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1965 American Motors Rambler Classic 770 V8  

What Might Have Been

Republished courtesy of Autoweek
AutoWeek | Published 12/27/06, 4:40 pm et  

The 1963 Ramblers were designed for a decade of production—or at least more than a few model years—at a time when frantic change still drove product planning in Detroit. American Motors CEO George Romney cited (in a 1989 interview, years after he had left AM) no less lofty a role model than Mercedes-Benz, which, in the 1960s, exemplified engineering excellence wrapped in conservative, predictable styling. That admiration may have been mutual, as the new-for-1966 300 SEL duplicated, within an inch, most key dimensions of the 1965 Rambler Classic. Even if that was a coincidence, it was a tribute.

But Roy Abernethy, who had succeeded Romney in ’62, saw a very different future for American Motors. With the Big Three building compacts, he reckoned, AM could only survive by counter-invading Detroit’s territory with bigger, flashier chariots of its own. A steady decline in Rambler sales in 1964-66 seemed to support his point of view. Short-term, Abernethy would try to make the existing Ramblers look bigger, while developing new and more nearly Detroit-sized products for 1967.

1965 was a key year in this transition. The flagship Ambassador received the most attention, with its longer, 116-inch wheelbase and new vertically stacked headlamps. But the 112-inch Classic very nearly replicated the Ambassador from the cowl back, where it shared most of the Ambassador’s new outer skin.

The ’65 Classic did indeed look like more car than the slimmer 1963-64 models, while retaining their sophisticated curved side glass and pioneering “uniside” construction. Running gear remained unchanged as well, with torque-tube drive and load-bearing upper front A-arms, as favored by AM parent Nash since 1952. Front disc brakes were now available—ahead of most of the competition—and all AM products switched to low-profile tires.

Engine choices for the ’65 Classic started with a 199-cid, 128-hp six derived from the new Typhoon 232 released in ’64. But our featured ’65 packs the top-performing 327-cid, 270-hp (SAE gross) V8, driving an optional Twin-Grip differential through a three-speed Flash-O-Matic tranny. AM collector Sam Gingrich is the car’s second owner, having acquired it in 2002 with only 14,000 miles on the clock.

The front bucket seats lack contour, but they are at least firm and recline to seven positions. The floor-mounted gear selector moves with satisfying smoothness, and the very quiet V8 slings about 3200 pounds of Rambler up to 50 mph with equally satisfying if hardly thrilling swiftness. The suspension is tuned to the soft end of the spectrum, so despite light and linear (if numb) power steering, a combination of body roll and understeer discourages fast cornering. The brakes are effective but touchy. The Rambler lacks refinement, but its competitors weren’t much better.

And, in more subtle ways, the ’65 Classic is outstanding. Entry and exit are easy and, except for width, interior dimensions compare favorably with those of a full-size car. The interior decor,with generous but not excessive brightwork of exceptional quality, looks both handsome and cheery, while exuding a richness unmatched in even a contemporary Skylark or Cutlass.

We can’t think of another U.S. marque that offered a bucket-seat four-door priced near this Rambler’s sticker of $3,480.

Six-cylinder models equipped with Twin-Stick overdrive cost hundreds less and delivered better-than-average fuel economy. Isn’t this exactly the car that U.S. consumers were looking for in 1975, when they so eagerly embraced the bland-driving but beautifully appointed Honda Accord?

Could AM have hung on and avoided the catastrophically costly retooling for 1967 and faced the ’70s with a further evolution of the 1963 range—instead of with the laughably tacky Hornet and Gremlin? “What if?” is always an easy question to ask, but it’s all but impossible to answer.