|By Allen Walrath
When George Romney departed American Motors in February
of 1962 to
enter the Michigan gubernatorial race, he left a company that had been
transformed from what it was in 1954, when he became its second
president. At that time, the company was struggling under the weight of
declining sales of big Hudsons and Nashes.
Romney reasoned that for the company to survive, it would
provide something that car buyers couldn’t get anywhere else. American
Motors had such a car, the Rambler.
The redesigned 1956 model was finding increased public
It wasn’t all that small (only six inches shorter than the 1956 Chevy),
but it would retain its dimensions for years to come. The competition’s
products, on the other hand, would gain considerable weight, bulk and
A sizable group of car buyers was becoming ever more
with the trend toward ever larger cars, and a lot of them were seeking
relief with a Rambler.
Romney himself believed fervently in the compact car, and
discontinued the Nash and Hudson nameplates at the end of the 1957
model year to concentrate all of AMC’s efforts on the Rambler.
At about the same time, the country was in a deep
which sales of nearly all 1958 cars plummeted. But it was a different
situation for American Molors, where Rambler sales began to soar.
By the close of the model year, American Motors had sold
twice as many Ramblers as it had in 1957, and had made a decent profit
doing it. The story was repeated for 1959—another doubling of sales and
more than decent profits—amazing all observers.
For three of the next four years, the company sold in
400,000 units annually, despite direct competition from the Big Three
in 1960 with the Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair and Plymouth Valiant,
and a continuing proliferation of compacts in succeeding years.
AMC’s success story was attributable to having the right
the right time (in 1958). From there, success built on success.
Then there’s the matter of image. Rambler was perceived
economical, practical, commonsense sort of car even before its sales
took off. It continued to find buyers and make friends for those
But care buyers are fickle; their tastes change, they
buy lots of compact cars but they didn’t necessarily want them to be
too practical. There was an increasing demand for small cars that were
Manufacturers responded with coupes, hardtops and
most of them equipped with bucket seats and, by 1963, smaller, lighter
V8 engines, if desired.
You could buy a Ramblet convertible by 1961, but it was
years before the hardtop arrived. And AMC did not supply a lightweight
V8 in any of its cars.
Roy Abernethy became president of American Motors in
1962, as the first totally new Rambler since 1956 was being readied for
production as a 1963 model.
The new Ramblers (Classics and Ambassadors) represented a
improvement over their predecessors in many ways, most obviously in
styling. The dimensions, except for height, were basically the same,
but the cars looked slicker.
Responding to a resurgence in V8 demand, Abernethy saw to
it that a
287 cubic inch version of the Rambler V8 was developed as an option for
the Classic, several months after the model year began.
The 1963 Ramblers would prove to be the most popular cars
ever produce. Production for the model year came to more than 464,000
units. The company posted a profit for the fiscal year of $37.8
million, a figure that was bettered only in 1959 and 1973.
The decline began in 1964. Although a redesigned American
enjoyed a big increase in sales, the rest of the line suffered.
The new Americans shared many body panels with Classics
Ambassadors, in an effort to reduce production costs begun under
Romney. It was also his intent to see a long production life for the
It was not to be, however, as Abemethy, who favored big
scheduled a major face-lift for the 1965 Classics and Ambassadors.
Virtually all external body panels were redone on
Classics, both lines got convertibles, and the Ambassador was
distinguished from the Classic by means of a four inch longer wheelbase
and its own sheet metal forward of the windshield.
In midyear, the Marlin was introduced. Basically a
version of the Classic, with an interior upgraded to luxury levels of
the Ambassador 990, the Marlin was to be limited to annual production
of 40,000 units.
Intended to attract youth-oriented if not youthful
buyers, it found
few of either, selling less than a third of its projected volume.
Overall, the sales performance of the 1965 Ramblers was a
disappointment. In the industry’s best year yet, Rambler sales were 17
percent below the year-earlier figure, while the total for all U.S.
makes was up 15 percent. One glimmer of hope was that Ambassadors
proved more than three times as popular as their 1964 counterparts.
AMC wasn’t shedding the old Rambler image and it was now
to hurt. Younger buyers wanted cars with sporty styling and the aura of
performance, even if they didn’t always order them with the most
powerful V8s available.
Buyers of intermediate cars didn’t mind if their
Chevelles or Belvederes could be mistaken for GTOs, SS 396s or
The Classic, Marlin or Ambassador buyer could affect no
illusion because 327 cubic inches and 270 horsepower—unchanged since
1958—were the most you could get in a Rambler. And, because the weighty
Rambler V8 would have severely upset its balance, the American was
available with nothing bigger than the 232 CID six.
By 1965, the company was in the midst of addressing the
shortcomings in its products in a major, and costly way.
Well under development was a new V8 that would be light
install in the American and in a pair of sporty cars that were planned
for 1968. Initially available in small-block displacements of 290 and
343 cubic inches, the versatile second generation AMC V8 would
eventually be expanded to 401 CID.
The company in 1966 prepared several concept cars and
sent them on
tour to auto shows around the country. Their mission was to show the
public what AMC was capable of, and to suggest where it was headed.
The AMX show car turned out to be quite predictive of the
production AMX, while elements of the Javelin and Hornet were found in
American Motors was gambling heavily on its future. As
Molor Trend magazine, the tab for getting the new V8 into production
was “$40 million or thereabouts.” Another $35 million, they estimated,
was being spent to tool up for all-new 1967 Rebels, Marlins and
Ambassadors. Those 1967 models would be the most heavily changed in the
history of AMC.
