Automotive history of 1950s is commonly reduced to an orgy of fins, chrome, V8 engines and the inexorable influence of the longer, lower wider mantra. They were heady times for the Big Three, especially GM and Ford, as they rolled up ever bigger sales, market share and profits and steamrollered the independents. But one of those independents, Nash, started the decade with a brilliant and unique vision for a different sort of American car, the Rambler, as the way to survive.
Unlike the common image as boring cars for the thrifty and practical, Rambler started out very different, with Buick-territory prices targeting an affluent demographic—particularly women. Rambler in the early-mid ’50s was the closest thing there was to a chic, upscale continental-style American “import”; the BMW of its day. That’s how it survived the onslaught of three other new compacts in the first half of the ’50s and then just barely staved off extinction from a price war by Ford and GM. It then leveraged that image—along with more affordable prices—to fight back and take on the Big Three at the end of the decade. By 1960, Rambler had increased AMC’s market share by a whopping 270%.
How Rambler pulled that off is the biggest and most unlikely automotive story of the 1950s.
Before we take what’s going to be a deep dive on this subject, a brief note on the terminology of “compact”. Prior to 1962, when the Ford Fairlane introduced the concept and term “mid-sized”, which then defined compacts as a specific category, the term “compact’ was used to define any car that was relatively smaller than the traditional cars (not yet called “full sized”) from the Big Three and other independents. That leaves a bit of gray area, as the traditional big cars were mostly not all that big at the beginning of the decade, but grew dramatically throughout it.
For this exercise, compacts are defined as having a maximum 110″ wheelbase. That leaves at least two somewhat smaller cars out of the discussion, which I’ll address here briefly.
The 1949-1952 Plymouth P17, P21 and P22 series had a 111″ wheelbase, and was 185″ long. It was essentially a shortened (at the rear) version of the regular 118.5″ wb Plymouth, and only accounted for some 13% of total Plymouth sales, the majority of those being the wagon (more on that later). There was also a related Dodge Wayfairer with 115″ wb and only available in two-passenger business coupe and roadster body styles. They were a short-lived attempt at something a bit shorter, but fall outside of our criteria.
Some may suggest that the Studebaker Champion should be considered a compact, due to its relatively narrower body and lighter weight. But there’s two arguments against that: in the early ’50s, its body wasn’t all that narrow in relation to other full-size cars, and its length was always very much full size. At 197″, this ’51 Champ is the same length as a ’51 Chevy. And in the later ’50s, the same was the case: the ’55-’58 Champion was a couple of inches longer than a ’57 Chevy. Length creates the visual indication of size, and impacts maneuverability and such. And its wheelbase (112″-116.5″) was always solidly in full size territory. For what it’s worth, the smaller of Nash’s “full size” cars, the Statesman, had a 112″ (later 114″) wheelbase, but was a bit over 200″ long too.
Although the term “sub-compact” didn’t exist in their time, I’m going to use it for the Crosley (l) and the Metropolitan (r), as they’re clearly well below the size and passenger capacity of the compacts in this analysis. But they are a reflection of the interest in such a category, as they both sold in not-utterly insignificant numbers during their peak years, the Crosley attaining a 0.8% market share in 1948, thanks in good part to the post-war seller’s market.
Setting the Stage:
Before we jump into what actually transpired in the great compact war of the ’50s, we need to consider what almost happened, but didn’t. The Big Three all had various experimental small car projects going back to the 1930s, when their cars started to grow and the Depression created interest in smaller and cheaper cars. These efforts were stepped up during WW2, as there was a widespread belief among economists that the country would fall into a deep recession after the war ended, as had been the case after WW1.
This resulted in some very well developed compact cars, and in one case, a quite ambitious one, in the form of the 1947 Chevrolet Cadet (above). The brilliant engineer Earl MacPherson headed up a development team and was given wide latitude to explore the concept of what a modern American compact car could be. The result was a compact and light (2200 lbs) sedan that seated four comfortably, and some of the solutions to achieving that end were novel. It had a 133 ci (2.1L) ohv six, with the transmission under the front seat for maximum space efficiency, four wheel independent suspension via the first intended application of MacPherson’s famed struts, as well as other advanced features.
It never went into production because i deemed yo be too expensive to achieve the high internal profit goals at GM at the time (30%), and GM anticipated the very issue that occurred in 1960 with Ford’s Falcon, that the Cadet would cannibalize the full size cars, which would then hurt their profitability from reduced volumes. Why build two lines of cars when one will do, especially when one has the volume to price the lowest trim versions at unbeatable prices?
Similarly, Ford developed a compact car in during and after war, intended to go into production in 1949. But when the 1949 Ford was reduced in size from its original Mercury body, Ford also anticipated the 1960 Falcon scenario of cannibalization and pulled the plug, sending off the final version to France in the form of the Vedette. I’m not sure what engine the US version would have had, as the French version was also given the old V8-60 flathead.
