1959 AMC Rambler American
1959 AMC Rambler American. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Following the Second World War the Rambler nameplate had the distinction of leading the North American auto industry into smaller, more economical cars, which came to be called compacts. It’s true that Crosley was earlier, but its cars were so small that they were not a serious part of the market.

The major manufacturers had experimented with smaller cars after the war, but abandoned them as uneconomic to produce. It fell to the Nash Kelvinator Corp. of Kenosha, Wisconsin, to introduce the first one, its stylish little 1950 Rambler.

Nash was soon followed by the other independents. There was the Kaiser-Frazer Henry J, the Hudson Jet, and the Willys-Overland Willys Aero. But only the Rambler survived long enough to establish a real place in automotive history.

The 1950 Rambler, introduced as a convertible only, was an instant hit, and the line was soon expanded to sedans and station wagons. It carried on basically unchanged until 1955, although it received a mild restyling in 1953.

In 1954, struggling Nash and Hudson merged to form American Motors Corporation, and carried on building both Nash-and Hudson-badged cars for a few years, although they were mostly Nashes under the skin.

Not long into the merger it was decided that with cars getting bigger and bigger, the future of the small 2,540 mm (100 in.) wheelbase Rambler was limited. It was therefore discontinued with the 1955 model-year and the company concentrated on the larger 2,743 mm (108 in.) wheelbase Rambler that it had introduced in 1954.

Nineteen-fifty eight would be an important year for American Motors. Based on the success of the larger Rambler, president George Romney took a gamble and discontinued the big Hudsons and Nashes. From then on he decided that the company would concentrate on smaller vehicles, all known as Ramblers.

Romney did more than change the name, he changed the philosophy of the company. Appalled at the gargantuan size of American cars, which he called “gas guzzling dinosaurs,” he coined the word “compact” to describe smaller, more sensibly sized automobiles.

In keeping with this, and cognizant of the rising tide of small imported cars, AMC decided to revive the short wheelbase Rambler that had been discontinued in 1955. It came back in 1958 with a new name: the Rambler American.

It was relatively easy and economical to get the American back into production. AMC still had the dies, which had probably been paid for several times. With a new mesh grille, and the wheel arches opened up to reduce the pontoon appearance of the Nash Airflyte, the original Rambler was resurrected.

It couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The North American economy was suffering a recession, causing many buyers to look for something smaller and more economical. This played into AMC’s hands because the Rambler was known as a fuel miser, often winning the Mobil Economy Run. The revived American found a ready market.

Although it was an old fashioned design, 30,640 of the 1958 models were sold, contributing to an AMC profit of $26 million following two consecutive years of losses.

The American’s performance was adequate, viewed in the context of the era. Road & Track magazine (3/59) reported that the old long-stroke, side-valve, 90-horsepower six-cylinder engine could accelerate the 1,179 kg (2,600 lb) car from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 16 seconds, and push it to a top speed of 139 km/h (86.5 mph).

This was faster than the compact Studebaker Lark, introduced in 1959. R & T tested it in the same issue, and recorded a leisurely 21 seconds to reach 96 (60), and a top speed of only 129 km/h (80 mph). And the Volkswagen, while becoming popular, was even slower, being in the 28-second range to 96 (60). And it had to really struggle to top 113 km/h (70 mph).

The 1959 American was a carryover of the 1958; AMC was not about to meddle with a good thing. The addition of a station wagon increased its popularity and 91,491 1959s went out the door.

The 1960 American was much like the ’58 and ’59, with trim changes and the addition of a four-door sedan. This was the year in which the Big Three, GM, Ford and Chrysler, finally responded to the import-car challenge with the Corvair from Chevrolet, Falcon from Ford, and Valiant from Chrysler. In spite of this new competition, AMC managed to sell 120,600 of its conservative little Americans.

For 1961 the Rambler American would get all-new styling, this time square instead of round, although the 2,540 mm (100 in.) wheelbase was retained. It continued to be popular, but by now the visual connection with the original 1950 Rambler had disappeared.

Those early Ramblers are now almost all gone, their unit construction bodies being susceptible to rust. They are not much remembered, but they did provide reliable, economical and sturdy service. And they also performed the rare feat of having two distinct and successful model runs, an almost unheard of phenomenon in automobile history.

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