It’s certainly possible that Suzy Bauter has never heard the saying that “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” More than likely, however, she’s simply ignoring it. And for good reason. She has a story to tell, and people from all over keep asking her to share it.
Bauter’s 1963 wide-body AMC Rambler American 220 Wagon created quite a stir at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas last week. On display in the Spectre Performance booth, the car was engulfed by a steady stream of admirers and won a prestigious Gran Turismo Award as Best Hot Rod. Not bad, considering Bauter is not a professional builder, and the Rambler was her first soup-to-nuts project.
“The response has been pretty crazy,” Bauter said. “I was very, very fortunate. I’m still amazed by the whole thing.”
It’s easy to see why. Bauter found the Rambler on Craigslist about six years ago but didn’t fully dive into the project until about 18 months ago. Her plans seemed straightforward enough: turn the Rambler into an autocross car. But as often happens, the project took on a life of its own, and Suzy and co-builder Rodney Prouty (who also happens to be her husband) had to overcome a few hurdles. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Suzy Bauter has always loved cars, and she has her older brother and his friends to thank for that. Little Suzy spent hours in the family’s northern California garage watching the guys work on everything from Volkswagens to trucks to a Model T. By the time Bauter reached high school, her appreciation for cars was such that she was the only female student in her auto shop class.
Bauter went on to earn a finance degree and work on Wall Street, but she eventually made a career change so that she could spend more time with her family. Her work in public relations included attending motorsports events, which fed her automotive fire. And when Bauter’s husband began racing his 1968 Chevrolet Camaro in weekend autocross events, she was hooked. Before long, Suzy wanted a competition car of her own.
Bauter, who now lives near Nashville, set her sights on a wagon. “I wanted something different, and I was pretty convinced that a wagon would fit the bill. I wanted a smaller one for autocross, and I was really looking for a (Ford) Falcon wagon because my family had one when I was young. But right about that time everyone and their brother decided they wanted a wagon too. The prices went through the roof. So I started searching for an alternative.”
Bauter found that alternative, the Rambler, on Craigslist. It was sitting in the rear of a trailer park, hidden beneath a blue tarp and partially sheltered by a camper. “She just spoke to me,” Bauter said of the car, which she originally called Sugar. “She had a short wheelbase and cost less than $1,000, which sounded pretty good—until I realized that there were no aftermarket parts out there. So that was a bit of a challenge.”
Bauter joked that when it came to the engine, overcoming her own stubbornness was bit of a challenge too. “At first I thought, ‘No big deal, I’ll just keep the (original) flathead-six and three on the tree.’ But the more I drove my husband’s Camaro, the more I realized that the flathead-six in the Rambler just wasn’t going to be adequate for autocross.”
Unfortunately, that realization came after the original engine had already been rebuilt. “Rodney told me not to spend the money, but I didn’t listen,” Bauter admitted. “So I have a beautifully rebuilt flathead-six stored nicely in my garage. Hopefully, some AMC purist out there will want it.”
Bauter’s ultimate engine of choice was a Chevy 5.3-liter V-8, tuned to 360 horsepower. She said a GM small block engine was “a no-brainer,” not only because it offered a dramatic increase in performance but “it doesn’t leak oil in your driveway.” Other upgrades included an Edelbrock carburetor and Spectre fuel rail, fuel regulator, crankcase breather, and high-flow intake system.
While Bauter worked on the Bear Pro brakes, electrical components, and interior, she took full advantage of her husband’s suspension know-how and Camaro expertise. The two rigged up a first-generation Camaro subframe, custom front suspension from Suspension Geek, and an independent rear from the fifth-gen Camaro. All of the upgrades led to the realization that “significant rubber” would be required. (They chose 18x10.5 US Mags wheels and sticky BF Goodrich Rival S tires.) But to do that, they would need fender flares. Big ones, at 8.5 inches.
Bauter turned to Rob MacGregor of No Limit Engineering.“I plied him with beer so he would do it,” she joked. “Although he said later that it ended up being a fun project.”
When Bauter picked up the finished flares “they were so big that I didn’t think they would fit in the back of my Jeep Grand Cherokee. But we got them home, and they went on like they were custom fitted.” MacGregor’s only request was that he be allowed to suggest a new name for the car: Flare Witch Project. Bauter’s reaction? “That’s it!”
“Rob knows me well,” she said. “But the car is a bitch on wheels, so the name isn’t just about my snarky attitude.”
Bauter said the Rambler, wearing a Washington Blue paint job from Best of Show Coachworks, was finished just a couple of days prior to SEMA, and she arrived in Las Vegas feeling like she had already won. “Just being invited by Spectre was incredible,” she said. Bauter was “blown away” when Brian Lohnes, editor in chief of Bangshift.com, chose the Rambler as Best Hot Rod. Lohnes’ wrote, “Great car building is about defying convention. This car manages to defy them all and show off everything great about hot rodding.”
She is enjoying the spotlight, but Bauter can’t imagine tackling a similar project in the future. “This is the first time I’ve built an entire car, not just modified one. It’s probably the last time too,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve already reached the pinnacle at SEMA. I can’t top that. I’m humbled and grateful. I mean, people actually want to interview me. That’s crazy.”