“Bigger is better” was a theme the domestic automobile manufacturers used to the extreme in the 1950s and beyond, although that theory often proved to be untrue. In the case of the 1956 Rambler from American Motors, for the most part, bigger actually was better.
The original 1950 Nash Rambler, on a 100-inch wheelbase, was a chunky small car that, at the time, had no direct domestic competition. Styling was updated with the 1953 models and mid-year 1954, 108-inch wheelbase four-door sedans and wagons were added to what previously was a two-door lineup.
Meanwhile, other domestic compact cars came to market, including the Kaiser-Frazer Henry J for 1951, Aero Willys for 1952 and Hudson Jet for 1953. Both the Willys and Jet came in four-door versions. While none were particularly successful, they demonstrated a need for a compact car with contemporary styling.
Perhaps the most notable was the Willys design, on a 108-inch wheelbase, which rivaled the full-sized, lower-priced cars in interior room. But it was hurt by high prices and a lack of marketing muscle from Willys, which merged with Kaiser in 1953.
On the subject of mergers, on May 1, 1954, Nash-Kelvinator and the Hudson Motor Car Co. officially merged to form American Motors Corp. On the compact side, this brought about an early demise for the Hudson Jet after a two-year run. Starting with the 1955 models, Hudson dealers received rebadged Nash Ramblers to replace the Jets. This arrangement continued for the 1956 model run.
American Motors could not afford to do a lot of frivolous spending — starting with the 1955 models, Hudsons were based on Nash bodies — but it astutely invested in an all-new Rambler and literally banked its future on the car.
As it turned out, model year 1956 was a good one for a new Rambler design. Among domestic cars, only the Continental Mark II was the only other all-new model. Rambler’s low-price-field competition was all reworked from the 1955 or older models.
Ramblers were still on a 108-inch wheelbase, but little else was held over. Only four-door models were offered in sedan, hardtop and wagon form. (Two-door 100-inch Ramblers of 1950-’55 vintage would return in mid-year 1958 as the Rambler American.)
Single-unit construction was all-new. A high-mounted, coil-front-suspension design continued, but the rear leaf springs were replaced with coil springs and torque tube drive, similar to the larger Nash and Hudson models.
The 1956 Ramblers were nearly five inches longer than the 1955 four-doors at just more than 191 inches, overall width decreased better than two inches to 71.3 inches and height was down more than an inch to 58 inches, despite the “Fashion Safety Arch” over the back window.
Wagons continued to have the dip over the cargo compartment that the 1954-’55 four-doors carried and a standard rear travel rack. While stylish, this feature cut cargo capacity.
All-new styling made the 1956 Rambler a standout. This Custom four-door hardtop was roomier, more powerful and brought the brand into competition with lower-priced cars from the other manufacturers.
Headlights were inboard, similar to the 1955 and 1956 large Nashes and discontinued Nash-Healey sports car. A massive one-piece, die-cast grille gave a heavy look to the front end. Parking lamps and directional signals were in the leading edges of the front fenders.
Under the wide, flat hood was a much larger engine compartment, easily big enough to hold a V-8. The problem was, at the start of the 1956 model run, American Motors did not have a usable V-8. It was buying them from Packard. However, at mid-year, a new AM-designed V-8 was ready and was first seen in the big cars (Nash Ambassador Special and Hudson Hornet Special). The Rambler would have to wait until the 1957 model season.
Under the 1956 Rambler hood was an overhead-valve update on the old Rambler/Nash Statesman L-head six. Called the Typhoon, it was good for 120 hp in the Rambler, compared to 90 for the flathead. Ramblers also received new 12-volt electrical systems for 1956.
Dual-Range Hydra-Matic, overdrive or standard three-speed manual were the transmission choices.
To start the model year, Ramblers were available in three series. Four-door sedans populated the low-priced Deluxe, mid-range Super and top-line Custom series. The Custom lineup also included a four-door hardtop and Cross Country station wagon.
The Custom Hardtop Cross Country wagon was the top of the line in 1957 and came standard with V-8 power.
