At a time when US cars were steadily increasing in size with ever-larger engines and roomier, plushy interiors, the design team at the Nash Motor Company came up with a very different idea.
Words: Allan Walton | Photos: Stephen Perry
While conventional wisdom at the time indicated that small European cars, led by the VW Beetle, were largely ignored by the USA’s car-buying public, George Walter Mason, the Chairman/CEO of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, thought otherwise. A lover of small cars, Mason had already bucked normal trends with cars such as the Anglo-American Nash-Healey sports car and what he now envisaged would, in effect, open up a new market with a sub-compact car designed as a second family car or, in that pre-PC era, a car expressly designed for the ladies.
With that in mind, it was no surprise that Mason, along with his right-hand man George Romney, was quick to take an interest in a design being touted around Detroit by one William J Flajole, an independent automotive designer. Flajole’s idea was soon translated into metal with a Fiat-powered concept car labeled as the NXI (Nash Experimental International). The car was subsequently toured around the USA with Romney on hand to determine the public’s reaction. And it was mostly positive.
The original concept was revised with larger engines and improved styling, and a new name was given to the car – Metropolitan – very appropriate for a car Nash would market as a city runabout.
With the overall concept, potential market and name in place, the next step was to enter into full production.
Nash was hardly in the same position as the USA ‘big three’ – the cost of tooling up for an all-new vehicle would be substantial. Using the experience gained with the Nash-Healey, Mason once again looked to the UK. By the end of 1952, Fisher & Ludlow had been signed up to build bodies, with the cars to be completed at Austin’s Longbridge factory. In this way, Nash was able to keep final tooling costs down to US$800,000.
Prior to the Metropolitan’s launch, Nash-Kelvinator merged with the Hudson Car Company – the new company being the American Motors Corporation. As a result, the Metropolitan would be made available badged as either a Nash or a Hudson.
In March 1954 the first Metropolitans arrived at Stateside Nash dealerships – in either hardtop or convertible form – with motive power being provided by an Austin A40 1200cc engine. A 7.25-inch Borg & Beck clutch was fitted to a column-change Austin four-speed gearbox, with first gear blanked off – an unusual arrangement also used at that time by the Austin-Healey 100/4.
Underneath, the Metropolitan’s suspension was a mix of both US and European sensibilities, designed to offer good handling with the softer ride preferred by American drivers – a rigid rear axle located with semi-elliptic leaf springs, with coil springs and A-arms up front.
With its rather chunky and diminutive looks – the result of Nash’s in-house designer, Edmund Anderson – the new car was undoubtedly cute, with its unusual styling and cool-looking rear-mounted ‘continental’ spare tyre. In order to further attract the ladies, the Metropolitan came in a number of bright and cheerful colour schemes – Canyon Red, Spruce Green and Caribbean Blue, coupled with a white roof on the hardtop models.
George Mason was a fan of semi-skirted front wings; they’d become something of a Nash trademark, and they also appeared on the Metropolitan. While stylish to look at, this type of design also meant a large turning circle and, of course, practical difficulties when changing a front tyre.
Inside, the Metropolitan was well equipped with a radio, a revised version of Nash’s ‘Weather Eye’ heating and ventilation set-up, and snappy upholstery in a mix of cloth and leather.
At launch in the USA, prices for the Metropolitan were US$1445 for the hardtop and US$1469 for the convertible. A strict two-seater, the rear seat was really not that useful although it did fold down for access to the boot – the Metropolitan didn’t get an opening boot-lid until mid-1959.
Interestingly, the Metropolitan name wasn’t applied to the new car until January 1954, while Nash badges were only fitted from February 1954 after 1869 cars had already been built.
Initially, the new car sold well, with Nash announcing a first year production total of 10,000, all examples being sold in either the USA or Canada. The Metropolitan would not go on sale in right-hand drive form until April 1957, by which time Austin had acquired the rights to sell the Metropolitan in non-USA markets – modifications to the interior and engine bay being made to effect the right-hand drive conversion.
However, by 1955 sales were slowing down, so Nash introduced a face-lift version in April the following year. Along with some cosmetic upgrades, including a new mesh grille, the big change was the use of a larger and more powerful 1490cc engine, as also used by the Austin A50. A larger clutch was fitted, while the final drive ratio was changed from 4.22:1 to 4.625:1 for more relaxed cruising.
Further changes were made during the car’s production run, including a full-flow oil filter, glove-box door and, in January 1958, a one-piece rear window replaced the original three-piece screen.
By 1959, the Metropolitan had earned the title of best-selling imported car in the USA, beating out the VW Beetle. However, as the ’60s dawned, the Metropolitan’s days appeared to be numbered, with sales sliding back, and that same year production was halted. However, with a backlog of models on hand, the car continued to be marketed and sold up until 1962.
