Thursday, April 8, 2010

Meet the Met

I'm sure that everyone knows about the Nash (later Hudson, American Motors, Austin) Metropolitan. The little two-tone bathtub ranks pretty high on the 'cute-O-meter' even though in our local circles we rarely see one.

The Met was America's first captive import -a car imported and sold under a US automaker's badge - and it was built in England by Austin and later, BMC. The Metropolitan was conceived by the freethinkers at Nash-Kelvinator shortly after the end of the second World War. Nash's market research led them to believe that America was ready to embrace small cars. The popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle took Detroit somewhat by surprise, but Nash was the only car company to act.

The designers came up with a concept that used interchangeable body panels front and rear in an effort to reduce tooling costs. It made for a rather strange looking car and eventually the only the door design made the final production car. It didn't have outside trunk access either, possibly giving Healey the inspiration for the same practice on the Mark I Sprite.

N-K saw early on that the car could not be built in the US and priced low enough to appeal to the second car market. Nash executives entered negotiations with several European car makers but selected Austin of England to produce the design. By the time production began, Austin had merged with Morris to create British Motor Corporation.

The first Mets (1953) were powered by the then-new Austin A-series engine of 1200cc displacement. The driver had his choice three forward speeds stirred by a column mounted gear change. While small, Nash tried to give the little car a touch of luxury. The interiors were partially leather trimmed and all came with several standard features that were optional on most cars of the era. Among these factory-installed items were a map light, electric windshield wipers, cigar lighter, and even a "continental-type" rear-mounted spare tire with cover. Mets were available as coupes or convertibles.

Early drivers found the acceleration a bit leisurely compared to American sedans with 60 MPH coming up in 22.4 seconds. The little four cylinder engine was screaming at 4300 RPM when the speedo hit 60 so freeway driving was buzzy. N-K sold over 13,000 Mets in North America during the first full year of sales (1954) with the sticker price pegged at $1,500.00. In contrast the VW was $1,425.00, but it had a real backseat.

The second series cars (after about 10,000 were built) were powered by the BMC B-series engine, although it was still 1200cc. Series two cars got hydraulic-actuated clutches (!) and an improved gearbox. In late 1955 Metropolitans (series 3) were given a 1500cc B-series engine which improved driving experience. This change also began the iconic two-tone paint that the Met was known for. It also marked the dropping of the Nash, Hudson and AMC marque names as the car was sold as "Metropolitan" and available only through Rambler dealers.

In 1956, Austin was given permission to sell the Metropolitan under the Austin badge in world markets that Nash-Kelvinator did not cover. That meant Austin could sell the car in the UK and Commonwealth countries as well as the European continent. In all, Austin sold about 10,000 cars to these nations.

The final series 4 cars (1959) got an external trunklid and vent windows along with an engine compression bump to 8.3 : 1. This design soldiered on until the model was dropped in 1961. In all, nearly 95,000 Metropolitans were sold during its run. Not a roaring success, but certainly far from failure.

As British car enthusiasts, we would welcome any Metropolitan owner that wanted to be involved with SABCC. If you know of Met owner, get in touch with them and invite them to a club event.

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