From Small Things: The Nash Metropolitan and the Birth of American Motors

Diminutive size, clown-car looks, and Fifties-style two-tone paint — it could only be the Nash Metropolitan. Designed in Wisconsin and built in England, the “Met” was one of America’s first subcompact cars. More than that, it helped to make the career of a former Mormon missionary named George Romney and to transform Nash Motors into the American Motors Corporation (AMC).

1957 Nash Metropolitan side

THE BIG MAN ON TOP

In 1916, former General Motors president Charles W. Nash acquired the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company, a struggling automaker based in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Nash renamed the company Nash Motors and managed to carve out a modest but respectable niche for it in the crowed auto industry of the 1920s. Charlie Nash as a good manager and he kept the company afloat through the worst years of the Depression. By 1936, though, Nash was 72 years old and he had been working since the age of 6. He started looking around for an appropriate successor to carry on the company that bore his name.

At the suggestion of Nash’s old friend, Walter P. Chrysler, Nash got in touch with George W. Mason. For the past eight years, Mason had been president of the highly successful Kelvinator corporation, a leader in the then-new electric refrigeration industry, but his previous background had been in the auto industry. He had worked at Studebaker and Dodge earlier in his career and in 1921 he had helped Walter Chrysler revive the ailing Maxwell-Chalmers company. Mason was a colorful figure: big, blustery, nearly 300 pounds, with a cigar perpetually clamped between his teeth. Although he was by all accounts a warm, gregarious, and generous man, he was also a shrewd businessman who had more than quadrupled Kelvinator’s business, despite the pressures of the Depression. In short, he was exactly the sort of person Charlie Nash was looking for.

Mason was comfortable in his role at Kelvinator, though, and when Charlie Nash offered him the presidency of Nash Motors, he refused. When Nash refused to take no for an answer, Mason suggested that instead of his leaving Kelvinator, they merge the two companies. Nash agreed and the result was the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, incorporated in 1937. Nash became chairman of the new company, a post he retained until his death in 1948, while Mason became president.

Mason had no illusions about the challenge he faced. Nash’s business was on the upswing after the doldrums of the early thirties, reaching a production of 77,000 units in 1937, but that was still only good for 13th place in the industry — ahead of Willys, Hudson, and Graham, but well behind Ford, Chevrolet, Plymouth, and even Studebaker. Nash cars were well engineered and attractive, but their market position left something to be desired. The only way Nash would thrive was to offer distinctive products that the “Big Three” did not. Nash already had some novel features, including the sophisticated, thermostatically controlled “Weather Eye” heater that debuted for 1938. By 1941, engineering VP Nils Erik Wahlberg would inaugurate even more daring concepts, including America’s first true unibody sedan, the fuel-efficient Nash 600. Thanks to its unitary construction, the 600 was both roomier and 500 pounds lighter than its competitors and it was capable of at least 25% better gas mileage. The 600 was followed after the war by the radically streamlined Nash Airflyte models of 1949-51, with their unmistakable “bathtub” aerodynamic styling.

NASHES SMALL AND LARGE

In 1942, Nash’s chief engineer, Meade Moore, proposed an even more radical move: a compact car. Moore had observed that most cars were used for relatively short trips — a few miles from home to office or train station. He felt the average American car was already ridiculously large for such prosaic duties and he saw a niche for a small, fuel-efficient commuter car. Moore soon convinced Mason, who became very interested in developing a small car that American consumers would actually buy.

As enthusiastic as Mason was about small cars, he was not enthusiastic about Nash’s future as a small company. Although sales in the postwar years were strong, he knew that Nash had neither the revenue nor the capital to compete effectively with GM, Ford, and Chrysler. In 1946, Mason approached Hudson Motor Company and Packard, proposing that the three merge into a single American Motors Corporation. At the time, both Hudson and Packard were enjoying good business and neither was interested.

Rebuffed, Mason turned his attention back to the small-car plan. He was convinced there was a market, but Nash management was less sanguine. The only ones who supported the concept were Mason, Meade Moore, controller Jack Timpy, and George Romney, who became Mason’s chief assistant in 1948. Other Nash executives were nervous or even hostile about the plan. Their reticence was understandable: small cars were not necessarily cheaper to build than large ones, but American buyers were more willing to pay higher prices for bigger cars. Those factors led the Big Three to abandon their own compact-car plans in the postwar years, but Mason stuck to his guns.

