1,100 Miles, One Old Car, Many Epiphanies

Maybe you’ve had the old car lover’s epiphany. The one where you suddenly realize that you’re a grown-up now and could, if you wanted, just go and buy an old car.

Semi-classic, demi-classic, or just plain old, your quarry will ideally be somewhere far from home. Clearing yourself for action, you fly, bank check in hand, to collect it. Then, with credit card at the ready, you and your dream machine and maybe a couple of good buddies embark, joyously taking the long way home, choosing the winding back roads over the boredom of interstates.

My epiphany took me to Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, in search of my obscure object of vehicular desire. Over three days, my compatriots and I drove the classic I’d purchased hundreds of miles around Carolinas south and north before continuing to the lower reaches of New York’s Hudson River Valley. Throughout an 1,100-mile odyssey, many good times were had—even if they weren’t exactly relaxing.

Perhaps the key difference between the romantic ideal and what I attempted with pals Jay Strell and Richard Hart was that we weren’t driving what most would call a dream machine. Did I say classic? The 1963 Rambler Classic 550 wagon I bought may have the word in its name but that’s about as much power as it holds. It’s a box stock four-door with a six-cylinder and an automatic, and its optional fully-reclining front seats (revolutionary in their day) needed recovering badly—mice minced their stuffing, the fabric is shredded and steel springs stick out, which doesn’t do much for appearance, comfort or ergonomics.

On the other hand, seats can be fixed, the Classic was cheap and it seemed to run well enough to make the trip home, with only 87,000 miles on the clock. Above all, it was cool. Defiantly so, in my view, being from the preternaturally durable middle-Sixties apogee of the old American Motors Corporation, or AMC—the last of the Independents.

While more than 5,000 companies have endeavored to manufacture automobiles in America, only a few didn’t get their heads handed to them. AMC—borne of the 1954 amalgamation of Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson, in what was the largest ever U.S. merger to that point—made it all the way to 1980, the year it fell into Renault’s hands from exhaustion. The key to AMC’s longevity? Ten years earlier, in 1970, the company had the uncanny foresight to purchase Jeep from Kaiser, arguably the best $75 million any carmaker ever spent. Ingested by Chrysler in 1987, AMC’s remains these days remain Jeep, and reside within Fiat Chrysler. Once again, the first name in off-roading is the most valuable thing the corporate parent owns.

But AMC sans Jeep was something in the 1960s. After the Nash and Hudson nameplates were retired in the late ’50s, the plucky carmaker from Wisconsin had taken to calling its cars Ramblers. Hitherto a Nash model, the Rambler name was acquired in 1913 with Nash’s purchase of Kenosha’s old Jeffery company, and Ramblers they again were through 1969, when AMC became the nameplate in an attempt to shake what had become a fuddy-duddy reputation.

Ramblers are fuddy-duddies worth remembering. Though not without shortcoming, their stolid characters hold surprising virtues, many of a sort unfamiliar to today’s drivers. Considered an economy car in its day, robust build and steamship torque make this Rambler feel almost exotic to first-time operators. A fuel-mileage champ in the day when 21 mpg seemed pretty swell, it was a strong seller in the early ’60s market for “compact” American cars. But like most of the machinery coming out of AMC’s factories, this 1963 example is overbuilt and over-engineered versus what modern life expects in a car aimed at the terminally thrifty, with heavy-gauge steel, quality materials and more than a passing nod toward safety (dual-circuit braking and seat belts for five—in 1963!)

It’s not sexy or high-tech. The intake manifold looks like it escaped a life spent in service breathing to a 1930s kitchen stove. But Ramblers were reliable, and to the benefit of the cars’ longevity, resolutely under-stressed, being to driving as Perry Como was to song: happy to croon but never to wail. The power plant’s roots go back to the Nash six of 1941, but all that means is that the big iron lump in our car—a flathead design transformed in later years to OHV operation—is a low-stress charmer. The six-cylinder motor of 195.6 cubic inches, or 3.2 liters displacement, is positively torque-happy, running out of huff, we’re guessing (no tach, naturally) by 3,400 rpm.

We’d spotted this car, finished in a very period shade—Aegean Aqua Metallic, they called it—advertised in Hemmings Motor News. Unexpectedly, for one who never thought much about Ramblers, it spoke to me. I’m not sure why. It was a straight, unrusted, stone basic wagon. Running, driving, with dog dish hubcaps and a dead AM radio, it did have only 87,000 miles on the clock, clearly having spent a large part of its life resting. The seller—a UPS pilot whose dad had owned it for a dozen years before him—planned to go the resto-mod route, sending the car to AMC guru Frank Swygert in Batesburg-Leesville for a big V-8 crate motor and other restoration work. But then a job-related move, and the realization that it was too original to mod, intervened, and the Rambler was put up for sale, cheap. That’s where I came in.

Swygert, who’d been storing the car, went through it to confirm basic roadworthiness, discovering in the process in an otherwise dry car a rusted out cowl section near the heater box, melted away, he hypothesized, by a steady trickle of mouse pee. Cowl rust is a common enough problem that a fitted repair section was readily acquired, then installed at a fair price. Fluids were changed and we came to get it.

