Sleek and stylish, the redesigned American Motors Ambassador had everything going for it when it first appearing in 1965. As the company?s flagship fashion statement, the car seemed ? on paper at least ? to be the equal of its Big Three competition.
The Ambassador also represented a fundamental shift in corporate ideology. The Kenosha, Wis.-based automaker would shift its focus away from primarily fuel-efficient vehicles, instead turning out bigger, faster and potentially more profitable cars.
The cost of competing with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had always been difficult for the company. A mid-?50s merger between Nash Motors and Hudson Motors to form American Motors Corporation (AMC) helped a bit, but still left the newly combined venture in a distant fourth place. Lacking sufficient sales volume and the resulting financial muscle meant that the retooling and development costs necessary to create new products was always a profit-zapping proposition. Product change was not only an expensive gamble, but getting it wrong was the sure-fire way to financial disaster.
Back in those days, the top-of-the-line Nash (later Rambler) Ambassador was a prime example of right-car-wrong-decade timing. In the early 1950s, the car?s soap dish shape and pioneering unit-body construction ran counter to the flashier but overwrought excesses built by the Big Three. Even after hiring famed Italian stylist Battista Pininfarina to help reshape the sheetmetal, the Ambassador could not shake its bloated look and stodgy character.
Following the Hudson merger, the Ambassador brand finally began showing signs of life, eventually sprouting a modest set of tailfins and generating decent sales results as it helped AMC stay in the black.
By the early 1960s, AMC was focused on building three specific vehicle lines: the compact Rambler American; mid-size Rambler Classic; and full-size Rambler Ambassador. The thrifty American maintained its connection with a small but determined group of car buyers that prized fuel economy above all else while the Classic and Ambassador catered to roomier and more luxurious tastes. Both of these cars also caught the attention of Motor Trend magazine, which, in 1963, bestowed its Car-of-the-Year honors on the duo.Under the leadership of company president Roy Abernathy and chief stylist Dick Teague, AMC began charting a very different course, with the Ambassador leading the way. The all-new 1965 model had grown four inches in overall length while maintaining an understated appearance (advertising of the day referred to the Ambassador line as the ?sensible spectaculars?). Although the base Ambassador 880 or better equipped 990 could be ordered with a 232 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder powerplant, many versions featured a 327 cubic-inch V8 that delivered up to 270 horsepower. The 990 was available as a two-door hardtop and convertible that were as attractive as anything built by its Detroit-based competitors. And with a list price of around $3,000, few could quibble about the cost of ownership.
Other corporate changes, however well-meaning, completely missed the mark. In an attempt to mimic the success of the Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda, AMC attached a swoopy fastback roof onto its Classic-series body. The resulting calamity managed to fool about 10,000 buyers into thinking they were buying something sporty instead of a cartoonish looking car that weighed more than the model it was based upon.
A further break with tradition occurred in 1966, when the 66-year-old Rambler surname was dropped from the Ambassador as part of an overall brand phase-out. Abernathy correctly surmised that the public linked it to AMC?s econo-car past instead of to its big-car future. That year the Ambassador also gained a new deluxe version called the DPL. This was essentially a 990-series two-door hardtop with distinctive exterior trim and an interior that contained a floor console and reclining front bucket seats dressed in houndstooth fabric.
At the shallow end of the pool, AMC?s normally fuel-sipping Rambler American featured the Rogue, a sporty compact with racing stripes, floor-mounted four-speed gearbox and tire-squealing V8 power.
Although AMC?s traditional budget-minded buyers had no idea what had happened to their beloved buttoned-down car company, sales nonetheless began to steadily move up the ladder, an indicator that Abernathy and Teague were on the right track.
Unfortunately, increased new-car deliveries failed to staunch the rising tide of red ink sweeping over the organization. AMC?s board of directors forced Roy Abernathy out of office, but the quest to produce ever bigger Ambassadors as well as more youth-oriented machinery like the Javelin and AMX would continue unabated for years to come.
In the end, it was the Ambassador that helped to fundamentally alter AMC?s direction. It may have accounted for a mere fraction of total passenger car sales, but it was an important first step in trying to bring the company?s products in tune with what the consumer of the day really wanted.