Nash Metropolitan: the first American subcompact
Nash worked for many years on a subcompact car, smaller than its popular Rambler (launched in 1950). The first public incarnation of its Eurosized car, the NXI (Nash Experimental International) concept, was shown in 1949; that was followed by the NKI (Nash Kelvinator International), shown in 1950. The name of the car was set as NKI Custom until shortly after they started production; new badges had to be made and fitted to existing cars.
Both concepts were designed by William Flajole, an independent stylist, using the Fiat 500 chassis and running gear; but the Nash Metropolitan itself was styled by Pinin Farina.
Nash engineered the body and suspension, and Austin provided their little 1.2 liter (73 cubic inch) four-cylinder A-40 engine. This powerplant was small but well engineered, with aluminum pistons, overhead valves, a counterbalanced crankshaft, and Zenith downdraft carburetor. Its low compression (7.2:1) allowed for good operation on poor gasoline, but output was just 42 horsepower when launched; 0-60 times were around 30 seconds, nearly double that of the six-cylinder Plymouth Savoy, which checked in at around 16 seconds. The transmission was a three-speed, mounted in the traditional American place — a column shift.
Austin built the Nash Metropolitan cars under contract (using Fisher & Ludlow bodies) in Longbridge, England, starting in 1954, shipping it to the United States, the land of its birth. There were two models, both two-doors: a convertible and hardtop. Both were unit-body designs, advanced for a time when most cars were body-on-frame.
The car was far smaller than any American model of the era, and looked even smaller than it was. It had an 85 inch wheelbase and 150 inch length, with a height of 54½ inches. Its shape was more modern than the low-slung, long cars of the time, and it certainly stood out, though in fact it was shorter than a typical entry-level American car. The short wheelbase and long overhangs must have made the ride interesting.
|1954 Nash Metropolitan||1954 Plymouth Savoy||Metropolitan 1500|
|Weight||1,785 - 1,825 lb||3,000 lb|
Shortly before the Metropolitan was launched, Nash merged with Hudson, the first part of a plan that was also to have included Packard and Studebaker. Nash and Hudson were merged into American Motors Corporation; while it would later drop both brands in favor of Rambler and, later, AMC, the immediate impact was giving Hudson its own small car. While Hudson was a near-luxury brand, dealers received the Hudson Metropolitan, an odd branding choice.
Like the Mini and Fiat 500, the Metropolitan was not marketed as an economy car, but as an economical premium car, ideal for commuting or as a second car; the size was also seen as a way to compete in Europe, where traditional American cars were rapidly dying out because of their size. The retail price for the convertible was $1,479; the hardtop was $1,445. That did not place them at the bottom of the cost heap. Numerous features that were optional on other manufacturers’ low-end cars were standard on the Metropolitan, including turn signals, map light, electric windshield wipers, and dual sun visors (at the time, these were usually options, with vacuum wipers standard). Hardtops had two-tone paint; popular options included a radio, heater, and whitewalls. The radio and heater were extremely popular largely because the factory fitted them to nearly all the Metropolitans they made, giving off-the-lot customers no choice.
The Nash Metropolitan did not sell especially well, possibly because it was marketed specifically to women (its first spokesman was 1954’s “Miss America”); other cars marketed to women also failed, most notably the Dodge LaFemme.
American Motors created a second generation, the 1500, in 1956; it used a 1.5 liter Austin B-series engine, with a higher 8.3:1 compression, resulting in 52 hp and a claimed “up to 40 miles per gallon.” The suspension was also changed, with longer, outward-braced diagonally placed springs, which Nash claimed both reduced body roll and absorbed road shocks far better than conventional springs.
The underhood changes were matched by a new hood with a new mesh grille; a stainless-steel side strip separating the two colors; a revised interior; and a black dashboard (replacing the body-colored dashboards of the past). This model sold far better than the original, though still in small numbers, despite a price increase to $1,527-$1,551 (hardtop and convertible).
Floyd Clymer was able to get a 1957 Metropolitan up Pikes Peak, which indicates some power reserve, and famed reviewer Tom McCahill wrote that it was “a fleet, sporty little bucket," also showing an improvement over the slow original. Gas mileage was tested by Motor Trend at around 30 mpg in traffic, and 27 mpg at a steady 60 mph; cornering, steering, and general feel were highly rated though ride on rough roads was criticized. Quality appeared to be surprisingly high.
In 1959, Metropolitan became its own make, and was given a glove box door, seat adjusters, and window vents. The last Metropolitans stepped up to a 55-horsepower A-55 Austin engine.
In 1962, AMC dropped the Metropolitan; Nash and AMC had sold 94,986 of the Hudson, AMC, and Nash Metropolitans, enough to finally wear out the tooling and to create a minor icon, not enough to make the Metropolitans a common sight at car shows. For all its success, relative to the subcompact niche, the Metropolitan never sold as well as the Nash Rambler, a compact car designed and built in the United States starting in 1950. Had they held on until 1973, AMC would have been seen as prescient; but it is not likely that the company ever recovered even the modest $2 million development cost of the original Metropolitan.