Once upon a time, it was conventional Detroit wisdom that small cars such as the 1954-1962 Metropolitan simply weren't salable in the United States. The time was the early postwar period, and the reasoning went like this: Gasoline had always been plentiful and relatively cheap, as it still was. Ditto the supply of good used cars.
But most of all, Detroit knew that its buyers, where they had a choice, would take big, cushy, powerful automobiles every time -- as indeed they were doing in the frantic postwar sellers' market. It's the main reason Ford and Chevrolet abandoned wartime plans for new low-price postwar "compacts."
What customers there were for tiny imports like French Renaults, German Volkswagens, and British Hillmans were dismissed as a lunatic fringe too insignificant to bother with.
Not that there hadn't been attempts at getting Americans to think small. There was the "cyclecar" craze around the time of World War I, though it didn't last long.
The Depression spawned the tiny American Austin and its somewhat more stylish successor, the American Bantam, but they, too, were hardly rousing sellers. Insofar as can be determined, fewer than 27,000 of those Lilliputians were built between 1930 and 1940.
Cincinnati appliance magnate Powel Crosley, Jr., gave it a shot with a two-cylinder minicar in 1939, followed by a larger, more "adult" four-banger after World War II. But apart from 1946-1948, when a public deprived of cars by four long years of war literally lined up to buy anything on wheels, the little Crosley didn't sell either.
So when George Walter Mason, the burly cigar-chomping president of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, decided to market what would ultimately be called a "subcompact," he seemed headed down a well-worn path to nowhere. But Mason loved small cars, and he was convinced that one tailored to American tastes and driving conditions would not only be salable but could even turn a profit.
The demographics of the time tended to bear him out. Prosperity seemed unlimited in the booming postwar economy, prompting the middle class to begin its historic migration to the suburbs. For millions of such folks a second car was no longer a luxury but a necessity, making the prospects for smaller, more affordable models look rosier than ever.
Learn how Mason came upon the idea of a small car for the American market on the next page.
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1954-1962 Metropolitan Inspiration
If you had visited George Mason's country estate in northern Michigan during the late 1940s or early '50s, you'd have seen the remains of a number of small cars, mute evidence of what was on the Nash-Kelvinator president's mind as he drew up the 1954-1962 Metropolitan.
European imports for the most part, they'd been literally driven into the ground by Mason himself. His interest reflected more than just demographics, though; Mason was alone among his peers in foreseeing the tough new competition that would ensue between the independents and the Big Three once the sellers' market abated, which it did around 1950.
In fact, Mason urged a merger of the four surviving major independents -- Hudson, Nash, Packard, and Studebaker -- as early as 1946. But because all were prospering at the time, his call went unheeded.
Consider for a moment that Mason's proposal would have created a mini-GM holding something like 15 percent of the American car market. Packard would have contributed its traditional name prestige and engineering prowess; Hudson an image of performance and innovation; Nash its know-how as the most efficient outfit in the industry and, again, a penchant for innovation; and Studebaker a fine dealer network plus a respected line of trucks.
Even better, both Packard and Nash were sitting on substantial cash reserves. How different Detroit history might have been had this foursome banded together in the late 1940s.
Mason's dream would be realized, but only halfway. Packard ended up buying a weakening Studebaker in 1954, thus incurring a huge debt it could ill afford by that point, while Nash merged with a faltering Hudson that same year to form American Motors. Just four years later, all but the Studebaker nameplate would be gone.
Finding no safety in numbers as he looked toward the 1950s, Mason concluded that the key to Nash's survival was to outflank his competitors, especially the Big Three, with products the big boys hadn't thought of.
Again Mason was ahead of his time, for he was thinking of what we'd now call "niche" vehicles. The first fruits of this strategy appeared in 1950: the slick Anglo-American Nash-Healey sports car and the compact Rambler.
The latter was a solid if initially unspectacular seller, accounting for some 31 percent of total Nash output in 1951, its first full year of production -- a performance that undoubtedly strengthened Mason's belief in the salability of a still-smaller model.
Find information about how the dream became reality by continuing to the next page.
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1954-1962 Metropolitan Development
As Nash-Kelvinator president George Mason was considering cars that would lead to the 1954-1962 Metropolitan, independent stylist Bill Flajole had developed a proposal for a diminutive two-passenger car that he was peddling around Detroit. He failed to stir much interest until he went to Nash-Kelvinator, where Mason sat up and took notice. So did his assistant, George Romney.
Nash nevertheless approached the idea with all due caution, perhaps because Flajole's car was as small as the fast-failing Crosley.
