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 in big Hudsons and Nashes.
Romney reasoned that for the company to survive, it would have to provide something that car buyers couldnt get anywhere else. American Motors had such a car, the Rambler.
The redesigned 1956 model was finding increased public acceptance. It wasnt all that small (only six inches shorter than the 1956 Chevy), but it would retain its dimensions for years to come. The competitions products, on the other hand, would gain considerable weight, bulk and thirst.
A sizable group of car buyers was becoming ever more disenchanted 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 AMCs efforts on the Rambler.
At about the same time, the country was in a deep recession, in 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 nearly twice as many Ramblers as it had in 1957, and had made a decent profit doing it. The story was repeated for 1959another doubling of sales and more than decent profitsamazing all observers.
For three of the next four years, the company sold in excess of 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.
AMCs success story was attributable to having the right cars at the right time (in 1958). From there, success built on success.
Then theres the matter of image. Rambler was perceived as an economical, practical, commonsense sort of car even before its sales took off. It continued to find buyers and make friends for those reasons.
But care buyers are fickle; their tastes change, they continued to buy lots of compact cars but they didnt necessarily want them to be too practical. There was an increasing demand for small cars that were also sporty.
Manufacturers responded with coupes, hardtops and convertibles, 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 two more 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 February of 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 marked 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 AMC would 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 and Ambassadors, in an effort to reduce production costs begun under Romney. It was also his intent to see a long production life for the new models.
It was not to be, however, as Abemethy, who favored big cars, scheduled a major face-lift for the 1965 Classics and Ambassadors.
Virtually all external body panels were redone on Ambassadors and 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 Javelin was introduced. Basically a fastback 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 big disappointment. In the industrys 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 wasnt shedding the old Rambler image and it was now beginning to hurt. Younger buyers wanted cars with sporty styling and the aura of performance, even if they didnt always order them with the most powerful V8s available.
Buyers of intermediate cars didnt mind if their Tempests, Chevelles or Belvederes could be mistaken for GTOs, SS 396s or Satellites.
The Classic, Marlin or Ambassador buyer could affect no such illusion because 327 cubic inches and 270 horsepowerunchanged since 1958were 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 enough to 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 the Vixen.
American Motors was gambling heavily on its future. As reported by 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 described the 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 bearone 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 shells for both the Ambassador and the Rebel, the Classics 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 the Rebel.
While there was no hiding the fact that both lines shared the same body shell, the stylists went in different directions with those panels that werent shared, virtually all forward of the windshield.
Ambassadors continued with vertically placed headlights and a grille reminiscent of earlier Cadillacs, all of which were suggestive of the luxury image AMC was trying to convey.
On the other hand, sportiness was evident in the Rebels 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 series.
In view of its low sales in 1965, and specially in 1966, it seemed surprising that the Marlin would be continued. Although it bore a strong resemblance to the earlier Marlins, there werent any shared panels.
The Marlin shared front-end sheet metal with the Ambassador and 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 new Marlin.
One has to wonder if the extra millions of tooling dollars required for the new Marlin would have been allocated if management had been able to foresee the lack of success that befell the first-generation Marlin.
The Marlins longer hood, more sharply raked windshield and subtly 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 axle, where 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 Ford products.
Other changes included a collapsible steering column with a smaller 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 greatest change we have made in a single year. Of course, not every model was extensively changed; the resources available wouldnt allow it.
Thus the American had to make do with modest revisions to the 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 what it 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 the 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 69,621, some of which were leftover 1966 models. That left dealers with more than 65 days worth of inventory.
Clearly, Abernethys plan of meeting the Big Three head-on, model 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., took over. One of his first moves was to slash the prices of the Americans, strengthening that lines position as an import fighter.
Sales of the American almost immediately made a healthy gain. Chapin dropped the companys ad agency, Benton & Bowles, for Wells, Rich and Greene, the brash upstarts who would create some memorable commercials.
In fact, it was Mary Wells who suggested that air conditioning be 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 and AMX, 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 that were to be found at AMC dealers 25 years ago made little more than limited headway in changing the public perception of the companys role in the auto business.
Even the introduction of the high-performance models such as the Javelin, AMX, SC/Rambler and Rebel Machineand their success in competitioncould not obliterate the Rambler Six image from the public mind.
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 elsewhere 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.