Nash Motors cars, 1916 to 1954
The story of Nash cars began long before the company started. Thomas Jeffery, inventor, emigrated from Great Britain in 1862, at the age of 17. He settled in Chicago, building telescopes and patent models; he then created a new bicycle with a vastly strengthened frame, whose costs were low because it was made by brazing flared tubing on a production line. Thus, the Rambler was born.
Rambler was incredibly successful, and quickly became the second best selling bicycle in the country, at a time when bikes were “all the rage.”
Jeffery invented the “clincher” tire in 1882, selling the rights to Dunlop, which called it the “pneumatic tire.” It became the basis for all modern day tires, to this day, with Chrysler taking it to new heights in the 1940s with its “safety rim” wheels.
In 1897, Jeffery created his first Rambler automobile. He sold his share of the bicycle plant, bought former rival Sterling’s empty plant in Kenosha, and used it to build his new car. Thus, in 1898, Jeffery became the second man to use the production line for building cars — after Ransom Olds. The Rambler cars quickly gained a solid reputation for value and reliability; in 1902, the plant’s first year of full-tilt operation, Rambler was the second largest automaker in the United States.
The first cars used a little single-cylinder engine; in 1904 a two-cylinder was launched, and, in 1906, a four-cylinder came in and the single-cylinder was dropped.
One Rambler had a fairly modern style hybrid system, similar to that of Honda Insight; it used a motor/generator to replace the flywheel and starter. Completely automatic, the starter/motor used a 24 volt battery, and could get the car to 5 mph, at which point the driver would start the gas engine and the motor would switch to being a generator (it had a regulator to prevent overcharging). The first semi-modern hybrids were developed separately, by Patton in Chicago and Pieper in Belgium, in 1898; but the Rambler was still innovative and shows Jeffery’s inventive spirit.
Jeffery died in 1910, and his son took over, maintaining high profits. The company came out with the Quad, an early four wheel drive vehicle developed for the army, and it sold well for the time. However, in 1916, Thomas Jeffery sold the company to Charles Nash, for around $10 million.
Charles Nash takes over
Charles W. Nash became president in 1910, as William Crapo Durant was assembling the giant General Motors. Not long afterwards, Durant was forced out and Nash was appointed in his place as president of the combined automaker. The always optimistic Durant went out, linked up with racer Louis Chevrolet, and built a new car that quickly swept across the market. Using the might of his new Chevrolet car, Durant regained control of General Motors in the end of 1915, and Nash resigned. It wasn't because he disliked Durant, a visionary who had troubles keeping his companies running once assembled; more likely, Nash found it hard to work with Durant’s loose accounting and lack of care for day to day issues. Indeed, Durant would again be forced out of GM and would again start over.
Former GM engineer Nils Erik Wahlberg quickly got to work, and under his leadership, Nash created a new lineup of cars for the 1918 model year. The new cars were aimed at the middle of the market, and consisted of the 681, 682, 683 (roadster), 684 (sedan), and 685 (coupe). They used an overhead-valve straight-six engine, marketed as the "valve in head" engine; and the bodies featured flow-through ventilation, helping keep the air fresh inside.
By 1920, in an admittedly expanding market, Nash was selling double the Jeffery record of 1914. In that year, Nash started a new company, LaFayette, in Indianapolis, selling an expensive luxury car; the company failed, but Nash bought it in 1924 to use its factory for a new Ajax line of cars (starting in 1925); the four door sedan and touring car had moderate sales, and were later re-absorbed as the Nash Light Six, which boosted their sales; Nash showed it cared for its buyers by selling an aftermarket “conversion kit” including hubcaps, a new radiator badge, and other logo-and-name components that turned an Ajax into a Nash, helping its resale value.
Through the 1920s, Nash continued to sell new cars, including one of the first to have both a low price and a closed cabin: the Carriole, a four-cylinder sedan at $1,350.
