I’m a Ramblin’ man, or at least I want to be

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1958 Rambler Ambassador. Definitely not the car I’m interested in. Alan Watkin

I have four main automotive stories that I tell and re-tell. The first is the one about the Hampshire College student who lived with us when I was in seventh grade, how his ’71 BMW 2002 marked me for life, and how I’m now doomed to follow that model around like a baby bird that imprinted on a glider. The second is how I’ve been attracted to the impossibly low, impossibly angular Lotus Europa since an old boss of mine owned one, and 40 years later I bought my own ’74 Europa Twin-Cam Special. The third details the woes of the 1970 Triumph GT6+ that I bought out of high school—the car that proved everything bad you’ve ever read about British cars is true. And the fourth is about the ’82 Porsche 911SC that I sold just before the air-cooled market went nuts.

But there is a fifth, and that’s the one about the ’63 Rambler Classic.

Wait, what? A Rambler mentioned in the same breath as such other lofty company? I can see I’ve got some explaining to do.

The Rambler Story isn’t as snappy, but it is oddly resonant. A different student who lived with us when I was in junior high school owned a ’63 AMC Rambler Classic four-door sedan. Compared to the BMW 2002 the first student had, the Rambler was a forgettable car, neither sexy nor well-handling. However, when its body rotted out, the student bought a ’63 Rambler Classic station wagon with a good body and a bad engine, and swapped engines in the parking lot of the dorm. I was a kid who was into bicycles, just starting to do things like mixing and matching derailleurs and brakes. The fact that you could do the same thing with cars and engines was a revelation I’d draw on decades later when I did my first BMW 2002 engine swap.

By utter chance, nine years later when I was in graduate school, after I’d sold the GT6 but before I became a diehard BMW guy, I wound up with a ’63 Rambler Classic sedan. The car had been passed around between several friends of mine. My dear friends John and Elizabeth owned it for a short time, but when they got married, their parents gifted them a new VW Rabbit. I was best man at their wedding, and it’s traditional for the groom to give the best man a gift on his wedding day, so John surprised me by giving me the Rambler. Even better—he sold it to me for a dollar. I still have the bill of sale.

To say that you have a soft spot for a ’63 Rambler Classic sets several things in motion. First, people stare. Next, they begin to move away from you lest they catch what you have or get cornered having to listen to you defend yourself. But defend myself I must, because, nearly all the time, the car that people picture isn’t the one I have a soft spot for.

You can look up the history of the American Motors Corporation (AMC) on Wikipedia and learn how the company was formed in 1954 by the merger of Nash and Hudson, but basically, AMC was angling to be a builder of small vehicles that people bought as second cars, with the Ambassador as their V-8-powered model for when they wanted to move upmarket. “Rambler” was essentially a brand within AMC that encompassed the small and mid-sized fuel-efficient two-door and four-door body styles, all of which went through several generations. Because of this, the model designations are a little confusing.

1958 Rambler Ambassador. Definitely not the car I’m interested in.
1958 Rambler Ambassador. Definitely not the car I’m interested in. Alan Watkin

There were two versions of the small two-door Rambler American built from 1958–63. Both were oddly-proportioned little cars. In 1964, the American morphed into an econobox that sold well through 1969 but didn’t inspire a lot of passion (well, except for the ’69 Hurst SC/Rambler, a.k.a. the “Scrambler”).

1962 Rambler American (foreground) and 1964 American. The car I’m interested isn’t one of these either.
1962 Rambler American (foreground) and 1964 American. The car I’m interested isn’t one of these either.

The bigger four-door cars were the Rambler Classic and the more-expensive Ambassador. Up through 1962, the two cars had slightly different bodies. Both were, like the American, somewhat oddly proportioned, looking a bit like a 1960 Cadillac that had been shortened by a crusher and had its roof replaced with something too long and at slightly the wrong angle.

1962 Rambler Classic. Nope.
1962 Rambler Classic. Nope.

Then, in 1963, brand new two-door and four-door versions of the Classic and the Ambassador were rolled out. Body-wise, the Classic and the Ambassador were identical to one another, sharing the same new clean modern design that used “unit body construction” (later called “unibody”), curved side windows to move the roof rails inward, and minimal body overhang. The design is usually credited to Richard A. Teague, but apparently much of the work was completed by Edmund E. Anderson before Teague succeeded him.

