For much of its existence, American Motors’ focus was on compact economy cars, a cause that the company once promoted with missionary zeal. How, then, do we explain this car? Not simply a Supercar, but a bona fide street racer bearing the well-known name of performance-parts guru George Hurst — and the last car to wear the Rambler nameplate. This is the story of the 1969 Hurst-AMC SC/Rambler.
THE SMALL GET BIGGER
George Romney, who took over as head of American Motors upon the death of George Mason in late 1954, faced a difficult challenge. Mason had orchestrated the merger of Nash and the ailing Hudson Motor Car Company that spring in hopes that together they would stand a better chance of survival against the onslaught of Ford and Chevrolet. Hudson had been on the verge of collapse before the merger and Nash’s 1954 sales were down an alarming 25% from their none-too-robust 1953 total.
As Mason’s executive assistant (and later executive vice president), Romney had been instrumental in the development of both the compact Nash Rambler and the diminutive Anglo-American Nash Metropolitan. While Mason had seen the sales value of a small car, Romney believed that compact cars simply made more sense than big ones and looked at the exaggerated girth of bread-and-butter family cars with disdain. Over the next few years, Romney would become a witty but passionate advocate of small cars — so much so that he was prepared to bet the company on them.
In 1957, Romney dropped both the Nash and Hudson marques and consolidated all of AMC’s remaining cars under the Rambler name. Not all were compacts — the Rambler Ambassador sedan was 201 inches (5,096 mm) long — but even the big cars were stretched versions of the “midsize” Rambler introduced in 1956.
In a different era, this might have been commercial suicide, since the Rambler lineup was noticeably smaller than comparable Chevrolets or Fords, not substantially cheaper, and possessed of rather eccentric styling. Fortunately for Romney, his decision coincided with the beginning of the Eisenhower recession and a buyer backlash against the stylistic excesses of the Big Three. American consumers suddenly evinced an interest in compact economy cars, including imports like the Volkswagen Beetle. In this climate, Rambler’s smaller, more economical models struck a responsive chord.
By 1960, AMC had reached fourth place in U.S. auto sales. In 1961, total Rambler sales slipped significantly in the face of new competition in the form of the Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, and Valiant, but they were still good enough to claim the No. 3 slot, beating out Plymouth. Sales for 1962 and 1963 were also strong.
A CHANGE OF DIRECTION
In early 1962, George Romney resigned as chairman and CEO of AMC to run for governor of Michigan. In February, the AMC board appointed former Packard executive Roy Abernethy, who had been AMC’s VP of sales since 1954, as the company’s new president.
AMC’s early success began to evaporate not long after Abernethy’s promotion. The U.S. economy was improving, and with gas cheap and consumer confidence high, the interest in small cars was waning. Furthermore, the market was now saturated with domestic compacts and intermediates like the Ford Fairlane and Chevrolet Chevelle, which competed directly with AMC’s bread-and-butter midsize Rambler.
While AMC’s sales remained relatively consistent for a while — 1964 business was actually a few thousand units more than in 1961 — the company’s market share was shrinking. What had made AMC No. 3 in 1961 was now only good for eighth place. The U.S. market was growing, thanks largely to the Baby Boomers then reaching driving age, but AMC’s sales were not. Tellingly, Ford’s new Mustang outsold the entire AMC lineup by a significant margin in 1965; by the end of the decade, so did the U.S.-market Volkswagen Beetle.
Roy Abernethy had never been enthusiastic about compact cars and felt AMC needed to move back toward the mainstream. Under Abernethy’s auspices, the Rambler Classic and Ambassador grew closer to the size of Big Three rivals and AMC took its first ill-fated step into the sporty specialty car market with the Rambler Marlin. Abernethy invested nearly $100 million in the development of two all-new engines and eventually authorized the Javelin, AMC’s answer to the Mustang.
These moves were expensive and except for the Javelin (which didn’t appear until 1968), they had little impact on sales or on dealers, who were beginning to desert the marque. Although the new Ramblers had pleasant styling by new design VP Richard Teague, AMC suffered from lackluster marketing, mediocre assembly quality, and an image as a car for retirees. Abernethy’s position was further undermined by George Romney, who told the press that he would have made different choices.