The long time publisher of the American Motors Car Magazine (www.amc-mag.com,) Swygert has seen more than his share of Ramblers, so we took him at his word when he advised that while the Classic’s power steering would make it easier to park in tight spots, the steering’s lifeless imprecision might surprise.

Boy, howdy. With what I estimated to be 41.9 turns lock-to-lock, information from the Rambler’s tiller raised more questions than it answered, putting one in mind of Donald Rumsfeld’s axiom on known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Setting off for dinner at The Ordinary, a gracious seafood establishment located in a converted bank building in Charleston around 140 miles east, we hopped on the interstate and quickly became acquainted with the Rambler’s charms—that admirably smooth six and the superior visibility afforded by its thin pillars and acres of glass being high among them. We equally quickly identified this particular Classic’s chief on-road demerit, steering so alarmingly vague that one feels he’s being blue-screened into one of those old movies where drivers are forever sawing at the wheel.

Turns out we owe their faux driving skills an apology. On the highway the Rambler recalls for us that Americans of bygone times didn’t expect much in the way of steering precision. In windy weather and still skies, my Classic feels like it’s being blown around. Like a bad video game with hopelessly vague controllers, the Rambler drifts off line, you correct it, then it drifts again. Steering feel is power-assisted into a state of advanced non-existence, while the mental effort required to keep it between the white lines at speed is sweat-inducingly, white-knuckle intense. Distracted driving never had such a built-in enemy.

I got used to it, with time, and by text Swygert assured me that he’d inspected the car and that all was Kenosha kosher up front. But when we get a chance, we’re going to have it checked out again anyway. The Rambler’s all-metal dash gets high style points, but it has enough sharp edges and protruding points to maim the entire family. Pondering the vintage belts holding only your lap in place, it occurs you’d hate to steer it wrong.

The next morning we stopped along the coast in Georgetown, where South Carolina-born, NY-based Bernard Baruch, a business and diplomatic legend of the first half of the 20thcentury, in 1905 re-assembled a barony – once awarded by the King of England to ye royal cronies in the 18th century – by purchasing 11 former plantations of a combined 16,000 acres. Known as the Hobcaw Barony, after the Native American word for “between the waters,” Baruch would later gift the property to his suffragette daughter, Belle – a nature-loving sportswoman, sailor, world class equestrian, amateur pilot and refreshingly unapologetic lesbian– while continuing to use it to host to luminaries like Churchill and FDR. Upon Belle’s death in 1964, Hobcaw was placed in a trust preserving it as an outdoor reserve and research center. A tour led by Tiffany Paglio from the foundation’s Discovery Center is a walk through time, with original slave quarters just one reminder of the way things used to be.

After a night in Durham, we head north the following morning on the James Madison Highway, Route 15, a non-interstate that runs all the way to Gettysburg, Penn. Here we pick up the Lincoln Highway and head east. The more leisurely pace suits us fine, and the scenery beats the view out the window on the interstate with a big stick.

At speeds under 61 mph, we pass battlefields with names like Manassas and Appomattox and reflect on a civil war that continues to resonate here and far from here. Speaking of things that won’t go away and seem to follow us around, we like keeping the speedometer needle below 61 because we’ve discovered that if we go any faster there’s a thump-thump-thumping from somewhere in the back of the car that is, with no hi-fi sounds to drown it out, driving us crazy. They check the differential oil at Champs Tire Co. in Creedmor, N.C., where boss Michael Satterfield and his crew couldn’t have been kinder, but its level is not the problem and it isn’t until we’re 50 miles from home, in a New Jersey gas station, that we stop worrying that a wheel isn’t about to fall off.

That’s when a savant car-nut gas station attendant (there’s no self-service in Jersey) noticed unbidden that the rear mounts of the roof rack allowed it to move up and down. This would explain the thumping and the stains on the moon-glow green headliner, caused by years of water leaking into the roof rack mounting holes. The headliner has to come out to tighten the rack back down, so it’s got to be coming down sooner or later anyway, which would be the time to replace the stained roof pad. That’s the good news, I guess. The bad news is that we burned five quarts of oil, which doesn’t speak well for the valve seat stems or the rings, or worse.

Against that, the Rambler’s old-school in-dash clock kept time perfectly.

Look around carefully and you’ll probably see a few old Ramblers still in service in your driving micro-environment; some hippies near me keep a 1965 Rambler American two door as their daily driver. Cars like this Rambler offer a snapshot of an admirable American automotive paradigm now gone: the sober automotive citizen made of steel instead of plastic, with a burbling soundtrack that goes blub-blub-blub. Its character was a powerful reflection of the mid-20th century mechanical world’s default Puritan tradition: silent operation, and building things to last. The truth is, when they made cars like this, they hadn’t figured out how to build them really shitty yet. There is little cynical or dishonest about Sixties Ramblers.

Driving home the long way, it showed us just how much time we were now spending thinking about all the jobs that need doing to set our Classic right. That is, I’m afraid, how this dream always ends.