Clever innovation from the smaller American automakers.
With pockets much less deep than those of the US ‘Big Three’ automakers, independent American manufacturers needed to be clever and creative to come up with new cars in response to an expanding market as the 1960s dawned. Studebaker’s solution was to use the mid-section of its existing full-size sedan that dated back to 1953 as a base, while American Motors resurrected a model, albeit with several updates applied to it, that it had discontinued years earlier.
One notable advantage of this forced strategy was that it enabled both companies to beat GM, Ford and Chrysler (all of whom were developing compacts that were all-new from the ground up) to the punch with the introduction of what were, at least by US standards, compact cars. The Studebaker Lark and AMC Rambler American had the compact field more or less to themselves for a couple of seasons, but one of them would soon run out of steam, sales-wise after the Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, Plymouth Valiant and others appeared.
By the end of the fifties, the rise in popularity of foreign small cars in America was impossible to ignore: led by the Volkswagen Beetle, other manufacturers such as Fiat, Simca, Volvo and Renault were making their presence felt in the marketplace. American Motors Corporation noticed the trend and had already fielded a small car in the form of the Metropolitan, but that was only a two-seater, which severely limited its chances against the opposition.
Clearly, something slightly larger was needed, but American Motors lacked the necessary resources as the 1954 merger with Nash and Hudson had not produced the envisioned financial returns. Sales of Nash and Hudson models under American Motors control were so disappointing that both makes would be consigned to history after 1957. The new and larger Rambler introduced in 1956 found more customers, but that was not enough to prevent American Motors from posting a financial loss for the following year. In short, there was very little money available to add a compact car to the model range, and certainly not enough to finance the development of a totally new vehicle.
It was then that executive Roy D. Chapin and chairman George Romney realised that they already had a compact car with the right dimensions: the old Nash Rambler had a 100 inch (254cm) wheelbase and room for four. Built between 1950 and 1955, all its tooling was still in American Motors’ possession.
Obviously, it would not do simply to reintroduce the car in its last known iteration, so chief stylist Edmund Anderson was tasked with updating the car as much as possible within very tight budget constraints. Anderson opened up the formerly enclosed wheel-wells, lengthened the rear wings slightly and deleted the fake scoop on the bonnet. These changes were quite effective in altering the car’s appearance, yet did not necessitate making entirely new and expensive dies for the presses.
A slightly flatter roof panel lowered the car’s profile, and a larger rear window offered better visibility and modernised the look at the same time. Some other minor sheet-metal changes, altered trim pieces and a more delicate grille completed the transformation. The old Rambler’s tail lights were cleverly re-used by simply mounting them upside down, thereby creating a different look at no extra cost.
The proven cast-iron ‘L-head’ inline side-valve 195.6 cubic-inch (3.2-litre) six-cylinder with 90hp provided the motive force through a three-speed manual gearbox. A three-speed ‘Flash-O-Matic’ automatic transmission made by Borg-Warner was available as an option.
The name of the ‘new’ car, Rambler American, appealed to patriotic sentiments and was a obvious jab at the foreign imports. Introduced in January 1958 and available in just one two-door sedan bodystyle and two trim levels, DeLuxe and Super, the Rambler American was the lowest priced new car in America at USD $1,789. (Considering its name, $1,776 would have been a more fitting price-tag, but American Motors apparently could not afford such fripperies.) A new 1958 Ford or Chevrolet did not leave the showroom for less than around US $2,100, so the Rambler American represented excellent value.
No doubt spurred by a sudden economic recession at the end of 1957, over 30,000 people purchased a Rambler American during the 1958 model year, a good result considering its late(1) introduction and more than double the break-even number calculated by the product planners. American Motors was the only domestic carmaker to increase its sales in this model year and made a profit for the first time since its inception.
A two-door station wagon joined the otherwise virtually unchanged American line-up the next year. The buying public had by now discovered the excellent value the Rambler American represented, resulting in sales of 91,491 cars in the 1959 model year. The new station wagon proved quite popular as it was responsible for 36% of that sales number.
A new top-line trim level, Custom, was added for 1960, as was a four-door sedan. Redesigned door hinges now allowed a larger opening angle (from 55o to 75o). The fuel reservoir capacity was increased and power steering became available as an option. The introduction of the Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant did not have an adverse effect on American sales: on the contrary, slightly over 120,000 were sold over the 1960 model year. The newly introduced four-door variant proved to be a good idea as it outsold the two-door version.
It was time for a restyling in 1961 and, although the upper portion of the body still gave its origins away and the end result was somewhat plain and boxy, it was an effective update, again done by Edmund Anderson. A four-door station wagon as well as a convertible were newly available. The facelifted version was five inches shorter and three inches narrower than its predecessor, but offered the same amount of passenger room; the public responded favourably to the new American and just over 136,000 found new owners. The next two years saw only small alterations, although within the leadership structure of the company there was change as George Romney left to become Governor of Michigan. He was succeeded by an ex-Packard man, Roy Abernathy. Sales numbers trended downward during these years but were still healthy enough, hovering around the 100,000 mark.
Richard A. (Dick) Teague was responsible for the next and what would prove to be last major facelift of the Rambler American; he transformed the car into a clean and pleasingly styled vehicle. The wheelbase was increased to 106 inches and the curved side glass was a first in its class. More than 163,000 were sold in 1964 but from there on the American -as well as its parent company- started to fade away, slowly but surely. Still, as with the preceding model, American Motors managed to shift around 100,000 Americans annually (except for 1967 when less than 63,000 were sold) which was still a respectable performance.
The American would survive until 1969, receiving minor styling changes along the way. A noteworthy farewell gift of sorts was the 1969 SC/Rambler-Hurst which was, with its 315hp 390 cubic-inch (6.4-litre) V8, a nippy car indeed. A total of 1,512 were ordered, more than three times the amount that American Motors had planned to produce.
Starting in the mid-sixties, American Motors had begun increasingly to de-emphasize the Rambler name and the 1969 cars were the last on which it was used. In hindsight, it is questionable whether this was a wise decision: the Rambler name enjoyed widespread public recognition and was generally associated with economy, value and good quality. In the oil-crisis stricken seventies, the Rambler badge might have been a better fit than AMC to answer the challenges to be met- but such is life.
In Part Two of this series, we will examine the rise and fall of the Studebaker Lark.
(1) US models for a particular model year usually become available in the third quarter of the previous year.