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).
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 crowded auto industry of the 1920s. Charlie Nash was a good manager and kept the company afloat through the worst years of the Depression.
In 1936, Nash, by then 72 years old, asked his friend Walter P. Chrysler (another GM veteran) if he could recommend any candidates who might take the reins at Nash Motors and allow an old man to finally retire in peace. At Chrysler’s suggestion, Nash contacted George W. Mason, who since the late twenties had been president of the highly successful Kelvinator Corporation, a leader in the then-new electric refrigeration industry. Before Kelvinator, Mason had been an automotive executive, working at both Studebaker and Dodge early in his career. In the early twenties, he and Chrysler had worked together at the ailing Maxwell-Chalmers company, which was subsequently reorganized as the Chrysler Corporation. Mason was a colorful figure — big, blustery, and gregarious, with a cigar perpetually clamped between his teeth — but he was also a shrewd businessman who had more than quadrupled Kelvinator’s business despite the pressures of the Great Depression.
Mason rejected Nash’s initial overture, seeing no great reason to make a lateral career move. When Nash refused to take no for an answer, Mason suggested that rather than his leaving Kelvinator, they instead merge the two companies. It was an attractive alternative, allowing Nash to not only find a successor, but also expand and diversify in one stroke. Nash agreed and the result was the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, established 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 at Nash. The new company’s automotive business was on the upswing after the doldrums of the early thirties, with production for the 1937 model year reaching 77,000 units, 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 if it offered 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 unit-bodied sedan, the fuel-efficient Nash 600. Thanks to its unitary construction, the 600 was both roomier and 500 pounds (227 kg) lighter than its competitors and 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 and concluded that the average American automobile was ridiculously large for such duties. He saw a niche for a small, fuel-efficient commuter car.
Mason was not opposed to the idea of smaller cars, but he was less sanguine about Nash’s future as a small, independent 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, he approached the Hudson Motor Company and Packard to propose that the three companies 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 Moore’s small-car proposal. He agreed with Moore that there was a market. Better still, it was one that the Big Three were not yet tapping. As Mason was presumably aware, both Ford and Chevrolet had already announced and then shelved plans for postwar compacts of their own.
Developing a compact car that Americans would actually buy represented (and still represents) a unique challenge. Unlike in many other parts of the world, a car’s running costs in the U.S. depend far more on the original price than on the car’s size, engine displacement, or even fuel economy. (The price of fuel wouldn’t become an American preoccupation until the seventies.) U.S. roads and parking spaces will generally accommodate all but the most grotesquely large automobiles, so American buyers have no overriding motivation to purchase a smaller car other than personal preference or lower price. Since small cars don’t cost significantly less to build than larger ones, automakers inevitably concluded that the latter were a better commercial bet.
That had been the conclusion of Ford and Chevrolet and it was the attitude of many Nash executives. Early on, the only ones at Nash-Kelvinator who really believed that Nash should venture where GM and Ford had declined to tread were Mason, Moore, controller Jack Timpy, and George Romney, who became Mason’s special assistant in 1948. Nonetheless, Mason stuck to his guns, leading to the compact Nash Rambler, launched in April 1950.
NXI: NASH EXPERIMENTAL
Even before the Rambler debuted, Mason and Romney 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 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 — 175.8 inches (4,465 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase — but the Topolino-based NXI was fully 31 inches (78.3 cm) shorter on 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 unusually candid questionnaire included pictures and specifications of the NXI, but admitted that it was strictly a trial balloon and that no specific production model was planned.
Nonetheless, response to the NXI was enthusiastic. Encouraged by these results and by the relatively good reception the Rambler had received, Mason decided to go forward. Production cost, however, remained a daunting problem. Since the small car would share even less with other Nash models than the Rambler did, the company accountants estimated tooling costs at 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, Nash announced that bodies for the new car would be built by the English firm of Fisher & Ludlow, Ltd. with engines and running gear purchased from the Austin Motor Company (which had recently merged with its old rival Morris to form the British Motor Company, or BMC). 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.
The production car bore a distinct resemblance to 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 NKI (Nash-Kelvinator International) Custom, as the little car was initially called, 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.
In January 1954, three months after the start of production and 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.
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: More than 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. In keeping with American tastes, its suspension was soft, producing vague, sloppy handling. Nash built 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.
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. The Packard board, however, was distracted with the possibility of a merger with Studebaker and rebuffed Mason’s merger offers, although neither party closed the door to future possibilities.
Later that year, Mason was hospitalized with an attack of acute pancreatitis. He subsequently developed pneumonia and died on October 9 at the age of 63. In the wake of Mason’s death, George Romney became president and CEO of American Motors.
Romney’s ascendancy quickly put an end to the prospects of a merger between AMC and Studebaker-Packard. Neither Romney nor Nance held a particularly high opinion of the other and neither was interested in any deal that would put the other in charge. Nance initially told the press that he would be taking over control of AMC from Romney by January 1955, but about a week after Mason’s death, Romney publicly scuttled that possibility, announcing AMC was not contemplating any further mergers.
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. Some AMC executives still felt similarly.
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.
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,” many of them right-hand-drive, were sold in the U.K. and Europe between 1956 and 1961.
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 Chevrolet and Ford.
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 successor at AMC was sales VP Roy Abernethy, who did not share Romney’s affection for compacts and tried with mixed results to move AMC back in a more mainstream direction. Abernethy’s successor, Roy Chapin, Jr., even tried introducing sporty models like the Javelin and AMX and allowing the Rambler American to die after a last, exciting gasp in 1969. Chapin subsequently tried to reinvent the compact economy car with the Gremlin and Pacer, but by then AMC had lost too much ground to rival manufacturers.
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 since 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 included 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); Arch Brown, “Why Studebaker-Packard Never Merged With AMC and other revelations by Governor George Romney,” Special Interest Autos #66 (December 1981), pp. 50-55; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002 (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Jenni Current, “Met Pictures,” Hoosier Mets, n.d., www.hoosiermets. com, accessed 24 December 2008; John A. Conde, “Meet the Met,” Special Interest Autos #6 (July-August 1971), p. 35–37, 56; Jim Donnelly, “Amazing Mets,” Hemmings Classic Car #53 (February 2009), pp. 14–19; 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, accessed 26 December 2008; and the Nash Metropolitan Wikipedia® page (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nash_Metropolitan, accessed 24 December 2008).
Additional details came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981); 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); “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 “Why Studebaker-Packard Never Merged With AMC and other revelations by Governor George Romney,” Special Interest Autos #66 (December 1981), pp. 50-55; 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); David L. Lewis, “Ford’s Postwar Light Car,” Special Interest Autos #13 (October-November 1972), pp. 22–27, 57; Karl Ludvigsen, “The Truth About Chevy’s Cashiered Cadet,” Special Interest Autos #20 (January-February 1974), pp. 16–19; “PERSONNEL: Changes of the Week, Oct. 25, 1954,” TIME 25 October 1954, www.time. com, accessed 26 December 2008; and from James Arthur Ward, The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).
Special thanks to Chris Custin of MOCNA for correcting a factual error in a comment on 20 December 2015.
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.