Chrysler also had various experimental small car programs active at the time, as a fall-back in case either Ford or GM put theirs into production. If any one of the Big Three had put their small car into production, the other two would almost certainly have put theirs into production also, as a defensive measure. This acted as a brake, as none of them wanted to start an unwinnable compact war. If it had happened, the independents would almost certainly never have jumped into the compact segment, and the automotive landscape altered very significantly. Nash/AMC almost certainly would have died along with the other independents. The Big Three’s resistance to building compacts created an opening for the independents. It turned out to be a very compact opening.
As is invariably the case, the success story behind Rambler and the survival of Nash/AMC was written by an exceptional man. George Mason was not the typical automobile industry CEO. Highly intelligent, energetic, and visionary, Mason had a keen insight into human psychology behind consumer decisions. A key protege of Walter Chrysler, Mason moved on to head up appliance maker Kelvinator, where he quadrupled profits in the depths of the Depression, and made the firm the second largest appliance maker after GM’s Frigidaire. His experience successfully selling appliances mainly to women would color many of his future decisions at Nash/Rambler.
Approached by aging founder Charles Nash to be his successor, Mason insisted he would only come if Kelvinator came along too. The subsequent merger in 1936 created Nash-Kelvinator, and by 1940 the firm was enjoying strong profits.
Mason was progressive in his thinking, and adopted new ideas and technology readily. During the war years, he and his team of engineers explored aerodynamics in a wind tunnel. The result was the aerodynamic 1949 Airflyte range of full-sized cars, the 112″ wb Statesman (top) and the 121″ wb Ambassador, commonly referred to as “bathtub” Nashes.
What arrived late in the 1950 model year was utterly different than anyone might have expected an American compact to be, certainly so what GM, Ford, and Chrysler had in mind, and as we’ll see, what Kaiser, Hudson and Willys actually built. It was not just a smaller, cheaper sedan; it was a high-content, high-style small car with a body style utterly out of the ordinary: a fixed-profile convertible dubbed “convertible landau coupe” by Nash. The fixed roof rails allowed the unibody to be very rigid, and an electric motor opened and closed the top, not unlike a Fiat 500 and a few others.
The Rambler came fully equipped with standard features that even Cadillacs didn’t have: whitewall tires, full wheel covers, clock and even an AM radio. Price? $1808, almost 30% more than a basic Chevy full size sedan and $5 more than a Buick Special fastback 8 cylinder coupe. Now that was different and unprecedented.
The Rambler’s target demographic was all-too obvious: style-conscious women who could afford a stylish car.
Like Lois Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet. “Superman” was my tv screen introduction to the Nash Rambler, as I don’t ever remember seeing one of these convertible landaus in Iowa City after we arrived in 1960.
What would this demographic be buying in 1960? A Karman-Ghia or Corvair. And in 1965? Mustangs, of course. And in 1980? A VW Cabriolet or a BMW 320i. George Mason was way ahead of his time, and playing the long game. He rightfully anticipated that the Big Three would crush the independents’ big cars through their huge volume and pricing, so he was positioning Rambler in a niche of its own, along with some of the early imports. Establishing the right public perception was more important than volume; that could and would come later. It’s the same playbook used by almost every successful new premium-brand introduced in the US; mostly imports, of course.
The convertible landau was just the opening act.
Quite late in the 1950 MY, a cute little wagon appeared, being admired once again by only women. And yes, that body style was almost as radical as the convertible landau. It’s easy to forget, but before WW2, essentially nobody bought station wagons for personal use; they were expensive, built out of maintained-intensive wood, and were bought for commercial use or for ferrying guests at a rich man’s hunting lodge or country house.
Willys broke the mold with their all-steel 1946 wagon (with faux wood-grain paint). It was the first step in domesticating the station wagon, if a bit too Jeep-like for women. The Willys Wagon essentially saved the company after the war, as its Jeepster was a sales dud.
Plymouth went one step further with their 1949 all-steel Suburban. It was on the short 111″ wheelbase, and only 185″ long, and as such can be considered a near-compact. To put it in perspective, its dimension are almost identical to a modern Toyota RAV4; no wonder the Plymouth wagon was a hit with women and young families: compact, easy to drive, and plenty of room for kids and whatever needed hauling.
The Rambler wagon was something totally new again: the first lifestyle wagon ever; the Audi Avant of 1950. Like the convertible landau, it was equally-well equipped and priced at the same $1808 in 1950, but both had a substantial increase in price for 1951: $1993. America’s first premium compacts.
1951 brought the third addition to the Rambler line: a hardtop coupe. Still no sedan! Hardtop coupes were the hot new thing, having been pioneered by GM just two years earlier. Rambler beat both Ford and Chrysler as well as the other independents in the hardtop race.
It’s easy to dismiss these little Ramblers from a modern perspective as dumpy and silly little cars, but that would be missing what was the most important story of the early 1950s. They were bold and stylish at the time, and the choice to start with these three highly unusual body styles was radical and unprecedented.
