updated 19 oct 2020
22 jul 2019
in july 2019 i bought this 1968 Rambler American Sports Sedan from a friend on the AMC Forum. "Sports Sedan" was AMC's up-market name for their bottom of the line car, and the last AMC car to bear the venerable Rambler name. this Rambler American has a pre-Eisenhower ride -- smooooth, quiet, soft squishy springs, the comfort of a grandmother's living room sofa -- but the feel of a basic manually-operated everything; giant steering wheel, manual brakes, glacially slow-to-shift manual transmission, just-adequate horsepower, and lots of room and lots of glass. and great gas mileage.
i love my roadster, it's a blast to drive, but long-distance comfortable it's not. thousand-mile summer desert trips are grueling. over the winter i decided it was time to replace my plastic car (2004 Scion xB, a fine thing) with a road-trip-worthy Rambler.
i took the train down to San Diego to drive the car home to Los Angeles, some 100 miles, figuring if it died on the road, i'd call AAA. Matt met me at the Amtrak station, i got the brake lights to work, drove immediately to Discount Tire to replace the four cracked, aged tires, headed home. brakes were scary but i made it just fine.
i knew it was essentially a one-owner car. Matt bought it from the owner's nephew who fixed it up for sale for his uncle. Matt and the nephew added maybe 1000 miles to the car in two years.
the car came with a bundle of paperwork and receipts.
back home i sorted out the car's immediate needs and went through the paperwork. what i initially thought a slightly-nutty habit of saving receipts became a profound story of a car and the man who owned it.
saying that this car was well cared-for is an understatement. not a lot of money was spent, and this was about the least expensive car you could buy in 1968. but it consistently got what it needed, though little more. the receipts, and various notations on them, tell much about Esmond too, and given his long relationship with this car it is clear that this wasn't just transportation.
the receipts start 22 February 1968 and continue through late 2017. Esmond kept the original AMC Maintainance Book up to date, through and beyond the last page for 56,000 mile inspection. you sometimes find old Owner's Manuals with the first few pages filled out with new-car enthusiasm; i have never seen one updated for the life of the car.
Esmond's Rambler is perfect wabi tek sabi; an ongoing situation, a balance of utility and inevitable wear and decay (and few things wear like an automobile) and care and intervention.
the car saw a period of neglect in that last decade, leading up to his nephew's prep and sale of the car, and the odometer crept up only slowly, as Esmond entered his 90's. i can only imagine this caused him some anxiety to see his car languish. front and rear suspension and brakes needed complete overhaul. the engine was soaked in oil, leaking fairly badly, but replacing long-term-maintenance items (timing chain and seal, valve stem seals, manifold gaskets, valve cover) solved that. the carburetor was replaced. compression tests and leakdown tests showed the engine to be in top-notch condition; all six cylinders were 130 to 135 psi, 6% leakdown at 90 psi.
most cars this age have gone through countless anonymous owners, and most often it's last few decades as someone's "junker", driven into the ground. but due to Esmond's extraordinary persistence, each repair was simply that, replacement of worn parts in a car otherwise in solid condition.
i've never named a car, i generally think it's silly. but this car is now Esmond.
on 22 February 1968 Esmond's father, living in Inglewood, bought the car, new, based on a sale advertisement in the L.A. Times (image at the top of this page). it received some upgrades (aftermarket A/C, a tinted windshield, a radio now gone) while there. the car stayed in Inglewood for about a year; the car then went to Esmond in Kingman, Arizona. by 1970 all transactions are in Esmond's name (the purchaser's son). Esmond drove and maintained it until 2017, when registration was transferred to his nephew, who lived in Idaho. the nephew did a number of repairs (including chasing down the difficult to find fuel pump), drove or shipped it to Idaho, eventually selling it to Matt. Matt said he initially thought it would be a candidate for a project car (V8, etc) but quickly realized that this car was special, and kept it as-is, replacing the worn clutch. i bought it from Matt about a year later (july 2019).
