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Nash/Rambler/AMC

By My80Volare ~ Kevin Imhoff

 

The existence of American Motors Company, or AMC, is one of the shortest life spans of any major American car company. It was only in existence for 33 years, although its roots and legacy go beyond that timeframe. AMC’s roots date back to the early 1900’s, before they were actually formed. In that early time of automobile manufacturing, independent carmakers such as Nash, Studebaker, Auburn and Hudson served a focused market of small car drivers not covered by the likes of Ford and General Motors. Many of these small independent companies met their demise, usually through buyout, during the Great Depression, and by the end of World War II, only a handful remained. The merger of two of these independent automakers, Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, and Hudson Motorcar Company formed American Motors in 1954. Nash president George Mason had envisioned a different merger prior to the formation of American Motors. He realized that in the post-war economy, the remaining independents would have to merge to stay alive. Mason had approached Studebaker and Packard to join in the merger, but was declined. Studebaker-Packard would merge, and went their own way. They would eventually fail in the mid-sixties.

 

With AMC now formed, all of the old Hudsons would be dropped from the lineup, either for being dated, or just not doing well, in the first year of production, which was 1955. The new Hudsons were based on Nash bodies, with design features to keep them different. Hudson production also moved from Detroit into Nash’s main plant in Kenosha, WI. Six months after the merger, Mason fell ill and unexpectedly died. The next day, Mason’s assistant, George Romney, assumed Mason’s positions as president, CEO, and general manager. At the end of 1955, American Motors closed its West Coast plant to move all production to Kenosha. This move increased production, but still ended the year with a $6.9 million loss.1956 brought out a new car, with the introduction of the Rambler. While this was not a new name, the car came out with no mention of either Nash or Hudson. The press raved about the new Rambler with its improved power, larger interior, and smoother steering. The rest of American Motors lineup however, carried the dated styles of 1952.

 

Due to the losses experiences in 1955, AMC could only retool the Rambler, and give the others minor facelifts. Again, the company saw a loss; this time it was $19.7 million. Late in the 1956 model year, AMC introduced their first V8 engine, a 327 cid, and was featured in a limited production, high-performance Rambler Rebel for 1957. With the new engine, and new car, Romney ended 1956 full of hope for the company. He noted that a sales increase of only 30,000 vehicles would turn a profit for the company for 1957. A year later though, AMC suffered a net loss of over $10 million. The sales reduction was due to the senior car line, as the Rambler sales increased. 1958 saw a redesign of the Rambler, and the Nash and Hudson lines were dropped.

 

 

The line up for 1958 included the six cylinder Rambler, the toned down 250 cid V8 rambler, the “Ambassador by Rambler”, the “new” Rambler American, and the Metropolitan, a low investment import. AMC finally saw a profit when 1958 ended just over $26 million in the black. And because of the previous year loss, it was tax-free. 1959 and 1960 saw only minor changes with the Rambler line up, just to enough to keep them fresh. Again, the company ended those years with a profit, and for the first time ever, had over $1 billion in sales. Romney was quite pleased with the Rambler, having its fourth straight year of sales increases. He then decided to something most would have thought impossible. He wanted the Rambler to get a spot in the “low-priced three”: Chevy, Ford and Plymouth.

 

For 1961, The American got a facelift, but kept the same interior and inner door panels to keep cost down. The Ambassador received a completely different front end, and kept the rest of body pretty much the same. And even though AMC finally reached third place in 1961, it was still an off year with sales dropping below the billion-dollar mark.

 

1962 saw the Ambassador as it was known dropped, and put on the smaller Rambler Classic wheelbase. With the two cars being basically the same, the Classic was offered with the six-cylinder engine, while the Ambassador received the V8. AMC remained in third place for 1962 even though styling was a carryover and the rest of the market improved. This was partly due to AMC’s new foreign operations. The man that put AMC into third place, Ed Anderson, resigned at the end of 1961 however. He was tired of being in the engineering department, and had, for years, wanted to be promoted to Vice-President of Styling. He was told that if he was unhappy, he should leave, so that’s what he did. Then, in February of 1962, George Romney asked for a leave of absence to run for Governor of Michigan. Roy Abernathy was then promoted to president, and Richard Cross was named chairman.

