Book documents last in­de­pen­dent au­tomaker’s tale

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - HISTORY - By Greg Wil­liams

ONCE upon a time in Amer­ica, there were hun­dreds of au­tomak­ers.

As the in­dus­try ma­tured, how­ever, many man­u­fac­tur­ers dis­ap­peared, while oth­ers were con­sol­i­dated into larger brands.

By the late 1940s, there weren’t many in­de­pen­dent au­tomak­ers left. Those still build­ing ve­hi­cles in­cluded Hud­son, Nash, Stude­baker, Packard and Willys-Over­land.

These com­pa­nies were do­ing just fine im­me­di­ately af­ter the Sec­ond World War, sell­ing all they could pro­duce. But an in­tense sales bat­tle be­tween Ford and Chevro­let that be­gan late in 1953 put the in­de­pen­dent builders in se­ri­ous jeop­ardy.

“By early 1954, each of the re­main­ing in­de­pen­dents re­al­ized it needed to merge with some other com­pany to sur­vive,” writes Patrick R. Fos­ter in his book, Amer­i­can Mo­tors Cor­po­ra­tion: The Rise and Fall of Amer­ica’s Last In­de­pen­dent Au­tomaker.

“Each needed to cre­ate new prod­ucts, but the cost of tool­ing and dies had sky­rock­eted af­ter the war. The Big Three could af­ford the cost be­cause they shared the ex­pense across their sev­eral brands, us­ing shared body shells. The in­de­pen­dents needed to be able to do the same thing — to spread their tool­ing costs over a larger num­ber of cars than in the past — and the only way to do that was to share body shells with an­other firm.”

Fos­ter’s book (ISBN: 978-0-76034425-5, pub­lished by Mo­tor­books, hard­cover, 208 pages) documents in de­tail the try­ing times of the auto in­dus­try in the early 1950s and ex­plains how, in 1954, Hud­son and Nash joined to be­come Amer­i­can Mo­tors Cor­po­ra­tion.

When they amal­ga­mated, Hud­son had the Wasp, Su­per Wasp, Hor­net and Jet. Nash was pro­duc­ing the Am­bas­sador, Ram­bler and Met­ro­pol­i­tan.

Fos­ter ex­plores each prod­uct, giv­ing de­sign de­tails and spec­i­fi­ca­tions. He also pro­vides sales fig­ures and AMC’s in­come — all of which pro­vide in­sight into the very ten­u­ous na­ture of the new com­pany.

From 1954 to 1958, AMC’s pres­i­dent, Ge­orge Rom­ney, worked hard to right the ship, and sales steadily in­creased. By 1958, the com­pany’s bread-and­but­ter prod­uct was the Ram­bler line, which in­cluded the Ram­bler Six four-door sedans, hard­tops and sta­tion wag­ons. There was also the Ram­bler Rebel line, which saw a 250-cu­bic inch V8 in­stalled in the same body styles.

The com­pany still made the com­pact Met­ro­pol­i­tan, which com­peted with im­ports such as the Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. Fos­ter notes 1959 was the best year for Met­ro­pol­i­tan sales, and Rom­ney re­mained ded­i­cated to the com­pact car seg­ment — a mar­ket that had been mostly ig­nored bby the Big Three.

In sub­se­quent chap­ters, Fos­ter dis­cusses highs and lows at AMC and shares with read­ers many be­hind-the-scenes tales of prod­uct de­vel­op­ment — both the hits and misses, in­clud­ing the 1964 Tar­pon pTar­pon con­cept car.

The Tar­pon never saw pro­duc­tion. It was a “sporty fast­back coupe” and it would likely have given the Ford Mus­tang some com­pe­ti­tion.

By 1967, AMC was per­ilously close to go­ing un­der, but new man­age­ment rein­vig­o­rated the au­tomaker, and, al­though late to the ‘pony car’ mar­ket, in­tro­duced the Javelin.

With sales in­creas­ing once again, in early 1970, AMC pur­chased the Jeep Cor­po­ra­tion, and in­tro­duced the sub­com­pact Grem­lin — a ve­hi­cle that be­came an im­me­di­ate hit and proved pop­u­lar dur­ing the up­com­ing fuel cri­sis.

Even­tu­ally, how­ever, AMC again en­tered tur­bu­lent wa­ters, join­ing with French au­tomaker Re­nault and in­tro­duc­ing the all-wheel-drive Ea­gle. The com­pany was un­able to stay afloat, and in 1987, the last in­de­pen­dent au­tomaker was sold to the Chrysler Cor­po­ra­tion.

Fos­ter has a soft spot for AMC. His writ­ing is clear and con­cise, and he elo­quently evokes the nearly half­cen­tury his­tory of AMC and its au­to­mo­biles. He does, how­ever, point out where the au­tomaker made mis­takes.

Fos­ter’s book is well-il­lus­trated with many fac­tory pho­to­graphs, con­cept sketches and archival lit­er­a­ture. Any­one with even a pass­ing in­ter­est in AMC will glean new nuggets of in­for­ma­tion about Amer­ica’s last in­de­pen­dent au­tomaker.

Patrick R. Fos­ter’s Amer­i­can Mo­tors Cor­po­ra­tion: The Rise and Fall of Amer­ica’s Last In­de­pen­dent Au­tomaker documents the try­ing times of the auto in­dus­try in the

early 1950s.

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