Austin of Britain and Nash of the US had a special relationship, briefly, but it yielded a car no one liked, says Brian Sewell
Anglo-American hybrids – pre- and post-war cars made by AC, Allard, Bristol, Brough Superior, Healey, Jensen and Railton – all conform to a particular patter; a big, lazy American engine under the bonnet of a dashing European body, mounted on a refined chassis with high-performance capabilities.
The one exception was the Nash Metropolitan, an American miniature of miserable performance, wholly designed in Wisconsin but wholly built in Birmingham by Austin, with all its essential parts taken from Austin cars already long in production and of proven reliability. It was to be sold only in America.
Austin as a partner was not an unreasonable choice for Nash to make; it was an English firm and there were thus no language difficulties, nor was there the lingering post-war mistrust of other European nations.
Austin was, in the early Fifties, the largest manufacturer of cars in Europe. It was anxious to break into the vast market available in the US, and although it had struggled with the A90 Atlantic (ingenious, but a dismal failure), its small A40 models had sold to Americans in tens of thousands.
One of them was a smart little drop-head coupé that resembled Jensen's Interceptor and had sporting capabilities – it had the 1,200cc A40 engine that powered the first Metropolitan. The one native American car that offered an encouraging precedent, the too tiny Crosley, had foundered in 1952, leaving the field clear. The Japanese industry had not yet recovered from the devastation of the war.
Even so, the Metropolitan was not a success. Advertised as "Milady's perfect companion for shopping trips", Americans thought it the wrong car at the wrong time, and certainly in the wrong country – no patronising references to "Milady"' could convince them that it had class.
Introduced in 1954, it failed so badly that in 1957 Austin began to offload it in Britain, shrugging off responsibility for its design by marketing it as an entirely separate marque, the Metropolitan. The sturdy British, however, damned it as a preposterous aberration incorporating the worst of everything American; it was bought only by hairdressers and their ilk, both male and female, and proved to be the perfect car to drive if being noticed and abused was the owner's prime objective.
The Metropolitan is, nevertheless, worth a moment's consideration, for in the history of the post-war American car industry it was the only genuine attempt to provide the market there with a mass-produced small, cheap car that could hold its own in urban traffic and slot into parking spaces far too small for even the smallest Ford or Chevrolet.
Had it been conceived in the later 1940s, when even the American market was short of cars and there were residual habits of economy engendered by the war, the Metropolitan might well have succeeded, but by 1952 materials were no longer short, the economy was ebullient, every other car was growing wings, and the Metropolitan – well named for a car pitched at the commuter and the traffic jam – was too late.
Nash, one of the smaller marques that had difficulty recovering after the war (as did Packard, Hudson and Studebaker), turned to Austin for help rather than embarking on the huge investment required to build a new small car from scratch. In 1949, it had introduced its first post-war new car, albeit with a pre-war engine; the Airflyte was a great American bathtub with all four wheels concealed under the wings.
Nash clung to this styling quirk, adding wrap-around front and rear screens, slab sides, external spare wheels mounted upright on the tail, and paintwork in sickly two-, three- and four-tone combinations. These, apart from the wrap-around screen, were the essentials of the baby Metropolitan put into production for them by Austin in 1954.
The car's short, narrow wheelbase was vastly overhung at front and rear, and on both sides. It had a bench seat in the front, 49 inches wide, on which Nash claimed that three adults might ride in not unreasonable comfort. To ease their plight if they were fat, the gearlever was sited on the steering column and the wide doors were cut away to provide elbow-resting room. The rear seat acted as a luggage hatch (there was no external boot lid until 1959), and a bench for parcels and the dog. To load the boot in the rain meant that one's bottom took the brunt of the weather.
The Metropolitan began life with bits and pieces of the Austin A30 and A40 under its ridiculous skin, but in 1956 it was given the 1.5-litre engine of the A50 and became the Metropolitan 1500 – the version now perversely recognised as a collector's car. In this form, it is much superior to its 1.2-litre predecessor – the larger engine quieter, the gearing slightly higher, the three-speed gearbox equipped with synchromesh on all ratios (but inclined to find its way into reverse when least required). When new, acceleration to 60mph in 25 seconds and a top speed of 75mph were claimed, but one wonders if anyone ever achieved them other than in the controlled conditions of the 24-hour endurance test on which the little runt averaged 61mph. Flat out, the engine screams its head off at 5,000rpm (now not to be tried for more than a moment, in a 50-year-old car).
A more terrifying deterrent from attempting such a speed, then and now, is the wayward behaviour of the steering and suspension. Admittedly, the decrepit survivor in my hands a month or two ago was in far from concourse condition – it rattled, it was rusty, its doors sagged deeply on their hinges – but this alone cannot account for the wallowing, lurching and constant understeer, and the sense that the back end is about to break away and overtake the front.
As it floundered round corners, threatening to roll into the herbaceous borders of front gardens in rural Ealing, one longed for the seat-of-the-pants security of its contemporary, the very early Mini. The steering, dreadfully hampered by the enclosure of the front wheels, is so insensitive, and the turning circle so wide, that parking is a wretched business, the slack response of the huge steering-wheel a feature common in lumbering US cars of the period.
The only occasions on which one can "feel" the steering are when a front wheel heaves over a bump or drops into a pothole, and when attempting to overtake a lorry (not to be undertaken lightly, with a 50-70mph acceleration figure of 25 seconds at new), for air turbulence has much the same effect on the Metropolitan as white water on a canoe.
The Metropolitan is without doubt one of the nastiest cars ever built. Its upholstery is nylon plaid and plastic leather; its vile colours – pink and white, and light blue and white, among others – have a thick opacity about them, as though mixed with milk; its styling is a grotesque parody of quirks that merely look absurd on cars of larger scale; and all its functions are wretchedly performed and dangerous at anything higher than perambulator speed.
Nevertheless, the car has a following, though those usually have the good grace to look ashamed, as one does when caught with a souvenir of frightful kitsch. If you feel some unnatural compulsion to own the beastly thing, and a cold shower doesn't solve the problem, buy the open version, and as late a model as you can (it died in 1962) – this has slightly more panache, and with the hood down it's much easier to load at Sainsbury's.
"A glowing tribute to the versatility of Britain's motor industry," claimed Austin's advertisement. "Wonderful car," said that of Nash, "a friendly car, a light-hearted car... with cat-quick manoeuvrability." Lies. All lies.