American Motors Corporation may have descended from Hudson and Nash—brands whose hallmarks were modesty and efficiency—but by the mid 1960s, AMC began producing battlewagons of truly Bismarckian proportions.
One of the most memorable of these lunkers was the Ambassador series—AMC’s top-of-the-line and fullest-figured car. It was offered in hardtop coupe, sedan, and station wagon forms, and by 1965, it had become AMC’s ultimate pavement crusher.
When armed with the company’s equally mighty 401 V-8, it owned the road like few others before or since.
The upsizing began in ’65 when the all-new Ambassador appeared. Designed by Richard Teague, it rode on a 116-inch wheelbase—an uptick of several inches over the Classic with which it shared sheet metal DNA. This was still considered modest at the time, but by modern standards, it was already limousine like. (For some perspective, the wheelbase of a 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan measures a puny 112.4 inches.)
Vertical stacked headlights and a wall-to-wall grille gave the car a formal but modern appearance.
In ’66, a minor facelift—revised roof line on hardtop coupes, vertical wraparound tail-lights, and simulated wood trim for wagons—updated the car’s look. A new “DPL” (for Diplomat) hardtop coupe entered the lineup. DPL coupes and convertibles offered houndstooth interior trim with matching throw pillows and fold-down center arm rests along with an available console-mounted 4-speed manual gearbox and Twin Grip limited slip rear end.
But this was just the beginning of Big.
By 1967, the Ambassador’s wheelbase was extended another two plus-sized inches, all the way up to 118 (eclipsing the 2009 Lincoln Town Car Signature Series, the largest passenger car currently sold by an American car company).
Yet the Ambassador was still a relative flyweight.
Even wagons (which shared the same 118-inch wheelbase) didn’t quite hit 3,200 pounds—comparable to a modern mid-sized car. The DPL hardtop coupe weighed a semi-svelte 3,056 pounds.
With the optional high-compression 270-hp 327 V-8, performance was thus quite respectable—even if gas mileage wasn’t. A lower-performance (250 hp) version of the 327 V-8 was also available, as well as a smaller, 287-cubic-inch V-8 and AMC’s own 232-cubic-inch “Typhoon” in-line six.
AMC’s optional “Twin Stick” overdrive transmission improved fuel economy by cutting engine revs at highway speeds. Overdrive transmissions would not become commonplace on America cars until the mid-1980s, some 25 years after AMC had it on the Ambassador’s roster of optional equipment.
At the time—when premium leaded flowed like water—no one much cared about fuel efficiency, so very few people thought the Twin Stick OD was worth the additional cost. Conventional three-speed manual and automatic transmissions—as well as four-speed manual gearboxes—were much more commonly ordered.
Today, finding a mid-’60s Ambassador with the Twin Stick overdrive is most unusual. Four-speed (manual) cars are also relatively rare.
DPL coupes did well, with approximately 10,458 finding homes that first year out.
Unfortunately, 1967 would be the final year for the DPL convertible coupe.
In 1968, a new SST trim made its debut, with the DPL trim shifting to second-tier status. Air conditioning became standard equipment in the Ambassador—another “first” for AMC. At the time, not even Cadillacs and Lincolns came standard with this feature despite being vastly more expensive.
By 1969, SST versions of the Ambassador could be equipped with AMC’s muscled-up 390-cubic-inch V-8, packing 325 hp. That year, also, the Ambassador’s wheelbase grew to a truly Titanic 122 inches—rivaled in the modern era only by high-dollar dreadnoughts such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Yet the Ambassador, though exceptionally well-appointed, was comparatively inexpensive. A ’70 SST coupe, for example, stickered out at a very Middle American $3,739—far less than an equivalent car from GM, Ford, or Chrysler.
With ever-growing length came ever-increasing heft and by the ’71 model year, the Ambassador sedan tipped the scales at well over 3,500 pounds—heavier than the ’66 convertible coupe by about 100 pounds. The stately SST wagon had bulked up to 4,000 pounds.
To get all this steel moving, more cubic inches under hood were urgently needed—and so the ’71 Ambassador fielded AMC’s largest-ever V-8, the 401. Its rated 330 hp was actually 10 hp off the mark of the 1970 390 V-8—on paper, at least. (The early ’70s were a time of juggling and fudging when it came to “advertised” horsepower—and published claims are often widely off the mark.) But what the bigger engine may have lacked in high-rpm horsepower it more than made up for with an endless supply of tire-frying low-end torque. If you were a high-schooler in those days and had access to Dad’s 401 Ambassador, few of your friends could challenge your crown as Burnout King.
Smaller 360 and 304 V-8s were still available, too.
In ’71, a new, luxury-themed Brougham trim was added. The intent was to equal top-of-the-line cars from GM, Ford, and Chrysler on content, while undercutting them on price. The strategy was effective and sales were strong that year—helped in part by healthy sales to law enforcement, which grew to appreciate the Ambassador’s generous legroom.
And its hairy 401 V-8.
In ’72, the six-cylinder engine was dropped from the lineup and all Ambassadors came equipped with V-8 engines—as well as a new 12 month/12,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. 1973 was the final year for the SST—and all Ambassadors were built with the formerly optional top-of-the-line Brougham trim.
In 1974, a final redesign added another several inches to the car in order to comply with the federal government’s new bumper-impact standards. Unfortunately, this added weight at just the moment when the gas crisis of the early ’70s was forcing automakers to de-power their engines. This hurt Matador’s performance—and not long thereafter, its sales.
First to feel the heat was the Ambassador coupe, which last saw the light of day in 1973. The sedan and wagon lasted until 1975, when the then-intermediate-sized Matador series became AMC’s biggest car.
Under-appreciated and often overlooked by the classic car hobby for the past couple of decades, these beasts—especially DPL and SST coupes and convertibles—could be on the verge of a renaissance today. Excellent condition examples can still be found for well under $10,000—which by the standards of today’s old car hobby is a steal.
Ambassador Things to Know
* “Ambassador” is one of the longest-lived nameplates in automotive history; it was in continuous use from 1927 (under Nash) all the way through to 1974, when production ended.
* Ambassadors had flat-folding seats that created a sleeping area inside the car.
* Equipped with the optional high compression Rebel V-8, an Ambassador sedan was capable of reaching 60 mph in under 10 seconds and running the quarter mile in the high 16 second range.
* With the Twin Stick overdrive and six-cylinder engine, a mid-’60s Ambassador delivered a respectable for the era 20 mpg on the highway.
* Ambassador was one of the first American cars to replace push-button door handles with the paddle-type handles still in use today.
Excerpted from “Road Hogs” (2011) by Eric Peters; see http://www.qbookshop.com/products/147301/9780760337646/Road-Hogs.html