Optimism and ambition were the stuff that fuelled America at the start of the 1950s. During the post-war period, the booming economy, the rise of the suburbs and the so-called “baby boom” saw great changes, and for upwardly mobile families on the move, that meant increasing numbers of people felt it was time to become a two-car household.
It was a shift in mindset identified by George Mason, the president of Nash Motors, which was founded in 1916 by Charles Nash, former General Motors president. Mason believed that there was a ready market for an affordable runabout that would serve a two-car family as a shopping or commuter vehicle.
He drafted in freelance designer Bill Flajole to come up with a design, and in a bid to share the development costs, as well as to tap into the European market, Mason planned to collaborate with Fiat.
A prototype was built, based on the original Fiat 500 (the Topolino), and this was unveiled in 1950 as the NXI (Nash Experimental International). To cut costs, the front and rear wings would be interchangeable, and the doors would be too. By the time the production car arrived, the wings were unique front and rear, but the interchangeable doors did make it into production.
Nash took the NXI on a tour of the US, canvassing public opinion, and it was clear that there was an appetite for this tiny car. Nash then met with Fiat and Standard-Triumph with a view to putting the NXI into production with one of them. But it was Austin that was awarded the contract, to build a car that would use a combination of A30 and A40 running gear.
The forthcoming car was announced in October 1952, but at that point it had no name. A year later the new model went into production as the NX1, and the cars were badged as such, but three months later Nash decided that to encapsulate the tiny vehicle’s natural urban habitat, it would be called Metropolitan. Any cars built up to that point had their badges replaced during the first service.
Whereas the Metropolitan prototype had featured a wheelbase that measured just 6ft 6in, the production car was stretched by seven inches. Power came from a 1200cc Austin A40 engine, which drove the rear wheels via a three-speed column-shift manual gearbox. To keep costs down there was no boot lid, and because boot space was at such a premium (accessed from within the car) the spare wheel was mounted over the rear bumper.
There was a bench seat for two in the front, and a rudimentary parcel shelf that was claimed to be a rear seat. Buyers could choose between coupé and convertible models (the former outsold the latter by 13 to one) and two-tone paint came as standard. The Metropolitan was intended to be a basic car at a low price, but despite this, a heater, radio and cigarette lighter were all standard.
The Nash Metropolitan was officially launched in March 1954, priced at $1445 for the coupé and $1469 for the drop-top. The new arrival was well received by the press and buyers alike, and they liked things even more when a facelift in 1956 brought a 1489cc Austin A50 engine for extra pep. It was in this form that the Metropolitan went on sale in the UK, as an Austin. Another update in 1959 finally brought an opening boot lid, with production lasting until 1961.
In the seven years that it was on sale, 104,000 Metropolitans were sold, 9000 of which were outside the US. That wasn’t enough to worry America’s Big Three, but it was just fine for Nash and it was pretty good for Austin too, with the British company making $35 million in the first five years, from tooling costs of just $800,000. Now the Metropolitan is all but forgotten, with just a handful left on both sides of the Atlantic. But when you do see one you know exactly what it is; you’re not going to mistake one of the tiny economy cars for anything else.