Factory records show that 83,442 Metropolitans were sent to the USA, with a further 11,544 going to Canada. Estimates as to how many examples remained in the UK vary, with various sources indicating a range from 1200 to as many as 5000.
With its well-engineered suspension, even weight distribution and low centre of gravity, the Metropolitan proved reasonably capable on the road, although the large turning circle caused by those partially enclosed front wheels can be a bit of a pain when driving around the city. While the Metropolitan’s cam-and-lever steering was out-dated, at least it was light and positive.
Performance isn’t exactly the Metropolitan’s strong suit, and flat out neither the early 1200 models or the later 1500s could crack the imperial ton – top speeds being 112km/h (70mph) for the 1200 and 128km/h (80mph) for the 1500 examples. Despite that, the Metropolitan’s performance still managed to better its leading USA import rival, the VW Beetle, when it came to the 0–60mph ‘sprint’ – the VW requiring 40 seconds to complete the benchmark dash, nearly twice as long as the Metropolitan’s time.
Early US press for the car wasn’t always very upbeat – Road & Track magazine wasn’t all that impressed with the Nash’s handling, describing its on-road behaviour as being very similar to a typically full-size US sedan – soft and squishy around corners. Motor Trend was more forgiving, comparing the new car’s handling favourably by comparison to contemporary sports cars.
Of course, the least complimentary reviews would come when the Metropolitan finally became available in the country of its origin, the UK.
Autocar magazine wrote that the Metropolitan was something of a handful over secondary roads and that it was not a car “with which one should take liberties in such matters as fast cornering”. Very British!
But it wasn’t all bad news, as many US police departments adopted Metropolitan 1500 hardtops as patrol cars due to their excellent fuel economy, and with their smaller size useful within city limits. Allied to that, the Nash’s sturdy and well-built body also provided a good safety factor – although we assume they weren’t called upon to act as high-speed police pursuit vehicles!
Today, of course, not all classic car enthusiasts feel the need for speed, and the Metropolitan, while a little cramped for taller drivers, is a comfortable cruiser. Plus, even with the larger 1500cc engine, it is also very economical to run. Perhaps even more importantly, the Nash’s stylish take on a scaled-down version of a full-size 1950s US sedan has immense drawing power for some petrolheads. Despite their obvious shortcomings, these cars are fun to drive and always attract admiring looks when on the road.
Current values reflect the Metropolitan’s cult status, with hardtops in New Zealand commanding prices around the $30–32,000 mark for a top example, while potential buyers would need to add a further premium onto that for a convertible. However, the Metropolitan is still a very affordable and fun-to-own classic car. Parts supply is also excellent – while most of the Austin-derived parts are available in New Zealand, suppliers in the USA, such as Metropolitan Parts in Pennsylvania and Metropolitan Pit Stop in Los Angeles, can come to the rescue if a specific part isn’t on hand locally. Good parts supply allied to the car’s overall durability has also resulted in the Metropolitan’s high survival rate.
Today, these stylish cars have an enthusiastic following in New Zealand, with many owners gathering together under the auspices of the local Nash Metropolitan Register (check out their Facebook page). They are currently aware of 24 cars in New Zealand: 14 hardtops and 10 convertibles. Many of these are often seen out and about, and Metropolitan owners put on a great display at the 2021 Auckland Brit & Euro Classic Car Show and also plan to be out in force for the 2022 running of that show. We’ll certainly be catching up with them at Lloyd Elsmore Park on Sunday, March 6.
Calling up memories from 50 years ago, Brett can still recall the time when, as a teenage petrolhead living in Epsom, he stood on Manukau Road watching Nash Metropolitans cruising past.
“I always thought this quirky, iconic motoring oddity would one day be a desirable car to own,” said Brett.
Fast forward to the late 1990s and with Metropolitans seemingly less plentiful in New Zealand than they were 50 years ago, Brett managed to locate one for sale down in Dunedin and it was promptly purchased. A few years later, Brett got the opportunity to buy a beautifully restored 1946 Mercury, so his first Metropolitan was sold to release funds for his latest purchase.
However, Brett and his wife always missed the little Nash so a second example was purchased in 2018.
“The restoration of this car had been started and stopped by three owners prior to me,” said Brett, “but luckily one of those owners was a well-known Auckland panelbeater and, along with his son, had carried out an expert and thorough body restoration.”
