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.
Continue this story in our January-February issue.