Milford man remembers Ramblers, writes history of automaker AMC
Milford (AP) - Automotive writer Patrick R. Foster always had a soft spot in his heart for the so-called orphans of the road - car brands that are no longer produced like Packard, Duesenberg and Studebaker.
Now he has written what quite likely is the definitive history of the American Motors Corp., a car maker that itself was forged in 1954 from the wreckage of three other mostly forgotten automobile brands - Nash, Hudson and Kaiser.
Foster, who had access to AMC's corporate files, tells the story of a car company that through luck, pluck and innovation managed to survive and even thrive despite withering competition from the Big Three. His new book, "American Motors Corporation: The Rise and Fall of the Last Independent Automaker," is in bookstores now, and also available from the site www.oldemilfordpress.com.
"From about 1956 through about '64, the Rambler was seen as a smart buy, but after that it was perceived as something cheap," Foster said from his home in Milford. "George Romney may have overdone the 'economy' angle."
Romney, the father of former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, took over the reins of AMC in late 1954 - after the death of its first CEO, George W. Mason - and took on the task of cobbling together new models from the old lineups of Nash and Hudson.
By 1956, the Nash and Hudson nameplates disappeared from the scene, replaced by AMC's flagship brand, the Rambler.
The bread-and-butter car was the Rambler American, the first U.S.-built compact car. It sold by the thousands as Americans warmed up to the idea of getting a second car.
Three similar-looking larger cars rounded out the lineup, the Ambassador, the Rebel and the Six.
To cut costs, parts and assemblies were shared across the brand wherever possible. In one instance, a model was restyled in part by mounting a rear tail light lens upsidedown.
The company offered a strange amalgam of forward-thinking designs and ancient technology. AMC was the first U.S. automaker to offer curved side-window glass and unibody construction. But it persisted with inefficient flathead engines and annoying vacuum-powered wipers into the mid-1960s - both automotive artifacts from the pre-World War II era.
"You look at things like that and you have to ask yourself, 'What generation is this car from?"' Foster said.
The company teetered on bankruptcy from time to time, seemingly kept afloat only by Romney's missionary zeal.
"He was able to rally the dealership network, the marketing people and even the guys on the shop floor," Foster said.
But Romney's tenure at AMC came to an end on Feb. 10, 1962, when he announced that he was quitting to run for governor of Michigan.
The men who succeeded him seemed to lack his sense of marketplace timing and weren't as good at wringing deals from labor unions, car dealers and suppliers.
A case in point was the AMC Javelin. When Ford took the world by storm with the Mustang late in the 1964 model year, Chevy and Plymouth were quick to respond within a few months with the Camaro and the Barracuda.
AMC could have quickly rolled out a pony car, too, by reworking its compact American platform. But instead it responded with the Marlin, a full-size, two-door sporty fastback that didn't catch on.
The Javelin finally arrived in showrooms in 1967 and received a much warmer reception.
Some dealers wept tears of joy after three years without a real pony car to sell.
The AMC Pacer, "the first wide small car," was greeted with initial enthusiasm when it arrived in 1975. But customers soon found the car to be heavy and sluggish. The model limped along for five years.
The Big Three could easily shrug off the occasional Edsel, but for AMC rolling out models like the Pacer and the Marlin that sold poorly eroded the company's chances for survival.
AMC purchased Jeep from Kaiser in 1970, providing it with strong-selling line of four-wheel-drive vehicles. Still, by the mid-1970s, AMC was bleeding cash.
Its passenger car lines weren't selling despite the millions spent on bringing the Pacer and another car, the Matador, to market - not to mention the Hornet and much-maligned Gremlin.
Its dealer network was shrinking. The Big Three and the imports had long since offered models aimed at the economy car market, one that Rambler had to itself in the 1950s and '60s.
By 1983 French automaker Renault owned a controlling interest in AMC, and in 1987 whatever was left of AMC and Jeep became the property of the Chrysler Corp.
"Rambler was always the underdog," said Foster, who sold AMC cars in his younger days at dealerships in downtown Bridgeport and in Derby. "But up until the mid-1960s, they made some pretty, nicely appointed cars that people were proud to own. It was a neat, interesting company in its day."
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