November 24, 2010
“Brakes are a little squishy on the [then 24-year old] Buick,” I said to my wife, Mrs Sheepandgoats. “Would you run it down to the repair shop first thing in the morning?” But she never made it! Backing out the driveway, the brakes failed completely, and she smacked right into a parked car. In front of a police car, no less! The officer emerged. What was that all about, he wanted to know. Upon being told there was no brakes, he, like all guys rescuing the girl, declared he would move the car. A minute later he got out, pale-faced. There's no brakes on this car! he said.
If you've never had brakes fail completely on you, be assured there's no sensation quite like it. It almost seems as though the car speeds up when you hit the pedal. Of course, this doesn't happen anymore, because, in 1965, one American car manufacturer introduced a technological solution, the dual brake master cylinder.
Q: Which American car manufacturer, in 1965, introduced the dual brake master cylinder?
a) General Motors
The answer is d: none of the above.
It was tiny American Motors, out of business since 1985. So says radio mechanics Click and Clack, who used to ridicule the brand mercilessly.
You know, for the longest time I've wanted to write about American Motors, since these are the cars I was too familiar with growing up. Our family owned several of them. To be sure, that desire to write about them is fading, so I better hurry up and post something before it dies completely. After all, isn't it a bit self-indulgent for some aging guy to go rattling on about the cars he had growing up? And who cares, anyway? Moreover, much of the world would consider it unspeakable luxury to be growing up with, not one car, but two, in the family, as our family did. “You Americans are so spoiled,” a visiting African brother said. “Not only does each family member have his own car, but you have garages to put them in. In Africa, four families would live in that garage!” It's an uneven distribution of wealth, that's for sure. But these days Americans are falling behind the material times, while other countries are rapidly up and coming, building highways which immediately fill with cars.
Besides, from time to time, I used to come across old guys in the ministry who would carry on and on about their Studebakers and Desotos and Packards, and what wonderful cars they were, and how they were ahead of their time. They were also ahead of my time, and so I was only vaguely familiar with those makes. But I do know American Motors. Should I now do my bit for automotive history and spill what I recall about the brand? I think so.
I write this post as Toyota grapples with allegations of sticky accelerator pedals. There's been an evolution. At first, they denied everything and attributed all problems to driver error. But then Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota, went before Congress to tearily beg forgiveness for his jackrabbit cars. However, since then, the Massey mine collapsed in Pennsylvania and the BP oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, Akio Toyoda is twice replaced as the World's Evil Businessman. Freed from the glare of adverse scrutiny, Toyota has gone back to its initial tactic in dealing with sticky accelerator pedals....blaming the victim! So says this story, anyway. Trouble is, I'm not at all sure that's not the correct approach. It's impossible to tell. What with lawyers and gold-diggers, you never know if an unsafe spree is genuine or if it's a tiny glitch exploited beyond all bounds by opportunists. No one ever said all Toyotas run away on you.....worst case scenario is an extremely tiny percentage. Now, I work with a woman whose car also accelerated by itself, climbing an embankment, when all she wanted to do was shut it off; the tire tracks are right outside the office to prove it. It's happened several times, she told me. A cynic (or sexist) might suspect the “nut behind the wheel”....can't this woman drive?....but frankly, knowing her, I doubt that's the case. And.....gasp!....her car is not a Toyota! It's a Honda! Moreover, she took it to the dealer, and they, not being the evil businesspersons of the moment, didn't fix it for free, as Toyota would have. They charged her $700!
But in my day, if you bought a clunker, you bought a clunker. Tough luck! There was no such thing as auto recalls. I have vivid memories of my dad repeatedly aligning the front wheels of his 1960 Rambler American, a car he swore must have been built with “spare parts.” He wore out front tire after front tire, and did not succeed until he learned to ignore the company specs and improvise his own alignment! This American was our first “2nd car.” Up till then, we, and virtually every other family, existed on one car per family. But in the early 60's, “compact” cars were introduced, with the marketing notion that a family might actually buy more than one car, and the idea quickly became reality. Of course, our main car, the car supplemented by the Rambler American, was also a Rambler, a 1958 Rambler Classic.
Most of the psychological hangups I have today trace directly to how, as a child, my people drove Ramblers. Classmates tooled around in deliriously long chariots capped with tailfins on which you could impale a buffalo. Me....I was stuck with boxy toasters that got good gas mileage. Getting good gas mileage is a virtue today, but only a wus cared about it in the sixties. However, my mother was short. She couldn't see over the wheel of most cars, but she could in a Rambler, in which you sat up high. So it was nothing but American Motors for us! Forced to drive these cars, is that how I acquired my life-long habit of sticking up for the underdog? Because, as a teenager at school, you had to defend your families' choice of vehicle, even if you secretly longed for them to show some class and buy a Mustang. And like Johnny Cash sang: “I knew you had to grow tough or die!” [A Boy Named Sue], did defending Ramblers make me tough.....willing to ignore popular opinion? I don't think I'd overstate the case, but maybe I shouldn't understate it, either.
