Rebel with a Cause. The debate over the first muscle car rages as much as it ever has. But here’s another contender – and it’s not from Detroit’s big three. We strap in and hold on… Words Andrew Roberts.Photography Laurens Parsons. Rambler Rebel The ugly duckling that even Edsel owners sniggered at, or the first-ever muscle car? We tame the car that could hit 60mph in eight seconds – in 1956.
Put your hand to the wheel of this magic-filled-car,’ urged the brochure. I was indeed eager to experience the world of the 1957 Rambler Rebel. I wanted it all, to open up ‘a new world of motoring pleasure and excitement’ and to revel in the ‘dynamic expression of sheer power’. The only slight challenge is in starting it. Nothing happens on turning the key; and because this is a late-Fifties American car the idea of a separate starter button would have been unlikely. In fact there is a cunning trick necessary for enjoying Rebel motoring, as I eventually learn. Pulling the gear selector lever towards me causes the V8 engine to rumble into life. At last I’m ready to experience ‘out-of- this-world get-up-and-go’.
It very quickly becomes apparent that the Rambler was not your average American car. To make the error of judging by appearances, you might have expected a steady but not exceptional acceleration to cruising speed, and a great deal of wallowing around bends. In fact a jab on the throttle is all it takes for the Rebel to sprint eagerly along the tarmac, accompanied by a nasal whine from the twin-exhaust system and the needle speeding across the strip speedometer. All of this is effortless, with no sense of drama; the Rambler is determinedly purposeful in its pursuit of speed. A true muscle car… in fact. The first?
It’s still the frequent cause of great controversy. GM enthusiasts might cite the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, Ford drivers might counter with the 1963 lightweight Galaxie while Chrysler owners would direct you to the Dodge Polara 500. In December 1956 Rambler unveiled the Rebel, an intermediate-sized saloon that could accelerate from 0-60mph in less than eight seconds.
To best understand the impact of the Rebel it is essential to bear in mind that the idea of a Rambler sports sedan was pure science fiction for a marque associated with cheap family runabouts. Writer Bill Bryson was less than complimentary about the brand; he tells of how in 1958 his father bought a blue Rambler station wagon. ‘It was a car so cruddy and styleless that even Edsel drivers slowed down to laugh.’ But the brand nevertheless had a definite marketing niche during the Fifties.
Nash Motors began using the Rambler model name for its 100-inch-wheelbase compact sedans in 1950. When the company merged with Hudson in 1954 to form AMC, the firm’s new president George Romney believed that the best chance of survival was not in the larger models, which would need deep investment to compete with Detroit’s big three. The Rambler was facelifted for 1956 with a longer 108-inch wheelbase to increase its appeal, and by 1957 the Nash and Hudson badges passed into history.
All AMC cars were now sold as Ramblers, and when the Rebel was launched the marque was associated with small-town headmasters and other drivers too patriotic for a VW. But by the middle of the decade Romney realised an increasingly affluent motoring public was demanding more power. 1955 saw reasonably priced GM and Chrysler offerings available with V8 engines and AMC was spurred into initiating its own eight-cylinder scheme.
This in itself was quite an audacious plan, with a development time of a mere 18 months. Fortunately David Potter, one of AMC’s engineers, had already designed a V8 engine for Kaiser-Frazer. The firm lacked the money to put this into production but by 1956 this unit (or one very similar) in 4.1-litre ‘250’ form was offered in the Nash Ambassador/Hudson Hornet Specials.
A 5.3-litre ‘327’ powerplant was intended for upmarket AMC offerings but it was decided that this engine could be combined with the Rambler body. The Rebel certainly helped to divert attention from the quality issues that had bedevilled the 1956-model Ramblers, but it was also emblematic of Romney’s beliefs. The AMC president genuinely disapproved of the full-sized car of that period, and the Rambler Rebel was proof of what a compact car could achieve. The 327 engine was upgraded via a higher compression ratio and mechanical valve lifters, while the brochure copywriters promised a ‘distinctive appearance’ of ‘functional simplicity’.