First, a running prototype was constructed around the chassis and 500-cubic-centimeter engine from the little Italian-built Fiat Topolino (mouse). The result, dubbed NXI for Nash Experimental International, was sent on a cross-country tour in 1950 and paraded before specially invited audiences in key cities.
Romney was on hand at each stop to gauge reaction. Altogether, some 235,000 people saw the NXI, and no less than 90 percent said they liked it.
Still, these tryouts prompted a number of modifications to Flajole's design.
The tiny Fiat engine, for example, was judged totally inadequate for American speeds and driving conditions. The prototype's buckets hadn't played well, many people saying they'd prefer a bench seat (presumably to permit three-abreast travel, tight though that would be). And the bumpers not only seemed excessively bulky for the car but were downright ugly.
But the NXI's largely favorable reception led Mason to okay additional prototypes with a larger, more powerful engine, nicer styling, and various other changes under the code name NKI -- for Nash-Kelvinator International. More showings followed, and again the response was positive.
That was all Mason needed to forge ahead with the little low-cost runabout. It looked like just the ticket for dashing around congested urban areas, which suggested a perfect name: Metropolitan. And so it became -- although not at first.
From the start, it was clear that the only way to get the Met to market at a reasonable price was to build it in Europe, since tooling costs on this side of the Atlantic would be prohibitive.
England then dominated the U.S. import-car scene (the war-ravaged Japanese auto industry was still too young to be taken seriously). Mason had the Nash-Healey experience under his belt, so to England he went, concluding contracts with two firms by late 1952.
Fisher and Ludlow, Limited, of Birmingham was signed to build bodies for shipment to Austin Motor Company, Limited, at Longbridge, which would install engines and other mechanical components and would also attend to final assembly. Helped substantially by a recent devaluation of the British pound, the tooling bill was held to an incredibly low $800,000.
Learn about the 1954 Metropolitan, derived from those prototypes, by continuing to the next page.
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The 1954 Metropolitan arrived in Nash showrooms on March 19, 1954, as a soft-top convertible and fixed-roof hardtop, both with all-steel unit body/chassis construction per Nash tradition.
Power was supplied by the 1,200-cubic-centimeter (73-cubic-inch) four-cylinder engine from Austin's small A-40, again front-mounted but modified with four-ring instead of three-ring pistons.
A 7.25-inch-diameter Borg and Beck clutch linked the flywheel to what was basically an Austin four-speed manual transmission with first gear blanked
off -- the same curious arrangement found in the then-new Austin-Healey sports car.
The shifter protruded from the dash, just under the steering wheel, since it was felt that most Americans wouldn't take to the usual European floorshift, though the Volkswagen Beetle was proving otherwise.
A second concession to American tastes involved the suspension. British drivers, like those on the Continent, were accustomed to a firm ride, with its accompanying advantages in the handling department. The typical American, on the other hand, preferred much softer springing.
The Met suspension ended up a sort of compromise, with a conventional rigid rear axle on semi-elliptic leaf springs and a Nash-designed front layout with coil springs mounted above orthodox A-arms.
Though there was some choppiness -- hardly a surprise given the diminutive 85-inch wheelbase -- the overall ride was comparatively soft. Styling was definitely American.
As might be expected, the Met bore a family resemblance to the new-for-1952 senior Nashes allegedly designed by Italy's Pinin Farina, but this was due to Nash's own Edmund A. Anderson doing most of the work on both cars.
Regardless, the Met was attractive in a square, chunky sort of way, livened up by a non-functional hood scoop, a jaunty rear-mount "continental" outside spare tire, and bright colors such as Spruce Green, Canyon Red, and Caribbean Blue (contrasting with a white roof on hardtops) that reminded one stylist of Neapolitan ice cream.
Two-passenger seating hurt Metropolitan sales, so a little four-seat wagon was considered. Unfortunately, it never made it into production.
For some reason, Nash president George Mason liked semi-skirted front fenders, so he insisted on them for the Metropolitan. After all, they had been a Nash trademark since the 1949 Airflyte and were also featured on the Rambler. (The original NXI prototype had them, too.)
The result was the same outsize turning circle that made any Nash product tedious to park and prompted plenty of curses when changing flats. By contrast, outward vision was exceptional in both body styles, helped by a gently rounded hood set slightly lower than the flanking fender crowns. The grille echoed the simple and pleasing "floating bar" motif of the 1953 Rambler.
As he'd done with his compact, Mason gave his subcompact a healthy helping of standard features. These included a radio, a scaled-down version of the famous Nash "Weather-Eye" heating/ventilation system, turn signals, foam-cushion seat, and a continental spare -- all typically extra-cost items at the time. Interiors were done in a surprisingly pricey blend of nylon cloth and genuine leather.
