Take one look at a Nash Metropolitan and you know there’s got to be an interesting story behind it. Let’s start with the fact that some automotive historians consider it to be the first modern American compact car. It is also said to be the car that changed the whole automotive industry, not the car itself but the process by which Nash used to make the car.
Nash Motors Company was at one time a big name in the automobile industry. Founded in 1916, the company made millions of automobiles during the 1920’s. In the late 1920’s, the Great Depression hit and many of the smaller American car companies got into financial trouble. Nash, however, continued to struggle along but in 1937, in order to combine resources and increase efficiencies, Nash merged with Kelvinator.
In the late 1930’s, George Mason, the new president of Nash-Kelvinator, was looking for ways to expand his company’s model line. He decided that high-end luxury cars were not a great option because the competition from Cadillac, Lincoln, Packard and Chrysler was just too great. This also applied to the standard-size car market because Ford, Plymouth and Chevrolet had that part of the market sewn up pretty well. But in the compact end of the market, which was made up almost entirely of foreign cars, Mason saw an opportunity.
Then the War Hit
Unfortunately, in 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II. Like most of the American car manufacturers at the time, Nash-Kelvinator switched to the manufacturing of war machines. Even though they were a relatively small company, Nash-Kelvinator was one of only three American automobile companies to build complete aircraft, in this case the Sikorsky R6A helicopter. In fact, during the war, Nash-Kelvinator built more helicopters than Sikorsky and the rest of the aviation industry combined.
George Mason was an exceptional product forecaster. He believed that when the war ended that the small-car market would become a significant market segment. He reasoned that thousands of GI families would form and would soon discover that they needed not only a first car but a second car, one for mom to use for shopping and ferrying the kids around. He proposed that a small import or domestic auto would make an ideal second car since it would be less expensive to buy, easier to drive and offer greater fuel efficiency than the family’s main auto.
As WWII came to an end, Nash-Kelvinator rushed to create “compact car” prototypes. The original concept for the Metropolitan was created by Nash Styling, and manufactured in Great Britain by an English automaker under contract with Nash. Our consultant at Sunset Ford of Sumner, a local Ford dealer in Sumner, WA, explained that Ford would eventually offer imported automobiles too but those cars were produced by their overseas affiliates. In contrast, Nash’s small car was built by a company with no connection to Nash-Kelvinator other than a contract to build a car to Nash specifications. Contract assembly is fairly common today, but back in the 1950’s it was a very bold and surprising approach. Nash-Kelvinator had pioneered a new way to make automobiles.
Developing the Metropolitan
The Metropolitan prototype was shown at special industry previews in which surveys were passed out to attendees to determine how they liked it. Most people genuinely liked the Metropolitan but indicated they wanted to see some changes. The concept car had plastic side windows, along with a simple strap to raise and lower the windows. The public didn’t like either idea. In addition, the concept car’s bucket-type seats were considered sporty, but attendees indicated they preferred a column shift and bench seat. Out of all the feedback came a series of new prototypes that incorporated as many of the improvements as possible.
Originally they wanted to build in America
Mason and his executives had tried to make the case for building the production car in America. At first it was felt that using an engine produced by one of the European companies would reduce costs a great deal. However, in the end, Nash realized that if there was any hope of offering the small car at a low price, the whole car would have to be produced overseas. For a while it looked like Fiat would be the company picked to build it, but in the end, Mason chose the Austin Motor Company of Birmingham, England–the largest automaker outside of the United States.
The little Met ended up being a big hit – it sold fairly well and was offered through 1962 at Nash, Hudson, and American Motors dealers across North America. And the lucky people who own one today love them.
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