Think small 1960 Austin Nash Metropolitan small but perfectly proportioned. Words: Mike Renaut. Photography: Matt Richardson. Nigel Atkins was looking for an Austin Metropolitan needing extensive restoration – and that’s exactly what he got with this 1960 convertible.
Nash-Kelvinator president George Mason had been giving the matter a lot of thought. Since before the Second World War he’d felt there were big profits in small cars. He couldn’t take on the big three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) directly, but because the firms weren’t marketing a small car perhaps that was a niche he could exploit?
1960 Austin Nash Metropolitan
Cheap, small cars would lure buyers into showrooms where they might purchase a larger car. Mason had directed development of the 1950 Nash Rambler, small yet up-market, feature-laden convertible and wagon models that undercut the equivalents from the big three by $50 or more. The public had liked the Rambler – why not make an even smaller version?
The Metropolitan was introduced in March 1954. Mason had been buying and testing a large number of European cars and scooters at his home since 1948. His idea was a small car like the European imports, but with a luxury feel the foreign cars lacked – and that sold for under $1000 (later amended to $1500.) It would be impossible to produce the entire car domestically so Nash searched for a European company that could build it using existing mechanical parts leaving Nash to produce body tooling.
Anglo American agreement
An existing partnership with Donald Healy had resulted in the British-built, Nash-powered Nash-Healey sports car. Austin’s A40 model came with a 73cu in straight-four engine and the model sold reasonably well in the States, it made sense to base the Metropolitan on Austin parts.
On October 5, 1952 a deal was announced; the UK firm of Fisher & Ludlow produced the bodywork, the running gear and final assembly was by Austin. Tooling costs were astonishing cheap: $197,849.14 on mechanical and for bodywork $820,626.80. Aside from the sealed beam headlights and windscreen wipers all the Metro’s components were British made, but all the engineering took place in Detroit.
Nash felt a four-speed transmission would be ‘unsettling to prospective buyers’ so the A40’s four-speed box had its bottom gear blocked to make it a three-speed. The mildly modified A40 engine produced 42bhp and hit 60mph in 21 seconds, top speed was around 70mph. The Metro was available as a hardtop coupe for $1445 or convertible at $1469 (a Beetle cost $1425 but was considerably slower). Within four months more than 8000 were sold – dealers ran out of initial stock within 48 hours. With first year sales of 13,095 the cute Metropolitan had outsold all imports except Volkswagen.
Sales dipped to 9068 examples for 1955 while a mild revamp for April 1956 saw the 1500 model with a price increase of $100 and the 90cu in Austin A50 engine offering a heady 52bhp. This was essentially the same engine fitted to the MGA sports car, high compression heads, dual SU carbs and an overdrive transmission could turn a Metro into a reasonably quick machine. Nash even built a performance version with stiffened suspension.
Ludlow & Fisher had built more strength into the sheet metal than was originally specified and hand finished them to a high degree. So aside from trapped salt water being hard to clean out of the faired over wheel arches the Metro proved easily as rust-resistant as any car of the time.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Some owners burst brake lines by topping up the Girling system with American mineral-based brake fluid, long distance drivers found wheel bearings wore and Metros shared a problem with their bigger Nash brothers of jamming in gear when transmission lever arms went out of line. Door locks broke, meaning doors could fly open during sharp turns, or lock an owner out of the car. Plastic tail-light bezels and interior switches cracked, or even melted, and some cars suffered sheet metal vibration in the rear.
However, most road-testers and owners were impressed. With sales often exceeding expectations of 10,000 a year, Nash was happy to listen to customer comments and make improvements. More comfortable seats, better door locks and quarter vent windows were added. Eventually, in 1959, an opening bootlid was included – previously access to the luggage area was by folding down the tiny rear seat.
There was no typical buyer but Nash discovered with surprise that rather than budget-minded motorists, many purchasers were affluent and bought a Metro as a second car – usually for the lady of the house – vital now so many families were moving to the suburbs. Later they were popular as cheap student transportation.
With the A50 engine Metropolitans were quick enough for freeway use, reliable and entertaining to drive – most happily clocked up over 100,000 miles with little more than regular servicing. By 1959 AMC was ready to pull the plug since an all-new Nash Rambler was coming and the Metro was direct competition. Ironically the recession of 1958 contributed to record sales of 22,309 for the ’59 model year. The last Metro rolled off the Austin line in June 1960 but the model was still available through 1962 until the last 1265 had sold – models without a bootlid were $47 cheaper.
The Metro paved the way for the new compact cars from the big three but by the late 1960s many Metropolitans were junked. By 1970 you could pick up a running Metro for $25 to $50. Naturally being relatively easy to restore and with 40mpg possible they were eminently suitable for the fuel crisis and subsequent 55mph speed limits, so the Metropolitan found a new legion of fans throughout the Seventies and retro movements of the Eighties. Although finding an original example in the UK wasn’t always the easiest thing to do…
Ask the man who restored one
“I tell them it used to be 20ft long, but it shrunk in the car wash,” laughs Nigel Atkins who completely rebuilt this Austin Metropolitan – one of the last examples built, it left the factory in October 1960. “I had a red and white 1961 Metropolitan and always wanted another, but I wanted one I could restore.”
When Nigel discovered this 1960 model in Brighton in 2007 it certainly needed restoration. “I couldn’t even get the doors open,” remembers Nigel, “it had a broken back, rusted chassis and the gearbox mount had sheared off. For £1500 it was too far gone and I walked away. I knew it was rotten but finding one that wasn’t already restored was proving difficult, plus I especially wanted one of the later ones that came with an opening boot. I went back and got it for £750. I think if I hadn’t bought it they were going to scrap it.
