The American automotive scene is littered with the tiny carcasses of small cars that U.S. manufacturers have tried to foist on a largely unwilling and disinterested market. American Bantam, Playboy, Crosley and Nash with the Metropolitan all tried, with varying degrees of success. But in the end, the American market's love for large cars would always prove too strong.
But in the early 1950s, with the postwar import fad in full swing, the unconventional Nash-Kelvinator corporation believed there was a market for a small car that was backed by a well-known name and dealer network. Austin Motor Company in Birmingham, England, contracted to build the Metropolitan for Nash in what may have been the first "captive import" sold on a large scale by a major American manufacturer.
When production began for the 1953 model year, the car was known by the awkward moniker "NKI Custom" for "Nash-Kelvinator International." This was quickly changed to "Metropolitan"; however, a few slipped through with the NKI badge. With the exception of unit construction, the car's engineering was quite conventional and shared the 1,200-cc engine and 3-speed transmission of the Austin A40. Built on a tiny 85˝ wheelbase, and initially without even an externally opening trunk, the Metropolitan was smaller than a VW Beetle.
Not a bare-bones small car
The Metropolitan, however, was not positioned as a bare-bones small car, but closer to the "premium" small cars of today like the Mini Cooper and Audi A3. All Metropolitans came equipped with radios and heaters and nicely finished interiors. Continental kits, wide whitewalls, and two-tone paint schemes mimicked the standard-sized cars of the day. A coupe and a convertible were offered-shrunken versions of Pininfarina's 1952 full-sized Nashes. The design would outlast the parent company's use of it by almost ten years.
Series II cars boasted some minor specification changes; Series III cars from late 1956 on had 1,500-cc engines from the Austin A50, and the Series IV of 1959 finally brought the practicality of an externally opening trunk lid.
Most early Metropolitans were badged as Nashes, although Hudson dealers sold them under their brand as well. When both of these brands expired in the 1958 model year, the cars were known simply as "Metropolitans," which is how the majority were sold.
A relatively small number of Metropolitans were sold in RHD form in the U.K., where their atrocious handling proved a huge liability on winding English roads. Princess Margaret received one as a wedding gift after her 1960 marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones. The car fared little better than the marriage-it was stolen less than a year later.
Metropolitans had a decent run of sales, especially around the recession of 1958-59 and the Suez crisis. At one point, they trailed only the VW Beetle in import sales. But by the return of prosperity in 1961, sales had trailed off precipitously. Coupe production ended in 1959, while convertible production ended in April of 1961, but there were enough units on hand for sales to continue until 1962, with the stragglers titled as '62s.
Definitely no sporting pretensions
Dynamically, Metropolitans are at best lackluster. In spite of their size, they had no sporting pretensions. The very short wheelbase and soft springs endowed the car with a somewhat bouncy ride. Handling was largely theoretical, with extreme body roll and a lack of maneuverability, the result of bodywork that enveloped all four wheels and gave the impression that they were huddled together out of sight.
Even with the 1,500-cc engines, performance was less than sparkling, particularly with a dismal, wide-ratio 3-speed transmission. In fact, they are quite hopeless in today's traffic as anything more than a suburban ice cream-getter. Forget taking one on a freeway.
Metropolitans are reasonably robust mechanically, about like an Austin-Healey Sprite. Like most cars of the day, they are also seriously rust-prone, a significant concern for a monocoque car, especially one that has to be jacked up high to change wheels.
Some reproduction sheet metal and a good number of other trim parts are being reproduced, and some NOS items are still around. Kip Motor Company in Dallas stocks a large assortment of parts (www.kipmotor.com). Mechanical parts are generally not problematic.
As a collector car, Metropolitans are neither fish nor fowl. Not really embraced by the microcar crowd, they are certainly not sports cars either. Nor are they particularly rare. What they are is all kinds of cute. And that's good enough for the average Metropolitan owner. In period "Easter egg" colors like white and turquoise, white and salmon, and white and lemon yellow, they are generally huge attention-getters.
Convertibles bring a bit of a premium over coupes, as one would expect, though neither generally brings huge money. Prices in the high teens seem about the end of the world, and even Jimmy Buffett's own convertible sold for only $19,250 at RM's Ft. Lauderdale auction this past February. It's doubtful Metro prices will change any time soon. There are too many cars around for too few takers, especially considering their limited usefulness.