Now this is the car I’m interested in. Note the fresh lines of the ’63 Rambler Classic/Ambassador.
Now this is the car I’m interested in. Note the fresh lines of the ’63 Rambler Classic/Ambassador.

Most American cars built in the five-year period from 1958–63 remind me of those illustrations of fish emerging from the water to walk on land. Many early ’60s cars are transitional forms, still retaining vestigial fins, but by 1963, the fins on most cars were gone. The Classic/Ambassador fits in this era perfectly. The clean, almost Mercedes-like design, featuring a unique electric razor-style inward-wedge grille, is quintessential new-frontier 1963.

In addition to the American, Classic, and Ambassador nameplates, AMC used ascending three-digit numbers to denote the option packages of the various models. The American came in 220, 330, and 440 trim. The Classic could be purchased as a 550, 660, or 770. The most fully-loaded models were the Ambassador 880 and 990. Sometimes you’ll see a car listed with the trim number but the model missing (e.g., “Rambler 550”). It’s a little confusing a first, but once it’s laid out like this, it makes perfect sense. The trim packages can be readily recognized by the side trim. 550s have none and thus look kind of slab-sided. 660s have a piece of hip-high trim that’s thicker at the front of the car. On 770s, the trim piece is thick all the way along the side of the car. Ambassadors, both 880s and 990s, have two pieces of side trim, the upper of which stops near the front door handles and visually pulls the car forward, the lower of which runs near the bottom of both doors.

When first released, the ’63 Classics had only the 196-cid straight six. However, in mid-’63, a newly-designed 287-cid V-8 fed by a two-barrel carb and rated at 198 horsepower became an available option. As you walked up the option package ladder, in addition to the exterior trim, you got plusher interior options, power brakes, power steering, A/C, and even power windows. The Ambassador continued to have the 327 V-8. It normally was configured with a two-barrel carb and rated at 250 hp, but the 990 could be ordered with a 270-hp “performance pack” engine with higher compression pistons and a four-barrel carb. If Edmund Anderson did the basic body design, Dick Teague appeared to be the one responsible for loading the car with goodies.

The 327 V-8 in the Ambassador.
The 327 V-8 in the Ambassador.

The interior of the Classic/Ambassador isn’t that’s-so-cool jet-age-swoopy like a ’63 Buick Wildcat, but the dashboard certainly has its early ’60s charm. As an air-conditioning geek, my favorite part is the A/C system. The three inset louvered chrome dash vents are gorgeous, and the three options on the A/C selector switch read cold, colder, and (I swear I am not making this up) desert only. This latter setting is a bit more than marketing, as what it does is disable the compressor cycling. Normally that would cause the evaporator core to freeze up, except in low-humidity environments (e.g., the desert).

1963 Rambler dashboard
Totally not kidding about the “desert only” setting on the air conditioning. Look below the knob.
Totally not kidding about the “desert only” setting on the air conditioning. Look below the knob.

Another Rambler oddity was the availability of the “twin-stick” transmission in the Classic 770 and Ambassador 990. This was a manually-shifted three-speed with selectable overdrive in second and third, giving five speeds. There was also a button on the gearshift lever to provide kick-down without hitting the accelerator or the clutch.

The unique Twin-Stick system.
The unique Twin-Stick system.

A cultural touchstone of the Rambler family is the “lay-down” seating where the front seats recline to be flush with the bottom cushion of the back seat, a feature of Rambler products dating back at least as far as the Nash Rambler. Wholesome advertising photographs showed a family tucked in for the night on the reclined seats, but people could use their imagination on what the real value was. This was immortalized in the Delbert McClinton song B-Movie Boxcar Blues, covered by The Blues Brothers:

“That night I caught a ride with the gambler’s wife

Had a brand-new lay-down Rambler

She parked outside of town, laid the Rambler down,

She said she sure would dig it if I drove her.”

The legendary lay-down Rambler seating.
The legendary lay-down Rambler seating.

If the lay-down seats weren’t enough, the 550 through 990 were all available in a “Cross Country” wagon version that was as well-proportioned as the sedan.

A 660 Cross Country.
A 660 Cross Country. Josephew

From a sales and marketing standpoint, all of this worked, and the car was quite successful. Indeed, the Classic/Ambassador won Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” award for 1963.

In 1964, the Classic/Ambassador’s styling was updated slightly, with the electric razor front grille replaced by a more conventional flat-slat grille. In 1965, the Classic and Ambassador’s bodies diverged, with the Classic looking similar to the ’64, and the Ambassador receiving a substantial design change that stretched the profile and incorporated vertically stacked headlights.

