Dream Cars: Rambler Interstate
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January 8, 2010
Last year, when General Motors killed Pontiac and subsequently pulled out of their joint venture with Toyota, called NUMMI, I came up with an idea for a fun little retro car to save the plant and help sell some cars. It was an idea for a new Rambler American, based on the Toyota Corolla, and built in the California. I know the time for action is long past, and I'm not in any position to do anything about it, but it is fun to dream up new cars, isn't it?
I know that the Rambler name went with AMC to what is now Chrysler LLC, so my dream car depended on getting the Rambler name from Chrysler. Not too difficult a task, I would think, as Chrysler's bankruptcy proceedings at the time would have made it hard to turn down a cash offer for a brand that has been dead for over a third of a century.
But one car does not make a marque. GM or Toyota would have needed a few Rambler companions to sell alongside the American. The most obvious way to create another Rambler model is as a replacement for another NUMMI-produced model that General Motors killed: the Pontiac Vibe.
Personally, I'm a bit partial to the Vibe, as I've owned a 2003 model since it was brand new. My wife and I have put over 115,000 miles on the odometer, and it's been our favorite car. It's reliable, efficient, and practical with storage space and all-wheel drive.
Of course, Pontiac had distinct style, and the Vibe even more so. The first generation's son-of-Aztek angles have been toned down dramatically in the second, but it's still a fully modern design, not one that evokes the glory years of the American auto industry and not a design that would look right when paired with a round-headlight retromobile.
So some styling has to change. As the Vibe is a version of the Corolla-based Matrix, so too would a Rambler version have a lot in common with the dream-car American. However, as the Matrix and Corolla are different enough to warrant different model names, and in the interest of filling out a marque with more models, it shouldn't simply be a station wagon American.
A new design, one different enough to be a separate model but similar enough to show common heritage, would be needed. To me, nothing says "retro" like round headlights, and I am a fan of the Rambler American's front grille, so the new design should incorporate a similar style to the front end. Similar, but different in scale and proportions, and perhaps with the headlights mounted flush with the front end instead of set back in a round bezel as I had the new American's design more closely resemble the original American. Just enough of a change to look like the American's slightly bigger brother.
There would be a lot of changes to the back, however, as it is going from sedan to wagon. Certain retro styling cues should carry over to the rear, such as the same style of lights (although in a different shape to accomodate the change from trunk to tailgate), same style of chrome striping across the back, and same Rambler badge. The basic body structure of the Vibe would be unchanged to save on development costs, which coincidentally offers a roofline that slopes towards the rear, a bit evocative of the old Rambler wagon's roofline which was stepped down to be lower in the rear than in the front. As a roof rack was on the first generation Vibe and on the original Rambler wagons of old, I think the new Rambler wagon should have one, too. Even if it's modern in design, a roof rack really completes the retro-wagon look and adds practicality to a car that might be used for business (more on that later), but of course it should be an option, as not everyone might appreciate this bit of styling nostalgia on their car.
The interior should show some differences between wagon and sedan as well, and this is one area where the Corolla and Matrix really were different. The basic shape and styling of the dashboard was distinct to each model, but the cars used the same switchgear, steering wheel and controls. It was obvious they were different models, but still obvious that the cars were built by the same people. The same should hold true to the Rambler sedan and wagon, it should be clear to anyone who sits in both cars that they are different cars made by the same people. As with the American, the wagon's interior should share the Matrix's basic parts for ease of manufacturing and lower design costs, but be made in colors and textures more fitting to the Rambler's style.
A Rambler station wagon won't be the top choice of import tuners, to say the least, despite the Toyota power under the hood. As I imagined a new Rambler marque made by Toyota would be an anti-Scion, wrapping the reliable efficiency of Toyota in a bit of nostalgia that mostly older drivers would appreciate, the name should also reflect some past heritage. Rambler, unfortunately, didn't leave a whole lot of names from which to draw inspiration, so a new one would be needed. As I'm sure you've guessed by the name of the article, I can think of nothing better to evoke the memory of station wagon trips of the past than the name Interstate. The Rambler Interstate.
Okay, it's not the greatest name in the world, but it's a heck of a lot better than Turnpike Cruiser!
You may have also noticed that I didn't call it a "sport wagon" or "5-door hatchback" or "touring" or "crossover" or any of the other euphemisms for station wagon that have come about in the last 15 years. It's a retro car, so why not call it by the name they were given when that style was new?
I think such a car, like my dreamt-up American before it, would sell well to the group of car buyers who want Toyota reliability and efficiency but are turned off by Toyota's designs or Scion's branding. The same people that bought cars in enough numbers to give the Echo a "grandma's car" reputation and pushed Toyota to create the youth-oriented Scion brand probably do buy enough cars to support creating a small brand of their own, catering to their tastes and their style while still providing the reliability, efficiency and value that brought them to Toyota's showrooms to begin with.
It's a market that gets ignored too often because carmakers are too often looking for future brand loyalty and don't seem want to spend marketing money and effort selling cars to drivers who are possibly buying their last new car. Personally I think it's a bit disrespectful, and from a business standpoint it there is a big niche of buyers who are underserved. Buick and the Mercury Grand Marquis are the first cars that come to mind when thinking of older buyers, but they are luxury cars with luxury price tags - the Mercury starts at $29,410 before you've got to fuel the big V8 under the hood, and the least expensive Buick, the LaCrosse, starts at $27,085. Neither are available as a station wagon.
The best sales case for a retro Rambler wagon is that the type of vehicle has been done before successfully. Twice. That the appeal of a small retro wagon is not necessarily limited to its target market has been proven by the Chevrolet HHR and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Both aresmall, practical, sub-$20,000 retro wagons that appealed to buyers both old and young. Remember how popular the PT Cruiser was with everybody when it first hit the road? The panel wagon version of the HHR is also quickly becoming a favorite of small businesses. A panel version of the Interstate could be created, perhaps with yet another name, in which case the roof rack becomes something more than a nostalgic bit of styling (provided it was designed for function as well as style). While it may not be a best-selling car or inspire the following the PT Cruiser did in its early years, I think a Rambler wagon would sell well enough to a wide range of buyers to make it a success.
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