1950 Nash Custom Landau front 3q
George Mason felt the compact Nash Rambler would be more successful if it was marketed as a luxurious second car for upscale buyers. As a result, the initial model was this well-trimmed landau convertible, with an electrically retractable fabric roof. Priced at $1,808, it was actually more expensive than the much bigger Nash Statesman. (Photo © 2006 Douglas Wilkinson/www.RemarkableCars.com; released for all use with attribution)

NXI: NASH EXPERIMENTAL

Nash’s initial salvo was the compact Rambler, which debuted in April 1950. Mason and Romney, however, were already thinking about an even smaller car. In late 1948, Mason hired Detroit design firm Kehrig-Flajole Associates to develop a prototype of a subcompact automobile dubbed NXI, for “Nash Experimental International.”

Kehrig-Flajole was an appropriate choice for the project: William Flajole had previously been a designer at the coachbuilder Murray, where he had led the development of a compact car proposal for Ford. The proposal had been flatly rejected by Henry Ford II in 1945, but after the end of the war, Flajole began giving public lectures on the virtues of smaller cars. His talks attracted the attention of Nash VP A.M. Wimble, who in turn suggested Flajole to George Mason. At Mason’s direction, Flajole created a series of sketches for the NXI project and then developed a prototype, based on a Fiat 500 “Topolino” imported for the purpose. The prototype, built in great secrecy at Kehrig-Flajole’s Utica, Michigan workshops, was completed by late 1949.

While Mason liked the results of Flajole’s work, he was still hesitant about public reaction. The Rambler was already small by American standards — 176 inches (4,470 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase — but the Topolino-based NXI was fully 31 inches (79 cm) shorter with an 84-inch (2,134mm) wheelbase. (By comparison, a 1950 Nash Ambassador was 210 inches (5,334 mm) long on a 121-inch (3,073mm) wheelbase and a 1950 Chevrolet was 197.5 inches (5,017 mm) long.) Mason decided to hedge his bets with a remarkably elaborate market research program. In early 1950, the NXI prototype was shown in a series of “Surviews” (surveys/previews — what today would be called focus groups) around the country. The results were promising, so Nash followed up by sending out more than a quarter of a million questionnaires entitled, “Does America Want the Economy Car?” The exceptionally candid questionnaire had pictures and specifications for the NXI, but admitted that it was strictly a trial balloon; no specific production model was planned. Response to the questionnaire was enthusiastic.

Encouraged by these results and by the relatively good reception the Rambler had received, Mason decided to go forward with the NXI. Production cost, however, was a daunting problem. Since the small car would share even less with other Nash models than the Rambler, the company accountants estimated a tooling cost of more than $20 million, far more than the company could afford.

THE AUSTIN SOLUTION

In late 1949, George Mason had signed an agreement to supply England’s Donald Healey with engines and running gear for a small number of Nash-Healey sports cars. Perhaps inspired by that enterprise — and the 1949 devaluation of the British pound — Mason decided to outsource production of the NXI to a British company.

In late 1952, he announced that bodies for the new car would be built by the English firm of Fisher & Ludlow, Ltd. with engines and running gear from the Austin Motor Company (which had recently merged with its old rival Morris to form the British Motor Company). Thanks in part to the currency devaluation, the tooling costs were only $800,000, low even by the standards of 1952 and a fraction of what it would have cost to tool for production in the States.

1957 Nash Metropolitan front 3q
The Nash Metropolitan looked like a scaled-down version of the big Nash sedans of 1952, including their shrouded front wheels. The latter were introduced with the 1949 Nash Airflyte cars, partly at the insistence of George Mason, who wanted Nash styling to be instantly identifiable even at a distance. Shrouded wheels were more aerodynamic, but increased the turning circle noticeably and made tire-changing a hassle. The Z-shaped side trim was added for 1956, allowing two-tone paint jobs.

For the production car, BillFlajole revamped the styling of the NXI prototype to resemble Nash’s 1952 Golden Anniversary models (the styling of which had been publicly credited to Italy’s Pinin Farina, although they were primarily the work of Nash styling chief Ed Anderson). The production design shared the Golden Anniversary cars’ grilles, curious cut-down doors and skirted wheels, making the subcompact look like a big Nash that had shrunk in the wash.

