It’s not well-known, but AMC’s Rambler line actually surpassed Plymouth as the number-three brand of car in America (in terms of total sales) by the early 1960s, under the inspired leadership of George Romney—father of 2008 Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney.
It was also a performance brand—though few remember this today.
For example, the 1957 Rambler Rebel offered Bendix Electrojector fuel injection—one of the first American vehicles ever to offer EFI on a production car.
At least, that was the plan.
Technical problems limited production and while only a few (maybe none, no one really knows for sure) were actually sold, it was nonetheless a daring technological Great Leap Forward. Because AMC’s system was electronic—not mechanical, as GM’s Rochester-designed system (used on Corvette and the Bel Air coupe) was.
Electronic fuel injection (EFI) would not become commonplace on American cars until the late 1980s—more than 30 years down the line—and after the demise of AMC itself.
Wagons like the Cross Country—offered in 660 and 770 trims—were also strong performers where it mattered even more, on the sales floor. Features such as coil-spring suspension at all four corners (vs. the more common rear leaf springs) and power amenities that included an electric rear lift-gate glass made a strong impression on buyers. The wagon’s rear cargo area was defined by an expansive glass “Kammback”-style greenhouse and promised good times, with plenty of space for three or four teenagers to roll around in.
An additional distinctive stylistic touch was the rearward-canted “C” pillar, which contrasted with the forward-slanted front end. Early models had “winglets” on the rear quarters that fluted upward jauntily.
Many believe the Cross Country had cleaner lines than its Big Three competitors—and there’s no question it was very popular with buyers.
Indeed, had Romney stayed on as AMC’s head (he left the auto industry to pursue politics as governor of Michigan) it is probable that America’s “other” car company would have experienced continued growth instead of the decline that occurred under his successor, Roy Abernethy. It was Abernethy who decided, beginning in the mid-’60s, to try to compete with the Big Three directly with a full range of cars rather than stick with Romney’s more focused vision of AMC as a lower volume, specialty car brand.
The Cross Country wagon appeared in 1954 and initially rode on a 108-inch wheelbase—which happens to be exactly the same, dimensionally, as the ’70–81 Chevy Camaro coupe. This gave the car nimble handling yet it was still big enough to accommodate seven people and their gear.
Surfboards on the roof weren’t factory optional but nonetheless a common sight in the mid-late ’50s.
1957 was the first year that Rambler was sold as a make in its own right—and not a sub-model of Nash or Hudson, as had been the case previously.
Two modern OHV V-8s were available—a 250-cubic-inch 4.1-liter V-8 (introduced the year prior in the Hudson Hornet) and a larger 327-cubic-inch V-8. The smaller V-8 made 190 hp; the optional 327, 255. Base price for the Cross Country wagon was $2,540.
By 1963, the cars were selling well; Motor Trend magazine named the entire Rambler line its “Car of the Year.”
Under Abernethy, the wagon got progressively bigger. Both 660 and higher-trim 770 versions continued to be offered. (A more aesthetically ungainly 990 version was sold under the Ambassador nameplate, too.)
By ’65, however, AMC seemed unsure of the Rambler’s future and appeared to be gradually retiring the Rambler marque itself. Abernethy argued that “Rambler” had become stodgy—the Buick of its era. By ’69 the Rambler nameplate had been winnowed down to just one model, the Rambler American. That turned out to be the final year for the series, which soon passed into the history books.
AMC itself would follow not long after, after a frantic period of downsizing and re-styling that gave birth to ill-conceived models like the Gremlin, Hornet, and Pacer—rust-prone and prematurely smoky-spewing totems of the miserable mid ’70s which became the object of mass ridicule.
Big wagons like the Cross Country were replaced by wagonized versions of the Hornet (Sportabout/DL), Pacer, and—shortly before the lights went out for good—the AMC Eagle.
Today, Cross Country Wagons, like almost all the big wagons of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, are hard to find intact and operable. But if you do stumble across one, expect a bargain. And since major drivetrain components are either shared with or common to sedans and coupes as well as wagons across the AMC line, maintaining the wagon’s drivetrain and other critical components is still very doable, functionally as well as economically.
Rambler Wagon Facts
* In 1959, Car Life magazine named the Rambler wagon “one of the most attractive cars on the road.”
* By 1969, the final year of production, AMC had produced more than 4.2 million vehicles under the Rambler nameplate.
* The Rambler name continued to be used in export markets such as Australia through the late 1970s.
* Rambler wagons are sometimes affectionately called “Kenosha Cadillacs,” after the Kenosha, Wisconsin plant where they were manufactured.
* 1965 was the last year AMC paid its shareholders any stock dividends until 1974.
Excerpted from “Road Hogs” (2011) by Eric Peters; see http://www.qbookshop.com/products/147301/9780760337646/Road-Hogs.html