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Car Culture: Mini-like Nash could have hit it big

Phil Berg

Twenty years ago this Sunday, former Michigan Gov. George Romney died at his Bloomfield Hills home, leaving a legacy of championing civil rights and popularity with the state’s voters.

Before he was governor, however, he found himself second-in-command of American Motors in 1954 because of his closeness with George Mason, who headed the company when it was created from mergers of Nash and Hudson motor companies.

Just before he quit the car business and returned to politics in 1962, Romney killed the Nash Metropolitan, the domestic industry’s best effort at a hip, relevant, stylishly fun car, which could have been America’s version of the Mini, still beloved overseas.

Romney came to the auto industry as a lobbyist. With his handsome looks, he befriended Mason, who headed the Kelvinator appliance company when it merged with Nash Motors in 1937 and then became head of AMC.

Romney inherited the top job at AMC when the cigar-chomping Mason unexpectedly died in 1954. Romney was credited with saving AMC by focusing on the Rambler as an antidote for the Big Three’s ostentatious and wasteful monster cars. But he ignored the Metropolitan, killing the best chance at developing small car expertise early in the post-war industrial boom. At the same time, Volkswagen, as well as Toyota, Nissan and Honda, were aiming at the U.S. market.

An unlikely fan of small cars, Mason, the Metropolitan creator, was a huge man. He was alarmed at Detroit automakers building increasingly larger cars, thinking they were wasting resources which had been too scarce during both world wars. Around 1950 Mason recognized American sprawl and the likely need for more two-car households, and figured the second car should be a small two-seater. Proponents of the spunky GM Fiero in 1983 used the same argument.

Mason had enlisted Ferrari stylist Pinin Farina to contribute to the styling of the Metropolitan, and at six-foot-seven and 300 pounds, Mason made sure there was enough room that he could fit comfortably behind the wheel. Mason also tapped Austin Motor Company in England, known for its tiny Austin Seven, which later evolved into the beloved Mini, to build America’s Metropolitan. While Mini production lasted 41 years, it also initiated the current front-drive, transverse engine, compact car layout used by nearly every automaker today.

Romney focused on AMC’s Rambler’s boxy compact cars, which enjoyed a sales boom during the recession of 1958 since the Detroit Big Three offered only large cars. In 1961 Romney reasoned that car buyers would shun a small four-cylinder car when for a couple hundred dollars more they could get a larger six-cylinder Rambler. But the Rambler grew in size as it followed the Big Three, and eventually lost its appeal as a smaller choice.

The unique Metropolitan slowly developed a loyal following, and after seven years on the market, almost 100,000 Metropolitans had been sold. The Rambler’s sales jumped from 150,000 a year to about 360,000 by 1965, but with no American small car like the Metropolitan to compete against it, newcomer Volkswagen’s sales topped 375,000 on their way to a peak of 570,000 in 1970, while AMC’s Rambler bubble burst. AMC could not compete with the Big Three, and without the Metropolitan we’ll never know how well it would have fared against Volkswagen, today an industry giant.