My affection for Ramblers is not so much a quirk; an affectation or a manifestation of a desire to ‘be different’ as it is an honest admiration for the ‘mavericks’ who designed; promoted; built and marketed those vehicles referred to as “the independents”. Cars like Packard; Studebaker; Nash; Kaiser-Fraser; Hudson and Willys all have contributed much to the development of the automobile. Innovations by these makers did much to improve the safety; styling; performance and drivability of the family auto. That they are no longer with us is not the result of any lack of ingenuity or quality, but rather, the result of economies of scale. The sheer size and volume capacity of Ford; General Motors; and Chrysler enabled these makers to simply out-produce; advertise and market their wares to the public.
This sheer size enabled them to foster the habit of the post-war buying public to respond to yearly sheet-metal changes rather than to technological improvement; to buy into “longer, lower, wider!” models enabling John Q. Public to soothe his ego with massive ‘”land yachts” larger than the one his neighbor had purchased the year before. Indeed, in the late fifties and early sixties, the “Big Three” produced some models so massively overbearing as to be in violation of motor vehicle maximum width standards in some states.
Quality is more than mass or size. The ‘independents’ were done in by their capital limitations, as they could not bear the expense of the tooling changes necessary to replace all of the dies in the presses stamping the body panels. The “Big Three”, who had been financed by Uncle Sam to churn out Jeeps; B-24 and B-17 bombers; tank transmissions and engines , etc., had a distinct advantage over the ‘independents’ simply because of their roles in contributing to “the arsenal of America”.
I will cite as an example my own Rambler. As a 1962 model, it was the only car on the market, other than Cadillac, to provide as standard equipment a “dual master cylinder” for the braking system. With a dual system, a failure or either the front or the rear brake hydraulic circuit would leave the other circuit, either front or back, to stop the car. The 98 per cent of vehicles with a ‘single’ master cylinder would lose all braking capacity if it failed. In fact, it was not until it was mandated by the federal government in 1968, that Ford or General Motors provided dual brake circuitry in all of their cars as standard equipment.
My Rambler has individually adjustable seat-backs for the front passengers, even though it is a “bench” seat. Not even the Cadillac provided such a feature, even with power seats.
These are but two cases in point, demonstrating that there is more to ‘quality’ than meets the eye. There is more, to the truly discerning buyer, to ‘appeal’ than another strip of chrome on another square yard of sheet metal.
And now, a short pictorial history of the Rambler. I hope it proves illustrative as to the argument that, however limited its’ capacity when compared to the “Big Three”, its’ contributions to automotive design; construction and performance were integral to the safety and convenience of the cars we purchase today.
The 1902 Rambler, introduced a year before the first Ford. (In 1901, he had introduced the concept of a steering wheel instead of a tiller, and of the engine in front of the driver, but was talked out of these concepts conceding that they might me “too radical”)
Fast forward to 1941. Nash, owned by Chas. Nash, who had left the presidency of General Motors to purchase Rambler, (renamed ‘Jeffrey’ after the death of Thomas Jeffrey) brought out the first ‘unit-body’ constructed car, The Nash 600. The body was integral with the frame. It was safer; rattle-free and lighter. The ‘600’ designation denoted the mileage range of its’ economical engine on a 20 gallon fuel tank.
Virtually all passenger cars today are of unit construction.
In 1949, Nash brought out the unit-bodied Nash Statesman and the longer eight cylinder Ambassador. Its’ inverted ‘bath-tub’ styling, like the ‘Step-Down’ Hudsons, were ahead of their time visually, and extremely roomy compared to the ‘Big Three’ offerings.
These cars performed well, both in the famous Pan-American races in Mexico, and on the NASCAR stock-car racing circuit.
1950. George Mason President of Nash, brought out an economical small car, and revived the ‘Rambler’ name. It would serve to accentuate his conviction that the public should have economy in an era when the ‘horsepower’ race was beginning, spurred by the overhead-valve Oldsmobile ‘Rocket 88 V-8 engine.
By 1952, Nash responded to a desire of the jaded buying public to restyle the ‘bath-tub’. He enlisted the Italian design house, Pininfarina, to square off the design and to introduce the visibility enhancing ‘C-pillar between the rear doors and the rear window. It added to style and minimized the drivers’ “blind-spots” to the rear. This ‘design cue’, or signature, would last through 1962.
The Nash-Healey. Introduced a few years earlier, well ahead of the Ford Thunderbird and the Chevrolet Corvette, used Pininfarina styling, a dual-carbureted Nash engine; and a suspension designed by Donald Healey, who designed the famous Austin Healey British sports cars.
By 1954, the small, 100-inch wheelbase Rambler had added this two-door ‘hardtop’ (no pillar between the front and rear side windows), to the sedan and wagon models. The Pininfarina styled pillar between the rear side glass and the rear window is again prominent.
