Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Sigrid Shaw of New London, Wis., remembers vividly when her husband John told her that her beloved 1959 Rambler was no longer road worthy. Shaw was a school teacher at the time, and she had really grown fond of her unique sedan.
“I drove it to school because it was a fun thing to drive. Even back in the ’80s, it was unusual,” she recalled. “The color was so unusual … Then when John said I couldn’t drive it any more, that was disheartening.”
Over the years, the Rambler’s unibody had become weakened underneath, and John Shaw didn’t trust the car anymore. So it sat — for more than 10 years, before Sigrid decided she wanted to investigate the possibility of getting the car restored and back on the road.
That effort didn’t turn out well, though, and it looked like the pink sedan — officially, the colors are Hibiscus Rose with Catillion Mauve — would be relegated to a never-ending retirement. But Sigrid wasn’t ready to accept that fate.
“It just sat there for a long time,” she lamented. “Well, my husband is into old tractors and for a given period of time, every time I came home he would have a new tractor part … Finally, I said if he was going to put all this money into tractors, I should have something done with my car. Well, the first place we took the car, they didn’t even want to look at it. They said it would just be too much, so it sat for a few more years, until just about two or three [years] before I retired in early 2002. Finally, we went to Jody Stuck of Midwest Classic Restorations out of Freedom [Wis.]. He said he would do it, but it would be a real challenge.”
Shaw said that Stuck wound up “putting 117 lbs. of metal” into the unibody to make it strong and complete again. The car was then sprayed underneath “with the stuff they use for truck bedliners, so it will never rust again.”
Stuck’s handiwork and the Shaws’ persistence and loyalty to their old car have combined to make the venerable Rambler a truly unique hobby vehicle. Certainly, few 1959 Ramblers remain with the car’s combination of a high-end restoration and its unblemished original equipment. The car’s interior looks so good it almost smells new, and almost everything inside is original and unrestored. Under the hood is the car’s original 196.5-cid inline six-cylinder that has lasted for 62,000-plus miles.
Ironically, the humble Rambler that nobody really wanted — or wanted to work on — is now a blue ribbon show car. A year ago, the car even earned an invitation to the Milwaukee Masterpiece and Iola Old Car Show, where it rubbed elbows with Classics, exotics and all manner of high-end machines. “You’d have a pretty hard time getting it away from me now,” Sigrid joked. “I’m more glad than ever that I have it. When you think of the shape that it’s in and how old it is and how well it runs and everything… There just aren’t very many of these around and they’re not in the condition this one is in now. And with the original interior and everything, you won’t have many close to this one. I just love it.”
Shaw certainly never had car shows on her mind back in the 1980s when she first spotted the pastel sedan. “I first saw the car in a parking lot at the Clintonville High School, where I used to teach,” she said. “It was driven by one of my students and I always told her that if she ever wanted to get rid of the car, I loved the color … I really wanted the car. That’s how it all started.
“I think a year after she graduated, I don’t remember exactly, but she called me one day in the summer and her dad had said they have to get rid of the car. I think it might have been her grandmother’s car … Anyway, I bought it and drove it to school for a year or so. That was back in the ’80s sometime.”
By then the Rambler was certainly elderly for a daily driver, but Shaw found the car to be very functional, quite roomy, plenty of fun to drive and infinitely practical — much as many original Rambler buyers found when they drove their cars off the lot for the first time. Rambler was in its sophomore year as an AMC offspring for 1959, and the company was growing at a rapid clip. After a model year production total of 162,181 cars in 1958, AMC watched 374,240 vehicles roll off the assembly line for 1959, including 35,242 six-cylinder Custom sedans like the Shaw’s car.
The Custom sedans were part of Rambler Series 10 — the six-cylinder offerings. They turned out to be much more popular among buyers at the time than the Rebel V-8 series, which shared the same bodies and just about everything else except the engine.
The Rambler Six series included a base Deluxe lineup, middle-tier Super and top-end Custom. All three tiers offered four-door sedans and four-door Cross Country wagons. The middle Super line also had a four-door hardtop.
In the late 1950s, AMC President George Romney was well ahead of the establishment in his belief that smaller, more practical cars would eventually supplant the battleships of the 1950s. Romney’s vision of a cheaper more versatile car led to the birth of the Custom sedan — a car of modest looks for the time, but lots of modern thinking. It still had fins in back — didn’t everything? — but with fold-down seats, unibody construction, a more economical engine, push-button transmission and not a lot of excess baggage or unnecessary bells and whistles, the Rambler Custom was a nice package for anyone not afraid to venture beyond the “Big Three.”
The engine produced 127 hp, and in the eyes of most, performed adequately, if unspectacularly. The cars had tons of headroom, legroom and trunk room — even with a Continental kit in the way — and lots of glass, including a curved windshield. The spears down the sides, two-tone paint, heavy chrome grille, quad headlamps and dual hood ornaments were all quintessential ’50s, but the overall design of the Rambler was decidedly forward-thinking.
Shaw certainly liked everything about it, and she had no plans to stop driving it in the 1980s, but four decades of winter driving eventually caught up to her Rambler.
“All at once my husband noticed it was kinking in the unibody and he said I couldn’t drive it anymore,” she recalled. “That was the worst thing wrong with it. That was the biggest thing when we got it restored — making the frame [unibody] strong again and fixing that.”
Beyond that, the Shaws were able to round up all the chrome parts and other various bits they needed to make the car young again. They even bought a second 1959 Rambler to help with the rebuild, “but it was from Oklahoma and it had so much Oklahoma [dirt] all in it, it was almost in worse shape than my Rambler.”
The engine was rebuilt, the two-tone paint scheme re-shot and the interior reinstalled. The floors had to be rebuilt underneath, but all the upholstery was saved. “It’s all original [inside],” Shaw said. “It had seat covers on it when we got it, so it didn’t get a whole lot of wear and tear on it.
“We overhauled the engine. As long as they had it all apart, they overhauled it. They were going to put a radio in it, but I said, ‘No, it didn’t have a radio in it originally, so we’re not going to put one in it.’ The clock wasn’t working, and it still doesn’t work!... It has the Continental kit, and other than that, I think most of the things on it are pretty standard. It’s got the push-button drive, of course, and most people think that’s pretty cool.”
With the possible except of its lovely pink paint, the feature that Shaw appreciates perhaps more than anything else about the car, is its roomy interior. The Rambler night not look huge on the outside, but it doesn’t need a trailer or roof rack for a weekend trip. “The trunk is huge in this thing,” she laughed. “You can put a whole refrigerator in the back of that trunk, and you can put six people in there and still have elbow room. It’s unreal when you get into it how much room there is compared to a car now.”
As much as they enjoy driving it, the Shaws say the Rambler’s days as a daily commuter are long gone. They refuse to trailer it anywhere, but they don’t need it to pull everyday duty, either.
“We don’t trailer it, we drive it, so when you are going on the highway you get a heck of a lot of looks,” Sigrid said. “She holds her own at 65 on the highway. She’s not hesitant at all about keeping up with big boys on the road. During summer time, we drive it a lot. Sometimes we just take it up and down main street to make people see it … We show it off because we can!
“Now if you take it to shows, there are very few Ramblers. Everybody has a Rambler story when we go to a show — they learned to drive on a Rambler or their dad had one or their uncle had one. Not everybody knows how rare they are now, but car enthusiasts who really know cars know this is a pretty rare vehicle.”
Got a car you’d like us to feature as our “Car of the Week“? We want to hear from you! E-mail us and tell us all about it.