By on September 23, 2010

Americans generally just don’t take too well to tiny cars. Perhaps they’re too much like toys, not really yet grown up? The Metropolitan certainly looks the part, resembling an amusement park ride or clown car rather than a genuine automobile a self-respecting grown-up American would drive. And this particular Metro only reinforces that stereotype: it’s owner is fourteen, and he’s owned it since he was ten. “Dad, can I have this cool car?”

If you’re Russel, you’re in luck. He saw it sitting forlorn for years in a neighbor’s carport, and at the age of ten, he talked his dad into buying it for him. And who says kids aren’t into cars anymore? Just depends on the ride.

It’s not like Russel was exactly the target demographic Nash’s George Mason had in mind in the late forties, when he got the small car bug. A bit surprising too, coming on the heels of the failure of the tiny Crosley. Well, Mason initially had in mind something much more substantial than that little flea, and the result was the 1950 Rambler, the first “compact” of the post-war era.

Wisely, Nash positioned it is a “premium” compact, with a roll-back top and well equipped. There simply wasn’t enough difference in the cost of building a compact from a full-sized car to allow it to be sold for much less, so the Rambler broke new ground with an upscale approach. It worked well enough in moderate numbers to encourage Nash to go even a step smaller.

Designer Bill Flajole (above) was thinking along the same lines, and when he hoked up with Nash, their joint ideas on the subject were expressed in the NXI prototype of 1950. One of the key aspects of the design was to save money on large body stampings, since it was assumed the little car would not likely be a large volume job. Note the symmetrical door, which made it into the production Metro. To my knowledge, the fenders on the prototype were also symmetrical, except for the minor cutout for the front wheel. Symmetry as a way to reduce tooling costs was a recurring theme, especially at AMC, even into the sixties, when the prototype for the Hornet (Cavalier) tried the same approach.

Mason was intrigued, but not enthusiastic about what it would take to actually produce it, profitably. The solution was outsourcing: with the devaluation of the British pound, having the Metro built in England made it viable. The firm Fisher & Ludlow, Ltd. built the body, and Austin supplied and installed the running gear, whose cars were already fairly common in the US as imports.

The 1954 Metro went on sale for about $1500 ($12k adjusted), pretty much the same as a Smart today. It used the popular 1500 cc B-block motor in 42 hp tune, and a three-speed with a column shifter. Given its light weight of some 1800 lbs, the Metro performed adequately, but then it was never positioned as a sports car. The suspension was tuned more for ride than handling. An MG in drag it was not.

Sales for the Metro were modest, bouncing around in the teens of thousands most of the years it was produced, from 1954 through 1960. The Big Three’s new compacts that final year put the kibosh on the Metro, but it’s had an enthusiastic following ever since, especially the young or young at heart.

My older brother (very much young at heart) went through a couple of these back in the late seventies, when they could be picked up for a song. His experiences keeping an MGA running years earlier came in handy, since they used the same basic motor and other BMC goodies and Lucas electrics. But their simplicity and availability of parts makes them a fun project, like for Russel and his dad.

The motor in this one is all original, and good to go. They’ve done some repair work to get the Metro back on the street, but like a good little CC, it is as original as possible, and shows it too. Russel has a lifetime of fun and improvements ahead of him. And, yes, he has put in some behind-the-wheel time in the Metro, despite his age, in undisclosed locations.

The Metro gets lots of attention, wherever it goes. Russell is looking forward to the Metro’s magnetic appeal to the opposite sex, just as soon as he can take advantage of it. Picking up girls with his dad along is a bit compromising, since that back “seat” is more than a bit cramped, even for limber young bodies.

The Metro found a modest following for a few years, as did the Crosley in the forties. And the Smart is going down that same road; in fact its sales are pretty much in Metro territory. But the euro is a lot stronger today than the pound was in 1954, so although Nash made a modest profit from the Metro, the same is not the case for the Smart. And of course, the little Crosley just didn’t catch on either. Toy cars, all of them. And they want to raise the driving age?

PS: atewithmotor has an excellent detailed history of the Metro, for those wanting a more serious look at it.

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43 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1957 Metropolitan...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Love these little buggers.  IIRC Hot Rod Magazine once had a write up on one someone had stuffed a GM 454 big block into.  Although I don’t think they could see around the supercharger!
    I don’t believe this is the one but it’s still pretty freaking cool.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember see one of those (possibly the same car) in an autotrader when I was 16.  It had huge Micky Thompsons out back, too.  Absolutely ridiculous, but awesome.  Must’ve been a handful to drive.

  • avatar

    The Anti-Panther – teeny with quirky mechanicals.  But I love these.  This is purely anecdotal, but these seem to have survived in much greater than average numbers.  They were very low production, but I still see the occasional Metro out on the road. 
    These cars seem to have something that neither the Crosley nor the Smart have:  Everybody loves the Metro.  I am not sure that I have ever met someone who doesn’t chuckle and enjoy seeing one of these.  I saw one recently with a teenaged son – he pronounced it as one of the coolest cars ever.  Hard to disagree.