By 1955, sales of the big Nashes were lagging. Sales of the Ramblers were up, and production increased. The styling and horsepower wars of the ‘Big Three’ had forced Nash-Kelvinator to merge with Hudson in 1954. The merger formed “American Motors”. While Hudson and Willys had introduced their own small cars to compete with the popular Rambler, these ‘Jet’ and ‘Aero’ models, respectively, did not compete, and in fact, depleted their capital and limited their efforts in bringing out new V-8 engines and yearly styling changes.
Hudsons were now rebodied Nashes. Unit-body construction, though safe and rattle-free, required extensive retooling, as the body and frame were one…..a “unit”. The Pininfarina pillar is evidence of the Nash unibody here. These cars were derisively referred to as “Hashes”. Sales plummeted, but the Rambler sales kept American Motors afloat.
By 1955, you could by the popular Rambler as either a model of a Nash or as a model of the Hudson. Only the emblems at the center of the hubcaps and some other badges on the body differed. The Hudson ‘Jet’ was gone.
The 1955 Nash moved the headlights into the grill. Sales of the big cars continued to fall.
1956. The big cars did not have sales to justify the extensive tooling costs that made their once innovative styling “passe” in the eyes of the public. Nash And Hudson were forced to try to keep alive by adding two and three-tone color schemes and outlandish chrome ornamentation.
(Actually I kind of like them)
In 1956, it was decided that the big Nash and Hudson models would be dropped, and that a 108-inch wheelbase car would replace them both.
It would be slightly larger than the small Rambler, and would be introduced as a “Rambler” . The Pininfarina styling is still evident.
1957 would be the last year for Nash and Hudson large cars. Smaller economy cars became the focus of American Motors. The new Rambler, for the next three years, would try to appeal to buyers of larger cars with the ‘Ambassador’ models, which was the 108 inch wheelbase new Rambler with about eight inches added to to the length of the car, between the windshield and the front fender wheel openings.
Introduced late in 1956, the new Rambler 108-inch wheelbase car was introduced with a splash, featuring gold-anodized trim and a new V-8 with 255 horsepower, which included an option for fuel injection. The major auto magazines tested it and confirmed that only the Corvette performed better in 0 to 60 mph acceleration tests. This media attention drove traffic into the showrooms, and sales increased,though almost all of the cars were equipped with the trusty 6-cylinder of 125 horsepower….essentially the same engine as in my ’62.
Smaller than the full-size Fords; Chevrolets and Plymouths; but with the same interior space with seating for six passengers, this is the car that carried American Motors forward through 1962. Rambler station wagons outsold almost all other makes of station wagons.
While the basic unibody sprouted some fins in 1958, the basic structure remained the same. This is a 1960 Ambassador, and illustrates the additional length and wheelbase between the windshield and the front wheels openings compared to the six-cylinder Ramblers.
By 1960, sales were sometimes doubling year to year. There was a recession in 1958,and Rambler was the only make of car to increase total sales for the year. In 1960, American Motors wrested the third-place spot for total sales from Plymouth. Only Ford and Chevrolet sold more cars than Rambler that year.
1961. The 1959-style headlights were gone, and the front end had a new look, although it still had fins. Sales continued to boom.
The popularity of this car, and of the smaller Rambler American, (a rebody of the original small 1950 to 1955 Rambler on the 100-inch wheelbase, was the reason for Ford and General Motors coming out , from 1959 through 1962 , with the Ford Falcon; the Chevrolet Corvair; the Dodge Lancer; and the Plymouth Valiant to compete with the Rambler American, and the Chevy II (Nova); Ford Fairlane; Mercury Meteor; Chevrolet
Chevelle and other so-called “mid-sized” cars to compete with the larger 108-inch wheelbase Rambler.
1962. The rear fins were gone. Standard equipment now included a dual master cylinder for the brakes. This is a fine example, though I like my Sonata Blue color better.
1963. So long, Pininfarina. Totally new styling. A new, longer wheelbase of 112 inches beneath an all-new unibody. I’ve owned one of these and the almost identical ’64. This development of this new design was George Romney’s last accomplishment at American Motors before he left to run for Governor of Michigan in 1962. With his departure, economy and sensibility became less a concern for corporate management.
The 1964 Rambler Classic. The 1963 model had been named ‘Motor Trend’ “Car of the Year”. Unfortunately, the management after Romney decided to take the challenge to the “Big Three”. The Rambler Classic would get bigger every year. They would re-introduce a longer wheelbase for the Ambassador. They would bring our the Javelin and the AMX to appeal to the Mustang crowd. They would, by 1969, even retire the ‘Rambler’ name. In an effort to appeal to performance and luxury and yearly styling changes, they sadly, and ultimately, lost sight of the original vision of George Mason and George Romney to provide sensible, economical and roomy cars to a buying public they felt knew better.
A harbinger of the decline…three wheelbases, with more to come. Continuous spending on new models; performance engines and racing programs led to both declines in quality and increases in pricing.
“Beep-Beep” had been replaced by “Hey, Javelin!!”
I’ll stick with my ’62 Classic Custom. I don’t have ‘historical’ plates on it because I drive it every day, not just to shows; cruise-ins or swap meets.
Why limit safety and convenience to just the weekends?