The First American Subcompact

American Subcompact

Back in the mid-1950s, lots of American cars were basically land yachts and thirsty ones at that. Take the 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan, for example, it was over 19 feet long, weighed 4540 lbs and got just 10.3 MPG.  Yup, in the 50s Americans, loved their cars and they liked them big.

Despite that fact, some drivers preferred smaller, plainer automobiles. After all, smaller cars were cheaper to buy and used far less gasoline. They were perfect for a second car or just for families where living frugally was important. The problem says Earnhardt in Gilbert, AZ, a full-service Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer, was that Detroit wasn’t very good at building small cars and didn’t really sell any. It just wasn’t in their DNA at that time.  Those that desired smaller vehicles were forced to buy foreign cars, such as Volkswagens and Fiats, or limited production mini-cars like the Crosley.

The first American company to decide that a real domestic subcompact vehicle was needed was American Motors Corporation (AMC.) AMC was formed in 1954 when two independent manufacturers: Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motor Car Company merged.


In 1955, AMC introduced an unusual subcompact car called the Metropolitan.  Marketed under both the Hudson and Nash names, the Metropolitan used a conventional front-engine, rear-wheel drive configuration, but with body and frame welded as a single unit. This unibody design, produced by Fisher and Ludlow of England, was advanced for a time when most manufacturers were still using body-on-frame construction.

The design and sourcing of the Metropolitan was an international effort which was an unusual practice at the time. The body and suspension were designed by the Nash group but they used a little 1.2 liter Austin (73 cubic inch) four-cylinder A-40 engine. Small but well-engineered, the engine had aluminum pistons, a counterbalanced crankshaft, overhead valves and a Zenith carburetor.  With a compression ratio of 7.2:1, the Metro could run on low-octane gasoline. A downside was performance -the Metropolitan wasn’t a sporty car. With only 42 horsepower it took nearly 30 seconds to hit 60mph.

Metropolitans were offered as either convertible or hardtop models, with standard features that were optional on most cars of that time, including electric windshield wipers, radio, heater, whitewall tires cigarette lighter, interior map light, and a “continental-type” rear-mounted spare tire with cover. Initially there was no trunk lid. Folding the rear seat forward accessed the trunk.

Although sales were modest, in 1956, the Metro was outfitted with Austin’s new 1500-cc A50 engine. A higher 8.3:1 compression resulted in 52 HP. Also new was a redesigned hood, a mesh grille, and stainless-steel side strips which separated the two-tone body colors. The interior was updated as well, with a black dashboard replacing the former body-colored dashboard.

In 1962, AMC dropped the Metropolitan. Between Nash, AMC, and Hudson, they had sold 94,986 of the cars, enough to finally wear out the tooling. Today Metropolitans show up frequently at car shows and are great little cars to restore and are affordable to buy.

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