To the eyes of a British motorist circa 2016 it certainly does not look at all simple. For extra distinction the car is fitted with the optional Continental spare wheel but the standard body is striking enough, with its reverse-angle treatment for the C-pillar and the inboard headlamps of the 1952 Nash-Healey. From the front, the effect is quite menacing and the rear treatment is best described as awkward. However, the side profile is somewhat dashing and if the overall effect lacks the sheer cleanness of line found in a Studebaker or Chrysler, the Rebel’s idiosyncratic looks do not lack for charm.
In its heyday the Rebel was unique in the US car market – an intermediate-sized saloon with a big V8 engine, although by European standards it is very large; longer than a Humber Hawk and wider than a Rover P4. The interior is a reminder that a respectable US businessman would have felt naked without his grey Fedora so there’s lots of headroom and it is definitely a car for creating an impression on arrival. The unfamiliar, at least to British eyes, coachwork causes several drivers to slow down and point at the Rebel as I motor along. This may be due to the sight of the elaborate radiator grille in their rear-view mirrors (from some angles the Rambler looks as though it is snarling) although the entire car can’t really be described as particularly subtle. The Rebel’s standard equipment includes split reclining backrests on the front bench, whitewall tyres, radio, windscreen washers, reversing lamps, power assistance for the brakes and steering, and special black and silver upholstery. This was generous for a $2800 car – but the entertaining noise when the cast-iron OHV V8 engine is fired up is also a bonus.
AMC benefited from near priceless publicity in April 1957 when Motor Trend decided to test the Rebel opposite the fuel-injected Chevrolet Bel Air, the Chrysler 300C, Fords Fairlaine and Thunderbird (both fitted with superchargers), an Oldsmobile J2 and a Studebaker Golden Hawk. The writers found that the Rebel was second only to the Chevy in terms of acceleration, and that by a mere fraction of a second. This article so pleased AMC that laminated copies were issued to their dealerships, but the Rambler was originally intended to offer even greater performance.
It handles, too. On the dashboard there’s a switch for the adjustable Gabriel dampers, which AMC fitted together with heavyduty suspension. This gives a choice of three separate settings and we’re in Firm mode, making the Rambler feel taut and purposeful. US cars of the Fifties often lurch around English A-road bends but the Rebel’s sizeable body remains surprisingly composed.
The one real limitation to spirted travel is the seat, which allows the occupants to slide gracefully from one side of the car to another. At least the steering isn’t over-assisted, letting me think I am in charge of the Rebel.
The standard transmission was a three-speed plus overdrive manual box but the original owner specified the optional fourspeed Flashaway Hydramatic gearbox that AMC sourced from GM. And it works well – the transmission and the mighty engine are in harmony. Sadly, although the Rebel does have power-assisted drums they still require a great deal of determination to operate.
In light of this, and as with nearly any interesting American car, the Rambler begs the question of its chances in the UK. Heavy import duties would have artificially inflated its price but even then, the looks would have been a bit too much for British tastes. Compared to a contemporary Oldsmobile or De Soto, the Rebel is positively low-key. Nor is it the case that large British sports saloons of that time were all sober-suited, but most of them liked to convey the image of a gentleman’s study. A British motorist would have expected hide and timber, while the Rebel’s interior is one of functional artificial materials with a dashboard seemingly borrowed from a spaceship.
The Rambler would have offered a great deal, had it made the trip across the Atlantic. It is certainly large enough to take a party of five and their luggage for a long Goodwood weekend but is not so bulky as to make narrow British streets and country lanes a real challenge. The Rambler would have also made rather an adept town car but, cost notwithstanding, the major drawback would have been the lack of scope for its talents. In 1957 motorways still lay in the future and this is a car designed for travelling the freeways of a vast land – not stuck in a traffic jam behind an Austin A55 Cambridge.
