For a make that hasn't been around for almost 40 years, Ramblers get their share of cultural "hits." Here's a partial list:
Kenny Chesney's song "How Forever Feels."
The aliens from the "Third Rock from the Sun" TV series sit in a 1962 Rambler American.
Comic Louie Anderson talks about his dad's Rambler.
"The Sopranos" and "Prison Break" episodes feature the make.
"Fred" in the movie "Cars" is a Rambler.
What's behind this cultural phenomenon? Here's a plausible answer:
Ramblers were cute, efficient and affordable, and lots of people have a
version of America's first compact car tucked somewhere in their family
history. After all, the Rambler line, named Motor Trend's 1963 "Car of
the Year," was number three in U.S. new-car sales in the 1960s behind
Chevy and Ford.
To do Rambler justice, we must start at the beginning - in 1902.
That's when bicycle-maker Thomas Jeffery made his first Rambler in
Kenosha, Wis., where most later Ramblers were made, too. With 1,500
cars produced in 1902, Jeffery's company was the second biggest car
company in America after Oldsmobile. The first Rambler pioneered the
spare tire and sold reasonably well, but the name was dropped in 1914.
Nash-Kelvinator, successor to the business that acquired Jeffery's
company, resurrected the Rambler name in 1950 on a two-door Nash sedan
with a convertible top and enclosed front wheels. (This wheel placement
limited vehicle turning radius. Despite this, the design lasted until
American Motors Corporation (AMC), formed when Nash-Kelvinator and
Hudson merged, brought out the 1955 Ramblers.)
By 1958, with the Nash and Hudson names gone, all AMC cars were
Ramblers except for its small Metropolitans (1958-62). AMC President
George Romney's gamble to go with the Rambler name and stick mostly to
small cars on one platform worked. But competition and the choice by
Romney's successor to try to make AMC a full-line carmaker led to
Rambler's and the company's eventual demise. The Rambler name started
disappearing in 1966 and was gone after 1969.
But Rambler left a legacy. The main models were the Ambassador
(basically a stretched mid-size), the Classic, the American compact and
the Cross Country wagon.
AMC dropped two-door Ramblers in 1956. When the new American
two-door came out in 1958, it still contained some dated technology.
The model sold decently, however, because it was inexpensive and got
good mileage. The American's underpinnings didn't receive a major
update until 1964, though it was good enough to form the basis for such
later AMC cars as Javelin, Hornet and Gremlin.
In 1966, some Rambler Americans had the model's first V-8 engine,
but the Rambler name, identified with "compact" in many consumers'
minds, began its fade because it didn't fit in AMC's multi-brand plans.
First dropped from other lines, the '69 American, now known only as a
"Rambler," was the last model, if you don't count Mexican-made models
made until 1983 - and a muscle car.
Never known for power or speed, Rambler dipped a few toes in the
muscle-car pond. A special '57 Rambler Rebel was faster than any
American-made car save the Corvette. Rambler also tried to ride the
original Ford Mustang's wave with the Marlin (1965-7) and the Rogue, an
American with a 290 cubic-inch engine. Neither model sold well,
however. The striking fastback roof of the '65-'66 Marlins was very
un-Rambler like, but they lacked power. (Some collectors prize Marlins,
partly because less than 18,000 were made.)
Another "un-Rambler" car, the limited-production 1969 Hurst
SC/Rambler (1,512 models), could also lay claim to being the last
Rambler. It had a hood scoop and a 390 cubic-inch V-8 but, to keep
weight down, no AC or power steering.
Never powerful or cutting-edge, Ramblers carved their niche with
practicality and boxy good looks. That was good enough for some,
including some aliens, country singers, scriptwriters and comedians'
AMC Rambler Car Club website (www.amcrc.com
"AMC Cars: 1954-87, An Illustrated History" (Patrick Foster, Motorbooks
International, 2004); and "The Standard Catalog of American Cars,
1946-1975" (John Gunnell, ed., Kraus Publications, 1987).