1954-1962 Metropolitan

1954-1962 Metropolitan Retrospective

When this Autumn Gold-and-white 1961 Metropolitan was built, only a few hundred would follow it.
When this Autumn Gold-and-white 1961 Metropolitan was built, only a few hundred would follow it.

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.

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