Au­tocross 1963 AMC Ram­bler

Suzy Bauter’s Show­stop­ping, Au­tocross 1963 AMC Ram­bler

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What is it to build a hot rod—or, more ac­cu­rately, what is a hot rod? In to­day’s times, we’re fur­ther and fur­ther from the pre­war ter­ror­iz­ers of speed and noise beam­ing across the Bon­neville Salt Flats to an­swer the great ques­tion of what the ma­chine was ul­ti­mately ca­pa­ble of (and maybe the meat­bag be­hind the wheel, but we’ve yet to hit the limit of that, ei­ther). They didn’t pick up a bomber belly tank or Model T body be­cause they were sim­ply cool—that mea­sure hadn’t been built yet—in­stead, they were work­ing to go as fast as pos­si­ble with what they had, and that men­tal­ity bred ev­ery mo­tor­sport we love to­day. Es­pe­cially in the era be­fore an over­whelm­ing af­ter­mar­ket rose to an­swer al­most ev­ery need, hot rod­ders were hand-build­ing the so­lu­tions they dreamed up for prob­lems no one had seen yet.

To that end, Suzy Bauter’s 1963 AMC Ram­bler Amer­i­can wagon—which took last win­ter’s show sea­son by storm with its or­phan-brand, au­tocross-fiend­ing pres­ence on the floor—fits the “how back­yard can we be?” men­tal­ity of HOT ROD’s early days.

“I spent most of my child­hood hang­ing out with my older brother and his bud­dies, who were 15 years older than I am. They built cars like Model Ts and Volk­swa­gens, and they were all into mod­i­fy­ing lit­tle Toy­ota trucks,” Suzy re­called. “That’s what I knew, and so I kind of got kicked out of sew­ing class and went to wood shop, be­cause it didn’t re­ally oc­cur to me that I could go to auto shop. It turned out I was al­ler­gic to the saw­dust. I left wood shop in asthma at­tacks and thought, I’m go­ing to auto shop. I’m just go­ing to do it. So I was one of the first girls in the shop at my high school.”

Through some Craigslist dig­ging, Suzy came up on this sec­ond-owner AMC Ram­bler Amer­i­can wagon in Cal­i­for­nia after a few fruit­less leads. It was less than two hours away, and it was rare with­out be­ing “rare,” so it could be hacked up while still be­ing an odd­ball sight at any scene. After hear­ing the sec­ond-owner’s his­tory with the car, feel­ing com­fort­able that it was a solid plat­form, and com­ing to the right price of $700, they drove out to Sacra­mento, Cal­i­for­nia, and pulled it out of a stor­age lot. “The whole point was to get a wagon with a short wheel­base,” she said. “Some­thing that was nim­ble and small and would be a good plat­form to work from.”

The Ram­bler wagon was sur­pris­ingly com­plete, with even the fac­tory flat­head-six in the back. The ini­tial plan was to re­build the orig­i­nal en­gine and use it for now, but the big ques­tion was what sus­pen­sion to put un­der the car. It was planned from the get-go to dump the stock sus­pen­sion for mod­ern equiv­a­lents, but Suzy and her hus­band, Rod­ney, weren’t ini­tially sure what. “We re­searched what to build un­der the car based on what parts were avail­able,” Suzy said. “The first things that came to mind are Fox-body Mus­tang or first-gen Ca­maro—or even Mi­ata.”

After mea­sur­ing the sub­frame pick-up points, Rod­ney set­tled on a first-gen­er­a­tion Ca­maro sub­frame, since the mounts were within inches of the uni­bod­ied Ram­bler Amer­i­can’s front sub­frame, and they were fa­mil­iar with set­ting it up, thanks to their au­tocrossspec 1967 Ca­maro. The stock hard­ware was re­placed with Detroit Speed and Global West com­po­nents, mod­i­fied by Sus­pen­sion Geek, with RideTech spin­dles and a Hotchkis front sus­pen­sion.

They even toyed with the idea of build­ing a cus­tom four-link rear sus­pen­sion, but the two had an epiphany when re­search­ing IRS com­bi­na­tions. For the price of a com­plete rear-end, brakes, and four-link sys­tem with coilovers, you could buy al­most two com­plete fifth-gen­er­a­tion Ca­maro IRS sub­frame as­sem­blies. This net­ted a beefy 3.27:1 lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial and al­lowed for in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion at all four cor­ners. Plus, it was shock­ingly af­ford­able, ac­cord­ing to Suzy: “As long as it’s not a Z/28, then it’s $500 to $600 for each car­tridge.”

The new bones un­der the Ram­bler gave it a 100-inch wheel­base with 80 inches of track width.

All four cor­ners are sus­pended by a trick set of ac­tive-han­dling Vik­ing Per­for­mance Berserker ASM shocks. They use a G-sen­sor along with an ar­ray of wheel-level sen­sors to ad­just the shock valv­ing dy­nam­i­cally while also al­low­ing for cus­tom-tun­ing with a lap­top or smart­phone.

