1963 Rambler American hardtop

26 feb 2020
April 2007

Feb 2020: A lot changed with this car after I wrote this page. It's since come, and gone... but a lot of the work I did persisted and applied to the Rambler Roadster project I started in 2010 (and still going strong now). So the descriptions immediately below are obsolete, but the data in the links is still quite useful.

Joe Fulton sold me this great little American 440. It had been destined to be someone's parts car; and Joe took away a 1973 Hornet I'd parted out. Joe plans to reassemble the Hornet, and I'm bringing the American back to life; two more Ramblers saved from the grave. (I feel a little guilty about parting the '73, which was a complete when I got it. These things are getting too old and too rare to treat like that any more.)

This little American is very Nash-like. It's probably one of the newest-old cars made in the US post-war. What had been Nash's successful Rambler for 1955 was re-introduced as the post-AMC-merger Rambler American in 1958 with only cosmetic changes (the "bathtub Rambler"). It received full outside skin makeover for 1961 (the "breadbox Rambler"). In 1964 AMC put the "American" name on a new chassis (that later became the Hornet, Concord and Eagle, in production right up through 1988), so the 1963 American is the last of the Nash-designed cars. (The 195.6ci OHV engine lasted up through 1965). It has some mechanical and chassis design elements that are quite 1930's and 1940's (the engine was introduced in 1941; the transmission was used in the Willys Aero in the late 1940's), yet a modern and reasonably stiff unibody. It's light, with dual brake systems, a reasonable-enough motor and in spite of it's cute-ugly overall style, a few breathtaking styling advances. You can read a great overview of this car's design history here at AMCyclopedia.

It's a modest and pleasantly odd little thing, small and light, about the size of a Honda Civic, and around 2500 lbs. The body today looks retro-anime, but the roofline is actually beautiful, and the one-model-year-only hardtop transforms it even more. The roof profile has very thin, super-clean lines; with the faux-convertible ribs stamped in, and textured black, it looks like a Japanese caligraphic stroke, that one component alone modernized the old Nash Rambler into something modern. Like it or not, the thing has actual style, there's nothing copy-cat-ish about it, then or now, unlike today's HonHunToyoBenz sedans. How can you trust someone who never professes their own opinion?

This car is specifically model 6309-5; a Rambler American 440 (not 440H), hardtop with the optional 138hp two-barrel carburetor, the motor marketed as the POWER PAK. Manual transmission (T-96) with Borg-Warner R10 overdrive and the highest available axle ratio (3.77:1) to match.

I'll never know who bought this car new, or why, but the option package is odd, it makes for a sort-of poor man's sports car. The engine, transmission and axle are the highest-performance available, yet manual steering; manual transmission; manual brakes; no A/C, not even a radio (it had "radio delete"). Throwing a car through tight turns is no fun in a flat smooth bench seats with a column shifter; the bucket seats and console shifter are mandatory. The hardtop choice is purely aesthetic; a "stripper" business coupe would have saved a lot of money. Clearly this car was bought to be driven. Not much horsepower maybe, but this car is light!

This is a fantastically fun machine to drive. It's equal parts futzy grandma car and 60's sports car. It's plain, simple, clean, with few frills. It's with good reason this car was Motor Trend car of the Year for 1963. Though it has manual steering and manual brakes, effort for both is low; it's easy to forget that power steering and power disc brakes were luxuries that most people did without, then, and car manufacturers carefully designed cars to not need them. Equipped with the automatic transmission, this is a car anyone could easily drive, even today.

But it's not an automatic transmission; it's the non-synchromesh three speed with electric overdrive. You really need to know about the governor cut-in speed, to know when it free-wheels, and when it is safe to lock the overdrive in or out. If you master this, you get very finely tuned five forward speeds that perfectly matches the motor and the light chassis. Get it wrong, and it grinds, lugs, and you could even damage it. It wasn't meant to be "easy to drive", it was meant to drive well.

(Overdrive was a common option up through the early 1950's on most makes and models; it was commonly operated with an underdash pull cable that locked the overdrive unit "in" (for highway use) or "out" (around town). Operation was quite simple. As far as I know, the Rambler's Twin Stick option was unique, and only offered 1963-1965 on a few models.)

Even though this car has only 138 horsepower -- and that's measured at the flywheel, so it's a bit "generous" (marketing) -- it has useful torque in places a Honda can't even idle in neutral. 15mph in top gear, the engine is turning 700 rpm; mash the throttle, it pulls! Of course by 4000 rpm it sounds like it wants to disassemble itself, which is about where a Honda starts to wake up. Modern motors are superior in many ways; but they have no personality, and are unaesthetic in operation. If you can't tell the difference, well, that's your loss!

The previous owner collected a nice factory AM radio, a 1962 tube/transistor hybrid (1963 was "all transistor"), which works quite nicely. A big anomalous chunk of chrome in the middle of the modest dash.

It was painted by some previous owner, with a brush: shit-brindle brown. Oh well, it's preserved the original Frost White quite well.

Here's a nice story of one owner's experience with a 1959 American, with L-head engine and automatic transmission. The pre-1962 Americans are missing just enough the modern features that make it a bit less modern-highway-road-worthy; single-circuit brakes and no seat belts, and a host of small improvements like water drains in the doors. Easy enough to add those if you are not a resoration purist (I'm not). "Rambling American" by Steve Magnate, March 2006.

Shiny side up.

Greasy side down.

There's no organization to this page; it may grow one as I work on it, or not.

Better photos will accrete with time. I've washed it since the photos below, something it hasn't had much of in the last decade or so. It cleaned up surprisingly well.

