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Doug Smith, owner of Toby Knoll Garage, and his Fabulous Hudson Hornet at the Franklin County Technical School’s Fourth Annual Cool Rides Car Show. (2013)

1957 AMC Rambler Rebel

The 1957 AMC Rambler Rebel was a true factory hot rod and very likely America’s first real muscle car. The American Motors Corporation fresh off its formation as a result of the merger of Nash and Hudson Motors was busily trying to catch up with the Big Three corporations and other independents in developing a V8 engine of its own. AMC had borrowed the new Packard 352 cu. in. V8 for the 1955 year but struggling Packard would itself soon fade into merger with Studebaker and by 1957 was essentially a Studebaker using Studebaker’s own V8. With the help of engineers from erstwhile Kaiser, Nash and Hudson, AMC hastily put together a V8 engine that could be offered by 1956. The new 250 cu. in. V8 was capable of an enlarged displacement, a factor built into the engine’s design. By 1957 the engine had grown to 327 cu. in. by increasing the cylinder bore to 4 in. Instantly, AMC had an engine capable of performance equal to any engine produced by all other manufacturers.

Early in 1957, AMC engineers explored the possibility of creating a “performance” platform for the new 327. Although against company policy the engineers talked the higher brass into proceeding with a limited production car that would be able to compete with the hot cars of the Big Three, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, Oldsmobile’s J2 package, Chrysler’s hemi-powered 300C and Studebaker’s supercharged Golden Hawk. Thus the Rebel was born.

The first consideration was what body style would get the engine. All AMC cars were unit construction, no sub-frames or frames. This approach increased rigidity and also decreased weight. To make the Rebel very competitive it was decided that the smaller, lighter (3300 lbs.) Rambler 108 in. wheelbase body was more appropriate. The Ambassador, which would normally receive the 327, was larger and heavier. Also, because the Rambler body would ordinarily have the smaller displacement 250 cu. in. V8 as an option, the hardware to accommodate the 327 was already designed and available. The Rambler’s limitation, however, was that the model was offered only as a four door, either a Custom sedan or a Custom hardtop. Neither presented itself as a particularly sporty looking car, but the hardtop came closest and was chosen. All rebels would be painted silver with a horizontal “V” extending along the side and enclosing a gold anodized aluminum panel. The interior would have certain Rebel-specific features, including a unique dash, special seat covers, and emblems. Both brakes and suspension received performance upgrades that were not installed on any other model that year.

The big deal, however, was the engine. It wasn’t the standard 327 found in the more luxurious Ambassador. AMC engineers built up the engine, not by manufacturing new parts, but by modifying the heads to raise the compression from 9.0 to 9.5:1, arranging with Iskenderian Camshafts to produce one of their solid lifter E2 performance camshafts, and deconstruction of the two mufflers to reduce back pressure. The Carter WCFB 4-barrel carburetor was borrowed from the Ambassador and became the standard induction system for the ’57 Rebel although AMC did experiment with the new Bendix Electro-injector system but it proved too troublesome for everyday use. After a few cars were built with the injection system, it was abandoned and all cars were equipped with a 4-barrel carburetor. Both automatic and 3-speed with optional overdrive were available to prospective customers. With the changes made for the Rebel 327, AMC nonetheless listed its horsepower rating the same as the more docile Ambassador – 255 hp. A higher rating would seem logical and more realistic but possibly the Rebel engineers were reeled in somewhat by the cautious and conservative front office.

Fuel injection Rebel engine on display at New York Auto Show, December, 1956

Only 1500 Rebels would be built in 1957, and all subsequent “Rebels” would be equipped with the more modest 250 cu. in. V8. During 1957 the Rebel would go on to outperform all other manufacturers entries in 0-60 runs except the 1957 fuel injected Corvette with which it was equal. Unfortunately, the model remains rather obscure and very few ’57 Rebels have survived the ravages of rust and neglect and today maybe 50 or so exist. I bought my Rebel late in 2018, an intervention to save it from the elements and the inevitable crusher. The car is in very bad condition and will need major sheet metal replacement. Every nut and bolt must come out before a thorough sand blasting from front to back. The engine, a replacement Holley 2-barrel 327 from a ’65 Ambassador, was installed years ago. There is no information of what became of the original 327. The car will be converted from a Borg Warner automatic to a BW T86 3-speed. All parts necessary for this conversion have been located. The engine will be rebuilt to ’57 Rebel specifications including a correct ’57 Carter 4-barrel intake manifold which is currently on hand.

TOBY KNOLL GARAGE

'50s Cars