  • avatar

    I agree that these cars are still around town. In the early 70’s I was dating a woman whose mom drove one. When I told her I liked her car, she opened the garage and showed me four more!!!! She loved them and so whenever her husband saw a good one, he’s stop the owner and make an offer to buy. She owned twelve of them at the time!!!!

  • avatar

    Just saw a ’62 at a car show. 

    The back seat really was a joke, I think they added it for insurance reasons.  It was a little bit of padding over the wheel wells and something resembling a seat cushion.

  • avatar

    I’ve seen a few of these, but they have all been convertibles.  I did not even know that they made a Metropolitan hardtop.

  • avatar

    Every time I hear the name Nash, regardless of the vehicle it’s attached to, I hear the song about the guy driving the Caddy who was chased by a Nash Rambler. I especially love the last line, “How do I get this thing out of 2nd gear?”

    I think it looks awesome, and I’m only 22. Goofy is cool and the proportions don’t look like a hot mess.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Are these the vehicles that gave the world the phrase, “Nash Seats”?

  • avatar

    What a delightful little car. These literally put smiles on bystanders’ faces.
    Mark MacInnis, I think Nash seats are the famous design (found in larger Nashes) of the seats that would fold down to make a bed. Many old-timers recall these. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.

  • avatar

    Prediction;  after a century-plus of bilateral symmetry in auto styling the next BIG change will be differing styling on the left and right sides of a vehicle vice the current differences in front/rear styling.
    I am excluding the relatively minor left/right differences as seen in a few vehicles where one side of a van will have a side door or a extra-cab pick-up with a small rear door on one side and not the other.
    The styling differences of left versus right will be extreme.
    Expect it to come from India or maybe China in an attempt to garner attention.

  • avatar

    “Magnetic appeal to the opposite sex”? Seriously?!

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      It’s like a baby or a cute dog.  Believe me.  Just walking my dog in a typical suburban neighborhood, if the ladies were anymore forward about their interest, I wouldn’t finish the route!

    • 0 avatar

      Dan is right.  Cute sells with the opposite sex.  And that assumption that people make about guys who drive Corvettes, et al?  A lot of women assume the converse is true, as well.

  • avatar

    Another symmetrical-stamping proposal was Pininfarina’s Peugette of 1976.

    If you read up what Pininfarina had to say about the car, it gave some insight into how may car designers felt making the transition into designing automobiles with regulations in mind. Bringing the enjoyment of driving and having a car was the goal. Sometimes that’s most readily seen when there’s as little car as possible.

  • avatar

    I bought a brand new 1954 Metro when I was stationed at Perrin AFB in the early 50s.  Every time I spent an evening at the Officer’s Club, I would find it parked crossways across the front door.  A bunch of fellow pilots would simply pick it up and tote it up the steps.
    The car was reliable and didn’t handle badly.  I installed a high-compression gasket, MG intakes, and SU carbs which gave it a bit more spunk.  I made several round trips Texas to PA with wife and small child.  It got great mileage and gas was cheap then.
    With a second child on the way. I traded it for a Studebaker Coupe.

  • avatar

    My grandfather owned one of these, a ’61 I think, in the early 60s when he started selling typewriters to government accounts in downtown Washington, D.C.  My mom was a little kid at the time and said she hated riding in the back seat, especially on trips.  She remembered laying down on the seat and falling asleep on a trip but having to be woken up at a fuel stop…some of them didn’t have a trunk opening, and weren’t some of the gas fillers behind the rear seatback?
    My mom and grandparents lived in a MD suburb of DC at the time and my grandfather got stuck on ice at a 4-way stop at the bottom of a small hill in the neighborhood.  He said five or six neighborhood teens were having a snowball fight and stopped to pick up and carry the car a ways up the hill with him still inside it.  I think his car was pink and white, which must have been popular based on the ones in that color combo I recall seeing at car shows.

  • avatar

    «[smart] sales are pretty much in Metro territory»
    Nah.  smart will end the year solidly planted in single-digit-thousand territory.  Teens of thousands in 2010?
    Only in Daimler’s wildest dreams.

    • 0 avatar

      I clean cars at a GM dealership and we have a ’03? or ’06? Smart car, what a piece of crap, we cant even sell it. I am the ONLY 1 that knows how to start it, its diesel, and u have to push the keyfab to lock it and unlock it, then u have to put it in Neutral to start it…….thats SO STUPID!, then u have to put it in ”D” and put the gas pedal to the floor to go, i HATE IT. Its REALLY gutless.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    That is THE stupidest car I have ever seen.

  • avatar

    I had a ride in one once. The ride ended when the rear differential failed about four blocks from the owner’s home

  • avatar

    Mine had no outside trunk opening.  The back of the back seat folded down for access.  There was really a decent amount of space in the trunk, but it was hard to access.  We had plenty of space for a 2-week trip with a child.
    The fuel filler was external.

  • avatar

    My mom grew up in the late fifties/early sixties, and saw quite a few of these on the road at the time.  She always called them ‘Donald Duck’ cars, since they looked like a cartoon car.  There were a ton of Studebaker Larks in Davenport, IA back then too.