By early 1966, AMC was losing money rapidly — $4.2 million in the first six months of the year alone and more than $12 million for the fiscal year — and industry observers wondered if the company would seek an outside buyer.
In the face of that financial crisis, investor Robert Evans bought up 220,000 shares of AMC stock, which in March made him chairman of the board. Evans felt that Abernethy’s problem was that he hadn’t gone far enough and started pushing for new ways of thinking.
AMC GOES RACING
George Romney had been one of the leading advocates of the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) racing “ban” in 1957 and performance of any kind was generally anathema to AMC’s image. (Curiously, the 1957 Rambler Rebel V8 was one of the quickest cars in America that year, although only 1,500 were built.) Roy Abernethy had upheld that policy, which had earned him the derision of some critics. By the spring of 1966, however, rumors were brewing that AMC would soon end its moratorium on competition in hopes of spicing up the tired Rambler image.
In January 1967, Abernethy agreed to take early retirement. Bob Evans relinquished his role as chairman to Roy Chapin, Jr., while Bill Luneburg became president. That spring, Chapin announced that AMC would indeed go racing. To oversee those efforts, Chapin hired a new vice president of engineering and styling, Victor Raviolo. Raviolo had spent 20 years at Ford, where he’d worked on both the racing Lincolns of the early fifties and later the Lotus Cortina for Ford’s English subsidiary. Raviolo was charged with both overseeing the racing program and developing performance parts for AMC cars, both through the aftermarket and through American’s own parts catalog (creating an array of so-called “Group 19” performance parts).
Under Raviolo’s leadership, AMC made a frontal assault on both the drag strips and the race tracks, including pitting the new Javelin against the Camaro and Mustang in the SCCA Trans Am circuit.
THE VANISHING RAMBLER AMERICAN
All this activity focused on the Javelin and its AMX derivative, which left AMC’s smallest car, the Rambler American, lost in the shuffle. The American had been redesigned in 1964 with new styling by Dick Teague, but it remained wholly unremarkable in every other way. The redesigned American did well in its first year, but sales tapered off significantly after that.
In 1965, the American benefitted from the first of American’s two new engines. A new overhead-valve six (sometimes called “Torque Command”), it was available in 199 cu. in. (3,258 cc) and 232 cu. in. (3,801 cc) forms with up to 145 gross horsepower (108 kW). With the latter, the American could go from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over 13 seconds and reach a top speed of about 100 mph (161 km/h), competitive with most of its six-cylinder domestic rivals. A year later, the smaller Rambler got a facelift that extended its nose 3.8 inches (97 mm), primarily to make room under the hood for AMC’s second new engine, a 290 cu. in. (4,751 cc) V8 that became optional mid-year, initially offered only in a new hardtop model called Rambler Rogue.
The V8 was AMC’s second in-house eight-cylinder engine, replacing an earlier V8 of mid-fifties origins. Lighter and cheaper to build than its predecessor, the new engine was rated at either 200 hp (149 kW) or 225 hp (168 kW). In the compact Rambler Rogue, even the 200 hp engine provided brisk acceleration, although fuel economy was hardly in the Rambler tradition. (In 1967, a handful of Rogues got the bigger 343 cu. in. (5,624 cc) version of this engine with 280 hp (209 kW), although they were very rare.)
The priorities of Rambler buyers were evident in the low sales of the V8, whose share of Rambler American sales amounted amounted to less than 5%. A more effective strategy was de-contenting the base models to reduce their prices, pitting them against the cheaper imports. The stripped Rambler American 220 was not an inspiring vehicle, but for buyers looking for no-nonsense basic transportation, it made sense. It accounted for about half of all Rambler Americans sold for 1968 and 1969.