Production of the NKI (Nash-Kelvinator International) Custom, as the little car was initially called, began in October 1953. In January 1954, about two months before it made its public debut, the car was renamed Nash Metropolitan, reflecting its intended purpose as a small urban runabout. There were two body styles, a hardtop coupe and a convertible, both with a tiny, mostly decorative fold-down rear seat. Suspension and running gear were a combination of Nash design and Austin components, while the engine was Austin’s 74 cu. in. (1,200 cc) B-series four.

1957 Nash Metropolitan front
Nash Metropolitans used Austin’s OHV four-cylinder engines, initially 1,200 cc (73 cu. in.), later 1,489 cc (92 cu. in.). The latter produced 52 gross horsepower (39 kW), upped to 55 horsepower in 1959. Austins had a four-speed transmission, but to keep costs down, the Met had a three-speed, created by the simple expedient of removing the first gear from the Austin gearbox. Note the stylized “M” badge on the grille; this car was built after the abandonment of the Nash and Hudson nameplates. The grille is also different from those of early models.

THE NASH METROPOLITAN

The Nash Metropolitan went on sale in March 1954, with base prices under $1,500 — around $100 less than a basic Rambler DeLuxe sedan or a six-cylinder Ford Mainline business coupe. Although it had only 42 hp (31 kW) the Metropolitan coupe only weighed about 1,800 pounds (820 kg), so its performance was similar to that of the bigger, six-cylinder Rambler: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took about 22 seconds and top speed was around 75 mph (120 km/h). Fuel economy was commendable: over 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) was possible even in city traffic, with close to 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) on the road.

Sadly, the Metropolitan was not nearly as nimble as its tiny size suggested. Its suspension was soft, in keeping with American tastes, producing vague, sloppy handling. (Nash did build a prototype of a sportier version with a twin-carb, high-compression engine, four-speed transmission, and tighter suspension tuning, but it was never intended for production.)

Mason’s initial projection was for 10,000 sales and the Metropolitan met that target handily; sales for the 1954 calendar year totaled 13,905. Had Nash paid to tool the Metropolitan in Kenosha, it would have been a money-loser, but since the total development costs had been only $2 million, it was a modest success. Mason extended his contracts with Fisher & Ludlow and BMC.
1960 Nash Metropolitan 2010 Chicago Geek CCBYSA30 Generic
Only 149.5 inches (3,797 mm) overall, the Nash Metropolitan is about the size of the modern, BMW-designed MINI, although the Metropolitan rides a shorter, 85-inch (2,159mm) wheelbase. It was nominally a 2+2 thanks to the tiny folding rear seat, but it was a two-seater for all practical purposes, since the rear seat was only suitable for small children or pets. Base price of the coupe was $1,587 in 1957; the convertible was only $24 more. (Photo © 2010 Chicago Geek; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

CONVERGING ROADS

By that time, George Mason’s attention was elsewhere. In 1952, he had once again approached Packard and Hudson about the prospects of a merger. Although both again refused, by the end of 1953, it was clear that Hudson could not survive on its own. Sales of the dated “Step Down” Hudsons were plummeting, its compact Jet was proving to be an expensive disaster, and its business — like that of all the independent automakers — was being slammed by a vicious price war between Ford and Chevrolet.

On January 14, 1954, Hudson agreed to a friendly merger with Nash. Effective May 1, 1954, the two companies became the American Motors Corporation, the fourth-largest automaker in the U.S. George Mason became both president and CEO, while Hudson CEO A. E. Barit became a consultant and a member of the new board of directors. George Romney became vice president.

Mason still had his eye on Packard, which he hoped would become the upscale division of the new corporation. He had already made agreement with Packard president James Nance to buy Packard’s new V8 engines and Ultramatic transmissions for AMC use, since neither Nash nor Hudson yet had a V8 of its own. Nance was distracted with negotiations for a merger with Studebaker, however, and rebuffed Mason’s merger offers, although neither closed the door to future possibilities.