And I'll defend them still, even though it's been 25 years since their demise. Even though I know, deep down in my heart of hearts, that they don't really deserve defending, or at best, deserve it only partially. After all, aren't they Mormon cars?....something I never even suspected until I saw the Mormon missionaries all tooling around in AMC Hornets....whereupon I discovered that founder George Romney (father of 2010 Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney) was a Mormon. So let Mormons defend them. Of course, I don't know for sure that Romney's AMC successors were Mormons, but why else would the church buy a fleet of Hornets?
Despite the recession of 1958, with George Romney at the helm, Rambler sales increased, while every other make decreased. This landed him on the cover of Time Magazine. The following year, sales doubled, and they nearly doubled again in 1960. Romney retired in 1963 to try his hand in politics, and he later commented that the company's undoing was to abandon his focus on economy in a quest to be like the big boys with a full line-up of cars.
To be sure, AMC's perennial lack of financial resources often showed, and the company's full line-up is an odd mixture of innovation and dud. The Marlin is a good example. Originally a cool idea (see illustrations), the company didn't quite have the resources to pull it off, so they settled for a dud. The same thing happened with the Pacer, which sold like mad in its first year or two, and then virtually stopped.
Some of the handsomest cars in the 60's were by American Motors....I think of the 68 Javelin, for instance.... but also, truth be told, some of the ugliest. Lacking funds for proper retooling, AMC would start with an attractive product, and then add more chrome and crud with each succeeding year till you could barely stand to look at the result. Popular Mechanics, in 1967, quoted someone saying the Rambler Rebel was the best-looking new car around...“hard to believe it's made by American Motors.” But by 1975, just look at the monstrous mess (pictured) they'd turned it into:
(And that green 61 Ramber American, pictured above.....Lord, what an ugly car!) Ironically, though, the coupe version of the same car was thoroughy cool.
But some models, ridiculed today in movies like Wayne's World, were, at the time of their introduction, thought cute and innovative.....the Gremlin and the Pacer, for example. The Gremlin actually won top honors at Consumer Reports in its first year, a recommendation most out of character, as the magazine rarely had anything good to say about the brand. (It's competitors, Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto, weren't around yet....tiny American Motors had beaten them to the punch) And the Ambassador, I thought, was downright handsome.....a poor man's Cadillac, someone called it, in the same way an AMX was a poor man's Corvette. I bought a used one of my own while in school.
The fourth Rambler our family owned was a 66 Classic. It's the same model which drove the Beatles onto Shea Stadium the year prior. Now, this makes no sense at all. Why weren't they driven afield in a Cadillac? This was the British Invasion, after all. The Beatles were the sensation of the decade. But later I learned that promoters of the time didn't treat rock stars in the worshipful way they do today. They didn't spend a lot of money on them, though God knows, they made enough off them. That's why you always hear of rock and roll artists of the 50's and 60's going down in plane crashes. Promoters lined up the ricketiest, cheapest airfare available, not the whispering limo-planes you might suppose they would charter. Rock groups were put up in hotels, to be sure, but not really great hotels....just functional ones. Did promoters figure that rock and roll groups were just kids, and you didn't spoil kids? Or were they all just a bunch of amateurs? A Rambler was plenty good enough for them. Incredibly, the Beatles later played centerfield at a St Louis stadium in the pouring rain.....they got drenched....because management didn't want to pay the $400 required to erect an awning for them. They could have been electrocuted. (see The Unseen Beatles, a BBC DVD, 2007) No wonder youthful musicians loathe the music industry.
And get a load of this nutjob, who claims an AMC Hornet was the best Bond car ever. James Bond, you'll remember, drove Aston Martins, and Lotus Espirits, and BMW Z sportsters. You wouldn't think he'd be caught dead in a Rambler. But in the 1974 film Man With the Golden Gun, James Bond jumps a river in his AMC Hornet X, all the while spiraling a complete 360 degrees around. An Astro Spiral Jump! None of those pampered pricey “pretty boy” cars came close to such a stunt. It was plain ol bread n butter American Motors what done the deed. (Be sure to play the YouTubes on the linked-to post)
Actually, I call this fellow a “nutjob” tongue-in-cheek. I like him. I like his blog. In “researching” this post, I found myself again and again searching though his material, almost to the point of.....why go anywhere else? He freely admits to being a compulsive automotive nerd given to recording trivia of lackluster vehicles that other authors would sensibly leave to rust in peace. I'm sorely tempted to spend hours and hours and hours perusing his blog, but of course, I don't. I have to write about God.
Long after I left the family home, when I should have known better, and had no plausible excuse, I bought a used 1983 Concord, pictured here in a Bill Vance post. Such was the hold that the AMC cult held over me, a cult I might never have broken away from had not the company been absorbed by Chrysler, which promptly discontinued all AMC cars. The model I bought is the same of which Car and Driver (2/78) once wrote “You have the eerie feeling in steering the Concord down the road that somehow, something isn’t quite right, isn’t quite integrated.” Actually, I didn't notice that. But, in time, the car developed a discouraging habit of stalling on right turns. I did notice that.
More on the Hornet Spiral Jump from McHenrySoftware.
OH NO!!! Cars II, the movie, is due out in June of 2011, and it appears that both Gremlins and Pacers are cast as villains! I tell you, life is unfair, pure and simple.
[Edit 12/12/2010: Oh, very well. Here it is, the song Little Nash Rambler.]