If you’ve ever wondered where the first modern-era, North American sub-compact car originated, or what it was called, you would have to go on a 50-year trip back in time to find out.
The Nash Metropolitan wasn’t flashy or powerful — far from it, actually — and didn’t cost much. These, of course, are virtues of every small car that followed in its footsteps.
Although hardly a roaring success, the Metropolitan was a trend-setter in more ways than one. It was one of the reasons that American-based car companies began to think small.
The “Met” was the brainchild of George Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator and a strident believer in small, lightweight automobiles. His company had enjoyed considerable success with the launch of the Nash Rambler in 1950, a car with streamlined looks and weight-paring unitized (frameless) construction.
But Mason wanted to further push the small-car concept by creating a runabout that would be perfect for suburban commuting or the needs of the newly emerging multi-car household.
Styling for this tiny, essentially two-passenger grocery getter mimicked the rest of the Nash lineup. It featured exterior positioning of the spare tire and unique indentations in both doors that served as a kind of exterior arm rest. Most noticeable were the fenders that, in typical Nash style, were devoid of tall wheel openings. And, instead of a trunk lid, the “Met” was designed with a pass-through area behind the miniscule rear seat to provide access to luggage.
Because Nash lacked the production capacity to build the Met in high enough quantity to make it profitable, Mason farmed out the task to two British companies, one that built the bodies and another — Austin Motor Company — that supplied engines, suspensions and completed the assembly.
Back in England, Austin plugged in a 42-horsepower 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine and a four-speed manual transmission that was converted to three-speed duty. That change, as well as locating the shifter on the column (to make room for the bench seat), made North Americans feel more at home in the Met’s tiny passenger compartment.
Rolling off the boat at a light 1,800 pounds and with a wheelbase shorter than that of Volkswagen Beetle, the softly-sprung Metropolitan literally crawled. In fact, it could barely manage a top speed of 70 mph.
But what it lacked in performance, it more than made up for in fuel economy: about 40 mpg.
Astonishingly, both a hardtop and a convertible models were available when it first went on sale in late 1953. Nash sold more than 13,000 Mets in its first full year of production, a respectable number given the overall small size of the company. The car was priced at an affordable $1,445 with the convertible costing a mere $24 extra.
The first major revision to the Metropolitan came in 1956. The car’s faux hood scoop was smoothed over and a new wire-mesh-style grille replaced the original thick chrome bar. More importantly, however, the original engine was replaced by a larger 52-hp 1.5-liter version from the Austin A50. This gave the Met a bit more aroundtown dash and increased top speed to 80 mph.
Finally, with the merger of Nash and Hudson car companies under the American Motors banner in 1954, dealers of both were selling Metropolitans under their respective nameplates.
The final revisions waited until mid-’59 when an honest-to-goodness trunk lid was finally whittled out the car’s backside, horsepower was bumped to 55 and more comfortable seats and side window vent wings were added. Metropolitan sales topped 22,300 units, the best year ever.
But the end was rapidly approaching. In the fall of ’59, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler launched their own lineups of small cars. The 1960 Corvair, Falcon and Valiant were heavily hyped and initial sales were brisk. American Motors was trampled in the stampede for these thoroughly modern, low-priced and fuel-efficient automobiles, and sales of the company’s entire lineup began to suffer. The Metropolitan took a major hit as 1960 sales plummeted by 40 per cent. Seeing the writing on the wall, AMC halted production. A small number – around 1,300 in total – were sold as 1961 and ’62 models, but that was the end for this odd-looking little car.
Probably the most amazing thing about the Metropolitan is that it survived as long as it did. The car was certainly cute as a button, but it was also cramped, underpowered and impractical. In the 1950s, the vast majority of car buyers wanted and could easily afford much flashier iron that featured the roar of big-and-beefy V8 engines. Small cars were seen as a fad that would eventually disappear. Little did they know.
But Nash and AMC gave it their best shot. If only the Metropolitan had kept up with the times — and with traffic — it might have been around even longer.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ historic writer. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.