RAMBLIN' ON ROUTE 66 IN A 40-YEAR-OLD RAMBLER CONVERTIBLE: Part one

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Twelve years ago, after finding a very complete 1964 Rambler American 440 convertible on eBay a continent away, automotive writer and photographer Rich Truesdell made a bold, some would say fool-hardy decision. That rather do the smart thing and have his new prize shipped back to California, he decided instead to drive it home. This is part one of that story, planning then driving a 40-year-old Rambler, bought sight unseen, from coast-to-coast. It was an adventure that tested his resourcefulness as well as finding out if there was a limit on his Amex Platinum Card.

Back in 1972 I bought my first car, a red with white top 1965 Rambler American 440H two-door hardtop. It was well-equipped but was most noteworthy was this little Rambler was besides the white interior (when do you see a white interior today on a mainstream car?) with reclining bucket seats separated by a center console, it was equipped with the all-new 232cid straight six. This engine, in various displacements (199, 232, 258 cubic inches, and in 4-liter fuel injection configuration in various Jeep models) was introduced in the second half of 1964, in the limited-production 1964 Rambler Classic 770 Typhoon two-door hardtop. Its final application? The 2006 Jeep Wrangler.

The 232 six gave my little red hardtop surprisingly brisk performance, given its light weight, probably on a par with 260cid Falcons and Mustangs as well as 283cid-equipped Chevy IIs. Since 1972, I’ve owned more than a dozen 1964 to 1969 Rambler Americans and Rogues. This included several hardtops, one a V-8 model done up in a pro-touring style, two convertibles and even two station wagons. One of my favorites was a 1969 440 model that I tricked out with a B-scheme SC/Rambler trim, courtesy of two cans of spray paint and some masking tape. I even produced an AMC-style press kit, dated April 1, 1969, touting the introduction of a limited-production run of 500 SC/Rambler station wagons. It was fun displaying the press kit at non-AMC car shows as most people didn’t realize that it was an April Fools Day prank.

1969 Rambler American 440 V-8 station wagon (estate) with owner-sprayed B-scheme Hurst SC/Rambler red and white stripes.

In 2004 I was scanning the ads on eBay when I saw a very well-presented 1964 440 convertible with a Buy-It-Now of just $5,000. There was just one problem, it was in the Boston, Massachusetts, area and I live in California. Shipping it cross country would add more than $1,000 to the final price. But then I realized I would be making a trip to the area to attend a Bose press conference to see a demonstration of the active suspension system they were developing and I thought I might fly in and drive it back.

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Video demonstration in 2004 of the Bose Active Suspension System at the Bose HQ in Framingham, MA, outside of Boston.

Speaking with the sellers, I thought this to be a possibility. The car was running, had fresh tires and no known issues. And having owned so many similar cars, I knew that their basic simplicity meant that there wasn’t too much that I couldn’t handle, short of a major engine or transmission failure. And if the worst happened, I’d get it fixed and have the car shipped home.

After attending the press event, I completed the transaction, and before heading west, the little ragtop was given a tune up, a coolant flush and a 24-point safety and operational check, passing with flying colors. The next morning I headed west, the plan being to take some back roads to Chicago, including transcontinental US 6, then drive back to Los Angeles on the Mother Road, Route 66.

Along the first leg of the trip to Albany, New York, I discovered the first of the car’s two idiosyncrasies, difficulty in restarting the car after filling up, indicating some sort of thermal issue with the starting system. In this first instance I waited a half-hour, got the car to restart and I was on my way. But with almost 4,000 miles ahead of me, this would be a bit inconvenient having to wait 30 minutes following every time I stopped for gas.

The second issue I discovered while leaving the car running while filling up. It slipped out of Park and into reverse and started backing up as if possessed. Thankfully I had just removed the fuel hose and was able to jump in the passenger side and get the car back into Park. That made finding the solution to the hard start issue imperative.

The following morning I had the car washed and detailed before heading west. As I was driving somewhere in Eastern Ohio on day two, I came up with a solution that I would try when I stopped for the evening in Sheffield, Ohio. When I parked for a local car show at the local Quaker Steak and Lube restaurant, the car wouldn’t, as expected, restart. I bought a gallon of bottled water and poured the water on the starter, turned the key and the car started. I had found the solution. Apparently some contacts in the starter might be expanding, producing the hard-start condition. The solution was always to have some bottled water with me. Problem solved.