All this was to preclude any hint of cheapness, for Mason wanted the Metropolitan to be a car that anyone, regardless of wealth or status, would be proud to drive. It all added up to a fine little package for the money. Introductory prices were $1,445 for the hardtop and $1,469 for the convertible -- about a hundred dollars less than the cheapest bare-bones Rambler two-door.
Curiously, the first Metropolitans to roll off the assembly line in October 1953 were designated "NKI Custom." According to Met historian David J. Austin's Metropolitan Chronology in the AMC Rambler Club's Rambler Reader, it wasn't until January of 1954 that the Metropolitan name was settled on.
In February, after 1,869 cars had been built, installation of the NKI Custom badge was halted. The Metropolitan nameplate was installed beginning with car number 3,097 in March and retrofitted to earlier production.
To learn what the critics thought of the 1954 Metropolitan, keep reading on the next page.
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1954 Metropolitan Reviews
Initial reviews of the 1954 Metropolitan were mixed. Car Life called the Met a "big car in miniature" and judged it "fun to drive," opining that "for a second car in the family, we find it ideal."
Cam-and-lever steering was woefully old-fashioned even in the 1950s, but at least the Met's was light, quick (2.75 turns lock-to-lock), and fairly precise. The only real problem was the wide turning circle.
Road & Track was less impressed, reporting that the Met handled "exactly like a full-size stock American car. It has more than its share of wallow and roll on corners, and there is little seat-of-the-pants security when the rear end takes its time getting back in line."
A kinder assessment came from Motor Trend's Walt Woron, who spent nearly 1,700 miles with a Metropolitan hardtop, including a fast round-trip between Los Angeles and Pebble Beach.
Woron wrote that he was "fascinated by being able to whip it into corners at speeds that went up progressively and were much faster than I thought was possible. Remember, this isn't supposed to be a sports car, yet . . . it seems to have some of the sports car characteristics. It was actually hard to break the rear end loose; it only happened in a very hard turn with full power."
MT colleague Don MacDonald was downright bullish about the Met: "If this car doesn't crack the American small car market, there is no such market!"
On that subject, Nash advertising was both disarmingly candid and predictably hucksterish: "We know that the Metropolitan will not replace the family car because it is not designed as a substitute," said one blurb. "We deliberately created maximum front seat comfort and spaciousness, performance and economy for two adults, with adequate room for three. A utility seat in the rear provides for children."
There was no little hype in that. The Met's 50-inch-wide front seat may have been fine for two friendly grownups but was no fit place for three. And Motor Trend was not alone in finding the little utility seat "a joke." At best, it was habitable for two small children on a short ride. Nor was there much space for luggage or -- more tellingly for a "suburbocar" -- packages.
And what little space the Met had was accessible only through a lockable hatch that doubled as a backrest for that utility seat. On the other hand, two adults were more comfortable in front than might be expected. Hip and shoulder room were quite adequate, and leg room was actually a shade greater than in the big Nash Ambassador.
Information about a one-off version of the Metropolitan can be found by continuing to the next page.
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Metropolitan Fifth Avenue
Thousands line New York City's famed Fifth Avenue to watch the Easter Parade each year. Had you been among the crowd on April 17, 1960, you would have seen a tiny but colorful convertible, the Metropolitan Fifth Avenue, filled with giant plush bunnies.
It wasn't an illusion. It was the ultimate Metropolitan, fresh from its premier showing the previous day.
It was more than faintly outrageous: 15 coats of hand-rubbed pearl-pink lacquer outside, pink-and-white cowhide upholstery, and pink fur carpeting inside. Even if its manufacturer hadn't been giving away a huge stuffed Easter bunny every hour, the Fifth Avenue would have attracted loads of attention.
Which was precisely the point, because it was part of an American Motors promotional venture, one of three Metropolitan convertibles specially outfitted by AMC's styling department. The others, the "Westerner" and the "Cape Cod," were dolled up to match their names.
There was also an even more special edition, the "Royal Runabout," a handsome black-and-gold one-off built for and presented to Britain's Princess Margaret.
Former AMC public relations manager John Conde recalls that the Fifth Avenue -- and its cargo of bunnies -- spent the rest of 1960 as a featured attraction at autos shows coast-to-coast. It was later sold to a Boston-area AMC dealer, then just seemed to disappear.
Screen star Ann Sothern reportedly purchased it, but that story appears apocryphal. The car's whereabouts are still unknown, but it's hard to imagine it being deliberately destroyed.