 

 

The entire Rambler line, minus the Metropolitan, was restyled for 1963. A few of the changes were curved side windows, new door handles, and smaller wheels. The entire line up was named Motor Trends “Car of the Year”. The 1964 line was the strongest ever, with a slight redesign of the Ambassador, and a completely new American. While they continued to make money, they were also getting more competition in the compact and mid-sized markets from GM and Ford. The end of the 1964 fiscal year saw a slight decline in sales. The drop was credited to a poor mix of models, selling too many low priced cars, and not enough higher priced models. Abernathy wanted to change AMC’s image now. In effort to be more competitive with the “big three”, the 1965 line up would start getting bigger, with more powerful engines, and more options. In response to the new Ford Mustang, the Marlin, a new fastback model, came out in February 1965. It sold only 10,000 units however, and proved to be no competition for the Mustang. It seemed what people wanted was something more compact.

 

 

AMC continued to move into higher price ranges through 1966, by dropping the Rambler name from the Ambassador and Marlin, and adding more options, such as cruise control, and even throw pillows to match the seat covers. The Classic received minor changes, and the American got a facelift. A new 290 cid V8 also was introduced, and was put into the American to create the Rambler Rogue. The 1966 models sold poorly however, partly due to design, and partly because of something even worse: rumors. Abernathy was spending so much money; it was difficult for the company to turn a profit. This started people talking about AMC struggling, financially ailing, and strapped. These rumors started to have a snowball effect on the company, and by the end of the year, the public was seeing AMC as an automotive looser.

 

AMC entered the 1967 model year with a slight restyle of its cars, and the Classic was dropped and replaced with the Rambler Rebel nameplate being brought back. Abernathy was forced to resign, William Luneburg was named president and CEO., and Roy Chapin Jr. was named board chairman. While the 1968 model year looked bleak, many felt reassured with the new management team. Another attempt to compete with the Mustang was made, with the Marlin being replaced by the new Javelin. The Javelin was a compact, sportier car that appealed to the younger crowd. A smaller, two-seater version, dubbed the AMX was also produced. The Rebel, Ambassador, and American were all back again, but the American was the only one with the Rambler nameplate. The American would be the only returning car to have a two-door sedan available, and the Rebel was the only convertible model available. There would be little profit in 1968, but there was profit.

 

The Rebel, Javelin, and AMX would all be carryovers models, with the only changes being in equipment and trim for 1969. The American was rebadged as the Rambler, and the Ambassador was redesigned to its largest size yet. Halfway through he model year, a limited production Rambler was released with a 390 cid V8, performance parts, white paint with red and blue accents, sport wheels, fat tires, and was called the SC/Rambler. Initially, only 500 of these cars were planned, but due to high interest in the car, 1,512 would end up being made. But this would also be the last year of Rambler production, as the last one ever made in America rolled from the assembly lines in June 1969. The Rambler name existed from 1950 to 1969, and 4,204,925 were built.

 

 

Other new cars were introduced during the 70’s, as well as the expansion of AMC. The Hornet, a small car designed to compete with the compacts of the day, and the first American made compact dubbed the Gremlin, were released in 1970. The Gremlin was basically a Hornet cut off at the rear tires, and was marketed towards the younger crowd. But the biggest news for 1970 came with the purchase of Kaiser Jeep for $10 million. While this may have seemed like a bad move for a company losing money, Roy Chapin knew there was potential. After all, the only thing missing from AMC was a truck.

