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Thursday, March 21, 2013

1967 Rambler Rebel Briarcliff, Mariner and Westerner

In the 1960s, automakers' targeting of limited production models to specific markets began to proliferate on a grand scale.  Vehicles weren't just transportation anymore, for a few extra sales everything became special.  The Dodge boys pushed their White Hat Specials, Buick dealers offered the California GS Special, and Ford featured a Big Sky Country Special for customers in the Rocky Mountains. Regionalism became more pronounced as trends were charted and new markets for specific territories were discovered.

There was a common theme in the selling of these special vehicles. The   showcased offering was made different from its ordinary off-the-assembly-line kin by combining special options together in a single package.  By purchasing the extra cost goodies in a package, consumers saved money and dealers could afford to dicker a bit more, too.   This new type of thinking was calculated to meet the growing sophistication of the public's taste.  

The 1966 Rambler Classic.

The single most ambitious scheme to create cars that appealed to specific regions in the 1960s came from American Motors when the unique Rambler Rebel wagons hit the market. The name Rebel was a new name for the company's intermediate line, prior to 1967 mid-sized Ramblers had been known as Classic.  

Rebel was not just a new nomenclature, the car itself was new from the ground up.  No other vehicle to come from Detroit had been so changed in a single season.  The  strong, upright Teutonic look of 1966 gave way to sleek, svelte lines that featured the long hood/short rear deck theme with a graceful coke-bottle swell in the rear quarter panel. A long, hungry venturi grille caused Rebel look fast even with the gearshift lever in Park.  The company's designers made automobile history by being first to integrate the fenders into the bumpers.   Truly exciting and most rare for Detroit offerings, AMC's ultra-modern, thin-all V-8 powerplants were introduced in the all-new cars. 

Vince Geraci was a stylist at AMC.  He remembers how disappointed the team was when Motor Trend did not name the Rebel and Ambassador lines as Car of the Year. Despite their beauty, the automotive press mean-spiritedly dubbed AMC's whole lineup as 'the me-too cars' in the fall of 1966. Dismissing the stunning vehicles as copy cat also-rans, hacks wrote that the last independent would cease manufacture soon, just as Studebaker had scant months before. Customers didn't want to buy an orphan so they drove past the Rambler dealer when new car shopping that autumn.

Roy Abernethy, circa 1966.

In January of 1967. head honcho Roy Abernethy was forced into retirement and Roy Chapin took his place as President and CEO.  Chapin moved fast to regain the confidence of consumers and bankers. The company's product was good, but if the company was to survive, the cars needed to be flogged like never before. Chapin brought in new people to implement his lifesaving plan. 

The story goes that he was chatting with Henry Ford II at the Grosse Point Yacht Club and said he was thinking of raiding Ford for a VP of Sales.  Ford told him about Vince G. Raffolio who had done great things for Ford sales in Great Britain.  Chapin liked what he saw and brought him into AMC's head office on Plymouth Road. Raffolio looked at the product lineup and immediately ordered the three special Rambler Rebel wagons. Rambler had laid claim to as much as 10% of the American station wagon market for itself in the past before the company lost its sizzle. Dressing up Rebel wagons was brilliant.  

The one-off Rambler St. Moritz made the auto show circuit in 1966.

Jim Alexander worked at American Motors in 1967.  He recalls that the wagon trio was a hurry-up assignement.  In-house designer Wade O'Connell's special talents were called upon to create the insignias for the three special wagons. (He later created the immortal Gremlin character.) The specs and the option package list, that defined the models was drawn up. The hot stamps for embossing the insignias on the seats and soft trim were created in the shop and cost very little. Within days after Chapin's takeover, AMC's public relations people announced the sharp limited-edition wagons.  Full-page, four-colour advertisment advertisements were taken out in major magazines to show them off.
This American Motors' concept wagon, AMX III,  appeared in February 1967.

While limited editions weren't new, what was most unique was the bold distribution strategy.  Designers created the trio of Rebel wagons to appeal to a American consumers in widely diverse parts of the country, unlike localized offerings such as the St. Louis Mustang which was sold only in the Show-me State.

These three wagons were going to increase Rambler Rebel sales by 1,550 units for the factory. While dealers might have ordered their quota of wagons for the year and not be interested in ordering any more, zone managers now had an exciting traffic builder to offer, one guaranteed to lure people into the showroom. As Jim Alexander says, "Special editions meant there was something in the pipeline, it kept the factories working."  In the dark days of 1967 when American Motors' fortunes were at their lowest ebb, that was more than an accomplishment, it was a miracle.

            The resulting cars were breathtaking.  Westerner wore a ranch theme, and went to dealers in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, San Antonio, Houston, Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit.  the Westerner's body was white and the side panels were simulated tan leather.  Inside the Rebel wagon the upholstery was white and brown vinyl. 500 of the specially trimmed Ramblers were sold in the Midwest and Southwestern states.

The Briarcliff  was seen on showroom floors in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, Hartford, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Albany and Memphis. It was given a country club look and was decked out in traditional hunt club colours, designed to appeal to the ‘horsey set’ in  eastern markets.  The bright red finish was complimented with black camera grain side panels.  Inside the cabin, Don Stumpf, AMC's Director of Interior Styling, employed black antelope grain vinyl on the seats and door panels to compliment the exterior.  Only 400 of the classy Briarcliffs were built.

The largest batch in the trio, 600 Mariners were sold in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Miami and Tampa and St. Petersburg markets. Each was decked out in nautical trim appropriate to coastal US markets.  The body colour was bright blue with side panels finished in a simulated bleached teakwood.  Blue antelope grain vinyl upholstery with blue suede bolster panels in the interior completed the sailing theme. 

All three special Rebel wagons were given  the 200 horespower. 4.75-liire (290-cubic inch) V-8, automatic transmission, power steering and brakes, radio, Rambler's famous Airliner reclining seats, heavy-duty suspension and white side walls.  The only options not offered were the bigger  5.6-litre (343-cubic inch) V-8 and the company's All-Season air conditioning.

 Visit my old car website at: The Oilspot Eh!

Copyright James C. Mays 1996
All rights reserved.

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