With the Metropolitan’s body properly restored, a fresh coat of paint was applied and baked onto the car, returning the Nash back to its original two-tone colour scheme of Caribbean Blue over Frost White. One of the car’s other previous owners had imported a brand-new wiring loom from the USA but, alas, this loom was for a left-hand drive version, so all the wires for the dash instrumentation and steering column were on the wrong side!
“A masterful reorganisation of the loom was sorted for me by Hope Hickman Auto Electrical in Auckland,” said Brett.
With the body and electrical system sorted, the next task involved some extensive mechanical work. The differential had a dreadful whine that was eventually remedied by Diff Specs in Drury, Auckland; while brake, steering and suspension issues were remedied by Crystal Motors of Mt Eden.
Fortunately, the Nash’s upholstery only needed a tidy up but in order to fully refurbish the car’s interior, a new headlining in the original cloth was installed. This required the removal and re-instatement of the three-piece rear screen. “It’s no mean feat to get that glass back in with all the stainless-steel inserts in the rubbers,” remarked Brett.
“I have gone over the top with detailing the car,” continued Brett, “especially in the engine bay. I also managed to locate in Texas a rare Continental Kit spare wheel hubcap with the Nash logo embossed into it. I still haven’t plucked up the courage to tell my wife what it cost to buy, import, restore and chrome plate that!”
Built in 1957 and originally sold new in Hamilton, Brett’s Nash has been continuously registered since it was first registered on April 28, 1958 and still sports its original black plates. All the bugs are now ironed out and Brett and his wife are now able to enjoy driving it with total reliability.
In 2010, Robert spotted what he reckoned was the perfect small classic for sale – a black and white 1950s Nash Metropolitan. However, at that time financial considerations meant that he had to curtail his enthusiasm and pass up the opportunity to own his dream car.
Time passed; Robert and his wife, Nicola, finally paid off their mortgage and with the prospect of being more financially free, things were looking up. After looking around at various classic cars, the couple finally settled on a 1960 Chevrolet Impala, a car that they restored and enjoyed. However, Robert hadn’t forgotten his dream car and often thought of the Nash he’d missed out on – especially as Metropolitans were rarely offered for sale.
“Fast forward to March 2019 and, lo and behold, there was my dream car, a 1956 Nash Metropolitan hardtop in Berkshire Green over Snowberry White for sale in Whakatane,” recalled Robert. “Nicola said that I should go for it but, with reluctance, I decided that I had to pass again, this time due to limited garage space with the Impala parked front and centre.”
However, working without his knowledge and with the help of her father – William Tweed, a long-time classic car owner – nothing less than a total reorganisation of the family garage was arranged. This freed up space, allowing a Metropolitan to slide in beside the couple’s 18-foot Chevrolet leviathan. In his role as co-conspirator, William contacted the Nash Metropolitan owner and arranged to view the car in Whakatane.
In strict secrecy, William flew to Whakatane in April, took the Nash out for a test drive and pronounced it fit for purchase. There were a few issues but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. The purchase price was duly paid and the car arrived at a panelbeaters in Auckland for a check over with a view to carry out any body repairs as required.
Alas, the inspection brought with it some bad news. A six-inch patch of rust concealed an extensive rusted sill and floor pan, a known problem with these cars. The panelbeaters got to work and a couple of months later the rusted sill had been repaired along with the floor pan. With everything painted, the Nash was looking as good as new.
With the car’s bodywork sorted, next up was a trip to the mechanic for a full service and a new clutch – everything was ready for the big reveal.
“All this time,” said Robert, “I had no idea of the schemes and subterfuges my wife and father-in-law were up to.”
It was now July, and Nicola and William had arranged to meet Robert at the Torpedo Bay Café in Devonport.
“Walking out after a leisurely lunch, I was arrested by the sight of a green and white Nash Metropolitan,” said Robert. “Walking around the car, I realised it was the very same Nash that I’d seen advertised for sale earlier in the year and my first thought was that I was going to have watch someone else drive ‘my’ car around my local area of Devonport.”
At this point, Nicola let the cat out of the bag and suggested that Robert check out the Nash’s steering wheel. “The first thing I saw was a bottle of champagne on the front seat. I turned to find William smiling broadly and Nicola handing me a set of keys, saying, ‘It’s yours!’ Flabbergasted, I hopped in for my first drive in my long-time dream car.”
Following the surprise of suddenly realising that he now owned his dream car, Robert is full of enthusiasm for his Metropolitan and loves driving it around town, on parades and at the odd classic car show. Along with our other featured Metropolitan, Robert’s car was on show at the last Auckland Brit & Euro Classic Car Show.
“The Nash gets a lot of looks from young and old alike – and always a smile,” said Robert.
And the moral of the story? It just goes to show – you can’t trust anybody, not even your wife and father-in-law!