Actually, just the opposite happened. Despite a missing subject, one Bob Leach, an apple grower in Zillah, Washington, was moved to build a replica of the Fifth Avenue some years later. (His wife even made a group of outsize pink bunnies.)
The task was no more difficult than it had been for AMC -- except that the factory hadn't taken a single color photograph of the original (also hard to imagine). Evidently no one else had either (not so tough to fathom). But Leach went ahead anyway, relying on descriptions from Conde and others familiar with the project.
Somehow, he managed to duplicate the opalescent pink paint. That was confirmed by a call from James Watson, one-time Metropolitan sales manager. After seeing some color photos of the replica, Watson reported that to the best of his recollection, Leach had matched the original shade exactly.
The New York Fifth Avenue was built near the end of the Metropolitan's brief life. A pity they didn't think of theme models sooner. Imagine the floor traffic such cuties would have generated for AMC dealers -- even without those bunnies.
Learn about the 1956 Metropolitan by continuing on to the next page.
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Sales of the tiny two-seat compact were up and down heading into the 1956 Metropolitan model year.
Despite its flaws, the 1954 Metropolitan got off to a good sales start. Though early 1950s Nash president George Mason had announced first-year production of 10,000 units, deliveries exceeded that goal by nearly a third as Nash shipped 13,162 to the United States and Canada during 1954.
And since production had actually gotten underway in late 1953, some 743 units had been shipped to North America that year. (Since the Met had been specifically tailored for North America, it was not initially sold in its country of origin.)
But one problem with "niche" vehicles is that demand for them tends be satisfied relatively soon, and the Met ran true to form in 1955. In a year when almost every Detroit product sold better than ever, Metropolitan shipments plunged nearly 54 percent, to 6,096 units.
In response, the new American Motors issued a facelifted Metropolitan in April 1956, with suitable grille medallions depending on whether a car was destined for a Nash or Hudson showroom (despite the 1954 merger, those franchises were still nominally separate). The revised Series 56 1500 (the original Met was officially Series 54) incorporated a number of welcome improvements.
Not least of these was substitution of the Austin A-50 engine, whose 0.3-inch larger bore upped displacement to 1,500 cubic centimeters (90.9 cubic inches) and horsepower to 52. This 24 percent increase was enough to lower 0-60-mph sprints from the high to low 20-second range.
To cope with the increased power, a larger eight-inch-diameter clutch was specified, as was a different transmission. There was also a longer-striding final drive ratio, 4.22 versus 4.625:1, which contributed to quieter operation and probably longer engine life as well. Fuel consumption stayed about the same, ranging from 25 to 35 miles per U.S. gallon.
Freshening the Met's appearance were a new mesh grille somewhat akin to the 1955 Rambler's and a hood devoid of scoop. Flashy bodyside two-toning also debuted on both models, delineated by stainless-steel moldings shaped like a stretched letter Z -- a look that was clearly borrowed from the 1955 Willys. Prices eased up, but only by some five percent.
The changes were all very modest but had the desired effect -- sales picked up. Shipments rose to 9,068 units for 1956, then to 15,317 for 1957, by which time the Met's circular grille badge bore a stylized "M" instead of a Nash and Hudson logo. This was done because AMC was shedding those marques.
Met historian David J. Austin estimates that before the change some 15,644 Mets had received Nash nameplates, while 4,356 had been badged as Hudsons.
The rest of the run, through 1962, is detailed on the next page.
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1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, and 1962 Metropolitan
The 1957 Metropolitan went on sale in Britain in April of that year, where journalists were typically less forgiving than their American cohorts.
The Autocar, for instance, commented that "secondary roads . . . brought about a degree of fore-and-aft pitching which is not found on the more conservative type of small British car. . . . [The Metropolitan] is not a car with which one should take liberties in such matters as fast cornering."
Also during 1957, rumors surfaced that the Met might be produced in Australia, but nothing came of the notion. No matter, the car continued to do relatively well in its intended market niche, helped a bit perhaps by running changes to upgrade the car.
For example, in December 1957 the Met received a full-flow oil filter and a glove box door became standard; in January 1958 a one-piece rear window was fitted and exterior colors were changed.
Curiously, the severe recession of 1958 put a slight dent in sales, which slipped to 13,128 units. One would have expected an economy car to fare better in an economic slump.
But then shipments spurted to 22,209 units in 1959, and suddenly the Metropolitan was the second best-selling import car in the U.S., after Volkswagen. American Motors made much of that in advertising, but failed to mention VW's 5 1/2-to-1 margin.