 

 

A new slogan came out in 1971. “If you had to compete with GM, Ford, and Chrysler, what would you do?” The brochures and TV ads provided the answer, actually, a separate answer for each line of cars. The Hornet came out with two models; the Sportabout, a compact station wagon, and the SC/360, a high performance Hornet based on the success of the SC/Rambler. It was equipped with a 360 cid V8, styled wheels, and side stripes. The Gremlin also had a new line, the X package. This had bucket seats, carpeting, slotted wheels, side stripes, painted grill, and wide tires. The Javelin was also new, being longer and wider, but not much heavier. The AMX was a trim package for the Javelin this year, instead of being a separate car, the Rebel was replaced by the Matador, which was essentially just a facelift of the 1970 Rebel, and the Ambassador was a carryover with a different grill and trim. The new addition, the Jeep, was fine tuned, and their engines were replaced with AMC engines. The Jeep assembly line was streamlined and Jeeps were distributed to AMC dealers to improve the Jeep dealer body. AM General, which was in charge of production and sales of military and postal vehicles, became its own subdivision.

 

 

The remainder of the 70’s didn’t see a whole lot of major changes, but did see the introduction of new models. In 1972, the Borg-Warner transmission was dropped and replaced with a smoother shifting Chrysler unit. All stripped down models were dropped, and most cars received better interior trim. The SC/360 Hornet was dropped, but Rallye and X packages were added to it. AMC also came out with the “Buyer Protection Plan”, a warranty plan for new car buyers. Sales and profits increased that year.

 

1973 had the release of the Hornet Hatchback, and the Gremlin received the Levi’s interior that featured door panels and bucket seat covers made of Levi’s blue denim. The Sportabout got a new interior design by Aldo Gucci, consisting of Gucci’s trademark red and green stripes on beige background. Pierre Cardin designed the Javelin’s interior, and a Trans-Am Victory Javelin was offered to celebrate its victory in trans-Am racing. Jeep pickups received new bed boxes and tailgates, and the Quadra-Trac full-time 4-wheel drive system was introduced. Once again Profits were up.

 

The Matador coupe was new in 1974, but looked nothing like the previous Matador. Like the Hornet and Gremlin, it was offered with the X package, and Jeep released a new two-door version of the Wagoneer called the Cherokee.     Car sales went up in 74, but earnings were small due to slow sales of the Matador, and tooling cost to produce it. The Pacer was released in 1975. It was small, wide, and its design was something no one had ever seen before. It was rounded, and had a lot of glass. The original design called for a rotary engine that was going to be purchased from GM, but at the last minute, GN bailed out.  AMC had to widen the fenders to fit the 232 cid six cylinder motor into it. The Javelin and Ambassador were missing from the lineup this year. Losses were at $27.5 million.

 

Everything was a carryover for 1976, except for a new Jeep addition. The CJ-7 was introduced with a 10-inch longer wheelbase than the CJ-5. This gave engineers room for an automatic transmission. Quadra-Trac and a fiberglass top were both available for the CJ-7. Again, AMC saw a loss; this time it was over $46 million. 1977 saw few changes. The Gremlin had a new Custom model, which included a four-cylinder engine. This engine was long overdue, and without time to develop its own, AMC purchased the entire design from Audi. The Pacer got a wagon, and Hornet added an AMX model. Jeep was doing well. The Cherokee got a 4-door model, making it just a younger, sportier Wagoneer, and the Wagoneer was doing very well being the only luxury 4-wheel drive station wagon in the market.

 

The Hornet became a new car in 1978, receiving a facelift, and being moved up market a bit. With its new changes, it was also renamed to the Concord to give it a more “luxurious” sound. The Pacer received a V8 option to help pull its excessive weight around, and the Gremlin received a new GT package. But what AMC really needed was a new look. Unfortunately, it would never happen. Jeep was doing so well, that they were being rushed through assembly to meet demand. This would result in quality control problems.

 

 

The Gremlin was discontinued in 1979, and replaced with the Spirit. It came in a liftback and sedan model, but was still basically a Gremlin with a new roof, grill and back panel. An AMX model of the liftback Spirit was also produced. The entire Matador line was gone, and the CJ and Concord would receive Silver Anniversary editions. Renault bought into AMC, and an agreement was made to sell Renault cars in AMC dealerships in America and Canada. Jeep sales had just barely outsold car sales that year, and when the year was over, AMC had seen its second biggest profit in its history.

