Nash Motors cars, 1916 to 1954
The story of Nash cars began with Thomas Jeffery, who left Great Britain at the age of 17, settling in Chicago. He built telescopes and patent models, then created a new bicycle with a cheap, strong frame (made by brazing flared tubing). The bike, named “Rambler,” was quickly became the second best selling bicycle in the country.
Jeffery then 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.
In 1897, Jeffery created his first Rambler automobile, then sold his share of the bicycle plant, bought an empty facility in Kenosha, and built his single-cylinder car there.
By 1898, Jeffery was the second man to use a production line for building cars, after Ransom Olds (Henry Ford came later). Rambler cars quickly gained a solid reputation, and in 1902, Rambler was the second largest automaker in the United States. In 1904, he launched a two-cylinder; in 1906, a four.
One Rambler had a 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 to 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 (with 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 showed Jeffery’s inventive spirit.
Thomas Jeffery died in 1910, and his son took over. The company came out with the Quad, an early four wheel drive vehicle developed for the army. In 1916, though, Thomas Jeffery sold the company to Charles Nash for around $10 million.
Charles Nash takes over
Charles W. Nash had become president of General Motors 1910; the giant automaker had been assembled by William Crapo Durant, who almost ran it right into liquidation. DuPont and other stockholders put Nash in charge when they ejected Durant; but the resourceful Durant had linked up with racer Louis Chevrolet to build a new car that quickly swept across the market. Durant regained control of General Motors by merging it with Chevrolet, in the end of 1915, and Nash resigned; most likely, Nash found it hard to work with Durant’s loose accounting and lack of care for day to day issues.
Former GM engineer Nils Erik Wahlberg quickly got to work, creating new cars for the 1918 model year. Aimed at the middle of the market, they used an overhead-valve straight-six engine, marketed as the “valve in head” engine; the bodies used flow-through ventilation to keep the air fresh inside.
By 1920, in an expanding market, Nash was selling double the Jeffery record of 1914, and started a new company, LaFayette, in Indianapolis, selling an expensive luxury car; the company failed, but Nash used its factory for a new Ajax line of cars starting in 1925. These were later re-absorbed as the Nash Light Six, which boosted their sales; Nash sold 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.
In 1928, a new 400 series had six cylinder engines with four-point engine mounts and two spark plugs per cylinder to improve efficiency; 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 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 automatic centralized chassis lubrication, and had an adjustable ride set from the dashboard. They were designed to look like luxury cars, and perhaps that was part of the key to their popularity 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.
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. Mason caused some friction in the early years by effectively cutting salaries and bringing in anti-labor specialists, but these disputes were settled in time for World War II.
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; 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 1947 (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
Coming out of a war with widespread rationing, and right into another war (in Korea), George Mason had felt Nash should focus on smaller cars. The first postwar, compact American car was, if one excludes the Willys Jeep CJ2A, the 1950 Nash Rambler. He also started working on a smaller car (smaller than a compact) for American sale. Austin 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. 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 use of Breer, Zeder, and Skelton’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
The new 1949 models were 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 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.
The Nash-Healey was launched in 1951; it was a sports car developed by George Mason and Donald Healey, a British designer, who created the chassis and suspension. For the first year, Healey 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; three specially designed and built Nash Healey cars, which did not look like production models, fared moderately well in LeMans and the Mille Miglia.
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.)
The Nash Metropolitan arrives
In 1954, years of work came to fruition 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. They were tall enough for full sized drivers.
Sales were not high but with production handled in England, it reportedly 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.
AMC and the end of Nash
Mason could see a future where the “independents,” the smaller automakers without full lines, would not be able to survive, and even before 1950, he started working on a plan for a united American Motors Corporation, or AMC. Packard and Studebaker would merge at the same time as Nash and Hudson; once the new companies had brought together their engineering, marketing, and styling departments, they would merge again, forming a company that would be able to compete with GM, Ford, and Chrysler. George Mason died before the plan came together, but Nash and Hudson did combine to form American Motors; they were not joined by Packard and Studebaker. The merger was the largest in the history of the United States, as the two companies were collectively worth $198 million.
The standard Hudson cars were highly regarded and in the mid-to-upper price range, but the lack of money for annual restylings had hurt sales. Racing successes sold Hudson Hornets, but not the bigger cars that were Hudson’s main business. Nash, meanwhile, was strong in the low-to-middle range.
The first casualties of the merger were the Jet, Hudson's slow-selling entry into the compact market, and the little Nash-Healey sports car, which had left its mark on European sports car racing but had not been a major seller. Hudsons kept their in-line six cylinder L-head (flat head) engines; standard models had single carburetors, while optional “Twin-H Power” package had higher compression heads with dual carburetors. Moving up, the Nash Ambassador and Hudson Hornet models boasted the Packard 320 V-8, producing 208 hp, with Packard "Ultramatic" automatic transmissions. [Why AMC used Packard V8 engines]
A year after the merger, the Nash Rambler and Metropolitan were badged as Hudsons and sold under both marques. AMC proudly introduced a new line of Hudson Wasps and Hornets in 1955, “new from stem to stern” (in reality, moved to the newer Nash platforms); but they did not reverse the companies’ fortunes.
To follow the new American Motors Corporation, see our AMC page.