I realize that it’s ridiculous mentioning Ramblers in the same sentence as classic designs like the XKE and the ’63 split-window ’Vette, but to me, the ’63 shares one characteristic with these two deities: its design was fresh and nearly perfect right out of the box (as the saying goes, it shows its era but not its age). Subsequent changes only made it less attractive.

And with that, I can get back to the story. The ’63 Rambler Classic I got for free was a needy car, a basic 550 six-cylinder automatic that wouldn’t go into reverse, so I had to be careful where I parked it. There’s a certain parallax effect when you look back on cars, but when I owned the car in 1981, it was only 18 years old—the same age as my BMW Z3 M Coupe. Nowadays, any early ’60s car looks and feels ancient, but even then, with new cars just starting to have computer-controlled fuel injection, it already felt like a relic of a bygone era. Still, while I wouldn’t say that I loved the car, it had a great utilitarian vibe to it. Cars that you get for free require you to take them on their own terms.

What sticks in my craw is the way I ended my relationship with the car. My then-girlfriend and now-wife’s job suddenly required a move from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Austin, Texas. Although the move was paid for, we knew we’d need cars once we got there. She was taking her ’71 VW bus. Its engine had just been replaced, so it was a good candidate for the trip. The question was whether or not to take the Rambler, and if so, would it make it?

A few days before the move, I took the car on a short trip from Boston to Amherst to say goodbye to the friends who had given it to me. It began running hot, then overheated badly while I was trying to get it to the next exit. I abandoned it by the side of Rt. 2 near Atho, hitchhiked to a phone, and called my friends for a ride. It was the last I ever saw of the Rambler. I always felt badly about the way I treated it—having just abandoned it—and I seem to have some deep-seated need to atone for my Rambler-related sins by caring for another one.

Fast-forward to about six years ago. Having discovered the magic of Hagerty Insurance and how it allows you to add low-value cars to your policy for the price of a night out for tacos and beer, I began looking for another ’63 Rambler Classic or Ambassador. Unlike the stripped 550 I owned back in the day, I wanted a fully-loaded 770, 880, or 990 with V-8, power everything, factory air, and, if possible, two-tone paint. I found an Ambassador 880, almost tailor-made to my description, in the classified section of the AMC Rambler Club website. However, the $8500 asking price was a bit high for me. Plus, I’d just bought the Lotus Europa, so both my mad money and my garage space were depleted.

The Rambler Ambassador 880 that got away.
The Rambler Ambassador 880 that got away. amcrc.com

A year later, what was clearly the same car popped up on Hemmings for closer to $6000. I called and learned that the original owner had passed away and the car had gone to his grandson, who thought it was cool but needed a traditional daily driver instead. I spoke several times with the grandson, and we developed a nice rapport.

Unfortunately, the car was in Williamson, New York, about 400 miles from Boston. I am pretty risk-averse, always preferring to see a car with my own eyes. I wanted evidence that the car had no undercarriage rust and didn’t smoke. The seller and I agreed to a deal where I offered $4500, he’d tow the car halfway to Boston, I’d meet him there, inspect it, and either buy it for the agreed-upon price or pay his expenses if I turned it down (my insistence, not his). However, I fiddled and diddled long enough that a Rambler collector (yes, they exist) snatched it up closer to his asking price. It’s an exaggeration to say that I’ve been kicking myself ever since, but it was a substantial missed opportunity in terms of configuration, condition, and price.

Some folks recently sent me a cartoon showing a not terribly attractive car on the auction podium, with the auctioneer saying, “This ’62 Rambler has been authenticated by Rambler Classique.” To me, if it said ’63, it’d make perfect sense. Hey, we crave what we crave.

Prices for ’63 Ramblers aren’t zooming up like 23-window VW buses, but the days of finding pretty shiny rust-free examples for four grand appear to be over. Still, you pay a fraction of what it’d cost if it said Chevy or Ford on the trunk instead of Rambler. If I had a free $19K floating around, I can think of worse ways to blow it than this ’63 Ambassador Cross Country restomod that looks bone-stock on the outside but rocks an LS1 engine and a bagged suspension.

Here’s hoping the Rambler fairy delivers something to my door. I have sins to atone for.

***

Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His most recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicGuide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his previous books). You can also order personally inscribed copies here.

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