Autocross 1963 AMC Rambler
Suzy Bauter’s Showstopping, Autocross 1963 AMC Rambler
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.