My Introduction into American Motor-ing

John Vander Meulen

The fall of 1965 had me with a total of $550. No chump change then. Eager for freedom and to break the yoke of parental confinement I looked to buy my first car. Ontario Motor Sales in Oshawa had two in my price range: a 57 Caddy and a 1960 Rambler Six. I went for the Rambler. They wanted $700..I offered $550. Ok kid, said the salesman, “no warranty”. It was burgundy, 4 door, cloth interior, 3 on the column, famous “Weather Eye” heater and damaged fender. I drove it home. No safety or E- test required. It had sold new for $2100.

At the time, autos manufactured in North America could be described as “Queen Size”, the physical dimensions increasing every model year. Ramblers were considered compact by comparison. AMC TV commercials featured “six large Raccoon Wrestlers” emerging from a Rambler to illustrate that the interior dimensions of their cars were equal to the big three.

The freedom of my own car gave me the biggest rush since owning my first firearm at age 14. (all that power) and yes, I still have it. Some minor mechanical problems occurred. The fuel line tended to freeze up in the winter and the voltage regulator for the generator went south. Had to buy one new - $16 nylon tire from Canadian Tire, (no sales tax yet). In cold weather it would develop a flat spot from sitting but once under way it would “thump, thump, thump for about ½ a km before it rounded out again.

One year after I purchased the car it developed a bad bearing knock….probably exasperated by my continuing to drive it. I could be wrong but I don’t recall this model having an oil filter. I got it repaired at the Sunoco station at the corner of Hopkins Street and Hwy 2 in Whitby (now a Sub shop) for two weeks wages..ouch.

Moving up in the corporation and with my hourly rate increased to $2 an hour I felt like I had won the lottery. It was time to trade. At the time the stigma of owning an AMC was that you were “married to it” and got your best trade- in value by buying another one. It was early 1967 and AMC was doing well. A new line of engines, the Marlin, a new dealership in Whitby, (now Nurse Motors) and air conditioning standard in all new Ambassadors. I went shopping. Trent Rambler in Peterborough had recently opened a branch dealership in Bowmanville. Wanting to take a bite out of the local car buying market they located on Hwy #2 beside the zoo, same side, eastbound. They also sold British Leyland including the Sunbeam Alpine and Sunbeam Tiger. My timing was perfect, Rambler American prices were factory reduced to about $2400. I ordered a 290, 2V, heavy duty suspension, 3 on the column, larger tires and a radio. Six weeks delivery from Keno

sha. Inflation was modest. The sales price of new cars didn’t increase much from year to year and when they did, it was news. The Arab oil embargo was still five years away. The American was almost identical to the one owned by club member Al Rodgers. It’s said that you associate certain hit songs you hear on the radio with pivotal moments in your life. This time “The Happening” by the Supremes, was playing on CHUM radio en route to take delivery of my new car.

The driving was great. The thrill of a new car. Gasoline was 33 cents a gallon or 8 cents a litre…full serve at the pumps and lots of free giveaways and promotions. Gas “wars” were commonplace. Blue Sunoco, Esso Tigers, Good Gulf and Super Shell kept one mobile. Day three the horn stuck while cruising through Brooklin. Someone stopped to assist and since it was difficult to discuss the situation orally he simply pulled the horn wires off for me. Undeterred I waited a day and then reconnected. Two weeks later at 2AM while all asleep the horn sounded while the car was at home parked in the driveway. The neighbours were not amused. I had friends in Kingston so the miles accumulated quickly. There was a three week beer strike in Ontario in July, 1968 and we made several runs from Kingston to St. Polycarpe, Quebec. Not only did this experience hone my entrepreneurial skills but also helped to relieve the distress of the thirsty locals where I was staying. The trunk was quite spacious and would hold a considerable quantity of wobbly pops. The nineteenth century Ontario liquor laws in force were quite strict and when transporting alcohol you were to go directly from the store to your place of residence, no stopping in transit and the merchandise was not to be not stored within reach of the driver.

My aftermarket tachometer indicated 4500 rpm at 100 mph or 160 kph. Traffic volumes were much lighter on the 401 at that time and there seemed to be a more mature attitude to traffic law enforcement. No tasers, phasers, radar, helicopters, cameras, shoot your dog, everyone’s a terrorist, threatening “road to perdition signs” if you went 5mph over the limit and “stunt driving” fines. The 507 mile long 401 highway was once considered the longest racetrack in the world, southwestern Ontario in the Windsor to London corridor especially so. Travelling this section I’ve had kids wave to me from the family Buick station wagon drifting by at the century mark. Now we know where all the 2.56 gear ratio rear ends were being sold.

The service manager looked after my problems, a 50,000 mile powertrain warranty being in effect. I met him again 20 years later managing a McKerlie-Millen auto parts store. Speaking of managers, the son of the AMC president from the late 50’s to early 60’s is now running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. He’s the only man named after a “glove”.

The weight distribution with the V8 was not favourable to driving in snow and one got stuck very easily, even with snow tires. You were better off with the 199 or 232 six. The car was easy to maintain, no computers, smog plumbing and fuel pumps in the tank. With no radiator recovery system, it tended to “froth’ a bit after a hot summer run. No synchromesh in 1st gear meant a full stop before shifting down.

John Vander Meulen's car
John Vander Meulen's 1969 AMX

By late 1968, muscle cars began to become more popular. The Javelin and the AMX were introduced. The dealer allowed me to test drive their first AMX, 343 automatic. I was impressed. I shopped around again. Prices for a Camaro started around three thousand plus whatever performance package you wanted, SS 396 Chevelles $4500 and a Plymouth GTX could be had for $4800 plus $900 for the hemi option.

By this time the Bowmanville dealership had expanded and moved into larger “digs” close to the hospital, into a building that had been recently vacated by a Dodge dealership. Cracks were beginning to develop in the relationship between the factory and the dealer. A leading AMC franchise in Willowdale “went Japanese”. The innovative quality ideas of W. Edwards Deming were coming to fruition in Japan, called “Kaizen” or “continuous slow improvement” contributed much to the high tolerances of goods made in Nippon. In contrast, North American assembly line defects were known as “goodies for the dealer”. Isuza-Bellets and Toyota Crowns began to appear on the road.

One day, in early 1969, a salesman friend of mine called and said “we have a new car in the showroom and we’re prepared to make you an offer you can’t refuse".

(John was first recruited by Mr. Perrier in 1979 and over the years been somewhat delinquent in club participation and attendance).