Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Family Cars, 1955-1969: Part II--The Rambler

My dad had bought his first car, a 1953 Ford, in 1955 during his first assignment in the Army. The Ford had taken to Kansas City from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri several times; from Kansas City to Houston and back to KCMO; and from KC to Brooklyn. It came with us to Germany in 1958. In Germany, we'd taken the Ford on a couple trips to France.

In 1961, Dad was ordered to Albuquerque, New Mexico. He decided it was time for a new car, so before leaving Germany, he sold the Ford which he'd had for six years to another GI. In late August, 1961, we departed Germany aboard a commercial airliner and, after a refueling stop at Shannon, Ireland, landed at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey. The next day, we were on a train headed for Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the American Motors Company factory there.

Dad had ordered a 1961 Rambler station wagon from the factory before we left Germany. The plan was to pick it up at the factory and drive on to Kansas City for a family visit, then on to our new home in Albuquerque.

Rambler Station Wagon built by American Motors Co. Pictured is a 1962 model, virtually identical to our 1961 model.

Kenosha turned out to be remarkably picturesque for an industrial town. It is on the western shore of Lake Michigan--which I had never seen until then. In Kenosha, we were given a tour of one of the town's two American Motors assembly plants--quite a thrill for me and my next younger brother. I don't think my four year old sister and youngest (3 years old) brother were quite as impressed. In fact, my sister said recently that she had no recollection of the factory trip at all!

The car wasn't ready until the next day. Nobody in the family had ever had a brand new car. This one was custom-built to my dad's preferences. The Rambler was blue with a white top. There was a luggage rack of sorts on top. The cargo area in back converted into another seat which faced to the rear--another thrill for me and my brother! There were no seat belts. The car had a "push-button" three-speed automatic transmission and whitewall tires.

As soon as the car was ready, Dad picked it up and brought back to the motel for loading. We headed south out of America's Dairyland (as it said on our Wisconsin license plates). Our route would take us through Chicago, then southwest on U.S. Route 66 to Springfield, Illinois. This was the first of many times the Rambler would travel Route 66, either east to Missouri or west to California. We'd then depart Route 66 and head west to Kansas City.
Rainfall track of Hurricane Carla,
September 1961. Click to enlarge.

We hadn't gotten very far past Chicago when a terrific rain began. Between Chicago and Springfield, the rain continued to get heavier. Before we got to Springfield, the Illinois State Police had stopped all traffic on the highway. It was too dangerous to go on. We were caught in the north-bound remnants of Hurricane Carla, one of two Category 5 storms during 1961, and at the time, the strongest storm on record in the Atlantic basin. We found a motel (no problem this time) to wait out the storm.

A day later, it was still raining, but the highway authorities had deemed the roads safe. The Rambler faced its first test and got us to Kansas City safely. After a few days with my mother's family, we headed on to Albuquerque, eventually back on to Route 66.

We kept that Rambler for eight years. During that time we took it on two trips to California and two trips to Kansas City. On the California trips along Route 66, gasoline would jump to 40 cents a gallon soon after we crossed into Arizona. "Highway robbery!" Dad would exclaim. "There ought to be a law!"

On the California trips in 1966 and 1967, we also took a new passenger: our Siamese-Persian feline, Topcat. He had the cargo area almost to himself, since his litter box was in one corner and his food and water in the other corner. That meant four kids in the back seat and lots of luggage on the roof.

I don't recall any major trouble with the Rambler until one afternoon in the summer of 1969 while Dad was in Vietnam. Mom had all four of us in the car and was backing out of the driveway when suddenly the right side of the car collapsed. Mom ordered us all out and I examined the car. The right front wheel was laying on its side about three feet away from the car. I couldn't really tell what had happened. We were on our way to someplace we really had to be, so Mom enlisted the neighbors to take us. I also don't recall what she did to get the car fixed. It turned out that the front axle had cracked (how? I don't know!) in two places.

When Dad returned from Vietnam a few months later, it was the end of the line for the 1961 Rambler. It was replaced by a brand new 1969 Ford Torino Squire station wagon. I was actually sad to see the Rambler go. We'd had a lot of good times and memories in that car.

The demise of the Rambler coincided with the end of our time in the Land of Enchantment. As soon as the Ford station wagon was delivered, we packed and headed for life's new adventures in California.

The Rambler's replacement: Ford's Torino Squire station wagon.
Pictured is a 1968 model, essentially similar to our light-blue, wood-paneled 1969 model.


Moultrie Creek said...

We had the 1964 model - with pushbutton transmission too. It's one of the cars I learned to drive in. Between the pushbuttons on the Rambler, automatic on the column in the cars we used for Drivers Ed and the stick shift in the car Dad gave me for my birthday, learning to drive was quite an adventure.

One other thing I remember was the fold back front seats - great for the drive-in movies!

Great story!

Randy said...

Looks slightly larger than the model my mother crashed into the large luxury car in front of us when she turned around to check on the bird in the cage in the back seat.
As I recall we got to see all of Hamel, Illinois while awaiting repairs.
The other driver, of course, simply drove away after failing to notice any damage.

Karen Burney said...

Great piece, Craig! Family vehicles are a big part of our family history. Afterall, we spend a great deal of time in them creating memories inside them or on our way to memorable events. My parents owned in 1957 Dodge and we took many cross country trips in the early 60's to Louisiana in it. They later upgraded to a 1965 Burgundy Chrysler New Yorker with matching leather interior with cruise control and all the other "Bells and Whisles" of that era. The point is, like most other people, those vehicles hold a lot of nostalgia. In fact, you have inspired me to do a piece on the subject as well. Thank you for sharing the "vehicular" aspect of your family history.

Your cousin, Karen