When George Romney and Rambler took aim at the “dinosaurs”

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While researching the feature on fin cars published last week, I came upon this quote from 1955: “Cars that are 19 feet long and weighing 2 tons are used to run a 118-pound housewife three blocks to the drugstore for a 2-ounce package of bobby pins and lipstick.” The speaker was George Wilcken Romney, then the president of American Motors, which was about to kill off the Nash and Hudson brands in favor of a $50 million all-or-nothing bet on the compact Rambler. “People are getting smart,” he continued. “They know they don’t have to have cars with dinosaur dimensions to get around comfortably.”

Every trend sparks a counter-trend, and Romney wasn’t the first nor the last to try to mine gold by being where the mainstream wasn’t. However, in 1956, with AMC hemorrhaging $20 million in losses, Romney was selling the Rambler’s clean, compact austerity against an industry making bank on chrome broughams. Time magazine wrote that bus drivers pulling up to AMC’s bell tower–like headquarters at 14250 Plymouth Road in Detroit would shout, “All out for the old folks’ home!”

George Romney with 1959 Ramblers. Courtesy The Last Independent Automaker/AMC

But Romney wasn’t your typical Ivy League boardroom suit. The grandson of a Mormon who had 30 children by four wives, Romney was born in 1907 in Chihuahua, Mexico, in a dusty desert colony established by Mormon ex-pats fleeing U.S. polygamy laws. When he was 5, rebels fighting for Pancho Villa rode into town and drove out all the Americans. The family fled to Los Angeles, then Salt Lake City; Romney’s father went broke five times in the process. George started working at the age of 12.

He was selected as a church missionary and sent to Great Britain at 19, spending two years bringing the Mormon gospel door to door and preaching from a soapbox in Hyde Park, London. Ever the entrepreneur, he teamed up with a redheaded socialist on another soapbox and the two agreed to loudly heckle each other, which proved the best way of drawing crowds. Back in America, Romney met a brunette knockout named Lenore Lafount and followed her everywhere—out on her dates with other men, to Washington, D.C., when her father took a government job, to New York where she studied acting, then out to LA where Lenore was offered a $50,000 contract with MGM. He’d probably be arrested as a stalker today, but Romney somehow persuaded Lenore to turn down Hollywood and instead marry him. He always called it his best sell job.

George Romney Speaking at Microphones
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Romney came to AMC via its predecessor, Nash-Kelvinator, whose chairman, George W. Mason, had big plans for small cars but was running out of money. And time. Mason died suddenly in 1954, leaving Romney in charge. Romney’s lifestyle matched perfectly the smart, frill-free, unibody Rambler; he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he didn’t swear, he stayed trim by playing sports with his kids (son Mitt is currently a senator from Utah), and he tithed 10 percent of his salary to the church.

Eventually, enough hard-bitten Yankee pragmatists caught on to what Romney (and some foreigners, like Volkswagen) was preaching, and Rambler sales took off. In 1960, dealers moved almost half a million units, bringing AMC revenue of over $1 billion. The Big Three were already rushing to catch up with their own compacts. Romney stayed through 1962, then ran for Michigan governor. The Cleveland Auto Dealers Association bestowed on him a trophy inscribed with the words: “To George Romney, critic, lecturer, anthropologist, white hunter of the American dinosaur.”

George Romney Speaking at News Conference
Romney’s wife Lenore (L) flanks him while he takes the podium during his campaign. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Where Romney left off, the Japanese were only too happy to step in, sticking small-car thorns into Detroit’s chiefs for decades. In the end, though, what seemed like the inevitable future in 1960 because of a rising population, crowding cities, and choking traffic remained only a niche. Sixty years later, the bestselling vehicle in America is the Ford F-150, versions of which are nearly 21 feet long and close to 6000 pounds. They don’t have tailfins, and they can do a lot more, but Romney’s “dinosaurs” are still with us.

The article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe to our magazine and join the club.

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