For a make that hasn't been around for almost 40 years, Ramblers get their share of cultural "hits." Here's a partial list:
Kenny Chesney's song "How Forever Feels."
The aliens from the "Third Rock from the Sun" TV series sit in a 1962 Rambler American.
Comic Louie Anderson talks about his dad's Rambler.
"The Sopranos" and "Prison Break" episodes feature the make.
"Fred" in the movie "Cars" is a Rambler.
What's behind this cultural phenomenon? Here's a plausible answer: Ramblers were cute, efficient and affordable, and lots of people have a version of America's first compact car tucked somewhere in their family history. After all, the Rambler line, named Motor Trend's 1963 "Car of the Year," was number three in U.S. new-car sales in the 1960s behind Chevy and Ford.
To do Rambler justice, we must start at the beginning - in 1902. That's when bicycle-maker Thomas Jeffery made his first Rambler in Kenosha, Wis., where most later Ramblers were made, too. With 1,500 cars produced in 1902, Jeffery's company was the second biggest car company in America after Oldsmobile. The first Rambler pioneered the spare tire and sold reasonably well, but the name was dropped in 1914.
Nash-Kelvinator, successor to the business that acquired Jeffery's company, resurrected the Rambler name in 1950 on a two-door Nash sedan with a convertible top and enclosed front wheels. (This wheel placement limited vehicle turning radius. Despite this, the design lasted until American Motors Corporation (AMC), formed when Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson merged, brought out the 1955 Ramblers.)
By 1958, with the Nash and Hudson names gone, all AMC cars were Ramblers except for its small Metropolitans (1958-62). AMC President George Romney's gamble to go with the Rambler name and stick mostly to small cars on one platform worked. But competition and the choice by Romney's successor to try to make AMC a full-line carmaker led to Rambler's and the company's eventual demise. The Rambler name started disappearing in 1966 and was gone after 1969.
But Rambler left a legacy. The main models were the Ambassador (basically a stretched mid-size), the Classic, the American compact and the Cross Country wagon.
AMC dropped two-door Ramblers in 1956. When the new American two-door came out in 1958, it still contained some dated technology. The model sold decently, however, because it was inexpensive and got good mileage. The American's underpinnings didn't receive a major update until 1964, though it was good enough to form the basis for such later AMC cars as Javelin, Hornet and Gremlin.
In 1966, some Rambler Americans had the model's first V-8 engine, but the Rambler name, identified with "compact" in many consumers' minds, began its fade because it didn't fit in AMC's multi-brand plans. First dropped from other lines, the '69 American, now known only as a "Rambler," was the last model, if you don't count Mexican-made models made until 1983 - and a muscle car.
Never known for power or speed, Rambler dipped a few toes in the muscle-car pond. A special '57 Rambler Rebel was faster than any American-made car save the Corvette. Rambler also tried to ride the original Ford Mustang's wave with the Marlin (1965-7) and the Rogue, an American with a 290 cubic-inch engine. Neither model sold well, however. The striking fastback roof of the '65-'66 Marlins was very un-Rambler like, but they lacked power. (Some collectors prize Marlins, partly because less than 18,000 were made.)
Another "un-Rambler" car, the limited-production 1969 Hurst SC/Rambler (1,512 models), could also lay claim to being the last Rambler. It had a hood scoop and a 390 cubic-inch V-8 but, to keep weight down, no AC or power steering.
Never powerful or cutting-edge, Ramblers carved their niche with practicality and boxy good looks. That was good enough for some, including some aliens, country singers, scriptwriters and comedians' parents.
Sources: AMC Rambler Car Club website (www.amcrc.com); www.amx-files.com; "AMC Cars: 1954-87, An Illustrated History" (Patrick Foster, Motorbooks International, 2004); and "The Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975" (John Gunnell, ed., Kraus Publications, 1987).