GOING OUT WITH A BANG
Even with the cost-cutting plan, Rambler American sales remained disappointing: around 70,000 for 1967 and about 81,000 for 1968. AMC was preparing a replacement, the Hornet (which would in turn spawn the Gremlin), but it wouldn’t be ready until 1970. In the meantime, AMC’s aging compact was facing the popular new Ford Maverick and increased competition from imports like the Datsun 510. The success of the Javelin and AMX hadn’t trickled down to the compact line, so the Rambler American (called simply “Rambler” for 1969) was, in the vernacular of the time, nowhere. To shore up interest until the arrival of the Hornet, AMC needed a gimmick.
AMC turned to Hurst Performance Products. Hurst shift linkages had been a staple of hot rodders and drag racers since the fifties and George Hurst had a flair for clever promotion. In 1968, he had teamed up with Oldsmobile to produce a hotter version of the Hurst/Olds, which had been quite successful. AMC contracted with Hurst to develop a car that would probably have appalled George Romney on general principle: a limited-production, high-performance version of the Rambler American.
The resulting car, dubbed the AMC SC/Rambler, was a stripped-down street rod in the tradition of the Plymouth Road Runner. The SC/Rambler began life as a white Rambler hardtop fitted with a heavy-duty suspension, faster-ratio manual steering, front disc brakes, limited-slip differential, and a four-speed manual transmission. Its sole engine was AMC’s biggest offering, the “AMX 390” (6,384 cc) V8.
“Big” is a relative term in this case, for while the 390’s displacement was considerable, it was essentially a bored-and-stroked version of the 290 that had been offered on the Rambler since 1966. Unlike the big-block Ford 390 and Chevy 396 engines, which were physically much larger than their small-block counterparts, the AMX 390 had the same external dimensions as its smaller brothers and was only about 10% heavier. It was rated at 315 gross horsepower (235 kW) and 425 lb-ft (576 N-m) torque, which was less than a GTO or SS396, but the 3,150 lb (1,430 kg) AMC SC/Rambler was a good deal lighter than those rivals.
At Hurst, each innocent-looking Rambler got a set of gaudy red and blue stripes; noisy Thrush glasspack mufflers; a set of blue-painted Magnum 500 wheels; racing mirrors; a Hurst shift linkage; and a massive cold air intake on the hood. As a final touch, an 8,000-rpm Sun tachometer was clamped onto the steering column in true street rod fashion.
With its Fourth of July paint job, rumbling exhaust, and mailbox-size hood scoop, the AMC SC/Rambler made a definite impression — rather like having your elderly grandmother come out of the basement wearing camouflage paint and a Che Guevara beret, clutching a throwing knife between her teeth. AMC initially planned to built 500 of these cars, just enough to homologate the SC/Rambler for NHRA F/Stock drag racing, but that was soon upped to 1,000 and then 1,500 units.
When the SC/Rambler made its debut at the Chicago auto show in March 1969, the reaction of the press could best be described as incredulous. The buff books had liked the Javelin and its short-wheelbase AMX sibling and were growing accustomed to the more irreverent tone of the company’s new advertising direction (following a mid-1967 change of ad agencies), but seeing the Rambler American, last bastion of AMC’s traditional economy-minded frumpiness, decked out in full street racer livery was jarring. Reactions to the car’s red-white-and-blue color scheme ranged from bemused to simply appalled and the enormous and awkward-looking hood scoop (helpfully labeled “AIR” for the benefit of old-line Rambler salesmen who had no knowledge of such things) was simply over the top.
If the AMC SC/Rambler looked like a caricature, it at least had the muscle to back up its boasts. The 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) dash took around 6 seconds and in good tune the SC/Rambler could complete the quarter mile (402 meters) in the low 14-second range with ETs of around 100 mph (161 km/h) — not class-leading performance, but good enough to place the SC/Rambler in the first rank. Top speed was around 115 mph (185 km/h), limited by redline rather than power. The downside of all this ferocious performance was fuel economy of about 12 mpg (19.6 L/100 km) on premium fuel compared to an easy 20 mpg (11.8 L/100 km) on regular for a six-cylinder Rambler 220.