Current state

(OK, I really need to revisit this page. It's now November 2008, and I'm still driving it, compression has increased, still burns no oil, still commuting the '405. Nice little Nashcan!)

Nov 2007 I'm driving it. The motor is just fine. Compression is 110-125psi, burns zero oil, plugs remain perfect. I've driven it about 1500 miles, mainly commuting to Irvine from Los Angeles, 45 miles each way of LA freeway hell.

The home-made suspension has been just perfect. New fat tires and wheels, factory alignment, it handles well, tracks dead straight, low steering effort, no pulling or funny business. I checked everything after one week, then two, I'll check monthly. (Loose trunnion caps, upper trunnion bolt, etc.)

I was assuming that I'd experience brake fade in highway stop-n-go traffic (0-60, 60-0, 0-60mph...) but so far, none! Brakes have been totally fine. They stop well and no fade so far. It had 9x2" drums all around, I "upgraded" to 9x2.5" Gremlin brakes, and drilled the drums and backing plates for ventilation. I swear I recall terrible fade issues in my 62 Ambassador all those years ago, but hey I do better work now, so who knows. It's certain that parts quality is not better today! I was warned that drums would be no good for modern driving, but 'everyone' is wrong.

Another 'everyone' warning was that the little 195.6 OHV would not have enough guts for modern highways. It's true that people get impatient with me coming off a traffic light; mainly that's the slow 1st to second upshift, partly cause by the worn-out transmission, partly by the sluggish shifting system, not just the low horsepower and too-high first gear ratio. Other than that, it's just fine, even at highway speeds, mainly due to the "Powerpak" and the overdrive that allows the 3.77 axle. An L-head American with automatic, now that I can believe would be hair-raising on 405 during rush hour!

The clutch started out slippy, but tightened up. It may slip slightly under heavy load lugging up a hill in 3rd, but hey, it's an 8.5" clutch.

The transmission is pretty much plumb wore out. Leaks all over, grinds all over (dead synchro), but it's just advanced wear, largely because it's undersized even for this car! If it wasn't for the nifty overdrive, I'd stick in a T-14 in a minute, and get synchromesh first out of the deal. Rebuild kit is on its way, which should solve all this. Let's hope it lasts!

Doesn't look like much yet, but I got all the rubber paint and rust off the roof, rust-remover and rust-reformer, and Eastwood Rust Encapsulator paint. That's stable now. Started on the interior, got the dashboard stripped of the dead foam pad, holes filled, and painted in accordance with The Plan. A spare speedo card is nearly done, the gauges will be spectacularly revamped. Custom knobs go in soon... stainless and aluminum panels...

May 2007 It looks like hell, but it's totally intact. I stripped the rotten interior out; it looks like someone left the windows down, ruining the door panels and carpet. No rust though, and considering that the seats are 44 years old, and original, in pretty damn good shape. It ran, for one day, before I tore the motor apart. The motor was rebuilt, "recently", in miles, long ago, in time, as far as I can tell. Valves would stick when cold, bending pushrods. If I turned it over with a big wrench, slowly, a few rotations, it ran fine, I got the valves adjusted, it idled silently at 525 rpm. I instantly took it for an oil change, added Sea Foam, drove a total of 10 - 15 miles, to the car wash where I cleaned out the interior with the wand and $12 in quarters. When it bent pushrods the next morning, I took the head off.

The block was clean and grease-free, with a riveted tag that says REBUILT, some digits, and POWER-PAK. It's not leaking oil, though the oil pan looks like crap externally. The head is a different color, as is the valve cover. The engine is not as-built.

I got to drive it for one day; it was a blast! In spite of the warnings, I found it to be plenty fast enough for Los Angeles city traffic. With the overdrive it ought to be fine on the freeway. With no interior padding, it was noisy like a 50's truck, but pleasantly tight, nice chassis feedback. Huge steering wheel, manual brakes, slow and complicated shifting with the non-synchronized first gear, no mushy mediation between me and the car.

When I got the head apart on the bench, I found the valve guides totally gooped; the seals look "new" but are stiff and leaking. Goo glued the valves into the guides. See photo. The valves look new or reground, only mild visible scuffing on the stems. I will get it boiled out and gun-brush the guides, lube, new seals and gaskets, and reassemble.

I'll pull the pan, clean it out, inspect the rod bearings (I thought I heard a mild knock, I hope I'm just paranoid) and probably solvent-clean the rings, relube and assemble. Assuming there's no serious problems.

Plans for the future

I am not restoring this car -- it will become a driver. It will be made 100% dependable and reliable, cleaned and slightly customized, and driven!

The most successful car I've ever made -- my 1963 Rambler Classic -- was done this way, in the end. I've driven it since 1988. It's the most fun, most reliable, most useful car I've ever owned. The driveline and chassis is solid, clean, reliable, updated. Aesthetically, it's worn, somewhat rough, hand-painted, and has all sorts of little mods and hacks. I'm no purist; it has whatever components are reliable, fit and work properly. I will do the same thing to this little American -- rock solid but rough, reliable but comfortably worn. And heavily used! No cutting or chopping though, nothing really unreversible.

It will stay substantially stock, except for brakes, which are a bit terrifying, 9" x 2" all around, not really enough for modern driving. I have a set of 10" x 2.5" drum brakes that ought to bolt on, and are a bit more appealing on this car than front discs.

Aesthetically, I will make this and the Classic into a matching pair: Moebius' Airtight Garage, 1950's Civil Defense, with a bit of desert rat thrown in for good measure, since that's what I tend to do with my cars, drive to insane places in the Eastern Mojave.