Car of the Week: 1954 Nash Ambassador

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By Brian Earnest

Ingvar “Ole” Arneson is a Hudson guy. When you strike up a conversation with the gregarious Wisconsin Rapids., Wis., resident, you don’t have to steer the discussion towards Hudsons. He’ll just take you there regardless.

“I’ve owned seven of them in my lifetime,” he says proudly.

So when it comes to hobby cars, Arneson is partial to one flavor, and one flavor only. Until April of 2009, that is.

For some reason, Arneson decided he needed to go look at a curious 1954 Nash Super Ambassador he found advertised in the back of Old Cars Weekly. The drive wasn’t far — less than three hours to Rice Lake, Wis., and he made it with little or no expectations of coming home with a car.

“Well, the guy belonged to the Nash Club and he had advertised it as a No. 1 [condition] car,” Arneson recalled. “And what intrigued me was that it had 15,000 miles, and it was nearby. It was only a hop, skip and a jump away. If it had been in California, I never would have gone to look at it.”

Arneson knew even window shopping for another hobby car would be skating on thin ice when it came to remaining happily married, too. “Well, I took my wife over there and she said to me, “Ole, you need another car like you need a hole in the head. If you buy another one of them, we’re done. Well, after 55 years of marriage, I couldn’t afford to give her half of everything.

“But when we got there and looked at it, I said, ‘What do you think, Hon?’ And she said, ‘Boy, it is a nice car. If you buy it, are you going to clean it all up?’ And I said, ‘Yup, I’ll clean it all up’ … So we wound up dickering over the price because I knew the price I wanted to pay and eventually we settled on a price and I brought it all home, polished it all up, detailed it and the car is still all original!”

Indeed, Arneson almost certainly owns one of the most original 1954 Nash’s in existence. The splendid black and red survivor has only minor wear and a few slight dings, and features the lovely, subtle patina that makes you know a car has never seen the inside of a restoration shop. There is some slight discoloration on the inside of the doors, and aging of the dash and stainless pieces.

The car’s first big public appearance came at last July’s Iola Old Car Show, where Arneson had been a regular in the past with his Hudsons. This time, he was driving something decidedly different. And the Nash was clearly a conversation piece in the Blue Ribbon Corral of invited cars — one of the rare all-original cars in a yard full of fantastic iron.

“I took it to one cruise before, and people were just flabbergasted,” Arneson said. They kept poking their heads inside to see if it really had 15,000 miles on it.

Before he was able to take the car anywhere, Arneson had to have some major work done on the car’s original 253-cid, 130-cid straight six engine. The car had apparently been sitting for some time, and the drive train was definitely not in “turn key” condition.

“This motor was froze and I bought it froze. I’ve unfroze motors, but when I took this apart it was terrible,” Arneson said. “It looked like they put sugar or something in it. So I went completely through the motor — I’ve got a terrific mechanic — and I’m glad it went that way because now I didn’t know what I’ve got.

“He ran it up until ’86, and I don’t know what, but it looked like he put something in the engine. It smelled like sugar. I knew what I was in for and I knew we’d have to go through the whole engine.”

Arneson also supplied his new Nash with a fresh set of tires, new battery and a new set of shocks, which he says help a great-riding car drive even better. After his first couple of rides in his Ambassador, Arneson was better able to rationalize his decision to forsake a Hudson for another brand. “Well, Nash took us over in ’55. We called them ‘Hash’s’” Arneson joked. “But I knew right away that I wanted this one when I crawled under it and looked at it. I didn’t want to be a turn-coat from Hudson … but Nash took us over, so I thought, ‘OK,’ I can have one of these.’ When I took it out for a ride the first time, I said, ‘This is it!’”

Nash got a major “Golden Anniversary” restyling in 1952, and many of the personality traits remained two years later with the 1954 Statesman, Ambassador and Rambler lineups. The Ambassadors were offered in Super and Custom versions, with the latter being the slightly fancier version.

Italian designer Panin Farina were partly responsible for the new “Golden Airflight” design that was unveiled in ’52. The cars still had their trademark covered wheels and heavy fenders, but overall they were much more conventional looking. For 1954, the Ambassadors received a more toothy, oval grille and new chrome headlight bezel treatments. Inside, the interiors and instrument panels were improved and updated.

Among the car’s most unique characteristics were its wraparound rear window, fold-down seats and gas filler inside the passenger-side taillight assembly.

The Ambassadors of the era had a big, heavy look to them and that’s exactly what they were. With it 121.3-inch wheel base, the Ambassador Super sedan squashed the scales at 3,430 lbs.

“It just handles so nice, and there is so much room! You can put six people in this car easily,” said Arneson. “And you hit a railroad track with this unibody, you never hear a rattle. It’s as quiet as can be. And, God, it handles. You’ve got center point steering with a big steering wheel … and it makes it feel like power steering.”

The Ambassadors were offered in both two- and four-door sedans for both the Super and Custom line. Neither series proved to be a big hit with the buying public. Only 7,433 four-door Super models like Arnesons were built, and a meager 283 Super sedans. The Custom versions were only slightly more popular at 10,131 copies for the four-door and 3,581 for the two-door.

“I just love the quietness of it, and that comes from the unibody,” Arneson said. “The gas mileage also interested me very much. I want to drive this car, and the fella said they got as much as 28 [mpg] with it, but I’m not sure they were traveling 45 or 50 miles per hour. But this car will travel 70 down the Interstate with no problem. It’s a seven-main-bearing [six-cylinder], which was a very, very good engine. I like the stick, and I like the overdrive, which was an option. The engines don’t work as hard and the automatic transmissions take a lot more power away and aren’t as good on gas mileage.

The condition of the car’s motor notwithstanding, the Nash was clearly babied during 56 years of life. Arneson said he is the third owner, and he figures it won’t be long before he puts more miles on it than the two previous owners combined.

“The guy I bought it from, his father had it and he never took it out in winter,” Arneson said. And when he passed away, he had put about 13,500 miles on it. Then the son got it, and he had it in a heated garage, and he had a cover on it, too. They weren’t driving it, but they didn’t let it go to pieces … I have all the records for the car that show it’s only got 15,000 miles.”

“There are a few flaws, as a car would have that’s this old. I’ve got a couple pieces of chrome that are nicked, but I’m going to replace them. But when I saw it, I just couldn’t let the thing go. There was no rust, no anything. I just couldn’t let it go.”

The 75-year-old Arneson insists he’s going to take the Nash to as many car shows as he can. He knows he has a unique machine on his hands, and he doesn’t figure to run into too many others like it. And if he does, he’s hoping the other owners are doing the same thing he plans to do — put some miles on the odometer.

“I’m going to use this car. If you see this car trailered you won’t see my name on it. If the Lord blesses me, I will be putting on 30,000 miles on this car, and it will look just as good in 30,000 miles as it does now.”

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