Written by independent automotive journalist Tom Jensen
In recent years, small cars have made a big footprint in the collector car market, and for good reason. Some buyers value the eclectic and funky nature of small cars; others view smaller cars as a relatively inexpensive point of entry into the collector car hobby.
After all, not everyone wants a Boss 429 Mustang or an L88 Corvette, and that’s fine. And it’s also why the Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas Auction, Oct. 19-21, will have something for almost everyone: Plenty of muscle cars, prewar classics and modern high-performance rides, but some very cool small cars, too – like these two, selling at No Reserve.
First up is an amazing Nash Metropolitan (Lot #55), a hardtop trimmed out in classic mid-1950s colors – lavender over white.
When you think of the 1950s, the movement was all about big cars that were longer, lower and wider than what came before. With that in mind, the Nash Metropolitan flew completely in the face of the conventions of the day, one reason it’s so highly regarded now among certain collectors.
The Nash Metropolitan was everything that most 1950s cars weren’t: It was small (85-inch wheelbase), light (1,825 pounds for the hardtop), thrifty (better than 30 miles per gallon) and inexpensive ($1,445 new).
But more than that, the Nash Metropolitan represented some bold new thinking in the automotive industry. After World War II, George Mason, the chairman and CEO of Nash-Kelvinator Corp., saw the company’s greatest growth potential in lower-priced cars.
To that end, Nash hired Detroit-based Kehrig-Flajole Associates to design an inexpensive, lightweight car for the mass market. William Flajole created a prototype he called the NXI, short for Nash Experimental International, which Mason introduced at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on Jan. 4, 1950, in front of a crowd of about 450 business leaders.
Once Nash decided to go ahead with production, they realized tooling costs to build the Metropolitan in the United States would prove prohibitive. Instead, Mason and the Nash management team decided to put parts of the car out to bid overseas. A British firm, Fisher & Ludlow, would manufacture the unit body for the Metropolitan, with another British outfit, Austin Motor Co., providing the 42-horsepower engine and assembling the car.
Thus, the Nash Metropolitan became a captive import – the first car built entirely in Europe but exclusively sold in the United States through the Nash dealership network.
It was also the first car marketed primarily to women. Given its diminutive size, the Metropolitan was viewed as a perfect second car for families, which in most cases meant the wife. Evelyn Ay Sempier, the winner of the 1954 Miss America pageant, introduced the Nash Metropolitan at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show and became the spokesperson for the car in a long-running relationship that both parties enjoyed.
During its lengthy production run, the Metropolitan was sold first under the Nash brand only, then both Nash and Hudson after those two companies merged in 1954. In its final years, the Metropolitan was sold under its own nameplate at Rambler dealers. For its production run, which ended in 1962, a total of 94,986 Metropolitans were built for the North American market.
In 1955, just 3,849 Nash Metropolitans were manufactured in the United States, making this example an exceedingly rare offering indeed. This Metropolitan is stunning and stylish, and is sure to deliver lots of smiles per mile.
Although very different mechanically from the mid-1950s Nashes, the extremely rare Nissan Figaro (Lot #105) – also crossing the auction block in Las Vegas at No Reserve – might be considered a small car that shares its aesthetic sensibility with the old Metropolitans.
The Figaro was one of four microcars introduced by Nissan at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, where they collectively carried the banner of “Back to the Future.”
Designed and built for the home Japanese market for one year only – 1991 – the Figaro was a right-hand-drive model with a 987cc engine, 3-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning and a fixed-profile, fabric convertible top that retracted.
In its lone year of production, the Figaro was offered in just four colors, one for each of the four seasons in nature: Emerald Green (spring), Pale Aqua (summer), Topaz Mist (Fall) and Lapis Grey (winter).
Writing for the New York Times in 2011, design critic Phil Patton described the Nissan microcar lineup, which included the Figaro, thusly: “The cars were as cute as Hello Kitty, radiating a cartoonish insouciance that spoke of Japanese confidence before a decade of stasis set in.”
One thing’s for sure: Both these small packages come up big in style and rarity, making them great choices for owners who want something unique to drive and show off.
For up-to-date information on these and other vehicles on the Las Vegas Auction docket, click HERE.