There were those inside American Motors who are said
to have had
misgivings about the restyling, characterizing it as too derivative.
In a May 1966 article, “Whither AMC?” Motor Trend
styling as “a modification of the GM-authored, hump-hipped design.” The
story further suggested that AMC should seek a niche of its own in the
marketplace rather than compete head-on with the Big Three, and
concluded, “Whatever the right path, AMC is going the compromise route
on styling.” The restyling and re-engineering costs for the 1967 models
were a big burden for AMC to bear—one that would be difficult to find
the funds to repeat should the public find the new look not to its
liking. For that reason, taking the conservative route was justifiable.
Cost considerations necessitated using one set of body
both the Ambassador and the Rebel, the Classic’s replacement.
Wheelbases and overall lengths for both were up two inches from 1966,
with the Ambassador at 118 inches, maintaining its four-inch lead over
While there was no hiding the fact that both lines shared
body shell, the stylists went in different directions with those panels
that weren’t shared, virtually all forward of the windshield.
Ambassadors continued with vertically placed headlights
grille reminiscent of earlier Lincolns, all of which were suggestive
of the luxury image AMC was trying to convey.
On the other hand, sportiness was evident in the Rebel’s
rectangular grille and horizontally placed headlights. Die-cast rear
quarter extensions and the lenses they housed were the major appearance
differences between the two series at the rear. Slyling and location of
side and rear moldings were other devices used to distinguish the two
In view of its low sales in 1965, and specially in 1966,
surprising that the Marlin would be continued. Although it bore a
strong resemblance to the earlier Marlins, there weren’t any shared
The Marlin shared front-end sheet metal with the
used the floor pan, cowl, windshield and doors that were common to
Rebels and Ambassadors. All of the other body parts were unique to the
One has to wonder if the extra millions of tooling
for the new Marlin would have been allocated if management had been
able to foresee the lack of success that befell the first-generation
The Marlin’s longer hood, more sharply raked windshield
altered roof line all combined to give it much improved aesthetics. It,
as well as the Rebel and Ambassador, would benefit from numerous
mechanical improvements in addition to the new V8s.
The most important engineering change was at the rear
the archaic Torque Tube drive line gave way to an open-air drive line,
with a four-link suspension setup similar to that found on some GM and
Other changes included a collapsible steering column with
steering wheel positioned (at long last!) a more comfortable distance
from the driver; retractable or auto-lock seat belts and the option of
a dealer-installed shoulder belt, even for convertibles; increased body
width and expanded interior width; a convertible top redesigned to
intrude less on rear seat width, allowing true three-passenger rear
seating; greatly expanded cargo capacity in station wagons via longer,
lower and wider cargo decks; and numerous other revisions in equipment,
upholstery, options and accessories.
Aberethy told dealers that the 1967s “represent the
we have made in a single year.” Of course, not every model was
extensively changed; the resources available wouldn’t allow it.
Thus the American had to make do with modest revisions to
grille, taillights, moldings and interior trim. Later in the model
year, an important option for the American was announced: the 280
horsepower 343 CID V8. It was perhaps the hottest Rambler yet and a
preview of things to come.
The company gave the new models a rousing sendoff with
called “the bigger introduction period campaign in the history of the
company.” Print advertising led off with a full-color announcement-day
newspaper ad in many markets, followed by 6-page ads in Life and Look.
Television advertising was highlighted by full
sponsorship of a Jim
Nabors special, plus spot advertising on the 23 top-rated shows.
American Motors set a quota of 110,000 retail sales in
introduction quarter, 375,000 for the model year. They missed both
marks by a county mile.
Sales in the first three months of the model year totaled
some of which were leftover 1966 models. That left dealers with more
than 65 days worth’ of inventory.
Clearly, Abernethy’s plan of meeting the Big Three
for model, was not the way to go. In the five years of his tenure as
president, the company had gone from a profitable operation to a losing
one. At the end of the 1967 fiscal year, AMC would post a loss of more
than $68 million, by far its worst performance to date.
By then, the man who had been at the controls was gone.
Roy Chapin Jr., son of the president of Hudson Motor Co.,
over. One of his first moves was to slash the prices of the Americans,
strengthening that line’s position as an import fighter.
Sales of the American almost immediately made a healthy
Chapin dropped the company’s ad agency, Benton & Bowles, for Wells,
Rich and Greene, the brash upstarts who would create some memorable
In fact, it was Mary Wells who suggested that air
made standard equipment on the 1968 Ambassador, reinforcing the notion
that it was an affordable luxury car.
New products that were on the way, such as the Javelin
would compete on their own terms in their particular corner of the
market. And so too would the Ambassador and Rebel, once their roles
became more clearly defined. Eventually, the Rebel and Ambassador would
acquit themselves well against their competition, and they would remain
as important players in the AMC lineup. That scenario would probably
not have come to pass had the cars been merely “good enough” in 1967.
It is likely that the new Rebels, Marlins and Ambassadors
to be found at AMC dealers 25 years ago made little more than limited
headway in changing the public perception of the company’s role in the
Even the introduction of the high-performance models such
Javelin, AMX, SC/Rambler and Rebel Machine—and their success in
competition—could not obliterate the “Rambler Six” image from the
As proof, consider what happened during the energy crisis
of 1973-74, and again on a lesser scale in 1979.
Both times, buyers turned away from the Big Three to look
for cars that would give them economy. And in both instances, AMC
became an oasis of prosperity in a desert of gloom.
Such was the strength of an image.