Unfortunately, George Mason did not live to see his vision for American Motors take shape. In October 1954, he was hospitalized with an attack of acute pancreatitis. He subsequently developed pneumonia and died on October 9, at the age of 63.

1957 Nash Metropolitan roof
Most Nash Metropolitan hardtops had the roof painted white, which makes them look like convertibles with the top up. The divided rear window, similar to that on full-size Nash sedans was becoming anachronistic by the mid-fifties as automakers shifted to curved, one-piece backlights.

In the wake of Mason’s death, George Romney became president and CEO of American Motors. His ascendancy quickly put an end to the prospects of a merger with Packard; James Nance had little respect for him and was not interested in any deal that would put Romney in charge. (We suspect the reverse was also true.) In a 1983 interview with Special Interest Autos writer Arch Brown, Romney recalled that Nance regarded him as little more than Mason’s errand boy and told the press that he would be taking over control of AMC from Romney by January 1955. A week after Mason’s death, Romney told Time that AMC contemplated no additional mergers.

RAMBLING MAN

Had anyone other than George Romney taken over AMC, it’s quite possible they would have abandoned the Rambler and Nash Metropolitan and focused on retrenching in the middle-class sector. Hudson and Kaiser’s compacts had been commercial failures and GM president Harlow Curtice had declared that small cars were a passing fad.

Romney’s commitment to compact cars, however, exceeded even Mason’s. Mason had never intended to give up on big cars; he saw the Rambler and Metropolitan as useful sidelines, but sidelines nonetheless. Romney, however, saw compacts as the way of the future. His instincts were borne out when the 1955 Rambler line outsold all of that year’s bigger Nash lines combined. A year later, Romney decided to drop the Nash and Hudson names and apply the Rambler badge to all of AMC’s remaining products except the Metropolitan.

1957 Nash Metropolitan dash
Nash Metropolitan interiors were relatively plush, in keeping with George Mason’s belief that small cars should not be marketed as cheap cars. Most Metropolitans had a radio and Nash’s excellent Weather Eye heater, although both were nominally optional. The 80 mph (129 km/h) speedometer was only slightly generous; top speed of a 92 cu. in. (1,489 cc) Metropolitan was perhaps 78 mph (125 km/h). The auxiliary gauges under the left side of the dash are not stock.

Thanks to its overseas production line, the Metropolitan survived the AMC merger and consolidation despite meager 1955 sales of only 6,096 units. Starting in August 1954, it was sold by both Nash and Hudson dealers, although the cars themselves were identical, save for badges and emblems. The Metropolitan received some modest styling and mechanical changes in November 1955, including a slightly bigger, 91 cu. in. (1,489 cc) engine with 52 horsepower (39 kW). After the Nash and Hudson brands were dropped, the Met was marketed and sold simply as “Metropolitan.”

In the fall of 1956, BMC, perhaps concerned about slow sales in North America, asked Romney for permission to market the Metropolitan under the Austin nameplate in overseas markets where AMC had no presence. Around 9,400 “Austin Metropolitans” were sold in the UK and Europe between 1956 and 1961 and the entire project was a much-needed boost to BMC’s finances.

U.S. sales of both the Metropolitan and Rambler lines rallied after 1957 thanks to the “Eisenhower recession,” which sent big-car sales plunging. George Romney’s impassioned support of compact cars and tongue-in-cheek derision of “Detroit dinosaurs,” which had seemed quixotic only three years earlier, suddenly sounded prophetic. The best Nash had ever achieved was tenth place in domestic sales, but by 1959, Rambler was in sixth place, ahead of Buick and Dodge. It was fourth for 1960 and achieved third place in 1961, behind only Chevy and Ford.

1957 Nash Metropolitan tail
Early Nash Metropolitans had no trunk lids; the only trunk access was through the rear seat. An external trunk lid was finally added in 1959, although the location of the spare wheel still made access rather awkward. The Continental-style spare was added primarily to increase cargo space (which was not generous, in any case), but it added a sporty touch.

Metropolitan sales were strong during the recession, despite minimal advertising: 15,317 for 1957, 13,128 for 1958, and 22,309 for 1959, enough that sales of the overseas models had to be temporarily halted to meet U.S. demand. By the start of the 1960 model year, though, its days were numbered. The Metropolitan’s styling and engineering were now almost eight years old and it wasn’t a great deal cheaper than the new Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, or Plymouth Valiant. Metropolitan sales didn’t justify the costs of a replacement and so production came to an end in the spring of 1961. By then, sales were slow enough that unsold 1960 models were re-certified as 1961 or 1962 models. The last few cars were sold in March 1962.