With the goal for 10-inch-wide tires, the fac­tory fend­ers would’ve never suf­ficed. Rob MacGre­gor of No Limit En­gi­neer­ing stepped up to hand-form the mas­sive steel flares for the newly dubbed “Flare­witch.” A bevy of mea­sure­ments were taken and mocked up be­fore Rob rolled them out at his shop in Dan­dridge, Ten­nessee. The 8.5-inch flares dom­i­nate each cor­ner of the Ram­bler, but al­low shel­ter for the 18x10.5-inch U.S. Mags Spade wheels and 315mm BF Goodrich Ri­val S rub­ber. This to­tally changed the at­ti­tude of the car for Suzy: “I called her ‘Sugar’ at first, be­cause she was short and sweet, but you can kind of fig­ure why I don’t call her Sugar any­more—she sorta lost that sweet edge, she looks more bull­dog now!”

As the chas­sis came to­gether, the driv­e­train pro­gram evolved. De­spite al­ready hav­ing the 196ci straight-six re­built, it was de­cided that a used 5.3L LS-truck mo­tor would be a smarter choice. From in­take to oil pan, it’s fac­tory-stock, though a cam change is planned in the fu­ture. For now, there’s enough grunt with the un­corked 5.3L to sat­isfy Suzy while they con­tinue to de­velop the car. Plus, with the tight con­fines of au­tocross, horse­power can be a li­a­bil­ity; she wanted to fo­cus on get­ting the Ram­bler/ Ca­maro hy­brid di­aled in be­fore throw­ing moun­tains of power at it. That said, a set of Baer brakes are in place to han­dle what­ever is thrown at Flare­witch, thanks to the six-pis­ton calipers on 14-inch ro­tors at all four cor­ners. A 7004-R with TCI’s Auto-X valve­body turns the four-speed au­to­matic into some­thing of a “poor man’s se­quen­tial” when used in com­bi­na­tion with a ratchet shifter.

The fi­nal body­work was han­dled by Jon Lind­strom over at Best of Show Coach­works with the help two ap­pren­tices, Jamie and Austin. Hours were spent

“I called her ‘Sugar’ at first, be­cause she was short and sweet, but you can fig­ure why I don’t call her Sugar any­more.”

— Suzy Bauter

get­ting the Ram­bler straight and block-sanded be­fore PPG’s Wash­ing­ton Blue was ap­plied. “When we got the dark-blue paint on it, it was crazy,” Suzy re­called. “The body lines that started show­ing up; it’s re­ally crazy what you just don’t see when a car’s beige.” The roof was topped with a ven­er­a­ble white two-tone. Dean, Best of Show’s head me­chanic, also helped in the eve-be­fore-SEMA slam to get the car run­ning and driv­ing be­fore its big un­veil.

The in­te­rior is all home-sewn by Suzy, a rar­ity in any project car. What wasn’t left in the Wash­ing­ton Blue ex­te­rior color was wrapped in base­ball-glove leather. EMPI Road­ster seats were re-cov­ered along with the rear’s fac­tory-fold­ing bench to match the leather-cov­ered door pan­els, head­liner, and gauge clus­ter. “I’ve sewn all my life!” she ex­claimed. “But I was re­ally grate­ful that I had the skills to be able to do it, be­cause I couldn’t af­ford to pay some­body to do it, and it needed to be done.” In­te­rior work is one of the most un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated hand-crafts on a build like this, un­til some­one starts pric­ing out their dream cock­pits. Not only did the work save a few bucks, but it’s just one more garage-built el­e­ment to Flare­witch.

Of course, it’s taken a sea­son to shake the build down, but Suzy’s get­ting more and more com­fort­able with the car as its lim­its are ex­plored and pushed fur­ther. “If I get some­where on the leader­board or fin­ish­ing, well that’s kind of just ic­ing on the cake. I’ve truly never been an overly com­pet­i­tive per­son. I re­ally do this for fun, to en­joy my friends and en­joy the sport of driv­ing,” she ex­plains. “But it’s like driv­ing a rocket on rails!”

01] The fold­ing rear seat was kept and re-cov­ered by Suzy, along with the EMPI seats.02] They’re sub­tle, but the split-hous­ing LED bulbs are the most rad­i­cal mod­i­fi­ca­tion to the other­wise fac­tory front end.03] An iconic T-han­dle ratchet shifter by TCI clicks through the gears of the 700R-4 de­signed around TCI’s Auto-X valve­body, which al­lows for man­u­al­like en­gine brak­ing when off-throt­tle.

01] The two braided lines com­ing off the Vik­ingASM sus­pen­sion are for the ac­tive valv­ing, with a re­mote-mounted ac­tu­a­tor tight­en­ing or loos­en­ing the shocks dozens of times a sec­ond.02] The front and rear bumpers were re­moved, but the un­der­ly­ing ducts and open­ings looked the part as func­tional in­lets for brake cool­ing.

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