“I stripped it – that was quite easy, it all unbolts. Then I started knocking out all the filler, the inner sills had rotted out but there was only surface rust in the floors. One thing I also noticed was that both doors had previous repairs, the lower 4in of both had repair panels welded in. From the beginning I had a lot of good advice from Dave Norbury of Phoenix Auto Engineering – a friend who lives locally.
For instance I was having trouble with the indicator switch and Dave realized it was missing some springs – he replaced them with identical ones from a pen,” laughs Nigel. One of the worst areas of the car turned out to be the rear corner of the nearside back wing, “It was practically all filler,” remembers Nigel, “there was a big rust hole in there once I started digging out the filler.” Nigel set himself a deadline of three years to finish the car. “I stripped it down and also did a lot of the reassembly, but I got professionals to do the paint and the interior.” The engine and gearbox came out and was stripped, “I degreased it and removed the head, checked the bores and ground the valves,” says Nigel. “Obviously I replaced all the service items, the filters and the hoses but it didn’t need anything else. Americans always restore the engine blocks in BMC green, I did mine black. When it went back together the mechanical fuel pump wasn’t working but once I fitted a new one the engine fired up on the third attempt – not bad for something that hadn’t been run in years.” The Metro was repainted in BMC sunburst yellow and ivory. “The original colors were white and autumn yellow which was horrible – it looked like mustard.”
Nigel’s steering box had some play in it but he found one on eBay for £30. “All that it needed was the fibre bush replacing and the one on the old one was perfect so that was easily fixed.” Restoring an Anglo American car meant some detective work. “Quite a few bits from MG Midgets fit when you start checking parts numbers – for example the upper and lower wishbone bushes. And the boot handle shares a parts number with the one from a Healey Sprite bonnet. The Austin/Nash boot rubber was $75 from America, I fitted one from a Triumph Herald for £9, the interior handles and boot hinges are Herald too, the rear hub seals are just like Morris Minor ones.
“I had to buy some things from America, like a new window winder – you can get just about anything over there. Before the engine went back in I sat in the engine bay and painted all the suspension and steering black by hand – that took a while. Throughout 2010 I worked on it every day.”
When the Metropolitan was ready for its MoT Nigel proudly drove it to the test station, only for it to fail on a leaking brake pipe, “I replaced it with another one I had and then it went straight through the MoT. I tried my best to keep as many of the original parts as possible. Now the car is used almost entirely for sunny days and car shows. “I find that a lot of people have never seen one before, and it looks so tiny next to a Cadillac. At one show I parked near the bumper cars and there was a resemblance… I’m very pleased with it but I hope it’s been done right, you don’t see many of them around to compare them. Kids love it – at a show one little boy asked me ‘is that a real car?’”
How Nash rambled its way into Jeep
Nash Motors was founded in 1916 by former General Motors president Charles W. Nash who acquired the Thomas B Jeffery Company. Jeffery’s best-known automobile – the Rambler – had been mass-produced in Kenosha, Wisconsin since 1902. The 1917 Nash Model 671 was the first vehicle produced to bear the new name.
Always an innovative company, in 1917 the first Nash engine had overhead valves; from 1936 it offered an interior that could be converted into a bed with the occupants using the boot space for their legs and feet.
1937 saw the company become Nash-Kelvinator after acquiring a controlling interest in Kelvinator refrigerators. The largest merger of companies in different industries up until that time it allowed Nash to make full use of Kelvinator’s designs and expertise. In 1938 Nash introduced an optional conditioned air heating and ventilating system. This was the first hot-water car heater to draw fresh air from outside the car, and remains the basis of modern car heaters today.
Nash’s ‘Weather Eye’ system directed outside air into the car’s fan-boosted, filtered ventilation system, where it was warmed (or cooled), and then removed through rear vents. The process reduced humidity and apparently equalized the slight pressure differential between the outside and inside of a moving vehicle.
For the 1940 model cars Nash introduced independent coil spring front suspension and sealed beam headlights. The Nash 600 of 1941 was America’s first mass-produced unibody construction car, the 600 name derived from its ability to travel 600 miles on a 20 US gallon tank of petrol. That’s about 36mpg by today’s European measures. The company also made much use of wind tunnel testing for vehicles and during the Second World War developed its radically styled Airflyte models.
1954 was a busy year as Nash debuted the Metropolitan and introduced the industry’s first single-unit heating and air conditioning system – rival versions used separate heating and cold air systems. Nash began ’54 with its acquisition of the Hudson Motor Car Company as a friendly merger, a move that created American Motors Corporation – AMC.
Nash would focus on its smaller Rambler models, while Hudson would develop the full-sized cars. Shortly after the merger, CEO George Mason died. Mason’s successor, George Romney, saw the future of the company as an expanded Rambler line, and began phasing out the Nash and Hudson nameplates. Nash and Hudson production ended on June 25, 1957 but the company did build the ’1957 Rambler Rebel – a four-door, 327cu in V8 muscle sedan that was one of the quickest cars on the planet at the time.
From 1958 until 1965 Rambler was the only marque sold by AMC, other than the Metropolitan. The Rambler name was discontinued after 1969. In 1970, American Motors acquired Kaiser Jeep – the descendant of Willys-Overland Motors. In the early 1980s AMC’s partnership with Renault saw Renault 9 and later 11 models being built by AMC and badged as Alliance. AMC was ultimately acquired by Chrysler Corporation in 1987, becoming the Jeep-Eagle division.
Tin worm’s made a visit. Even by European standards the interior is cosy! 73cu in four cylinder engine. Wiring nightmare. Drive train out! Doors look solid. In primer. Working on the engine. Final paint is added… … almost done! Owner Nigel Atkins gave himself three years to restore the car – what a great job! Owner Nigel Atkins. Colour is BMC sunburst yellow and ivory.
Thanks to Lydd Airport for the location.