Esmond kept the original windshield. it is now wrapped in a blanket on my shelf.
Past, by the time anyone reads this. Photos of the car April 2020.
my original goal was to find a 1960's car to make into a reliable and comfortable road trip car. it is now, late October 2019, already that; the inaugural trip was a loop through Santa Fe NM, Tucson AZ and back to Los Angeles. (the radiator sprung a slow leak on that trip; an extra-heavy-duty unit purchased by Esmond from a junkyard, rebuilt and installed in 1974, then repaired a few more times. i soldered it again in Santa Fe. i replaced it with an all-aluminum three-row radiator when i got home.)
unusually, i have no urge to "improve" this car, other than purely operational and to-me-obvious upgrades; modern alternator, the radiator, brass ones now being somewhat exotic, electronic ignition instead of points. i installed a "stealth" Bluetooth sound system -- with Velcro. a 1976 Hornet/Gremlin AM/FM radio, and a home-made trim plate to cover up (pliers!) damge to the hole. the roadster will remain the ongoing technology/performance/experimentation platform, offloading any desire to do such things on this car. Esmond's father had added aftermarket A/C; i will replace that before hot weather.
the original paint is worn but generally shines, and there is some rust typical for this chassis. the seats and headliner need work, and there are a fair number of cosmetic issues. those will be repaired. but this car will not be "restored", it will remain a top-notch survivor and daily driver -- ready to drive anywhere at any time with no planning required.
of course i am saving receipts and taking notes.
here is the summary of saved receipts. samples of a few of the originals are below. the modern scanning de-colored them somewhat.
note that cars of this era have five-digit odometers that roll over at 99,999 miles back to 0. Esmond's clear notes in the AMC Maintainance Book indicates that the mileage was over 68,000 in 1973, over 86,000 in 1977, and over 90,000 in 1980. this is consistent with the odometer readings on receipts through the end of 1973. from 1974 through 1994 no receipt has a recorded odometer reading; then in 1995, 60659 is written. in that 20 year period the many replaced wear items (tires, batteries, etc) hint at miles driven. this suggests that "60659" is actually 160,659 miles.
the receipts also reveal changes in the culture; Rucker's AMC/Datsun becomes Rucker's Auto RV and Marine, moves locations, becomes Russel's. Rucker/Russel's must have been doing something right to get Esmond's business; and the quality of their notes on invoices is top-notch.
I have corresponded with Esmond since I first wrote these pages, and have a solid picture of the car's history. The engine is indeed original, never removed, head never off. This was stated as fact by Esmond, and backed up by his mechanic. When I asked Esmond how he maintained the car, specifically oil changes, he wrote, "I tried to change the oil every 1000 miles, but sometimes went as long as 2000." He bought whatever was on sale at the local NAPA, currently 10W-30.
Anecdotal evidence, from me, three 2000-mile road trips from Los Angeles to Santa Fe New Mexico, in hot weather (recent was 113F in Nevada, over 100F most places) and 65 - 70 mph cruise (3000 rpm), in addition to local traffic, admittedly low during the pandemic. Zero oil was used on every trip, I mean zero, not 1/16" off the dipstick. The oil remains yellow-like-unused when I change it at 2000 miles.
As far as I'm concerned this is the backing I needed for selecting best practice -- good quality frequent changes. My previous tactic, highest-possible-quality, "recommended" changes (3000 - 5000) I've droppped as of now.
47 years of a single relentlessly applied method on one car is about as good as anecdotal evidence gets.
Some higher-mile oil changes were pencilled in on the inside of the driver's door. These can't be the only changes, as the engine is in insanely great condition for (currently) 202,000 miles (leakdown test all cylinders within 6%, compression 130 to 135 psi).
many people enthusiastically fill out their maintainance books at first, then lose interest. not Esmond.
early work done on car when still in Inglewood.
attention to detail.
Rucker's AMC/Datsun dealership. AMC and Datsun marquees disappear, Rucker's becomes Russel's.