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First released in 1958 as a revival of a Nash design, the Rambler ‘American’ flew the flag as the entry-level model for American Motors Corporation (AMC). Priced and appointed below the Classic and Ambassador in the AMC lineup, the first major change to the company’s compact model came in 1964.
This took the form of a complete restyle, including an increase in wheelbase to 106 inches. This freed up interior space, especially at the rear, allowing for a full width bench seat to be placed ahead of the rear axle without impeding front seat space. On the outside, the American looked similar to Dodge’s ‘Dart’ model from the same year, with its plain grille and large recessed circular headlights. To the credit of the American design, it looked just as big as the Dodge, despite running on a five inch shorter wheelbase.
The design for the ’64 American, as was the case with all AMC products to follow, was the work of Dick Teague. With only a fraction of the budget of Ford or GM, Teague consistently produced attractively-styled cars that hid their shared origins (certain panels and components were common across the American and Classic models). Buyers responded to the cleaner design of the 1964 model American, with production increasing by almost 60,000 units over the 1963 model. After that initial spike, interest toward the American cooled in 1965 and ’66.
Perhaps more interesting than the cars from this period were the goings on at management level at American Motors. George Romney had left in 1962 to pursue a political career, his position as company President filled by former Vice President of Sales, Roy Abernethy. While Romney had doggedly stuck to the philosophy of “Hitting ‘em where they ain’t” ie. offering the sort of compact and economical cars Detroit’s Big Three weren’t, Abernethy wanted to meet Ford, GM and Chrysler head on. This would ultimately prove to be the downfall of AMC, but that wasn’t apparent in 1966.
What was apparent was that there were some changes on the American, with new variants and options added in an effort to extend the reach of the entry level model into higher and potentially more lucrative price brackets. After being the base engine for the American since its introduction in 1958, the 195.6ci was dropped for 1966, replaced by a 199ci version. A 155bhp 232ci six was optional, but the more exciting news was the availability of a V8-engined American for the first time. The 290ci V8 also made its debut in 1966, available in two different power options, 200bhp or 225bhp, matched to a new 4-speed manual transmission. The V8 option was an obvious reaction to the growing musclecar market of the period, although AMC fans would have to wait another couple of years before they had a model truly worthy of the musclecar moniker.
For 1966, the American model range was split into two basic variants; 220; and 440, the 330 being dropped. Better trimmed and spec’d than the 220, the 440 offered more body styles, too. Two door sedans, four door sedans and four door wagons were common across both variants, while the two door hardtop and convertible were only available as 440s. A new addition to the lineup was the ‘Rogue’, released midway through the 1966 model year. While the name evoked performance, the Rogue was more of a ‘personal luxury’ car in the vein of Ford’s Thunderbird. Based on a 440 hardtop, the Rogue featured a 232ci six as standard and was identified by an exclusive two-tone “saddleback” colour scheme, which consisted of contrasting paint on the roof, rear pillars and bootlid.
Designwise, the appearance of the American changed mildly for 1966, thanks to a restyle of the front and rear ends that added almost four inches to the car’s overall length. Most of this came at the front, the impetus being to create more space in the engine bay for the fitting of the new V8, and to allow air conditioning to be fitted with the longer 199ci six cylinder engine. The grille was now one broad unit without the vertical breaks in the horizontal grille bars. Headlights were now encased in square bezels, the tailights were squared off, not rounded, on the outer edges, and the ‘American’ script badge was moved from the rear quarters to the new-style front guards. The 440’s full-length upper chrome strip remained unchanged, but a ribbed metal moulding was added to the lower sills.
Inside, the 1966 American was much the same as the previous year, with vinyl bench seats front and rear, and floor carpeting on the 440. A basic, but busy dash cluster consisted of a strip-style speedometer, flanked by circular pods for fuel and temperature gauges. Controls for the windscreen demister and ‘Weather Eye’ air conditioning (when fitted) were positioned outboard of these gauges, with the usual ignition, lights, choke and windscreen washer control knobs below. Allowance for a centrally-placed radio was made on the all-metal dash, alongside a cigarette lighter, with a lockable glovebox in front of the passenger. A padded vinyl dash top was common across both 220 and 440 models. 440s were generally better trimmed inside than 220s, but the differences were marginal.