Parked at a local car show at a Quaker Steak and lube in Sheffield, Ohio, on the way from Boston to Chicago

A third issue manifested itself before arriving at the end of day three in Chicago. I lost one, then two of my full wheel covers. This was going to make photography more challenging as with just two hub caps I found myself constantly moving them from wheel to wheel. Inconvenient yes, but not insurmountable. After all, I had solved the starter issue. So that’s why in some shots, wheel covers are missing.

Staying in Chicago allowed me to get up early for the two shots I wanted to get to mark the trip. The first is the sign at the actual marked beginning of Route 66, Adams Street at Michigan Avenue. And every end-to-end Route 66 trips I’ve taken, each has started at Lou Mitchell’s a famous eatery a few blocks away on Jackson Boulevard. It’s been known as the king of breakfast and a Chicago institution since 1923.

Author, start of Day One on Route 66 in Chicago, breakfast at Lou Mitchell's two blocks from the official start of Route 66.

In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s Route 66 ran 2,451 miles from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. It was known for many years as America's Main Street and it took five Interstate Highways (I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15, I-10 and I-210) to effectively replace it when it was fully decommissioned in 1985. While in many places it's been paved over by the various alignments of the Interstates that replaced it, through preservation efforts it's easy to follow much of the surviving route today. And many books have documented its crucial role in the westward migration in the 1930s during the Great Depression and the evolution of America in the postwar era, it being symbolic of the Golden Era of the car as an integral part of American popular culture.

Vintage roadside architecture, landmarks and the people who have retained the traditions of the Mother Road are an important component part of any Route 66 adventure. While there are too many to document in anything less than a book, driving west I'll point out many of my favorites. In McLean, Illinois you'll find the Dixie Trucker's Home. While its exterior is that of a modern truck stop, inside the walls are adorned with Route 66 history.

Over its history the marked alignment of Route 66 has taken many forms. Some of the changes were minor but many sent the route along entirely different routes. One of the best books to use in your Route 66 planning is Route 66 Lost and Found by Russell Olsen. The book is packed with dozens of then and now photographs of locations along the route, one of them being the Ariston Cafe in the town of Litchfield. It looks today much as it did when it first opened in 1924. It's interesting to note as the the alignment of Route 66 through town changed, the back became the front and the front became the back.

Original postcard of the interior of the Ariston Cafe in Litchfield, Illinois, from the 1920s

The Ariston Cafe as it appears today with a Camaro SS/RS parked in front

Crossing over the Mississippi River into Missouri the dominating gateway Arch is the symbolic entryway into the American West in the early part of the 19th century. Before driving past St. Louis, make a detour into town, stopping in to Ted Drewes Frozen Custand at 6726 Chippewa Street. It's one of many alignments of Route 66 through St. Louis. One year later, on a trip through town with four classic muscle cars, Ted Drewes opened early to keep the group on schedule and Manager Travis Dillion gave everyone a free sundae. For many years, just down the street, there was a pristine, vintage-style Sinclair station operated since 1941 by the Weisehan Brothers. Since my last trip down Route 66 in 2010, the brothers apparently retired as the Sinclair gas pumps and signage are now gone and Google Street View confirms that the building, is now just an auto repair shop.

No matter what time of year, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a Route 66 icon, is almost always busy

This points out that along its route, Route 66 is in a constant state of flux and change. In spite of the best efforts of Route 66 preservationists, landmarks fall victim to the wrecking ball each year. The end of day two on Route 66 found me in Rolla, Missouri, a classic Route 66 and railroad town. It's home to Route 66 Motors, a classic car dealership and nostalgic gift shop. The stretch between St. Louis to Rolla is among the most interesting and best preserved along the entire route.if you're willing to stray off course and do a bit of exploring. One stop to consider to the south is Doolittle, the hometown of General Jimmy Doolittle, leader of the attack on Japan in the dark days of early 1942 in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

Day Three would take me 300 miles west to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I had family, my cousin Barbara, and a planned visit to the now defunct Metro diner to shoot a one-of-a-kind 1960 AMC (not Nash) Metropolitan, owned by Steve Irby, the founder of Kicker, a car stereo company. based in nearby Stillwater. As I lay prone on the ground to get some of my shots, Barbara stood behind me so I didn't accidentally get run over.