At mid-year, a Super wagon and Cross Country hardtop wagon were added. The latter was the first production four-door hardtop wagon domestically offered. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors waited until the 1957 model year to reply. Upper Custom side trim also changed at mid-year, de-emphasizing the safety arch.
Favorably received by the motoring press, the 1956 Ramblers were not favorable to the corporate bottom line. Production for he model year dropped from 81,237 the previous year to 66,573. With big-car sales tumbling even more drastically, AM was clearly in trouble.
On the surface, the 1957 Ramblers appeared to offer little assistance, as they were only mildly changed in a market that saw many all-new designs, including those from Plymouth and Ford.
Rambler was now a separate make, an early sign that the days of Nash and Hudson were numbered. The biggest news was the availability of the new AM V-8 in the Rambler. With its 250-cubic inch, 190-hp engine, the new Rambler could now challenge the other lower-priced cars with new power. It had the smallest V-8 in the field, but that would change before the model year ended. Meanwhile, sixes got a boost to 125 hp and an option for a two-barrel carburetor and 135 horses.
In the middle of the 1956 Nash/Hudson Rambler lineup was the Super four-door sedan. It started the model year alone, but was joined mid-year by a Super four-door Cross Country wagon.
Exterior trim was mildly altered with front directional/parking lamps and enlarged trim, a large “T” added to the grille and upper side trim on Custom and Super models running straight from front to back. Customs received an “R” emblem on the front fender. All models were bedecked with a Rambler nameplate at the base of the safety arch on each side.
Model lineups started the year the same way they ended 1956. Custom hardtop Cross Countries and four-door hardtops came with a V-8 only, and the lowly Deluxe sedan was six-powered only. However, fleet Deluxe V-8s were made (the author remembers seeing a Wisconsin State Patrol Deluxe sedan so-equipped).
Rambler’s early claim to performance fame came mid-year in 1957 when the Rebel four-door hardtop was introduced. The limited-production offering had a 327-cid V-8, rated at 255 hp when mass assembly started.
At mid-year, a four-barrel carburetor option for the 250 brought its rating up to 215 hp, but that was not the hot setup in the middle of the “horsepower race” that was raging at the time.
It seemed every domestic manufacturer had a hot option for 1957, either at the start of the model year or by mid-season. That included Chevrolet’s fuel-injected 283, rated at 283 hp; Ford’s 300-hp supercharged 312; Plymouth’s 290-hp V-800 318 and the like.
Surprisingly, there was even one from Rambler, which turned out to be the hottest standard passenger car of the year: the Rebel.
The AM V-8 was good for more than 250 cubes, and 1957 Nashes and Hudsons had a 327-cid version, rated at 255 hp.
At mid-year, the 327 — no, it wasn’t a Chevy — went into the Rebel, complete with Bendix Electrojector electronic fuel injection and rated at 288 horses. Examples were tested on Daytona Beach and proved hot.
Before production started, problems with the Electrojector system proved fatal, however, and when the silver four-door hardtop with gold anodized trim, spinner wheel covers, enhanced interior and heavy-duty underpinnings hit the showrooms, they had the Nash/Hudson 255-hp setup.
Motor Life rated the best performance cars for 1957 and the Rebel, at 7.5 seconds at 0-60 mph, was second only to the fuel-injected Chevrolet Corvette.
In 1957, domestic manufacturers vowed to stop backing racing and promoting high performance, and after a reported 1,500 Rebels were made, it was over.
Two things were happening to sales at American Motors at the time. The Rambler was catching on, logging monthly increases, and the Nash-Hudson combo had hit the bottom, resulting in their nameplates and the cars being axed at the end of the model year.
While not a direct comparison, Rambler production for calendar year 1957 topped 114,000 vehicles. That included some of the face-lifted 1958 models, which took off in sales, eventually bringing Rambler over the 400,000 mark by 1960.
Saving a 1956 or 1957 Rambler today is not an easy or a popular venture. Aside from Rebels, few of these Ramblers gave any early signs of being collector material. The unit bodies did not hold up well, as rust easily found a home, especially in salty and northern climates.