A key part of making the Rambler appealing to fashion-conscious women was that its interior fabrics and trim were designed by the renown Helene Rother, who had been GM’s first woman interior designer back in 1943. A woman’s touch can’t be easily faked.
Let’s take a closer look at the technical aspects of these initial Ramblers, as they largely formed the basis of every Rambler to come until 1963/1964. Nash was a pioneer in unitized body construction (unibody) having switched to that back in 1941. This alone was technically advanced and almost unique in the US at the time, along with Hudson. It created a strong, stiff structure, which contributed to the Rambler’s feeling of solidity and more worthy of a premium price, especially compared to the oft-willowy BOF cars from other manufacturers.
The Rambler’s front suspension was similar to that used on the large Nashes, with long coil springs seated above the upper control arms. Ford (and others) would adopt this with their 1960 falcon, and use it for two decades. Although the trunnions that were necessary in that pre-ball joint era later got a bit of a bad rep, it was also a very advanced design at the time, offering a very good ride as well as decent handling.
The following description of this system (and related issues and repairs) is from this site, which describes more detail and rebuilding:.
This is a double wishbone and trunnion system, with the road spring directly over the steering knuckle, in line with the virtual kingpin. This design has wonderful control over understeer in turns, and a anti-roll bar is unneeded (and not available). The spring carries load directly, not multiplied by moment (distance from fulcrum) so the spring is softer and lighter. Spring-over-knuckle also eliminates decreasing roll resistance in turns, a characteristic of most American suspensions through the 1980’s, often compensated for by anti-roll bars. The downside of the spring-over-knuckle system is that it is very tall — this really limited AMC’s styling choices until the adoption of the new system in 1970.
The upper control arm trunnion system fails more often than not. The head of the trunnion pivot bolt is supposed to “jam” on the leading arm, and a nut and lock washer jams the bolt to the arm on the other (at pink Y). This does not survive ordinary use patterns.
The bolt is supposed to rigidly connect the arm halves, and pivot within the casting. What usually happens is that given the large contact area the bolt freezes in the casting. This forces the bolt to rotate in each arm half, stripping the threading in the thin, stamped arms. No longer a stiff A-arm, all of the components shift around in operation, ruining the arms.
The rear suspension was a typical Hotchkiss set-up, with a live axle suspended on semi-elliptic leaf springs. This would be used on the 100″ wb Ramblers until their end in 1964, and on the 1954-1955 108″ wb Ramblers before being replaced by a coil spring and torque tube drive design in 1956.
The Rambler’s flathead six displaced 172.6 ci, and was rated at 82 (gross) hp. This small Nash six dates back to the semi-compact Nash 600 from 1941. Weighing 2430 lbs, the Rambler had a favorable power-to-weight ratio for the times, and was deemed to be relatively nimble. A test by the British Magazine Motor yielded a 0-60 time of 21 seconds, which was quite typical of the times, and a top speed of 81 mph. Fuel economy was 25 mpg. Overdrive was optional, and Ramblers quickly established a reputation for good mileage; 30 mpg was possible with a light foot. Handling, steering and braking were all deemed to be good to very good.
As is quite obvious, the engine is a rather wedged in between the massive inner fender bulges, due to the narrow track of the front wheels (52.25″), in order to provide adequate movement for them inside the covered outer fenders. The turning circle was 37 feet, not superb but not bad considering the design of the skirted fenders.
The Rambler had a stylishly simple instrument panel—not unlike the recent Fiat 500—which reinforced its image. The column shifter was nicely enclosed unlike most at the time, and the single round combo instrument was easy to read. It had a decidedly European air, as did much of the car. Nash’s vastly superior integrated heating and ventilation system only enhanced the positive qualities further.
The Rambler was billed as a five passenger car; three in the front and two in the back, where the wheel wells intruded into the seat cushion. Its exterior width was fairly ample at 73.5″, thanks to its bathtub styling. Interior width was of course not quite up to the bigger cars, but at 56.2″ inches at the front (hip and shoulder room) it was just a hair less than the 1960 Falcon would have.
We’ll get to some detailed sales analysis with charts a later, but sales for an abbreviated 1950 totaled 11k and 69k in 1951. But here’s the most significant number: 50% of those were for the wagon. That is utterly unprecedented; as a point of comparison, the popular Plymouth all-steel wagon represented all of 6% of 1950 Plymouth sales and at Chevrolet, wagons were 2% of the total. Although those percentages would not quite hold up, Rambler would go on to consistently have much higher share of its sales be wagons than any other manufacturer.
Despite the addition of two and four door sedans in 1955, that year Rambler wagons’ share of sales increased further, to 55%. And in 1959, it was still at 44%.
As a point of comparison, wagons made up 9% of Chevrolet’s sales in 1955, and 17% in 1959. It was slightly higher at 19% for Ford in 1959. Rambler had staked a claim to compact wagons, and held it. It became a key aspect of their image, which continued to resonate with a key demographic; buyers who eschewed excessive size and poor space utilization for the inherent advantages of a wagon. They really were the Volvo wagon of its time.
Page 2: The compact competition: