Nash Metropolitan, the first car for women

Rearview Mirror Building a vehicle that would appeal to women ran contrary to the design ethos of the 1950s, which was that bigger is better.

Nash Metropolitan in two-tone blue and white.
Powered by automated translation

The word most often used to describe the Nash Metropolitan is "cute"; not an adjective often used by masculine motor enthusiasts. But this description is testament to its success, for the Metropolitan was the first car ever to be designed for, and marketed to, women. It is a common joke that the only attribute of a car women notice is its colour. Just as well then that this model could be ordered in sunburst yellow or mardi gras red.

By the early 1950s many American marques had recognised the potentially lucrative market created by the growing demand for second cars. As American families prospered, housewives wanted a car of their own to go shopping and make short trips across town. The Volkswagen Beetle was the only compact car on the market and its sales were soaring. Nash, a maker of stylish cars designed by legendary Italian firm Pininfarina, was the first to take up the challenge of making an all-American rival to the "people's car". But they soon found that this wasn't a simple case of making a compact car to the same tried and tested formula. For hitherto, cars had always been designed for male motorists and their egos and the bigger-is-better philosophy ran far deeper than mere dimensions. This was a new game with new rules.

In developing a prototype in 1950, Nash realised that it wasn't just a new mindset that was required, but a pioneering new business model. The tooling and production costs in the US reflected big cars selling at big prices. Producing a competitively priced, compact car wasn't commercially viable. This gave Nash no option but to take the controversial decision to produce the car overseas. It was, in retrospect, an experiment that helped to prove that the origin, design and production of a car could span the globe and still retain its identity.

In 1952, Nash announced a partnership with British firms Austin and Fisher and Ludlow. The latter would provide the coachwork and the former the mechanics. The Metropolitan would be produced at Austin's Longbridge plant in England and be imported back to the US. When the first shipment arrived in October 1953, it was a milestone in motoring history - the first American car to be imported.

The car retained trademark Nash styling cues, such as enclosed wheels and pillow-pressed doors, but on a compact floor-plan of less than four metres. Weighing a mere 800kg, it was dwarfed by most other cars. But though it was small, it stood out with its curvy design. Though compact and relatively cheap, it was by no means Spartan, featuring luxuries such as a map light, electric wipers and AM radio. Indeed, such was the emphasis on style that, due to the inclusion of a continental-style wheel cover, the boot could only be opened from inside by lowering the rear seats. It retailed at $1,500, only five per cent more than the Beetle.

With Miss America, Evelyn Sempier, made brand ambassador and full page adverts placed in glossy magazine Women's Wear Daily, the car was heavily promoted to its target audience. Sales didn't match expectations but were steady enough to continue production.

Slowly, the model evolved, with a larger 1.5L engine, hounds-tooth check interior, a range of vivid two-tone paint options and, eventually, the greatest luxury of them all: a boot that could be opened normally. Nash was subsumed into the American Motor Corporation but the Metropolitan continued as its own brand and, in 1959 - seven years after it was introduced - it enjoyed its best-selling year. This brave new concept for a brave new world had become the second highest-selling imported model in the States, behind its rival and inspiration, the Beetle. When production ceased in 1961 nearly 100,000 had been sold. The vision had been vindicated and other manufacturers took note that America could learn to love a compact car of its own.

In an intriguing twist of fate, the American car built in Britain for America was made available to British buyers when Austin released it in 1956 under its own badge. However, its showy, sassy style was not to British tastes.

Unlike their American counterparts, reviewers were scathing, citing it as the worst example of vulgar transatlantic pretension. Though happy to build a car for the Americans, the British were loathe to buy one. British and American car design had taken divergent paths decades before, and though the Metropolitan was American in spirit and British in body, it couldn't bring them closer together.