25 February 2014

Let’s Go Met: Happy 60th Anniversary, Metropolitan

Here’s a bit of trivia guaranteed to get you glassy-eyed looks at cocktail parties: The Smart car sold by Mercedes-Benz dealers has only just eclipsed U.S. 70,000 sales since its 2008 launch. Add another 25,000 for Canadian sales since 2004, and the Smart has finally matched another imported minicar sold in both countries long ago: the Metropolitan.

While you ponder the significance — or insignificance — of that comparison, bid a happy 60th anniversary to the Metropolitan, which Nash introduced in March 1954.

In its best U.S. sales year, 1959, the Metropolitan sold 20,400 cars. The Smart’s best U.S. sales year was its first, with 24,600 sold. Some may consider both cars to be sales duds, but one makes people smile just by looking at it. Hint: it’s not the Smart.

Even with the miniscule Crosley selling in miniscule numbers, Nash moved ahead with a new two- to three-seat commuter car, spurred by a positive response to a prototype shown in 1950. Consumers — at least the ones who saw the little Nash —liked the idea of a second car for the household, or more specifically, the housewife to whom Nash was pitching the little buggy.

That same year, Nash introduced its compact 100-inch wheelbase Rambler. Clearly, there were some progressive thinkers in Kenosha, Wis. Nash’s innovations included unitized construction, seatbelts, and modern heating and air conditioning systems, among others. Many people, however, remember Nash for seats that converted to beds — a matter of priorities, perhaps.

In 1950, most of the industry was focused on developing bigger, sleeker, faster cars. In the wake of the Great Depression and the Second World War and its gas rationing, though, there was concern in some corners that Americans should be driving smaller, more frugal automobiles. Were Powell Crosley, Jr., George Mason of Nash and his successor, George Romney, a bunch of Debbie Downers — or ahead of their time?

While most American carmakers were giving the small-car idea short shrift, European imports were beginning to trickle into the market. It was to Europe that Nash turned for help in bringing the Metropolitan to market. It would not have been profitable to build in a U.S. factory.

Nash had experience with international liaisons, having collaborated with Britain’s Healey and Italy’s Pininfarina to build the expensive Nash-Healey sports car. The company turned again to Britain for Metropolitan production. Austin would make the car under contract and also sell it in England under its own brand.

In that context, the Metropolitan was a groundbreaker, a “captive import” before the term was applied two decades later for American-branded imports like the Dodge Colt, Plymouth Cricket and Ford Courier pickup truck.

The Metropolitan’s mechanicals were all Austin, but the unit-body engineering and mini bathtub shape were pure Nash. At just under 150 inches long on an 85-inch wheelbase, the tiny Met, which came in coupe and convertible body styles, was smaller than the Volkswagen Beetle.

The 1,200-cc four-cylinder Austin engine offered 43 horsepower, outgunning the VW Beetle by a few ponies. The Met could out-drag a Beetle to 60 mph — about 22 seconds vs. 30, but its three-speed manual transmission and low gearing made the Met more suited to suburban rambling then highway hauling.

Just before introducing the Metropolitan in March 1954, Nash merged with Hudson to create American Motors Corporation. The Metropolitan was offered under both nameplates, but then as its own make alongside Rambler when AMC dropped those brands after 1957.

The Metropolitan’s $1,445 price for the 1954 coupe was about the same as a VW Beetle, but the transaction price was a bit higher due to the “optional” radio and heater being essentially mandatory. Kaiser’s larger Henry J compact, then in its final year, cost a bit less.

Performance got a boost with a larger 1,489-cc engine for the 1956 model, called the “1500,” with the update also adding a new grille, revised suspension and dapper two-tone paint schemes. Horsepower hit 52, and then a whopping 55 in 1959, when price reached nearly $1,700. At least for that price, the Met finally had an external trunk lid.

The Metropolitan had its best sales years from 1957-1959, a sign of customers reacting to the recession of the period. Production ended in spring 1961, but Mets were still available into 1962. That year, the VW Beetle approached 200,000 U.S. sales.

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