With a 327 V-8 & 4-Speed, 1966 Rambler Rebel Showed Signs of AMC Muscle to Follow06/16/2019
The DNA of a muscle car often looks like this: high-compression 327-inch four-barrel V-8 engine, four-speed manual transmission, bucket seats, console, limited-slip rearend, dash-mounted tach, and redline tires. This could be an accurate description of a well-optioned mid-1960s Chevelle, but in this case it applies to a muscle car outlier, a rebel. A Rambler Rebel, to be precise.
Ken Norman is a bit of a collector car rebel himself. You could probably say that about anyone who collects American Motors products. American Motors just had its own way of doing things, and that’s attractive to enthusiasts who appreciate cars that are different and out of the mainstream. Norman caught the AMC bug at a young age and has a collection of 10 Ramblers, including this rare 1966 Rebel.
AMC introduced the Rambler Rebel in 1957, in the process creating what many automotive historians consider to be the very first muscle car, defined by a high-horsepower V-8 engine in a specially trimmed midsize car. (GM, Ford, and Chrysler had yet to build a midsize car in 1957, offering only fullsize models.) The Rebel was one of the fastest cars on the road in 1957, boasting a 327ci engine years before Chevrolet introduced its 327 in 1962; a three-speed manual transmission with overdrive; and a 4.10 rearend. Rebels that were tested by magazines were so fast that they could be outrun by only a fuel-injected Corvette in the quarter-mile. A few preproduction cars with Bendix fuel-injection were also tested by magazines, but the injection system was never made available as an option.
The Rebel name would continue on Ramblers, but no longer as a muscle car, through 1960. By 1966 the muscle car craze was in full swing, and AMC rejoined the party that it had started in 1957 with a fresh Rebel model. The new Rambler Rebel for 1966 was available only as a two-door hardtop, based on the 770 Classic model. Both the names Rebel and Classic appear on this top-of-the-line car. The Rebel package comprised a 232ci V-8 engine (287 and 327 engines were optional), a 3.54 rear axle ratio, special exterior trim, and a bucket seat interior as standard.
As with many muscle cars of the era, the base model was just a canvas on which to paint. Checking the right boxes could change the look and feel of the car completely. In this case, the dealer ordered the car loaded with options, showcasing it on the showroom floor. Finished in Sungold Amber with a black roof (the same color scheme featured in Rebel magazine ads), the extensive option list included the 270hp 327 engine topped with a Holley four-barrel carburetor, new-for-1966 BorgWarner T10 four-speed transmission, Twin-Grip limited-slip rear axle, front and rear bumper guards, Turbo-Cast wheel covers, vinyl top, and dash-mounted tachometer. Adding to the comfort and convenience of the driver were the optional air conditioning system, power steering, power-assisted front disc brakes, tilt steering column, AM/FM radio with reverberator, left-side remote mirror with matching right-side mirror, and a deluxe custom interior that features reclining bucket seats, Hialeah Plaid upholstery, and two matching throw pillows.
It is interesting to note that AMC offered front disc brakes on its midsized cars starting in 1965, two years before GM. The 1966 Rebel has a dual-chamber brake master cylinder as well (as did all Ramblers starting in 1962). GM midsize cars would not receive this important safety feature until 1967.
In 1966, most people in the market for a new muscle car did not visit their local Rambler dealer, as was the case when Miss Mills and her husband parked their 1958 Rambler Ambassador in front of the dealership in Georgia and walked in. Her mission was to buy a new car equipped with a manual transmission and good brakes. She liked her Ambassador, but the brakes didn’t work well in the rain. Plus, the couple was just about to move to California and decided it was the perfect time to get a new car before they made their cross-country journey. They expected to find another standard three-speed column-shift car like her Ambassador; however, only one car at the dealership had a manual transmission and excellent brakes: the new disc-brake-equipped Rebel with the four-speed stick-shift and console. They fell in love with the Rebel and took it home.
Miss Mills drove the car for many years. At some point the clutch was replaced, making the pedal too stiff for her to use. She quit driving the Rebel, but her husband had mounted a hitch to it and continued using the trusty Rambler to haul his small boat to and from the harbor at Morrow Bay, California, where they lived. Eventually the boat was sold, and they no longer had any use for the car. They listed it for sale in the local photo-ad paper in 1996. There it caught the eye of Ken Norman, who lived nearby in Santa Maria.
“I had seen the car driving around the area before,” recalls Ken, “but was never able to contact the owner. Then it popped up in the paper, and I went to see it. I had never seen a factory four-speed car before—they are super-rare. I asked Mr. Mills if he had ever burned rubber in it. He said, ‘What’s that?’ After I told him, he said no, and I bought the car right then and there.”
The old Rebel still ran great, but was in need of some cosmetic attention. At some point it had been repainted, and the color was really off. Mr. Mills said the body shop could not match the original color. The seats and door panels had been recovered as well in an incorrect material and pattern. Again, the shop said they could not match the original. Wanting to return the Rebel back to factory specs, Ken had the car repainted in the correct Sunglow Amber color.
The interior, however, would prove to be more of a challenge. The correct large-pattern Hialeah Plaid seat and door-panel material was eventually located, but finding the exact vinyl and seat piping was difficult. “The vinyl I was finding was just not right, and the reproduction piping was too fat in diameter,” explains Ken. “Luckily I found a 1966 Rambler 770 sedan with the same color interior in a wrecking yard and was able to remove the special embossed seat-back vinyl material and piping to use in my car.”
Later Ken added a set of dual exhausts with period-correct glasspacks to give it a little rumble, and a set of red-line tires, which are also a period-correct dealer-installed item.
Now the Rebel gets driven about 1,000 to 2,000 miles a year, mostly to shows and events and draws attention wherever it appears. “Most people don’t really know what it is,” says Ken, “but they really like it.”
Only 7,512 Rambler Rebels were sold in 1966. According to Ken, of these, a mere 125 four-speed cars were produced, making it a very rare car today. The long list of factory options on the car adds to its desirability and rareness.
The Rebel never did quite catch on with the performance-minded public, and it had to compete with the flashy new Rambler Marlins in the same dealership showrooms. There are some cool muscle car features on the Rebel to be sure, though these features seem to be counterbalanced by traditional Rambler design. The four-speed transmission is great, but the dated torque-tube suspension design hampered any thoughts of significantly upgrading the drivetrain. The conservative styling, even with the hardtop’s “crisp-line” roof design and optional Turbo-Cast wheel covers, did not pull many muscle car buyers away from the Pontiac and Ford dealers on the same block. The interior is fancy, but the plaid seats with matching throw pillows are not very muscle car–like; however, the optional dash-mounted tach and four-speed console are very cool.
History repeats itself. Just as with the first Rebel in 1957, in the next model year after 1966, the Rebel name was once again diluted into a line of regular passenger cars and would be phased out after the 1970 model year. AMC had more serious performance cars on the horizon to entice buyers, such as the Javelin, AMX, SC/360, and one last muscle car Rebel, the 1970 Rebel Machine. After 1967, even the Rambler name would be dropped in favor of AMC branding in an effort to move the company forward to connect with younger buyers, leaving the Rebel without a cause.
At a Glance
1966 Rambler Rebel
Owned by: Ken Norman
Restored by: Owner
Engine: 327ci/270hp V-8
Transmission: BorgWarner T10 4-speed manual
Rearend: 3.54 gears with Twin-Grip
Interior: Gold Hialeah Plaid reclining bucket seats
Wheels: 14×5.5 stamped steel with optional Turbo-Cast wheel covers
Tires: 215/75R14 red-line radial
Special parts: Dual exhaust with glasspacks
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