Like so many things that once started as unique, very personal creations, many Hot Rods have now become things that fit rigidly into certain categories of design and construction. There's strict rules for what is, say, a Rat Rod or what constitutes a 'true' T-Bucket. Tom Jennings' Rambler doesn't follow these rules, which is why I like it so much.
Now, I've known and been friends with Tom for a while, so there's that bias there. We built a LeMons racer together, and he helped me rebuild my Beetle. Tom's always been fond of AMC/Ramblers, and has owned Gremlins, Hornets, a propane-converted Rambler wagon, and a Rambler American prior to this current project. The man knows his Nash/Rambler/AMCs.
There's a lot of things that make this deceptively tattered-looking project so interesting. First, it's based on a car that pretty much nobody, ever, would think is worthy of rodding in any way. The 1963 Rambler American was designed as a Grandma Car and it pretty much remained one for all its life.
Maybe just because of the humble status of the car, Tom decided that it was worthy of hot-rodding and becoming a fun-to-drive car. He's the only person known to make anything like performance parts for the archaic 195.6 ci straight-6 that drives this car (a Nash design, pre-dating the iconic AMC 6), fitting electronic ignition (adapted from a Ford engine), modifying the cylinder head, and tons more, all covered in detail here.
As to why Tom ended up down this Rambler Roadster path, he puts it pretty well himself here. It starts with him almost quitting old cars entirely:
My relationship with old cars has been life-long, but i was considering abandoning them. the ratio of fun vs. effort has long been drifting in an undesireable direction. rattles, squeaks, hard to find parts became impossible to find. more time spent prepping to drive than driving. i've driven old cars all my life (nearly all AMC/Ramblers). used cars became old cars became really old became antiques, became freaky-old. in 2011 i sold the 1963 rambler classic station wagon i'd driven for 23 years; while it never failed me on the road, preparing it for a road trip was like prepping a spaceship for mars. i spent hours analyzing the failure mode of a single fastener that held the braces on the torque-tube drive; it would back itself out at irregular intervals. almost without exception, i knew the size of every single nut and bolt on the car. i could stick my thumb into the 500-page, greasy-dog-eared factory Technical Service Manual by memory to get to the right section. at 50 years continuously on the road, nearly half a million miles (89,000 on the odometer when i bought it, i drove it another 350,000), at more than five times past its design life, the wierdest things would fail; inocuous brackets, switches repaired four times over. i was about done.
That painful realization led him to one of the fundamental concepts behind his roadster, which is, essentially, get rid of all the shit you don't like:
... if i was going to drive old cars, something had to change. i thought: what if i simply removed every single thing that annoyed me about old cars? rattling doors, crumbling rubber, leaking windows, peeling chrome, luxuries that had become liabilities (heat, opening windows). what really is important about old cars, to me? it was this line of thinking that coupled my car obsession to other pursuits in embodied cognition and wabi tek sabi, but without losing sight of the fact that the stupid car had to be fun to drive.
This fundamental idea — strip the car down to the absolute basic elements that contribute to it being usable and fun to drive — is the essence of this car. The concept that Tom mentions of wabi tek sabi is his interpretation of the Japanese idea of wabi sabi, and for the purposes of this article, you can sort of view that as an acceptance/embracing of the machine and its imperfections, but with a certain mechanical rigor. Don't worry too much if that doesn't make sense — the car itself does a pretty good job of explaining it.
The result is a really novel amalgam of archaic tech distilled down to the essence of what made it compelling to start with, and a fair amount of very modern touches.
Tom re-worked the Rambler American's body extensively to turn it from a two-door hardtop into a two-seat roadster. He originally was toying with the idea of making it mid-engined, but while that was abandoned, the long rear deck and double-lid, twin trunks were kept. He used an old hood to make the 'inner' trunk, and kept the original lid in place behind it. The result is a truly vast amount of cargo area, useful for tom when he takes the car camping.
Tom was obsessed with adding lightness wherever he could, and removed about 1000 lbs, one pound at a time, from all over the car. Some of that weight was in the form of the heavy, crude asphalt-based rustproof coating that was all under the car, some was from removing the unibody supports from the body skins (unneeded, since a tube-frame is providing way more support now as it is.
Originally, a complex LED matrix-based dash was planned, but was later scrapped due to time and complexity. The current dash is still all electronic, and has some clever touches. The turn-indicator switches, for example, are just two buttons on the dash, one left, one right. Or port and starboard for you pirates reading this. When you push both, you get hazards. Each (full — a tap is for lane-changing) click of one gives you 15 blinks, which Tom timed to be the average for a turn. No cancellation system needed!
The taillights are custom-made LED units and have their own computer, so they can, at some point, be programmed to display animations or patterns or whatever.
I was lucky enough to meet up with Tom in Tuscon as I was driving to LA a month or so ago. Tom drove from LA to Tuscon as a shakedown run of the car, which I thought was pretty ambitious. A 10-12 hour trip in a car you just finished? Yikes.
Tom let me whip it around Tuscon for a little bit when we got there, and I have to say the thing is pretty delightful to drive. It's noisy and a little harsh, but that's hardly shocking considering it has zero insulation or sound deadening at all. Also shocking is that Tom is a 6'4" or so long, tube-like guy, and I'm about the size and shape of a fairly tall fire hydrant. And yet I didn't have to adjust the seat at all. I'm not sure what kind of black magic he worked to make that happen, but I was impressed.
The 3-speed (with overdrive) manual has one of the narrowest gates I'd ever seen. It just looks like a linear slot. And when I drove this transmission when it was in Tom's old Rambler, I had lots of trouble. But it's been rebuilt since then, and now the shifts are happily mechanical and precise. It chunks into gear, and once you get used to the non-synchronized first (Tom showed me how you can 'borrow' the synchronizer from 2nd) it's a piece of cake. Rusty, delicious cake.
Since the car weighs so much less, the estimated 140 or so HP that the engine is putting out moves the car surprisingly well. It corners far, far flatter than anything of its archaic design has any right to, and the steering is incredibly precise and direct. Tom's got airbags at all four corners, with their Schrader valves exposed in the bodywork to make adjustments easy. The thing is fun, period, full stop. It would make a really great autocrosser, I bet, or even maybe a vintage rally car.
I loved this thing. And, sure, some of that is my bias because of how fond I am of Tom and what he does, but I think even objectively, almost any car-lover can see the appeal of this one-of-a-kind little box of interesting automotive ideas.