1951 Nash Rambler. Click image to enlarge
The Rambler automobile name goes back to 1902 when former bicycle builder Thomas B. Jeffery began manufacturing a little one-cylinder car in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He called it the Rambler, the same as his bicycles. Our subject has a direct connection to that first Rambler car.
Charles Nash, born in 1864, had risen from an abandoned childhood to the presidency of General Motors by 1912. But he resigned from GM in 1916 after clashing with founder Billy Durant. Nash then bought the Thomas B. Jeffery Company, which was now calling its cars Jefferys, not Ramblers. He changed it to Nash Motors Company and the cars became Nashes.
In spite of some ups and downs, the Nash company developed a solid reputation. It amalgamated with refrigerator maker Kelvinator in 1937 to become the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, and brought full unit-body construction to American cars with the new Nash 600 (600 miles from its 20-gallon gasoline tank) in 1941.
After military production during the Second World War, Nash returned to building pre-war designed cars until it could develop its modern “Airflyte” model in 1949.
Then in a bold move in 1950 Nash revived the Rambler name in “America’s first compact car.” GM and Ford had planned to build smaller cars after the war, but abandoned the idea. It fell to independent Nash to make the leap. The Crosley was on the scene too but it was too small to be practical.
Compared with standard sized cars, the Rambler was indeed compact. The Chevrolet, for example, had a wheelbase of 2,921 mm (115 in.) and weighed some 1,455 kg (3,200 lb), but the little Nash rode on a wheelbase of only 2,540 mm (100 in.) and tipped the scales at just 1,100 kg (2,420 lb).
Like its larger siblings, the Rambler had unit construction and a smaller version of the corporation’s bulbous “inverted bathtub” style.
It was introduced first as a stylish convertible, but with the unusual feature of having fixed side window frames. This allowed an electric motor to pull the top up along these rails something like a window blind. A station wagon followed and the Rambler soon included a full line of body styles.
Power came from the 2.8-litre (172.6 cu in.), 82-horsepower, side-valve, six-cylinder engine used in the larger Statesman model which had replaced the 600. While not a tire burner, it provided reasonable performance and excellent fuel economy. Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated magazine’s car tester estimated that the Rambler might get up to 35 miles per U.S. gallon, although 30 was probably closer.
Through a stroke of luck and a little old-fashioned horse trading, McCahill scooped the media and got the Rambler onto the cover of the May, 1950, issue of Mechanix Illustrated. How he achieved this and became the first journalist to drive the baby Nash, is an interesting little anecdote.
Arriving ahead of schedule at Nash’s Burlington, Wisconsin, proving ground to test a Nash Ambassador in the fall of 1949, Tom inadvertently stumbled onto a fleet of Ramblers undergoing tests by company engineers.
Once he had seen them, of course, the cat was out of the bag. But a deal was made, and in exchange for a promise to hold the story until the new car’s official spring introduction, “Uncle Tom McBlackmail” was allowed to drive it several months before it made its public debut.
Although he couldn’t conduct a full road test, Tom reported that the little Rambler had a top speed of 135 to 138 km/h (84 to 86 mph), and had “excellent riding qualities and quite a bit of snap and punch.”
The Rambler turned out to be the most successful of the early post-Second World War American compacts. These included the Henry J from Kaiser-Frazer (and a rebadged version called the Allstate from Sears, Roebuck and Company), the Aero Willys from Willys-Overland and the Hudson Jet from Hudson.
Some 26,000 Ramblers were produced during the first model year, really less than half a year. In 1951, 80,000 were built, a remarkable achievement for a new model from a relatively small company. For 1953 the Rambler received the Pinin Farina styling that all Nashes got, and began the inevitable American car growth cycle by having its wheelbase stretched to 108 inches 2,743 mm (108 in.) in the sedan model.
Nash joined Hudson to form American Motors Corporation in 1954 and production of the original Rambler was discontinued in 1955, although larger cars bearing the Rambler name were produced.
Sensing a return to smaller cars, AMC resurrected the 2,540 mm (100 in.) wheelbase Rambler for 1958, and renamed it the American. It went on to become the Hornet in 1970, later the Concord and even later the four-wheel drive AMC Eagle.