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Party in the back: the brief rebirth and second death of the rumbleseat in the Sixties

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1968 Jeffords AMX-R. Photo by the author.

We tend to think of nostalgia as something we do in the here and now, not in the past – after all, the past is, by definition and by logic, what we’re nostalgic for – but nostalgia has proved a great motivating factor throughout history, leading to a short-lived attempt to bring back the rumbleseat among several entities during the Sixties.

As Patrick Metzger pointed out in his recent article for The Patterning, 30 years seems to be about the bubble for resurgence of trends due to nostalgia, and there’s a perfectly rational explanation:

There are a number of reasons why the nostalgia pendulum shows up, but the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture and may even exist wholly within that universe.

It can be explained equally well from the consumer side. After about 30 years, you’ve got a real market of people with disposable income who are nostalgic for their childhoods. So artists working in popular mediums are rewarded for making art that appeals to this audience.

Frank Hilker of Chicago Heights perfectly embodies Metzger’s explanation. Hilker, a Studebaker-Packard dealer in the early 1960s, looked back to his youth during the Thirties and found something lacking in new cars – a rumbleseat option.

Indeed, rumbleseats, which descended from the old mother-in-law seat and provided open-air motoring for another couple passengers in many sport coupe or roadster model of the Thirties, died off toward the end of that decade. Ford offered its last rumbleseat in 1939, Chevrolet its last in 1938, and Studebaker its last around 1937. All-steel four-passenger sedans had become more affordable by that time, the roadster (and in Chevrolet’s case, the convertible itself) had become a passe bodystyle, and the automakers’ increasing focus on streamlining didn’t much accommodate a couple meatbags sticking up in the wind. Besides, what motorists (as opposed to motorcyclists) wanted to subject themselves to bugs in the teeth and a loss of luggage space?

Photo via Studebaker Drivers Club forum.

Hilker did. And he thought others of his age did too, so he set about converting a handful of Studebaker Lark and Hawk trunks to rumbleseats. He called the conversion kit a Bearcat (another bit of nostalgia he unearthed, and one that Virgil Exner and son would later put to use) and charged customers $400 a pop for it. Best guesses are that he converted two Larks and two Hawks before calling it quits.

By no means was Hilker the first to suggest reviving the rumbleseat. A company called Birdsnest in Burbank, California, offered a conversion kit for first-generation Thunderbirds beginning in 1957; they saw a little more popularity than Hilker’s Bearcat conversion probably due to the lower $289 pricetag.

And by no means was Hilker the last. According to Bob Fria’s “Mustang Genesis: The Creation of the Pony Car,” Ford considered a rumble seat Mustang sincerely enough to build exactly one – a pre-production example, chassis number 5F08F100047. ‘That car is known to exist to this day, but there is no rumble seat,” Fria wrote. “It has been removed, but no one knows why.” Some Ford dealers later took up the initiative and offered their own versions of the rumbleseat for the Mustang.

Photo courtesy Chicago Auto Show.

Then, a couple years later, AMC toyed with the idea with its Eric Kugler-designed 1966 AMX fiberglass show car. That then led to at least three other AMX show/concept/prototypes that incorporated the so-called Rambleseat: the 1966 steel-bodied Vignale AMX, the 1966 Smith Inland-built fiberglass prototypes, and the 1968 Jeffords AMX-R. However serious AMC’s intention to produce an AMX with a Rambleseat, reality intervened in the form of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, signed into law in September 1966, which paved the way for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and which may not have specifically forbade rumbleseats but certainly would not have treated them kindly.

Aftermarket rumbleseat kits for Cadillacs and other cars popped up here and there in the Seventies, but no automaker would touch the idea with a 100-foot pole after the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. So while nostalgia can indeed serve as a powerful motivator, the threat of a lawsuit seems to prove more powerful and so some trends never resurface, no matter what the time interval.