Everyone, please, remain calm. Relax. I just want you all to be aware that I have the situation totally under control, and I think it’s going to work out just fine, as long as your goal is to somehow make the now-defunct American Motors Corporation a much more competitive entity from the 1960s onward, likely to the point of remaining in existence into the present day. You in? Of course you are.
Just to refresh a bit, AMC was once America’s lovable-loser carmaker. It was usually in fourth place behind the Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler) but occasionally had some hits. The Rambler line was America’s small car/cheapskate staple for decades and, owing to its Nash heritage, AMC were technical pioneers, mass-producing some of the first unibody cars to be sold in quantity.
I always liked AMC; the Kenosha guys had quirky designs like the Pacer and Gremlin, but often those designs were the clever results of always necessary cost-cutting (the Gremlin, for example, was a small car developed by chopping the butt off a larger car), and they had (thanks to their longtime ownership of Jeep, which kept them afloat into the 1980s) some very forward-looking SUV designs, like the 4x4 AMC Eagle.
But, really, by the 1970s, AMC was pretty much doomed. Sure, Jeep was going strong, and that’s why Renault was interested enough to and invest in AMC. (That would later be the case for Chrysler, which bought AMC after Renault.) But AMC on its own had been struggling since the 1960s.
So, what was the problem? Well, part of the problem (by no means all, but I think this is a factor) was that their old moneymaker line, Rambler, found itself in direct competition with the first import to do really well in America, the Volkswagen Beetle.
Ramblers were small economy cars in a sea of bloated, chrome-laden yachts, and were often the choice of more pragmatic-minded people who felt the excesses of Detroit design were unnecessary and, well, silly.
This was pretty much the exact market that Volkswagen was targeting with their entire philosophy, product offering, and ad campaign. Volkswagen’s extensive dealer and service network and the Beetle’s low-revving, highway-capable engine made it competitive in a way that other imports like the Renault Dauphine or NSU Prinz weren’t.
As a result, VW’s sales throughout the 1960s grew dramatically: In 1959, they sold 120,422 cars, and by 1968 they were selling 563,522. That’s a good chunk of the 8.2 million cars sold in America that year, and many of those sales were taken directly from people who would have bought Ramblers.
Throughout the 1960s, AMC was losing money and market share. The company didn’t have many resources to really develop something new and competitive. So how am I planning on saving them?
Easy. By coming up with a revolutionary small car to really compete with the VW Beetle.
Now, I know what you’re about to say: Jayjay, you beautiful fool, you just said AMC didn’t have the money to develop anything new! What the hell are you talking about?
I’ll tell you what I’m talking about: by 1959, AMC had already developed everything they needed to take on the Beetle, they just didn’t realize it. Not only had they developed it, they were building cars with the traits they needed. The only problem was that they were really only selling them to the U.S. Marine Corps.
Yes, I’m talking about the M422 Mighty Mite.
The Mighty Mite is a really fascinating little machine: its origin is that the Marines needed a rugged, 4x4 vehicle lighter and smaller than the conventional Jeep, so it could be airlifted into inaccessible locations and even moved around by a bunch of Marines, if necessary.
The severe weight restrictions forced the development of an innovative little vehicle by AMC, who beat out other companies, including Jeep-maker Willys. The body was all-aluminum, as was the engine, a novel little air-cooled 1.8-liter V4 that made a respectable 52 horsepower.
The Might Mite had on-the-fly selectable 2- or 4-wheel drive, inboard brakes, independent suspension, and weighed only 1,700 pounds. It was exactly what the Marines needed, and almost 4,000 were built between 1959 and 1962, but soon improved helicopter lifting abilities and other factors rendered it unnecessary.
Okay, so, let’s get to my point: as of 1959, AMC was sitting on the necessary engineering to make an efficient, small, lightweight economy car that could have absolutely competed with the Beetle, head-to-head, right down to its engineering cleverness and novelty.
Unfortunately, Mitt Romney’s dad couldn’t get his head out of his ass to see this. I, however, with only the meager advantage of several decades of hindsight, can.
Here’s what AMC should have done: after developing the Mighty Mite for the Marines, it should have started to think about how it could leverage all of this development for the civilian market.
AMC should have noticed the strong and growing sales of the Beetle, steadily devouring their Rambler sales, and noted that, hey, they have a small car platform with a similar air-cooled engine—only one that made over 15 horsepower more than the VW—and with a re-body with a design more suited to mainstream car needs (and out of steel, cheaper than aluminum), the removal of the 4WD hardware, and some other tweaks, they could have a real contender.
Here’s what I’m thinking they could have done:
AMC’s talented design team (remember, AMC got the amazing Dick Teague in 1959, a designer with a real talent for inexpensive cars) could have come up with a clever little body for the Mighty Mite chassis; I’m thinking an early hatchback design, maybe using an opening rear window as the hatch, a cost-saving idea AMC would use on the Gremlin in our reality.
The short wheelbase of the Mighty Mite would have been something of an issue, forcing a long-ish rear overhang to get the needed luggage space, but I think it still would have been do-able.
Mechanically, the M422 would be simplified, to keep costs low and make the car more suited to street use. The 4WD system wouldn’t be needed (though perhaps a later variant could offer it again), and I think the smart approach would be to preserve the driveline to the front wheels, eliminating the heavy driveshaft and transfer case, and giving FWD advantages almost two decades before it would become common in the American market.
FWD would also let the civilian Mighty Mite compete with VW’s rear-engine/rear-drive traction benefits as well.
Suspension would likely need to be softened for the expected comfort demands of American consumers, and while the ride could have been pitchy with that short wheelbase, I’m confident in the alternate-universe imaginary AMC chassis engineers’ abilities.
Even with an all-steel body, I think the overall weight of the civilian Mite could be kept under 2,000 pounds without much effort—remember, we’re ditching a driveshaft and rear differential and axles, too.
Let’s look at how a 1960 Rambler Mite might have compared to a 1960 Volkswagen:
If AMC could price the Rambler Mite around what the Beetle cost—in 1960 that was about $1,565, or a bit over $14,000 in today’s money—then I think they could have had a winner on their hands, and what would have been the only real competitor to the VW’s buyer in this period.
[“Did you see Johnson’s new car? Got a Rambler Mite—They call it that because it “Mite” get you to work in the morning.” —ED]
Sure, GM was trying the same thing with the Corvair, which took the basic VW formula (air-cooled, horizontally-opposed rear engine) and scaled it up to a six-cylinder, much larger car. But the Corvair was a good bit more in 1960 at about $1,984, which I think leaves plenty of room for AMC’s potentially cheaper offering.
In the alternate universe 1960 in my mind, I’m imagining still a successful Beetle, but also a successful AMC, which would have been the only American automaker to really have a viable counter to the VW.
Plus, if AMC had gone this route, it would have gotten valuable FWD experience much earlier than almost anyone, so when the Japanese invasion came in the 1970s with well-built, efficient Hondas and Toyotas and Datsuns, AMC with a now unibody, second-gen FWD Rambler Mite would have been in a far more competitive position.
This fantasy continues with a very solvent AMC buying a beleaguered Chrysler, which goes on to success in the 1980s with Pacer Town and Country minivans conquering suburbia and awesome Hemi-powered Gremlins on posters in every kid’s room.
From there, we get the elimination of wealth disparity, fusion power, thriving lunar and Martian colonies, the eradication of war and famine, and the ushering in of a true utopia.
So, for all you time-travelers out there: why not avoid all of the long lines to kill teenaged Hitler and try saving AMC instead, with this re-purposed Mighty Mite idea? You can even take credit, if you want, but I wouldn’t mind a little shout-out.