Photos by the author.
Discussions of performance cars from American Motors usually start and stop with the AMX and Javelin, but it was the muscular one-year-only Rambler Rebel that outsped its contemporaries and initiated a decade-plus line of similarly named V-8 contenders that AMC enthusiasts will celebrate later this month.
Introduced during the 1950s performance war among the major American automakers, the 1957 Rebel at first seemed an unlikely contender. Its four-door bodystyle ran counter to the preference for two-door performance cars and its compact classification made it appear a David among Goliaths. However, the latter – combined with Rambler’s signature unitized body construction – resulted in a lighter car, one powered by an engine larger than anything Ford or Chevrolet had to offer that year.
While lore has it that engineer David Potter brought the first-gen American Motors V-8 design with him from Kaiser-Frazer, which never put into production the V-8 he designed and prototyped for that company, in fact Potter started in 1955 with a clean-sheet design that first entered production in the 1956 Ambassador.
That engine, which measured 250 cubic inches and put out 190 horsepower (and spread to the base Rambler series in 1957), made do with a two-barrel carburetor, but Potter also designed a larger 327-cu.in. version that utilized a higher compression ratio and Bendix electronic fuel injection to produce 288 horsepower. With it, the Rebel would have become the first production car powered by an EFI engine and reportedly would have done the 0-60 dash in less than seven seconds. Glitches with the Bendix system, however, forced American Motors to replace it with a Carter four-barrel carburetor, which dropped the 327’s horsepower rating to 255, for production.
As Bill Lenharth wrote in his book “The Amazing Rambler Rebel,” the carbureted engine still had some punch.
The prototype Rebel was tested during Speed Week at Daytona Beach, Florida, in March 1957. During testing it proved to be a hot car, going from 0 to 60 faster than any other tested car with the exception of a fuel-injected Corvette. The Rebel as tested had a single stock four-barrel carburetor. The Rebel’s performance was astounding, and several articles about the Rebel appeared in national car magazines for the first time.
American Motors produced just 1,500 Rebels that year before deciding to restrict the 327 to the Ambassadors in 1958. The Rebel name, however, continued on the 250-powered Ramblers until the Classic nameplate wiped both the Rambler and Rebel model names from the American Motors lineup in 1961.
Good names don’t just disappear that easily at American Motors, however. Five years later, the Rebel name returned on a two-door hardtop version of the Classic, again powered by a 327, as a precursor to the total redesign of the company’s intermediate car in 1967. Along with an entirely new body and engine lineup (including the second-generation 290-cu.in. and 343-cu.in. V-8s), the new intermediate range also replaced the Classic nameplate with the Rebel.
While intended to cater to a wider variety of buyers, the new Rebel line did include the high-performance SST. It wouldn’t get the top-of-the-line 390-cu.in. V-8 until 1970, when – under the guise of the red, white, and blue Rebel Machine – it sported a 340hp version of the 390, the highest factory rating for any AMC engine. The Machine would also prove the swan song for the Rebel name; in 1971, it once again gave way, this time to the Matador.
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the original Rambler Rebel and the 50th of the Rambler model, the American Motors Owners Association has chosen “Rebels on the Battlefield” as its theme for its annual convention, which will take place June 21 to 24 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For more information on the convention, visit AMONational.com.