While the SC/Rambler’s stopping power was reasonably good, its handling left much to be desired. With stiffer shocks and springs (and a much-needed front anti-roll bar), it was less tipsy than the standard Rambler, but still far from nimble, compounded by slow steering that did not lend itself to precise maneuvers. The SC/Rambler’s suspension did a much better job of controlling the rear axle for dragstrip starts, which was of course its primary purpose.
The icing on this ridiculously colored cake was its price, which was set at a remarkably low $2,998. The only option was an AM radio, for $61.20. (We have heard rumors that a few of these cars were equipped with air conditioning, which is possible, but seems incongruous.) At less than $3,000, the AMC SC/Rambler was a better deal than a Plymouth Road Runner and several hundred dollars less than a comparably equipped Javelin or AMX. The only way the SC/Rambler could not be considered a screaming bargain was in the area of insurance premiums; its power-to-weight ratio ventured into punitive surcharge territory.
DOWN AND OUT
Production of the AMC SC/Rambler eventually totaled 1,512, about half of which had a slightly less outrageous color scheme with narrower red stripes. Many dealers did not find the cars easy to sell, both because of the paint job and because AMC salesmen did not have a lot of experience promoting and selling performance cars; one can only imagine the horror with which the stereotypical Rambler buyer would have reacted to finding one of these cars in the dealer showroom. The SC/Rambler did apparently boost sales of lesser Ramblers, which were up nearly 20% for their final year. When they were gone, the Rambler marque died with them, although the nameplate survived in certain export markets for several more years.
In 1971, American Motors and Hurst applied the same treatment to the midsize AMC Rebel to create the Rebel Machine. This had the same 390 cu. in. (6,384 cc) engine as the SC/Rambler, now rated at 340 hp (254 kW). Unfortunately, The Machine had a similarly heavy-handed color scheme and insurance companies found it just as disagreeable. Sources vary on how many were built, but it was fewer than 2,400.
AMC’s last stab at the Supercar genre was the 1971 Hornet SC/360, with a new 360 cu. in. (5,892 cc) “tall-block” version of the familiar V8. Although American anticipated 10,000 sales, the final tally was only 784, a sign of how much the insurance situation had affected performance-car sales.
At first, AMC’s racing program was long on underdog pluck and short on actual victories. The Javelin made a good showing in Trans Am in 1968, but came in third, which led Roy Chapin to demand Victor Raviolo’s resignation later that year. However, AMC’s fortunes steadily improved. Stealing Roger Penske and Mark Donohue away from Chevrolet for the 1970 season earned American Motors second place and manufacturer’s championships in 1971 and 1972.
The publicity of competition provide only a temporary boost to AMC’s flagging fortunes. Sales brightened for 1968 and 1969, and then plummeted to 270,000 in 1970 and about 245,000 for 1971. Efforts to refocus the company on compact cars like the Gremlin and Pacer were only partly successful; sales of new models started off well and then seemed to fall off a cliff.
The seventies were not uniformly awful for AMC, thanks in part to strong sales of Jeep, which Roy Chapin had bought from Kaiser in 1970. Still, passenger car sales began an irreversible slide after 1974, eventually leading AMC to an ill-fated alliance (no pun intended) with the French automaker Renault. The strength of Jeep saved AMC from complete collapse and prompted Chrysler to buy the company in 1987, but the AMC name didn’t survive the eighties and by the turn of the century, Jeep was all that remained. [Author’s note: Since Chrysler’s acquisition by Fiat, Jeep, like Chrysler and Dodge, is now part of FCA US LLC, formerly Chrysler Group.]