Later that year, George Romney parlayed the success of American Motors into a successful run for the governorship of Michigan. He followed that with an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968 and subsequently became Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1969 to 1973.

Romney’s replacement at AMC was sales executive Roy Abernethy, who tried with mixed results to move AMC in a more mainstream direction, even introducing sporty, V8-powered models like the Marlin, Javelin, and AMX. The Rambler died after a last, exciting gasp 1969, although a few years later, Abernethy’s successor, Roy Chapin, Jr., struggled to reinvent the compact economy car with the Gremlin and Pacer.

Much like the modern smart fortwo, the Nash Metropolitan still has a strong cult following. Thanks to its adorable styling and admirable frugality, the Metropolitan was more successful as a conversation piece and fashion statement than as practical transportation. Still, it was America’s first successful subcompact car and it set a precedent for marketing foreign-engineered or -built cars under domestic nameplates, a trend that has made the distinction between “domestic” and “import” very hazy indeed. As automakers scurry to bring their small European- and Japanese-market cars stateside, the old Metropolitan once more looks like the wave of the future.

# # #

NOTES ON SOURCES

Our principal sources for the history of the Metropolitan were Dave Austin, Metropolitan Owners Club of Perth, Western Australia, www.metropolitan-library. com/, accessed 20 January 2010; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Jenni Current’s “Met Pictures,” Hoosier Mets, n.d., www.hoosiermets. com/ pix1.html, accessed 24 December 2008; Ken Gross, “Motores Prudentiores: 1962 Nash Metropolitan,” Special Interest Autos #29 (July-August 1975), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002); John F. Katz, “SIA comparison Report: ’57 Metropolitan vs. ’57 Volkswagen,” Special Interest Autos #129 (June 1992), pp. 10-17; Charles D. Test, “History of Metropolitans,” ChucksToyland.com, n.d., www.chuckstoyland. com/ metro/ history/index.html, accessed 26 December 2008; and the Nash Metropolitan Wikipedia® page (http://en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Nash_Metropolitan, accessed 24 December 2008).

Additional details came from John Baker’s “Nash Metropolitan” page on Austin Memories, n.d., www.austinmemories. com/ page29/page29.html, accessed 28 December 2008; Arch Brown, “1941 Nash 600: Bristling with innovations, this pre-war economy car offered excellent value” and “The Man Behind the ’600′: George W. Mason,” Special Interest Autos #60 (November-December 1980); and Michael Lamm, “1950 Nash Rambler: America’s First Successful Post-war Compact,” Special Interest Autos #24 (September-October 1974), both of which are reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Nashes: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002). George Romney’s remarks about James Nance came from Arch Brown’s interview, “Another Visit with George Romney,” Special Interest Autos #77 (September-October 1983), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News: 2001), and from “PERSONNEL: Changes of the Week, Oct. 25, 1954,” Time 25 October 1954, www.time. com/ time/magazine/ article/0,9171,823618,00.html, accessed 26 December 2008.

This article’s title was suggested by the Bruce Springsteen song “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come),” originally written for Springsteen’s 1980 album The River, but not released until 2003.


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2 Comments

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  1. Aaron,

    I’m really, really, really surprised that you didn’t consult Patrick Foster’s "The Metropolitan Story" book for this article.

    It’s easily the best book Foster ever wrote, and I consider it the standard text on the subject. It really provides the human side to the story featuring extended interviews with Flajole and others who were at Nash/AMC at the time.

    I like stories that include quotes from the people who created these auto histories. It keeps them from reading like book reports. "The Metropolitan Story" has personal perspective in abundance.

    I’m not a big Foster fan (by any stretch), but he had access to Metropolitan Sales Manager Jim Watson’s personal files, so I consider this book authoritative and well written.

    I recommend it for all Metropolitan fans! —-Todd Ruel

    1. I didn’t have access to a copy of it, unfortunately, and the only copy the public library system had at that time was reference, so it would have been difficult to get at it.

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