Monday, April 5, 2010

AMC's Edsel: 1961 AMC Ambassador Custom

In 1959, American Motors of Kensoha, Wisconsin, was swimming in money.  The company got lucky when the economy tanked in 1958 and its line of fuel efficient compact Rebel's, Custom's and American's caught the buying public's attention by promising smaller, thrift cars that were well built.  The company also built a very large, full-sized car named the Ambassador.  The Ambassador (a model name that went back to the Nash days) was essentially Ramble Custom on a stretch wheel base with topline appointments, but it was still a "value" added car, or a really big Rambler any way you cut it.  By 1960, Rambler sales were running third behind and Chevloet and Ford, and Rambler knocked Buick from the third position.  Heady stuff for one of two remaining independents, the other being Studebaker, which was suffering a host of other maladies.

Rambler styling was was the under the auspices of Edmund Anderson, and Anderson convinced George Romney that the public would buy more Ambassadors if the company could further differeniate the the "big Rambler" model from basic Ramblers by giving it a slightly different look - one that was related, but different.  Romney gave the project a greenlight, but knew that Rambler's future was in small cars.

The car that emerged is pictured above.   

Anderson had sold the 1961 Ambassador design to the AMC product planners as "european" in its inspriation.  And Anderson paid for the redesign by cutting corners and sharing components.  The greehouse above the beltline was shared with lesser Ramblers.  The reverse "C" pillar, a Rambler styling hallmark since the mid 1950s was outdated by 1961, but reused to save money on a unique greenhouse.  More money was shaved by giving the car a 1961 Rambler Classic rear end.  In place of Classic's "sole plate" taillights, Anderson's team assembled a variety of conflicting shapes - circles and cones - and heavy stainless trim.  But the worst aspect of the design was given to the front, where AMC's designers decided to try everything the could to set the car apart.

The stretched front fenders arched up and backwards, and the hood sprouted eyebrows that hover over the floating headlights.  A trapzoid grille of fine bars appeared.  All of the shapes fought on and other as if to suggest to design was based on people saying "We haven't used (insert shape) lets run it up the flag pole and see who salutes."  The whole design looked like it was at war with itself.

Inside, it was pure Rambler.  But even the horn button sprouted two paper clip like wings that spiked up and then dropped back down. 

And how was it received?

The car was an unmitigated disaster for AMC.

Ambassador sales in the good years were around 10,000 plus vehicles.  But the 1961 Ambassador saw sales that were virtually non existent somewhere around 9,000.  For comparison, Rambler production was 90,000+ for the same year.  This meant that for every 10 cars sold through AMC, nine were Classics and Customs and Americans.  Most dealers got one or two and that was that for a given community.  Dealers in larger cities got more, but the car was lost in the crowd. 9,000 Ambassadors nationwide compared to 675,000 Chevy's.  Mechanically, all Ramblers were sound cars.  But the Ambassador was heavy, ugly, expensive and dealers couldn't give them away.

So what was the fallout?  First and foremost AMC took a huge loss on the tooling for the project.  Because the tooling wasn't reused for 1962, the loss on each vehicle produced was larger than if the tooling had been used over a two or three year life span.  The failure of the 1961 models forced AMC to exit the Full Sized car market. From 1962 through 1964, the Ambassador was nothing more than a compact Rambler Classic.   Edmund Anderson ultimately lost his job.  But from a public perception stand point, AMC just seemed to produce strange looking cars.  By 1967 when the company fielded its most mainstream models, people moved on to other makes with better quality.  Unlike Toyota today, which makes everything from a Prius to the Avalon, AMC ended up with a reputation of making cars that were just "meh".  And that reputation dogged the company until its final days under Renault ownership.

So why don't more know about this car? Its probably because so few of them were produced and so few survived.  And it was a one year mistake.  Even the Edsel had a three year run.  And while the name "Edsel" has been retired because of its negative meanings, AMC continued to use the Ambassador name until 1974. But 1961 Ambassador styling was so ugly,  AMC couldn't wait to end its misery.  And thats why its dropped from the radar screen.  Now you see it, now you don't.  Its like that crazy aunt you keep locked in the basement.  What Aunt you say.  Exactly.

But would I want one?  In a heartbeat!


  1. oy, i got nervous for a minute & thought this abortion was yours.

  2. Me likey!! It mixes European and atrocious so successfully, that I want it and want to be seen in it.

  3. It's a fabulous mishmash of all the 50s style notes- tailfins, chrome, wraparound windshields, and huge body for the tire size.

  4. We had a rambler and my poor older brother had to drive it to school which his friends to sing:

    "When you're ramblin'
    in your Rambler
    the whole world laughs at you
    ha ha."

  5. To me, it less Eurpoean and more like 1950s or 60s Japanesish.

    I found this example on eBay. The seller was asking around $21,000. It was a flawless example of a flawed design. But there is a certain cache in driving something like this. (And that would be me if I had the cash to thrown down for it.)

  6. And I love the tail lights - they look like someone got the "beans above the weiner" so to speak.

  7. This is a model I've never seen. I think a beige phone in the back seat would be perfect.