The hours sadly vanish, leaving me with indelible memories of travelling through beautiful Wiltshire countryside at the vast wheel of an American classic, a highly enjoyable experience. By the end of the day I’m actually plotting how to make the Rebel mine and take in it along Route 66. Finding one for myself could be hard, however.
AMC made only 1500 Rebels before the entire range was updated for 1958, and perhaps its greatest legacy is that it caused a marque to create a new niche for itself. In August 1957 Hot Rod magazine said, ‘Restricted to economy engines for years, Rambler has finally gone on the attack with some real horsepower to bolster its other outstanding features.’ The very thought of that previously sedate brand having any association with hot rodding was akin to a local mayor starting to sing Be-Bop-A-Lula in an address to the Ladies’ Horticultural Society, but the Rebel was no gimmick.
Its production run may have been limited but it played a major part in AMC’s success story, for by the Sixties its market share had risen substantially. It was the spearhead of an incredibly audacious plan to, as George Romeny subsequently observed, ‘challenge the Big Three by outflanking their product position’.
But most importantly, after nearly 60 years the Rebel remains primed for any motorist to ‘Say goodbye to car… say hello to fun’. It is a car that transcends the still prevalent stereotyped image of the late Fifties American car as a behemoth adorned with vast fins and the idea that a muscle car has to be a two-door coupé. For all of the metallic paint finishings the Rambler is something of a Q-car.
For anyone who is looking for a sports car with a spacious cabin, a boot large enough for a steamer trunk and performance to match vastly more expensive US and European models, the Rebel is the perfect choice. Putting it simply – it has style.
LIVING WITH A REBEL
Pat Dolan was a teenager in the US during the late Fifties, when one of his hobbies was standing outside his local AMC dealership and dreaming of owning a Rebel. ‘I loved the idea of its performance and the thought that Rambler could make such a car,’ he says. He bought his Rebel in 2010. ‘I have always been a fan of American independents; I also own a Packard Silver Hawk.’
For everyday motoring Pat disagrees with me about the handling. ‘It is wallowy and like a marshmallow,’ he says. ‘But the Rambler is perfect for motorway work – it’s as straight as a die and the transmission is so robust.’ The Rebel needs to be used regularly in order to keep everything from ‘freezing up’. ‘I left it for some weeks and I had to replace the brake cylinders,’ Pat says.
As to survival rates, Pat’s car is probably one of 40 or 50 still on the road. Spares present no challenge as he tends to buy in bulk from a Canadian supplier. Fuel costs are not low, however. ’I reckon 14 miles to the gallon,’ he smiles. The Rebel recently won the prize for the Most Unique and Original Classic at the Laon rally, although few Britons recognise it. ‘They just know it’s American,’ he says. ‘This Rebel is fitted with a Continental spare wheel, and about half of them had this option, according to Pat. ’That really attracts most people’s attention,’ he says.
Bench seats aren’t conducive to swift direction changes. The needle flicks across this quicker than you’d imagine. The Rebel just begs to eat vast swathes of asphalt.
‘The Rebel’s dash is seemingly borrowed from a spaceship’
‘The Rambler is determinedly purposeful in its pursuit of speed’
TECHNICAL DATA 1956 Rambler Rebel
Engine 5354cc V8 OHV with single Carter WCFB four-barrel carburettor
Power 255bhp @ 4700 rpm
Torque 345lb ft @ 2600rpm
Transmission Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and roller with Monroe linkage booster
Suspension Front: independent, upper and lower control arms; live axle, coil springs; stabiliser bar, Gabriel dampers. Rear: live axle with torque tube; coil springs; trailing arms, anti-roll bar, Gabriel dampers
Top speed 116mph; 0-60mph: nine seconds (automatic model)
Price new $2786 (£2146)
Values now £20,000-£30,000