Abernethy’s decision to restyle each of the three product lines differently meant an increase in prices to cover the costs. In the case of the American, this put it directly against Ford and Chevrolet’s compact models. With its main point-of-difference – a lower price - gone, the American struggled as it no longer offered anything that couldn’t be matched or bettered by what Ford, Chevy of Chrysler could offer. Thus, sales started to drop. 1966 production of 93,652 units (including 8718 examples of the Rogue) was down by almost 60,000 units from two years earlier. The decision to equal rather than differ from Detroit’s Big Three would ultimately see the demise of American Motors.
In Australia, for much of 1966 at least, we made do with the 1965 model Ramblers (most in 440 spec), which meant no squared-off front guards and the smaller 195.6ci engine. Being assembled from imported CKD kits with little local content, the American, indeed any American Motors car, was expensive. For example, while an American 440 was similarly appointed to a Holden HD Special or XP Falcon De Luxe, it cost around $800 more, and over $1,000 if fitted with an automatic. This was significant money in 1966, and no doubt limited the Rambler’s appeal.
Back in 1966, the Rambler was a quirky choice here, with most buyers selecting it purely as something different from the hordes of Holdens and Fords filling Australian roads. Interior trim and appointments were on a par with Holden/Ford/Chrysler offerings from the same period, if not a little better, with some quirks exclusive to the Rambler design like the fold flat front seats. Performance from the six cylinder engine is good, with road tests of the time comparing the driving experience to a V8 rather than a six. Importantly for the Australian market, the Rambler was considered reliable, and that holds true today, with the mechanicals being generally solid and trouble free.
Today, there appears to be more AMC Classic models from the same period in circulation than Americans, so a 220 or 440 from the 60s is a rare sight. Much as it was then, the American is a very individual choice for someone searching for an American classic. If you can find one, a ’66 American is a machine that’ll deliver all you’re ever likely to want in a classic ride, as well as standing out from the crowd.
Thanks to Motorbook World (Canterbury, VIC ph: 03-9830 2644) for research material used in this article.
SPECIFICATIONS: 1966 Rambler American – with 196ci Six & Auto
Engine: 195.6ci OHV inline six cylinder
Bore/Stroke: 3.12 inch (79.3mm) x 4.25 inch (108mm)
Power/torque: 138bhp @ 4500rpm / 185lb/ft @ 1800rpm
Fuel system: Holley 2-bbl carburettor
Cooling system: Liquid
Electrics: 12 Volt
Transmision: 3-speed column-shift automatic
Front Suspension: Independent, wishbones, coil springs and heavy duty shock absorbers
Rear Suspension: Semi-elliptic leaf spring and heavy duty shock absorbers
Steering: Recirculating ball
Front brakes: 10 inch drum
Rear brakes: 10 inch drum
Wheels: 14 inch Fr/Rr
Tyres: 6.50 x 14 Fr/Rr
Wheelbase: 106 inch (2,692mm)
Length: 177.25 inch (4,502mm)
Width: 68.5 inch (1,739mm)
Height: 54 inch (1,371mm)
Weight: 2500lb (1,270kg)
0-100 kph: 12.6 seconds - approx
Top Speed: 144 kph - approx
On Australian-delivered Ramblers, it’s worth noting that while the drive was moved from left to right hand to comply with Australian laws, the arrangement of levers on that steering column wasn’t. Thus, the position of the column shift for the transmission was on the “wrong” right hand side, with the indicator stalk on the left. For those used to Australian-spec column shift transmissions, it took a little getting used to!
Low sales throughout 1965 saw American Motors’ holding yards clogged with 93 days worth of car production. In order to clear the backlog, the company took the unusual move of shutting down production at their Kenosha, Wisconsin assembly plant for three weeks in January of 1966.
As Ramblers were assembled at the same Australian Motor Industries (AMI) facility as Toyotas and Triumphs, there were some similarities in terms of paint options and interior trim. So your Rambler could have featured the same seats you’d find in a Toyota Corona.
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