There was another round of improvements that year. A functional trunklid was added, along with 5.60-13 tubeless tires (replacing 5.20s), and vent windows (for draft-free ventilation). Standard horsepower went to 55, thanks to compression bumped from 7.2 to 8.3:1. The difference made premium fuel advisable, however, so the 52-horsepower unit was continued as a no-cost option.
Then sales began falling again, with 1960 shipments sliding by nearly 38 percent to 13,874 units. With a substantial number of unsold cars on hand at midyear, AMC halted Metropolitan production even though 1960 would be the third-best year for Met sales.
But corporate attention was then focused on maintaining Rambler's spectacular sales rise, and it was evidently decided that the Met's long-term prospects really weren't all that bright since it was already seven years old. Then, too, the Met had lost its chief protagonist with the unexpected death of George Mason back in October 1954.
Interestingly, cars continued to be shipped from stock on hand for two more years -- 969 in 1961; 420 in 1962 -- before the Met quietly disappeared from AMC showrooms. In all, 94,986 of the dainty Anglo-Americans were sent to the U.S. and Canada: 83,442 to the former, 11,544 to the latter.
Estimates indicate that about 1,200 stayed in Britain, although Jonathan Glancey, writing in the British magazine Classic and Sportscar in May 1989, places the figure at "about 5,000."
One of the humble little Metropolitans even went to royalty, according to the Rambler Reader: "In recognition of the U.S.-British cooperation in design and manufacture of the Metropolitan, the British workers generously gave Princess Margaret a specially painted Met which she enjoyed driving about in her free time . . . that particular car was also popular with certain non-paying members of the motoring public, as it was later stolen" in London in February 1961.
To find out why the Metropolitan may have run its course in only eight years, see the final section of our article.
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1954-1962 Metropolitan Retrospective
One might ask why the 1954-1962 Metropolitan wasn't more successful, given its encouraging start. Hindsight suggests several reasons.
Limited seating capacity was a big drawback. For all intents and purposes, the Met was a two-seater, but it wasn't a sports car, as Motor Trend writer Walt Woron observed. A couple of prototype station wagons were built during 1960, handsome little machines that might comfortably carry four adults. But a wagon never reached production, and that was likely a mistake.
The three-speed transmission was an obvious performance handicap. It would have been just as easy, and probably as cheap, to use the full four-speed Austin gearbox. A pity that that wasn't done.
Those shrouded front fenders made the Met's turning circle only three feet shorter than that of a full-size Chevrolet. What good was a tiny car that wasn't all that maneuverable?
AMC was at least somewhat aware of the problem because in November 1958 the steering was modified to improve the turning circle, but that of course didn't help much. The Rambler saw its front wheels exposed for
1955 -- the Met would have been benefited from the same treatment as well.
Like most small cars of its day save the VW Beetle, the Met needed rings and valve work much sooner than the typical American car -- not a plus for most Yanks, who tend to think of cars as appliances that should need nothing more than gas and (grudgingly) the occasional quart of oil.
Like many of its British contemporaries, the Metropolitan had some bad habits. It was dreadfully "cold-blooded," for instance, spitting and snorting for miles after the first start of the day. Moreover, shift-linkage problems were common on early cars and likely some later ones, too.
As has been historic with "captive imports," most dealers failed to push the Metropolitan very hard, preferring to steer customers toward their more profitable Ramblers. Nor, for that matter, did AMC spend much money on Met advertising.
Most of all, the market simply wasn't there. Yes, some small European makes made sizable sales inroads during the mid- and late 1950s, but the vast majority of Americans not only preferred but could easily afford the Big Three's chrome-encrusted dreadnoughts with powerful V-8s and gobs of gadgets.
Rambler bucked the trend, but it was larger and arguably superior to the rival Henry J and Hudson Jet, the main reason it outlasted them. Remember, too, that the Crosley, the only other subcompact to generate anything like significant volume, expired after 1952. With all this, it's amazing the Met lasted as long as it did.
Still, the Metropolitan has its small place in automotive history. And balancing its minuses were a few pluses:
- Stout, durable construction.
- A surprisingly comfortable ride over the sort of roads for which it was designed.
- Styling that for Americans was far more attractive than that of most other mid-1950s small cars.
- Decent performance for the day, despite that three-speed gearbox.
- Outstanding fuel economy.
- And, unlike most imports of its time, readily available parts and service.
Today, the Metropolitan enjoys a kind of cult status on both sides of the Atlantic that has made it a minor collector's item. Much of its appeal lies in being a 1950s product from an extinct marque and in the typical, if scaled-down, period American styling -- in short, the "big car in miniature" Nash president George Mason envisioned.
A mint first-generation (1954-early 1956) convertible now goes for about three times its original port-of-entry price -- not bad, all things considered. Mason would love it.