    There is currently a black and white, restored pro-street Metropolitan around town, I’ve seen it at several car shows.  The body and paint is stock, but it has a heavily modified drivetrain and huge racing slicks on the back, if you can believe that.

    On a side note, boy was I off on the Curbside Classic Clue!

  • avatar

    The under-the-hood shot looks a lot like an MG I used to own, not surprisingly.
    Another vehicle vehicle with bilaterally symmetrical sheetmetal was the Checker (a neighbor had one) whose front and rear bumpers were interchangeable, according to C&D, who tested one for grins years ago.

  • avatar

    It is adorable, and undoubtedly will be  a chick magnet for Russel.

  • avatar

    Nice writeup. I had a 1960 brought new. Black & white coupe. Had it for about 5 years before i sold it with about 50,000 miles on it. Very simple car, easy & cheap to service. Only option i had was a temp gauge installed by the dealer. Drove to Miami one year keeping the speed at approx 60 MPH. Brings back part of my youth. Must admit the car never gave me a bit of trouble and the gas mileage was great. The strange thing is i just shipped a 1954 Nash LeMans Conv from New York to Felixstowe for one of my customers and my warehouse told me it was one of the nicest looking cars they ever loaded for me. I ship about 100 cars a year all over the world.    

  • avatar

    When I was a teenager in the 70s our pastor had a convertible Metro as his daily driver.  I think it’s the only one I’ve ever seen, reminded me of Columbo’s Peugot at the time.

  • avatar

    That thing is awesome, but I wouldn’t drive it without a cage and a harness. An Escalade driver wouldn’t even notice the thump when he ran the stop sign.

  • avatar

    Japan’s Kei cars could be considered modern versions of the Metropolitan.

  • avatar

    Y’know what makes these cars so gol-darned cute? It’s the way the fenders hide the wheels. They appear to hover over the road like little clouds. That meant they had to have narrow front track and a county-wide turning radius, I’d bet.

    Unlike the Smart, it’s a big car scaled up. The front hood and (inaccessible) boot probably take up two-thirds of the car’s length. That’s not smart in terms of space efficiency, but it provides plenty more crash-crush space than the other car pictured, which claims to be. Lots of space for batteries, too, a small engine and some luggage. Somebody could revive this icon of retrostyle  as an electric car and sell it to all those urban metrosexuals.  But it would be necessary to open up the wheel wells and widen the track. Wouldn’t that spoil the look?

  • avatar

    After 1959 the Metropolitan trunk lid was functional.

  • avatar

    That meant they had to have narrow front track and a county-wide turning radius, I’d bet.

    I don’t recall that the turning radius was large.  I used to do a U-turn in the fairly narrow street and park at the curb in front of the house.
    As I recall, there was quite a bit of space between the wheel and the fender which would have given a decent turning radius. You can see the large space in the 3/4 rear view above.
    I really enjoyed the little car until my family grew too large.

  • avatar

    symmetrical fenders? so the driver front fender = the passenger rear fender? amazing.

  • avatar

    My Aunt Lou – my drinkin’ aunt – had a Metropolitan.  My grandfather bought it for her.
    I would kill today to have a picture of Aunt Lou in that car.  They’d have been perfect companions.

  • avatar

    Those cars are awesome looking!  I see several in our area every year at shows and cruising the streets. It seems like a lot of people kept those cars over the years, judging by how many you see compared to a lot of other cars from the era, especially when you consider the modest production figures.
    Every time I see a metro it brings a smile to my face, and my daughter goes nuts at the sight of one. The young lad that owns this car will attract plenty of girls with it.

  • avatar

    I always wanted to paint one brown, white and pink and call it a Nash Neapolitan.

  • avatar

    One of my grandparents worked for Nash when this came out. I always wished he had bought one and hung on to it for sentimental reasons. But of course for him it was probably just another car he worked on, and the cheapest, smallest one in the line at that. They only owned one car as the family car since he always drove fleet cars to and from work (often some weird foreign subcompact from the research pool according to Mom). A Met would not have made a good family car and a second car “just for fun” would have caused the Frugal Scot portion of his blood to reject his brain as an organ.

    Actually what he usually ended up buying was a wagon – Airflytes, Classics, Ambassadors, and his final AMC – a 1977 Firecracker Red Pacer wagon (yes, with basketry print upholstery and woodgrain accents). Wouldn’t mind having any one of those either. When I was a kid he had an early ’70s Ambassador he called “The Big Yellah Car” that was pretty cool.

    Instead, when he died he left behind a [nod]off-white, Arizona-garaged, low mile, 1st generation Chevrolet Cavalier wagon with few options, blown struts, and no brakes. Yeah… nobody fought over that after the funeral.

  • avatar

    My Metro, which, by the way, was the same color as the one above, had a strange thump from the driver’s door when going around corners.  I finally pulled off the inner door panel and found a heavy steel backing block that a worker would use to pound out steel.  Some assembler in England probably wondered where his tool had disappeared to.  It was obvious that some “southern engineering” was needed to make parts fit.
    I still have the block in my workshop today, almost 60 years later.

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