In 1928, a new 400 series, with six cylinder engines, had four-point engine mounts; the crankshafts had seven main bearings. The new engines had two spark plugs per cylinder to improve combustion efficiency (especially important given the head technology of the era), improving gas mileage and increasing power; it was marketed as “Twin Ignition.” Like all the Nash cars before it, these were a success.
The stock market crash of October 1929 came at a bad time for many automakers; Nash itself had been working on the largest cars and engines of its history — Twin-Ignition eight-cylinder cars, using a 299-cubic inch straight-eight engine that produced a smooth hundred horsepower, with overhead valves and a nine-bearing crank. The cars rode on a longer wheelbase, had synchronized transmissions, included freewheeling and automatic centralized chassis lubrication, and had an adjustable ride (set from the dashboard). They were successfully designed to look like luxury cars, and perhaps that was part of the key to their popularity even in the Depression; they provided high quality, durability, and the look of luxury at a relatively low price. The 1932 models added to the formula, with the 142-inch-wheelbase Ambassador series. The company’s reputation for value must have helped to bring it through the Depression unscathed and able to sell the largest cars of its history.
In 1936, Nash started selling "Bed-In-A-Car," so people could lower the rear seat and create a level surface allowing two people to sleep in their car, with their legs in the trunk. (In 1949, fully reclining fronts let people sleep within the cabin; and in 1950 they had intermediate positions, and were dubbed Airliner Reclining Seats.)
In 1937, Charles W. Nash, after two decades of running the successful Nash Motors née Thomas B. Jeffery Company, turned it over to Kelvinator’s George Mason. Mason’s condition for taking the job was to make it a reverse merger: Nash, then, took over Kelvinator, maker of high-end refrigerators and kitchen appliances. Nash-Kelvinator would be the parent company until 1954.
For 1938, Nash also (with Studebaker and Graham) started selling vacuum-controlled shifting, using a design sold by Evans Products Company; they used a small lever on the dashboard instead of a stick-shift from the floor.
Nash started selling an optional air conditioning/heating system, using Kelvinator knowledge; it was the first car heater powered by hot water to work with fresh air. The next year, a thermostat was added, creating the Nash Weather Eye heater, the first thermostatic climate control system.
For 1939, Nash launched a series of streamlined cars in the LaFayette and Ambassador series. The following year, Nash added independent coil springs and sealed-beam headlights, continuing the Jeffery/Nash record of innovation; but 1941 could have been the high point for Nash as an innovator, with the first American mass-produced unibody car. Its lighter weight and streamlining brought high gas mileage, of up to 30 mpg, with overdrive. For 1942, Nash upgraded the front ends, upholstery, and chrome, and that's how the cars would stay until 1948 (with a break for war production).
World War II stopped auto production for years. When the war ended, Kaiser — a company created for that purpose — was the first out of the gate with new cars. The Nash assembly line restarted in October 1945, using essentially the 1942 models with changes to the grille. The straight-eight was dropped, but a new wood-panelled Suburban wagon was launched (just 1,000 were made over three years).
The pent-up demand for new cars led Nash to build a new factory in El Segundo, California. The factory started taking applications for jobs on October 16, 1948. Production there did not last long, as sales went to the automakers that could afford annual styling changes and massive advertising campaigns; in 1955, Hughes purchased the 500,000-square-foot facility for $3 million. But the plant was needed for the massive build of the brand new 1949 models.
The postwar Nash cars
George Mason had felt Nash should focus on smaller cars, coming out of a war where rationing was needed. Thus work was begun on what would be the 1950 Nash Rambler, the first postwar compact American car. Simultaneously, he started working on a small car (smaller than a compact) for American sale. Experimental models were created in 1949 and 1950; a contract was later signed with Austin, which produced the car to Nash’s design and supplied its 1200cc (1.2 liter) four-cylinder engine in England, starting in 1954.
The first postwar (design) Nash car did not come out until 1949; following the prewar Chrysler Airflow, Nils Wahlberg used a wind tunnel to create a more aerodynamic car, in a more progressive world. The car was both wide and low, with more interior space than the similarly sized 1948 Nash, but the enclosed front fenders hurt the turning radius.
