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SNAPSHOT 43: Metropolitan 1957

In the 1950s when this motorcar was a current model, its overall appearance rather suggested that it had originated in America even though it was actually made in Britain, at Austin’s Longbridge factory. But the first impression is indeed correct. How this came to be the case is an intriguing tale.

Nash automobiles had been around for almost twenty years when the firm’s 72-year old Chairman, Charles Nash, decided in 1936 that he wanted someone else to run the business. The man he selected was George Mason, head of the Kelvinator refrigeration company. To get him, Nash bought Kelvinator. Post-War, Nash sales declined as the larger corporations got their production back into full swing and for 1947 Mason launched the aerodynamic fastback ‘600 Sedan’ which had all-enveloping bodywork.

Two years later he decided there was a market for a smaller car and took the almost unprecedented step of carrying out extensive market research to find out what the public would want of such a machine. The answer was not as had been thought, a simply scaled-down standard American six-seater, rather, a vehicle that reproduced the feel of the larger models but with overall smaller dimensions. The outcome was what became the Metropolitan – essentially a four-seater ‘compact’ car.

Nash did not have the facilities to mass-produce such a vehicle – it was estimated that an output of 100,000 cars was necessary to make the project viable – and after abortive discussions with Fiat and Standard the newly formed British Motor Corporation took up the challenge, with Fisher & Ludlow producing the bodies.

When launched in 1954 the Metropolitan was powered by the 1.2-litre Austin A40 engine, there was a 3-speed gearbox with column change and components from the A30 went into the mix. Standard fittings were a radio and a heater. The car’s ride was smooth, The Motor considering it superior to most British and Continental counterparts although with less positive roadholding. Two years after their introduction the cars were fitted with 1500cc BMC engines and this gave better top gear flexibility, reducing the need for gear-changing.

Marketed in fixed-head coupé form or as a convertible, and with their distinctive two-tone colour schemes – a variety of bright colours for the upper section with white below – the cars sold steadily in the States, brought welcome dollars into the British economy, and from 1957 were also sold in Britain. When manufacture of the Metropolitan ceased in 1961, the production target had been achieved.


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