A Ridiculous Proposition

Editor Backus adds another project to his fleet, but this one has more wheels than usual— the Rambler American.

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by Richard Backus

We’re deep into winter here in the Midwest, a stage in the annual cycle (no pun intended) of things where I typically find myself knuckling down on pressing two-wheeled projects to get them done by spring. “Pressing” being something of a generous term, because if I just wanted to go riding there are plenty of competent, modern machines I could buy to carry me with ease from wherever I am to wherever I desire to go.

Desire, of course, is the motivating force in old bike ownership, and clearly I enjoy the process of getting whatever bike I’m focused on up and going as much as I enjoy actually going down the road. It’s a trip of its own kind and something of a habit, as well, as the projects currently sitting in the hovel attest.

Occupying one lift is the companion to my 1983 Laverda RGS, the 1984 RGS that I finally got running last year, and that I swore I’d be riding in 2020. That was before I decided it needed some cosmetic attention. The bodywork is mostly perfect, but the frame, not so much, its surface bruised and battered, with budding corrosion showing through. It’s bad enough that I don’t want to leave it alone, and we know where that leads, because once the frame’s in good nick you can’t just hang the old parts back on; they have to be cleaned, freshened up and made worthy of their refurbished digs.

No surprise then that progress on the RGS has been slow, made worse by the distraction of the 1988 Ducati Paso I picked up (squirrel!), and hampered even more by the 1962 Rambler American 400 convertible I decided I “had” to have.

I am first and foremost a motorcycle guy, but I’d been thinking a convertible would be fun to have. But since I seem to equate convertibles with midlife crisis, whatever I got had to be free of that stench, so that meant something weird or old. That knocks out a slew of actually good cars, like the 2001 BMW 3 series convertible we had at the shop that my business partner, Marcos, beautifully prepped and sold just before Christmas. I seriously pondered a first-gen Miata, which are awesome little roadsters, but for whatever reason the tug wasn’t strong enough to make me act. So what, then?

The what, I decided, was a car you couldn’t take too seriously, like the ratty but loveable 1959 Peugeot 403 Convertible Peter Falk drove in the TV series Columbo. A fun thought, but with only a few hundred 403 convertibles made in the first place, it was a non-starter. Still, I liked the format, which got me thinking; what was the closest thing to Columbo’s Peugeot to come out of the U.S.? Enter the Rambler American.

Introduced in 1958, the Rambler American was newly-formed AMC’s low-priced economy car. Motivating power was provided by an antiquated but brick-solid flathead six, and within two years an overhead valve version of the same engine was available for a few dollars more. A 1961 redesign produced a more modern if awkward profile, its styling compromised by the necessary cost-savings of using the old chassis. Affectionately nicknamed the “breadbox” by Ramblerites, I think its homeliness only adds to its appeal. Trolling through Craigslist I stumbled upon one a few hundred miles away, and in an impulsive mood — usually a harbinger of bad decisions — I bought it.

For reasons unknown, some 40-plus years ago the Rambler was parked in a shed in Lincoln, Nebraska, where it quietly sat molting. Time wasn’t exactly kind to it, yet it’s something of a survivor, aided no doubt from its mostly covered storage. The odometer shows just 49,576 miles, and it might be correct. When I got it home I cleaned and adjusted the ignition, hooked up a battery, plumbed some gas to it, and fired it up. Incredible. All the lights worked. The power top worked (OK, so there’s no fabric left), and amazingly, in all the work I’ve done so far — fuel pump, carb overhaul, fuel tank R&R and clean out, water pump, cylinder head overhaul, complete brake overhaul — only two fittings have refused to come loose and broken; a hose clamp and a brake line.

My local machinist, Doc, did the cylinder head, which now sports chrome-stemmed valves meant for a mid-1980s Ford Ranger overhead cam 2-liter engine, used to allow positive stem seals instead of the stock umbrella type. The valve springs are for a Cummins, with modified IHC keepers. Only Doc. It’s beautiful, and nicer than the rest of the car.

The Rambler is without question a ridiculous proposition. But then, that’s exactly what makes it fun, just like the trio of Italian bikes in my shop. Ride safe.

— Richard Backus/Founding Editor

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
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