Rebel — not GTO — Detroit’s first muscle car

Automotive folklore tells us that the 1964 Pontiac GTO was Detroit’s first “muscle” car.

Not so. The honour of being the first to insert a powerful V8 into a mid-sized car goes to American Motors (AMC) and their 1957 Rambler Rebel.

The four-door hardtop Rebel was launched as a standalone model.

It came in only one colour, silver — with a gold side flash.

The word REBEL was spelt out in big chrome letters on the front fender, just in case you missed the paint scheme.

It was based on AMC’s top of the line Rambler Custom model.

With unitary construction and sitting on a 108 inch/2743mm wheelbase, the Rambler was shorter and weighed a lot less than the bigger cars offered by GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Think of it as about the same size as a Toyota Camry.

With a 327 cubic inch/5.4-litre V8 delivering 255 hp (190kW) and generating 345 lb-ft of torque (468Nm) at just 2600 rpm, Rebel’s power to weight ratio gave it a stunning zero to 60 mph time of just 7.5 seconds (0-100km/h in 7.8 secs).

It was the quickest American sedan of the year.

At the 1957 Daytona Beach Speed Trials only a Chevrolet Corvette was faster.

Transmission choices were limited to a three-speed manual with overdrive or GM’s four speed Hydra-Matic.

Power steering and power brakes were standard.

All of this standard equipment and power came at a high price, however, starting from $2786 (the equivalent of more than $40,000 Aussie dollars in today’s money).

For the same money you could by an entry level Buick and that limited sales to around 1500 for 1957.

Just who came up with the idea for the Rebel is lost in time.

But the concept was typical of the financially struggling AMC, which was the US’s fourth largest car maker and always in need of great ideas that cost almost nothing to implement.

When developing the new Rambler range, AMC’s boss George Romney knew he could not match the body style variations of his company’s rivals, so he limited the development to sedan and station wagon models, in pillared and hardtop forms.

Not having to tool up for low volume convertible and coupe models saved money and allowed Romney to speed up development time and release the cars in 1956.

The new body styling was enough to attract buyer interest in 1956.

But looking ahead to 1957 and knowing that there was almost no money to refresh the styling, AMC’s planners came up with the idea of a “halo” car to attract attention.

They had planned for the ‘57s to debut with their new 250 cubic inch V8, but needed more pizzazz to entice showroom traffic.

And that’s where the high-performance attention seeking Rebel came in.

It did its job of being a showroom magnet and car magazine headliner, but in reality it was not a sales success.

Perhaps if AMC had stripped all the frills from the car, kept the big V8 and priced it as a bargain basement hot rod, it might have sold better.

Anyway, like so many car makers, AMC decided to extend the aura of the Rebel name on more mundane models.

From 1958 the name was applied to models with the more mundane V8 and AMC lost a golden opportunity to develop a high-performance brand.

They would not return to this arena until 1965 with the visually challenged Marlin coupe.

That’s another story.

David Burrell is the editor of


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