During the fall of 1949, Tom McCahill was test driving the new Nash Ambassador at the auto maker’s Burlington, Wisconsin proving ground. Beginning in 1946 McCahill, the man who invented the "0-60" acceleration measure, reported in detail on the pros and cons of more than 600 automobiles for Mechanix Illustrated.
While circling the track, McCahill passed several unfamiliar cars being put through their paces by the company's engineers. A Nash representative explained they were Ramblers, an innovative new model that would be released in the spring of 1950. Smelling a scoop, McCahill promised he would refrain from telling anybody about the cars if he was allowed to drive the car and be the first reporter to break the story.
On the cover of the May, 1950, issue of Mechanix Illustrated, McCahill and a comely bathing beauty pose with a yellow Rambler convertible on a Florida beach. The headline announces, "McCahill Drives the New Ultra-Small Nash." In addition to describing the Rambler as, "cute as a cupcake," McCahill reported the car was capable of a top speed of 84 to 86 mph and was impressed with its "excellent riding qualities and quite a bit of snap and punch."
Independent car companies have always had it rough. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – the Big Three – were able to dominate production and marketing with their financial muscle. During the seventy years Nash and American Motors manufactured automobiles, the auto maker survived, and sometimes prospered, by introducing a remarkable list of innovations.
Thomas B. Jeffery built the first Rambler in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1902. Advertised as "The Right Car at the Right Price," the vehicle was one of the first to incorporate a steering wheel, a front- mounted engine and a spare tire fitted to a wheel so a flat could be easily replaced. Jeffery died in 1910, and six years later, his son sold the company to Charles Nash.
Nash, who began his career at Buick, was hired as General Motor's president in 1910. Four years later, he had a falling out with GM's founder Billy Durant, and quit, vowing never to work for anybody again. Nash debuted the first car with his name on the radiator in 1917. The Model 671's body styles included a roadster, touring car and sedan. Power was supplied by a six-cylinder engine featuring overhead valves, a rarity at that time.
In 1932, the Nash Ambassador Eight was equipped with a synchromesh transmission, a suspension system that could be adjusted from inside the car, twin ignition and the industry's first flow- through ventilation system. The 1930s also saw the introduction of vacuum- controlled shifting and of Nash's famous "Bed-In-A-Car", a feature allowing two adults to sleep in the car.
Charles Nash wanted George Mason, head of Kelvinator Corporation to succeed him when he retired. Mason agreed, but only if Nash would purchase the high-end appliance manufacturer. As of 1937, the parent company was known as the Nash- Kelvinator Corporation. Nash scored again in 1941, with the advent of the "600", the first mass-produced unibody construction automobile made in the U.S.
When the Nash Airlyte was unveiled in 1949, it was described as "the most alarming of the post war designs." Conceived in a wind tunnel, wags referred to the cars as "upside down bathtubs." Love them, or hate them, the Airflyte’s teardrop shape with enclosed fenders provided the cars with exceptional fuel mileage making them a popular choice for economically minded Americans.
During the 1950s, Nash continued to introduce new ideas – the compact Rambler, subcompact Metropolitan, Nash-Healy sports car, a single heater and air conditioning unit and seat belts. In 1954, George Mason orchestrated the merger of Nash with Hudson, creating American Motors Corporation (AMC), but he died that same year and his assistant, George Romney took over. Although Romney left after two years to run for governor of Michigan, a race that he won, his "AMC Philosophy of Difference" would embody the company until its demise in 1988.
The second generation Rambler, along with the Hornet, Matador, Pacer, Gremelin, Le Car, Javelin, AMX, Jeep and Eagle represent the good, bad and ugly of automotive design and technology. In 1988, Chrysler purchased what remained of AMC and the Kenosha plant, which had been producing cars since 1897, was torn down.
Nash, American Motors and Kelvinator may have disappeared from our lexicon, but their fascinating history is on display at a remarkable museum in Colorado. Located an hour's drive south of Denver, the aptly named Rambler Ranch embodies Terry Gale’s passion to salute and remember these fallen marques.
Every collection starts with one acquisition, and Gale's was a 1954 Nash Ambassador. "My dad purchased the car for fifty dollars from a Utah car dealer in the early 1970s," Gale explains. "When the oil pump gave up the ghost, the car was parked for eighteen years on a family farm in Grand Junction, Colorado. On his periodic visits, Gale would slide behind the wheel of the forlorn Nash and imagine he was cruising the local highways.
Shortly after Gale's father's death in 1977, his brother asked him if he wanted the Nash. "If I didn't want it," Gale says,” he was going to junk it.” I decided I should save a piece of family history and that was the beginning of what has turned into Rambler Ranch." Restoring a Nash, Gale discovered, is a challenge. Original parts are scarce and few reproduction parts are available, but after a three year renovation, the Ambassador was returned to showroom condition.
While he was buying parts cars for the restoration, Gale kept finding examples too good to part out. By 1993, he had accumulated thirty cars and built his first garage. Today, Rambler Ranch includes five major buildings and more than 600 cars. In addition to an unparalleled cross section of Nash and American Motors products, thirty-seven other manufacturers are represented. Gale has also assembled an extensive collection of toys, literature, clothing, signs (including original twenty- four sheet billboards), photography and other memorabilia – everything and anything involved with Nash, Kelvinator and American Motors.
One building is dedicated to Nash. Vehicles, including a reproduction of the first 1902 Rambler, encompass the manufacturer's important milestones. Another building showcases the thirty- four year history of American Motors. A collection of Kelvinator appliances rates a building of their own. Of special interest is a Food-A-Rama from the 1950s. One of the first side-by-side refrigerators, the rare behemoth is loaded with features, including a "Breakfast Bar" providing room for eggs, bacon and fruit juice. Another building is home to the shop where Rambler Ranch's resident mechanical artisan, Roger Scott, practices his trade. A charming reproduction of a vintage Sinclair gas station, complete with vintage pumps and signs, serves as a welcome center and gift shop. Future plans include a building devoted to AMC Eagle, another for Jeeps, a library and more space to display memorabilia.
Rambler Ranch is not open to the public, but car clubs and special interest groups are always welcome. If you would like further information or would like to make a reservation to visit the Rambler Ranch, Terry Gale can be reached at email@example.com.
Story by Stuart Leuthner, Photography by William Taylor