the old xB. That was a killer ap they could have raked in the dough with. 

  • avatar

    Too bad AMC didn’t have funds to invest in the suspension, ‘cuz the American was one fine-looking compact.  AAMOF, looks-wise, I think AMCs from 1964-69 were just about peerless.  There was a cleanliness and purity in their styling, and the American was a great example of these two qualities.  I wonder what a 64-67 American convertible goes for on the classic car circuit?  I’d love one, or a Chevy Corvair ragtop from the same time period.
    Most people think of AMCs misfires like the Matadors, Pacers and baroque Concords.  A shame, really.

  • avatar

    This car could almost fit in today. Heck throw in a modern day steering wheel, flush mounted headlights, blue tooth and MP3 player, fuel injection, A/C and bucket seats and wham. The plain austere trimless exterior combined with the austere colorless interior made this a car of the future that was available in 1968. This is my thoery on why this car is suddenly more popular today. The one problem is that car manufacturers didn’t need to install 500 air bags, ABS and other hazard saving nannies so these cars in the 60’s and 70’s were both lighter and far more spacious than most of todays junk. Sitting in the back seat of one of these compact Ramblers reveals more legroom and headroom than most of todays so called full size sedans!

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