 

 

The Jeep line needed better fuel economy for 1980, so part-time four-wheel drive became standard, and Quadra-Trac became an option. The 2.5 liter 4 cylinder purchased from GM in 1979 was also made standard equipment, along with a four-speed transmission. The Cherokee and Wagoneer both received Laredo packages to lure in new buyers. A new four-wheel drive car was introduced, called the Eagle. This was essentially a four-wheel drive Concord. The eagle was available in two or four door sedan, and a station wagon. It also had a full-time four-wheel drive system that would sense when one wheel was slipping and provide more power to the other wheel. It was good for light-duty off-road driving, but not for anything requiring a low range. The eagle sold very well, and the other cars did OK, but AMC suffered a tremendous loss that year, partly because of the recession/inflation. Even the Big Three reported losses that year.

 

A new pickup based on the CJ was introduced in 81. This was named Scrambler and gave AMC an introduction into the compact pickup market. It was only available as four-wheel drive and sold well. The Pacer and AMX were dropped, and two new Eagle were introduced, the SX/4 and Kammback. The SX/4 was basically a four-wheel drive Spirit liftback, and the Kammback was a four-wheel drive Spirit sedan. Also introduced was a new four-wheel drive system. Select-Drive allowed the driver to disconnect the full time four-wheel drive and operate in two-wheel drive to increase fuel mileage. 1982 saw mostly management changes. Renault was now 46% owner of AMC and Renault executive Jose J. Dedeurwaerder became AMC president. The car lines were all carryovers, but offered better fuel economy.

 

AMC was selling the Renault LeCar, Fuego, and the new Alliance as AMC/Renault’s in 1983. They were also tooling for production of their own 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that would be totally designed and built by AMC. The Spirit sedan and liftback were dropped, and the D/L and GT were offered as separate models. Concord two-doors was also dropped. The Eagle line lost the Kammback and two-door sedan, and the rest of the line was carryover.

 

For 1984, an all-new Cherokee was introduced. It was smaller, lighter, given a new suspension, and an optional shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive system and Renault built 2.1-liter turbo-diesel. The CJ-5 was dropped, as were the Eagle SX/4, Spirit, and Concord. Eagle also got the optional shift-on-the-fly system as well. The Alliance was back along with a hatchback model dubbed Encore. But things were also starting to look bad for AMC. Renault and Eagle sales started to slip, and rumors were circulating that Renault wanted to sell its share of AMC. They had lost over a million dollars, and there were labor disputes at Kenosha and the Toledo Jeep plant where Jeeps were being sabotaged.

 

AMC lost more money in 1985. Jeep brought out a new truck. The Comanche. This was based on the Cherokee, and available in two or four-wheel drive. CJ-7 production ended early in 1986 to allow the Brampton plant to retool for its replacement, the Wrangler. Car sales were terrible, but losses were not as bad as they could have been. Halfway through 1986, AMC started to produce Chrysler automobiles at its Kenosha plant. While this was unusual, it was a way for the company to make money. The Eagle was back for 1987, but with no mention of AMC. It was also decided that Renault products would be built in Europe, as they couldn’t afford to retool for production in America.

 

March 1987 marked the release of the news that Chrysler was going to buy AMC. It was strange though, as it would seem that AMC was sure to make a profit, and Renault was bailing out. The purchase price was $1.1 billion, and it was agreed that Renault parts would be bought for five years for use in the new Premier. The final year of car sales was not good. There were less than 25,000 Alliances sold, 4,564 Eagles, and only 192 Premiers. By fall, AMC was named the Jeep/Eagle Division of Chrysler Corp. The Eagle station wagon would be produced in 1988, with more standard equipment, to help get rid of existing stock, The Renault Medallion was renamed Eagle Medallion, and the same was done with the Premier. The Jeep pickups were dropped, and production for the Eagle ended Dec. 14, 1987. This was the last car made by the last independent carmaker.

 

 

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