2 June 2009

1954 1962 Metropolitan Tiny Before Its Time

Maybe we should revisit an idea of George Mason’s.

Not the Founding Father George Mason who was largely responsible for the Bill of Rights. No, the other George Mason who was the chairman of Nash-Kelvinator.

After World War II, Mason the latter became interested in “minimum transportation.” Just how much machine does a person or a family need to go about their business? People were moving to the suburbs, and women, who had contributed greatly to the war effort, were continuing to work. He saw the rise of women as a viable marketing opportunity for a new type of car.

From those speculations Mason undertook one of the more successful small car productions by an American firm – the Metropolitan.

Nash already produced the Rambler, which was small compared to other American cars, but Mason requested designers create an even smaller design that incorporated some Nash familial elements such as enclosed wheels, unit body construction, and furthermore, he sought suggestions from the public about what they wanted in a small car.

Once a basic design had been chosen – a stubby little number called NX1 penned by William Flajole – Mason had the prototype displayed in large cities and had the public submit answers to questionnaires about what they liked and didn’t like about the car. These “surviews” (from Preview and Survey) told Mason that people were willing to pay a bit more for a quality car, as some cost-cutting features such as strap windows and a puny 18hp engine were frowned upon.

Mason knew he had a popular idea, but his problem was how to bring it to market. Steel was hard enough to come by for the Rambler, and the new car would require all new tooling. He chose to have the car made in England, by Austin, using an Austin engine and taking advantage of cheaper steel in England, and then import the car under the Nash name. The only non-British part would be the headlamps, but even those would be powered by Lucas electrics.

The first cars were produced in 1953, wearing the badge NK1 Custom, although there was very little custom about them. Options included a heater for $65.15, an AM radio for $55.80, whitewalls for $16.70, and antifreeze for $1.25.

Clearly, for a car this new and different, a better name was needed. Possibilities included Cadet, Scot, Commuter, Nike, and Runabout. Metropolitan, though, sounded both sophisticated and cute.
The Metropolitan was to have several corporate identities in its run. In 1954, Nash effectively bought Hudson, and Hudson Metropolitans became available, identical to the Nash save the badge. In 1956 the Metropolitan got its only major revision, with an engine increase from 1200 to 1500, and a gentle restyling that gave the little car its signature zigzag two-tone paint job. With the revision, dealers were told not to refer to the car as a Nash or a Hudson, but just as a Metropolitan, thus foreshadowing the demise of Nash/Hudson. In 1957, Austin began selling Metropolitans under their own name in England.

Sales peaked in 1959, with 20,435 Metropolitans sold in the United States. The following year, Metropolitan sales fell 20% while sales of the Rambler rose 25%. The Rambler could carry six reasonably friendly people, a feat best attempted in the Metropolitan only by a family of contortionists.

George Mason’s idea of minimum transportation caught on – for awhile. But leviathans were soon to come out of Detroit and define the American car industry as well as the American psyche. AMC ceased production of the little Metropolitan in 1962.

But although good ideas may fall out of fashion, they tend to come around again. A Metropolitan owner’s club, created by Nash for new customers, encouraged the philosophy of thrift. Their motto was “Motores Prudentiores” or More Intelligent Motoring, which sounds exactly like an ad one could expect to see from Mini Cooper in the New Yorker. The Mini, of course, is a German-owned company building iconic cars in England to a high standard and at a reasonable price. Pity an American manufacturer hadn’t thought of that – recently.

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