AMC SC/Ramblers, Machines, and Hornet SC/360s are now highly collectible thanks to their performance and rarity. Of the three, we have the greatest fondness for the SC/Rambler, mostly for its sheer audacity. If it were just a tad more sober, it might seem sad and desperate — a middle-aged man trying too hard to reinvent himself as a Party Dude — but every time we look at it, we can’t help smiling. Most Supercars flirted with self-parody, only occasionally on purpose, but the SC/Rambler is wholehearted Camp. It’s hard not to love it for that.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Some of our information on AMC in this period came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “1968 Javelin: AMC’s Ponycar Answer,” Special Interest Autos #94 (August 1986), reprinted in AMX & Javelin Muscle Portfolio 1968-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1994); Roy D. Chapin, Jr., “How I’m Going to Save American Motors,” Mechanix Illustrated July 1967; John A. Conde, “drive report: 1968 AMX: X meant exciting and exceptional,” Special Interest Autos #52 (August 1979), reprinted in AMX & Javelin Muscle Portfolio 1968-1974; Patrick Foster, American Motors Corporation: The Rise and Fall of America’s Last Independent Automaker (Minneapolis, MN: MBI Publishing Company, 2013); Standard Catalog of Jeep, 1940–2003 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2003); and The Story of Jeep (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1998); Barbara Hillick, “Group 19: AMC high-performance parts were second to none,” Muscle Car Review July 1990; Charles K. Hyde, Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009); John F. Katz, “Teague’s Terrific Two-Seater: 1969 AMX 390,” Special Interest Autos #139 (January-February 1994), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT, 2002); Donald MacDonald, “Wither AMC?” and “Red-Blooded American!” Motor Trend Vol. 18, No. 5 (May 1966), pp. 36-40, 70; Leon Mandel, “‘Let’s Hear It For Javelin!’ ‘Javelin Who?'” Car and Driver September 1968, reprinted in AMX & Javelin Muscle Portfolio 1968-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1994); Wolfgang A. Mederle, “AMC History,” American Motors 1954-1987, 3 May 2009, www.american-motors. de/en/ history/60s/, accessed 16 August 2009; “Project IV,” Auto Topics April 1966; “Rambler American,” Car and Driver Vol. 11, No. 10 (April 1964), reprinted in AMC Rambler Limited Edition Extra 1956–1969, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004), pp. 61–63; John Rosa, The Javelin AMX Home Page, 29 May 2009, www.javelinamx. com, accessed 16 August 2009; Todd Ruel’s interviews with designer Bob Nixon (“Torque-O Podcast #2: Interview with Bob Nixon, 6 October 2006, www.torq-o. com/ Podcasts/podcasts.html, accessed 9 December 2009), former AMC marketing VP Bill McNealy (“Torq-O Podcast #7: Interview with Bill McNealy,” 20 July 2008, Torq-O: The Cog Blog, www.torq-o. com (audio recording), accessed 1 February 2010) and product planning VP Gerald Meyers (“Torque-O Podcast #9: Interview with Gerald Meyers,” 12 October 2008, Torq-O: The Cog Blog, www.torq-o. com (audio recording), accessed 7 December 2009); Julian Schmidt, “What Hath Rambler Wrought?” Motor Trend Vol. 19, No. 9 (September 1967), pp. 30-33; and Daniel Strohl, “The Racy One,” Hemmings Muscle Machines #36 (September 2006).
Information on the SC/Rambler and Rebel Machine came from “AMC-Hurst SC/Rambler: American Motors takes its Clark Kent model into George Hurst’s phone booth and walks out with a Super Car,” Car and Driver May 1969; “Hurst Shifts Rambler to Speedster,” Road Test June 1969; and “Track Burner from AMC – The Machine: The Rebel that’s really a Wild One,” Road Test May 1970, which are reprinted in AMC Rambler Limited Edition Extra 1956-1969, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004), and Dennis David, “1969 Hurst SC/Rambler: The Comeback Kid’s Counterpunch,” Special Interest Autos #161 (September-October 1997), pp. 24–29. Additional data on both the Rambler American and the SC/Rambler came from “mhaas” of AMCyclopedia, 16 January 2006, www.amcyclopedia. org, accessed 4 August 2009; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1970 AMC Rebel Machine: Portrait of a Muscle Car,” HowStuffWorks.com, 12 September 2007, musclecars. howstuffworks. com/ classic-muscle-cars/ 1970-amc-rebel-machine.htm, accessed 16 August 2009; and Rich Truesdell, “Pete Harrison’s 1970 AMC Rebel” 2001, clubs.hemmings. com/clubsites/ classicamx/RebMachArticle/ RebMachineArticle.html, accessed 16 August 2009.