THE DEEP, DARK SECRET OF WHY MY FATHER DROVE RAMBLER AUTOMOBILES ALL THOSE YEARS AGO.
My father was a bit of an eccentric. He had a Scottish name, (William James Stuart), but was a perfectly bilingual French Canadian, having been brought up by his ‘pure laine’ French-Canadian mother, Lucille Rhéaume in east-end Montréal during the Great Depression.
He had barely known his own father, Edgar Stuart, who was of Scottish descent, and who’d died of a nasty kidney infection in the early 1930s when my father was but five years old, just before antibiotics became available, which could’ve saved him. He’d been an amateur boxer and had already lost one kidney in what must’ve been a particularly brutal amateur bout in Montréal, having received so many body blows that it damaged one of his kidneys and had to be removed.
So my father grew up as what would’ve been known in those days as one of the ‘working poor’. His mother, also being bilingual, was lucky enough to have gotten a job with a dredging company in Montréal working in the office, probably typing up invoices and doing general office work like filing and answering the phone. This company was still in operation in such tough times back in the 1929-39 period because it had contracts with the federal government, one of the few remaining organizations in our country which had remained solvent, along with the banks, and some others, dredging the ports up and down the St-Lawrence River, which were a federal responsibility.
So my grandmother was able to ‘bring home the bacon’ so to speak, as a single mother to two growing boys, and to keep the wolf from the door every month when the rent man came. My father always told me how tough it was in Rosemont in those days, how on average, only one family per street had work, everyone else was on Relief, the precursor to Welfare. (Dole). My grandmother was able to send my father to camp and pay his way, whereas many other boys got their ticket paid by Relief. It was the kind of camp where when they put the food down on the table, if you weren’t fast and didn’t manage to grab something, then you went hungry. It was that kind of a place, and it was that kind of a time in our history.
My father and his family lived for a time lived in a cold water flat with no central heating. There was a coal furnace in the basement which my father had to get up at 5:00 A.M. every morning to stoke, which would make heat go up through a grate in the floor to heat the living room. The kitchen was heated by a wood stove, but the bedrooms were unheated. So in winter nobody, least of all my dad, spent much time lollygagging in bed. He got up and got the furnace going again which had gone out overnight, so that the family could be warm.
Let’s just say my father never was one to not appreciate central heating when he was finally able to buy a house with an oil furnace! His experience with poverty also made him appreciate whatever food he had. He never wanted to throw out any food that was starting to go bad. He was often known to eat Bologna that was of pretty suspect value, removing the green parts and keeping the rest, just so that it would not go to waste.
When growing up in the 1970s inflationary period in Canada, with four kids in the house and only one salary coming in, we were all rationed to three half slices of bacon each on Saturday and Sunday, and only three cookies at a time. (We sometimes cheated on that one, though!).
Then it came to my father’s cars. He’d learned to drive back in the day when no course was required. You just went to the Québec department of whatever, plunked down so many dollars, and voilà, you got a genuine Québec driver’s licence. So my father bought a 1937 Nash, which was already very used, and taught himself to drive. No automatic transmissions back then, no power steering or brakes. He told me he got honked at a lot by other drivers.
After briefly owning a 1955 Chevrolet, he settled on a long period of ownership of Rambler and AMC automobiles (AMC was the successor to Rambler). I always wondered to myself why my dad drove these funky eccentric cars, which, by all conventional standards, were considered to be the laughing stock of the auto industry.
They looked funny, their owners were renowned to be a little eccentric, they had unit body construction as opposed to body-on-frame construction, which, at the time was considered to be the industry standard, and they were made in Kenosha Wisconsin, far a way from Detroit. My dad’s first Rambler was a white four door 1963 model with an aluminum engine, another oddity. My Dad spent a lot of time fixing it, as I remember, and eventually sold it to a young man by the name of Keith.
He then bought a 1967 rust-coloured Rambler Rebel, with a 232cid straight six engine, only four lap belts, and AM radio, no head rests, unassisted steering, unassisted four wheel drum brakes, etc. Good thing my dad bought it rust colour, because that’s what it did, it rusted. After five years, the fenders were shot and my dad did a rough job of rebuilding them, and eventually sold it to one of his employees.
Then came the ‘pièce de résistance’: My dad was now prosperous enough to buy a luxury automobile, and had negotiated a personal loan from my mom, which he paid back. He bought another ‘Rambler’, this time the company was now known as AMC, and bought a 1972 AMC Ambassador. Wow. We were all amazed and in awe of this car. It cost my dad just under 5000$! (That was a lot of money!). It had V8 power, power steering, and power brakes with front disks, air conditioning, head rests, and a more luxurious finish inside. He got an 8 track cassette player for it. It had a vanity mirror on the passenger side for my mom. And to boot it was two tone. Grasshopper Green with a white top.
It was unique in Québec city. My mom never had a problem spotting my dad’s car when he’d come to pick her up anywhere. My dad was going to make that car last at least ten years, he told me. Even when it started to rust, he stripped all the carpeting out of it, and put galvanized sheet metal in the floor and elsewhere to preserve it, and even went so far as to take off the fenders and have the insides sand blasted and put back on with a coat of fibreglass sheeting inside. He even went so far as to get a whole new set of fenders for the car once they finally rusted through.
So one fine Sunday morning in the early 1980s, Jim Stuart and his wife Helen and their four kids got all dressed up in their Sunday best, and drove, as it was their custom to do, to St. Stephen’s Chapel in Sillery, in a 1972 AMC Ambassador with no fenders! Let’s just say my dad got his fair share of good-natured ribbing and comments about driving his old jalopy to Mass with no fenders and the metal underneath being all rusted to boot.
But hey, my dad was Hell-bent on making that car last at least ten years, which he did. It actually lasted fourteen, and essentially died when he did in 1986. It never ran properly after that, and I held onto it for another year, thinking I’d fix it up and use it as a beater, but it was too far gone. I sold it for 50$ to a scrapper who towed it away, and that was that.
But the kicker was when my dad finally confessed to me one fine day why it was that he actually drove Ramblers for all those years. Basically he told me flat out that GM, Ford and Chrysler cars not only didn’t have enough leg room in the front and back seats, but, get this, the Rambler was the only car that he could drive in, being close to 6 ft tall, whilst wearing his fedora!
Now I knew my dad was an old-fashioned, old school gentleman, but this really blew me away! Far be it from him to sally forth as a dignified gentleman about town in his horseless motor carriage without the benefit of being able to be in proper gentlemanly attire! At this point I think I kind of figured out that my dad’s Scottish genes had won out over his French-Canadian side.
My dad has been long gone now since 1986, and so has that car, but I still have one of dad’s old hats. I wonder if it would fit me while I drove my Toyota? I can drive with my Tilley on, so maybe I’m already following in dear old dad’s footsteps! Maybe I inherited some of his eccentric nature? Maybe I should buy an old Rambler for my next car, now there’s an idea! Thanks dad!