The aerodynamic 1949 Nash "Airflyte" was the first car of an advanced design introduced by the company after the war. Its aerodynamic body shape was developed in a wind tunnel. Nils Wahlberg's theories on reducing an automobile body's drag coefficient resulted in a smooth shape and enclosed front fenders; both 600 and Ambassador models, on a 112 and 121 inch wheelbase respectively, had the same body.
American Motors germinates
Competing with the giants at General Motors, Chrysler Motors, and Ford — in that order at the time — Mason could see a future where the “independents,” the smaller automakers without full lines, would be at a severe disadvantage. He started working on a plan for an American Motors Corporation, AMC, which would combine the smaller automakers to bring economies of scale and parts sharing. At the high end, Packard and Studebaker would merge at the same time as the entry-level/mid-range Nash and Hudson; once the new companies worked out their issues and successfully brought together their engineering, marketing, and styling departments, they would merge again, forming a company that would be the new #3 or at least rival it in size.
The plan died with George Mason; Studebaker/Packard would fail, and Hudson/Nash would have crippling identity issues for years before acquiring Jeep and then becoming acquired by Chrysler. But that was a long, long time in the future — five long decades after Mason first took charge of Nash. In the short term, the plan worked for Hudson and Nash, as the pair dropped the Hudson factory, cutting costs, and stopped duplication of effort, putting Hudson’s effort into full sized cars and Nash’s into smaller cars. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
The new 1949 models were much better received than the Chrysler Airflow had been, and 1949 was Nash’s best year so far, seeming to justify the new factory. The 1950 models, therefore, had few changes (and also had a good year): a wider rear window, a concealed gas cap, dashboard changes, and an optional automatic transmission supplied by General Motors. The 600 was renamed to Statesman. The following year, in an era of annual styling changes, saw longer rear fenders with vertical taillights, another new dashboard, a new grille, and the GM automatic moving down to the Statesman. The 1951s also sold well, but that marked Nash’s zenith.
A new car launched in 1951 was the Nash-Healey, a sports car developed by George Mason and Donald Healey; Healey, a British designer, created and built the chassis and suspension. For the first year, he made the aluminum body, though Panelcraft took that over in 1952. Nash supplied the power train, which was put into the bodies in the U.K. and shipped back to the U.S. After a disappointing first year, a new body was created by Battista Farina, and the car integrated more steel to cut costs; but, after a mere 506 cars, the project was dropped. A two-seater called the Palm Beach was commissioned but never made; but three specially designed and built Nash Healey cars, which did not look like production models, fared moderately well in LeMans and the Mille Miglia.
In the meanstream, the full sized Nash cars were re-designed for 1952 to be more contemporary (squarish), and marketed as the Golden Airflytes, as part of Nash Motors' 50th anniversary (including the Thomas B. Jeffery Company.)
Nash also brought out the industry’s first heating/air conditioning system using a single unit within the engine bay, an industry first. (The few others who had air conditioning at the time used a separate unit that was partially stored in the trunk.)
In 1954, the fruits of years of work were realized as Austin started cranking out Nash-designed, Austin-engined Nash Metropolitans. The Austin A-40 engine was a reliable powerplant with aluminum pistons and a fully counterbalanced crankshaft, and a Zenith downdraft carburetor, and overhead valves; with the three-speed manual transmission, 0-60 came in 30 seconds.
There were two Metropolitan bodies, one two-door convertible and one two-door hardtop. Both bodies had an 85-inch wheelbase and stretched to less than 150 inches, end to end, but were tall enough for full sized drives. After the merger, the Metropolitan was sold under both Nash and Hudson names — resulting in the Hudson Metropolitan. The car wasn’t cheap, but was well equipped and had an upscale look.
Sales were not high but with production handled in England, it apparently made a profit, and a new engine was launched with 1.5 liters (90 cid), moving up to 52 horsepower. Numerous styling changes were made. In 1959, the car was updated for the last time, getting a trunk lid, glove box door, and seat adjusters. Production ended with the 1962 model year.
Also see our article on the Nash Metropolitan.