1959 Metropolitan
1959 Metropolitan. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

George Mason took over the presidency of the Nash Motor Company from founding president Charles Nash in 1937. He was a man of vision, and he and his successor George Romney would prove to be men ahead of their time.

The imaginative Mason foresaw the need for smaller, lighter, more economical vehicles. Unfortunately he died a few months after Nash and Hudson joined in 1954 to form American Motors Corporation, but his successor Romney carried on preaching the compact car gospel.

Mason had brought out the first post-war compact, the successful Nash Rambler, in 1950, which soon attracted competitors like Kaiser-Frazer’s Henry J, Willys-Overland’s Aero, and Hudson’s Jet.

Encouraged by the success of the Rambler, and undaunted by the imminent end of the tiny Crosley and the modest sales of small imports, Mason planned an even smaller car than the Rambler. It was a brave move, but Mason noted the burgeoning suburban sprawl that was taking place and reasoned that there would be a need for a small, easy-to-park, economical second car, especially one that would be attractive to women.

In 1949 he commissioned the construction of a little two-door experimental convertible based on Fiat mechanical components. Named the NXI, for Nash Experimental International, it was toured around the country in 1950 to test public opinion.

Encouraged by the public response this was followed by a hardtop version, the NKI (Nash-Kelvinator International). Response was deemed favourable enough to warrant production, and the new 2/3 passenger Nash Metropolitan was launched in March, 1954, in hardtop and convertible forms.

The Austin Motor Co. Ltd., Birmingham, England, provided the well-proven engine and running gear, and assembled the cars. Coachbuilder Fisher & Ludlow of Birmingham built the unit construction chassis-body.

The Metro was powered by a front-mounted 1200 cc (73.2 cu in.) overhead valve, Austin A-40, 42-horsepower four-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels. This power may sound pretty feeble today, but it was more than the then popular Volkswagen Beetle’s 36 horsepower.

To make North American drivers feel at home, the first gear in the Austin’s four-speed gearbox was removed. This also eliminated the synchromesh in second gear (which became first in the Metro), but others didn’t have a synchro low in those days either. The gearshift lever grew out of the dashboard a la the Nash Rambler, and the trunk was accessed by folding down the small rear “seat” back.

In spite of its diminutive size – it had a 2,159 mm (82 in.) wheelbase, and was only 3,797 mm (149.5 in.) long – the Metropolitan was quite a stylish little car from its fake hood scoop to its “Continental” spare tire. It looked like a large Nash shrunk down to fit an Austin chassis. Unfortunately the Nash all-enveloping fender skirts gave the Metro a wide turning circle for so small a car.

But as small as the Metro was, it still seemed to dwarf its tiny 5.20 x 13 tires and 13-inch wheels, (the VW, although lighter, had 5.60 x 15 tires). Suspension was the usual Nash practice: independent in front via high-mounted coil springs, and at the rear a solid axle with leaf springs.

The baby Nash’s performance was good compared with its competition. Road & Track magazine (8/54) recorded a zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) time of 22.4 seconds for the Metro, almost half of the VW’s 39.2.

It did, however, suffer from the problem that afflicted small cars of the day (except the VW): a low overall final drive ratio. Thus, while the Beetle’s engine was revving at less than 3,000 rpm at 96 km/h (60 mph), a common cruising speed, the poor little Metro’s was churning out 4300 rpm. It was not conducive to long engine life.

In 1956 American Motors gave the Metro a 1.5 litre 52-horsepower Austin engine for even better performance. It also received a more elaborate mesh-type grille to replace the single bar, and over the years other amenities such as a trunk lid and window vents were added.

After the Nash/Hudson merger, Metros were marketed with both Nash And Hudson badges for a few years, before becoming simply AMC Metropolitans. A few were also sold in England.

The Metropolitan could be termed a moderate sales success. Although it didn’t achieve anything like the market penetration of the VW Beetle, it was a milestone of sorts by being the first really usable small car from an American manufacturer. It was offered from 1954 to 1962, with 1959 being the best year when 22,209 were built; total production was 94,986. In 1962 a mere 420 were sold.

The Metro was an example of what could be achieved by wedding sturdy British components with contemporary American styling, but in the process it came out as being neither British nor American. And unfortunately it was ahead of its time.

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