Motoring west into Texas is one of the best known landmarks, the U Drop In, a restored Conoco gas station in Shamrock, Texas. Driving through at mid-day I used the opportunity to photograph my 1964 Rambler American 440 convertible. The year 1964 was the first year for the all-new Rambler American, styled by AMC's legendary designer Richard "Dick" Teague. In the US it competed against cars like the Chevy II, the Ford Falcon and the Plymouth Valiant. It was restyled in 1966 with a more rectilinear design and with room under the hood for AMC's new 290cid small-block V-8.

A year later, I would take four muscle cars and their owners on an escorted tour of Route 66. The cars included a 1967 Dodge Charger, a 1969 Chevy Camaro SS/RS (seen in the photo at the Ariston Cafe), a 1969 AMC Rambler Hurst SC/Rambler, and a 1970 Mustang Mach 1. The photos below show how the design of the Rambler American evolved over the 1964 to 1969 period when AMC retired the Rambler nameplate. In 1965 AMC transferred the tooling for the 1964-65 Rambler American to Industrias Kaiser Argentina (IKA) in Argentina where it was adapted for the local market as the Torino. It was produced by IKA, until 1982, by which time IKA had been purchased by Renault. Ironically, Renault had also purchased a controlling interest in AMC in 1980. When production ended in 1982, it was the last Renault-branded rear-wheel-drive car manufactured anywhere in the world by Renault.

Note the rounded styling and tunneled Chrysler Turbine Car-like headlights of the 1964 Rambler American 440 convertible photographed at the U Drop In, Shamrock, TX in 2004

A more dynamic sunset shot taken a year later of a 1969 AMC Rambler SC/Rambler illustrating the more squared-off body of the 1966 to 1969 Rambler Americans and Rogues

But this was morning for me on this trip which meant that I wanted to make Amarillo for lunch at The Big Texan, another Route 66 landmark. The Big Texan is home to the free steak, free if you can eat all 72 ounces, along with all the trimmings in an hour or less. I tried to eat all 72 ounces seven years earlier on my very first transcontinental Route 66 trip. That was when I drove a brand new 1997 Corvette from Chicago to Los Angeles. What was interesting is that a plaque with a cover of Car Audio and Electronics now hung on the wall with a photo of me stuffing myself in a vain attempt to consume all 72 ounces, thus getting charged the full price for the meal.

A plaque of my previous 1997 visit to the Big Texan where I failed to finish the famous 72-ounce steak and trimmings in the required 60 minutes

Just west of Amarillo, TX you'll find the famous Cadillac Ranch, visible from Interstate 40 on the south side of the highway

As I continued to push westward I was approaching the mid-point on my journey, naturally called the MidPoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas. Over the years the ownership of the café has changed many times but one thing that hasn't is that it's 1,139 miles east to the start point in Chicago and 1,139 miles west to the Santa Monica finish line.

And in doing some fact checking for this update I learned that the current owners, Dennis and Donna Purschwitz, who purchased the MidPoint Cafe in 2012 after my last visit, have put it up for sale. The kitchen is now closed for the remainder of the 2016 season. The gift shop remains open until 4PM and will continue to serve pie, baked goods, and drinks all day.

Classic Route 66 neon, this at the MidPoint Cafe in Adrian, TX

With my personal fuel tank refilled—as I recall it was chocolate pie—I jumped back in the Rambler to continue pushing west with my goal being Tucumcari, New Mexico, still one hour west. After pulling out of the MidPoint Cafe I filled up the tank and did some quick mileage calculations. With the 10 gallons purchased in Adrian since leaving Boston after picking up the car, I had traveled 2,123 miles. The 10 gallons made a total 96.

The little 40-year-old Rambler, with nothing more than a tune-up, delivered more than 22 miles per gallon. That's remarkable, any way you slice it.

The map of part one of Ramblin' on Route 66, downtown Chicago, IL, to Adrian, TX, the midpoint of Route 66

This story first appeared in the premier issue of Legendary American Motors Magazine (LAMM). Part Two will be published shortly here on DRIVETRIBE. LAMM can be purchased at Amazon US at bit.ly/OrderLAMMonAmazon and at Amazon websites worldwide.

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Comments (1)
  • is there a Part 2 somewhere? I'd like to promote the series on the Best of USA. Thanks! ^Joachim

    10 months ago

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