My tragic affair with a 1957 Metropolitan
By Jeff Salter
Our topic this week is about uncooperative machines, appliances, or vehicles. I’ve had ‘em all, I guess, but perhaps the most uncooperative – yet it still has a warm place in my heart – is the 1957 Nash Metropolitan.
For those of you who don’t know, this was mostly a British car (and shared some components with the MG) but was marketed by the (American) Nash company, which also handled Ramblers (among others). It was a two-seater convertible with trunk storage that you could access only through the fold-down rear seats. [In later model years, they added a small trunk hatch.]
I don’t believe I have any digital pix of mine, but here’s a different one for visual reference:
I had just separated from active duty in the U.S. Air Force (summer of ’74) and moved back to my hometown with a wife and child. My father-in-law, who worked on vehicles, had located this beat-up 1957 Metropolitan, which some LSU fraternity had painted purple and gold and driven in campus parades. Dad got it running again and presented it to us. Only problem was that its title had been through (as I recall) seven owners since it had last been registered. So when I went to the license bureau to get the thing road-legal, I had to pay for those six title transfers which had NOT been recorded. The State of Louisiana was not going to turn a blind eye to recalcitrant title holders who didn’t pony up. A lawyer friend from church went with me to that office to talk them out of making me pay the PENALTIES associated with those six other unrecorded title transfers.
With a little help from Dad, here and there, but mostly by myself, I slowly worked on the body (sanding, painting, new vinyl top), the brakes (needed all new wheel cylinders, brake shoes, plus a master cylinder and slave cylinder), and various aspects of the engine (don’t recall what). But the biggest problem was in its wiring.
Those frat guys had lost the horn button, so they fabricated one. They moved other switches (like the starter button and the turn signals) to the glove compartment lid. And there were many other idiosyncrasies. Bear in mind that the Metropolitan, like other British cars, used a positive-ground system (as opposed to negative ground)… so many U.S. standard automotive electrical things just didn’t work on it.
I had to have an ignition key custom made for it, because the keys had disappeared among those numerous title transfers. I even hired somebody to weld a steel plate to the floor so the driver’s foot wouldn’t push through the rust and drag on the street! I also installed a speedometer cable, bought a new windshield, and things I can’t even remember anymore. [This was the car which, when I was un-mounting the dashboard to work on the wiring, it fell on top of my face and gouged a deep cut into my right eyebrow.]
I think you can perceive by now that this car had a LOT of work invested in it before it even got legally on the road again. Well, once we got it running, we found out just how temperamental it was.
The Met, as we called it, would usually start okay, and it loved to go on 30 minute drives. But if you stopped during that half hour, it would not start again. And after it had put in its 30 minutes, it required a 90 minute nap before it was willing to move again.
I consulted every shade-tree mechanic I knew trying to figure out the problem – other than the Met simply being obstinate – and the term which kept coming up was Vapor Lock.
The shade-tree cures for vapor lock included things like placing wooden clothes pins on the fuel line, installing an insulated barrier to keep the exhaust manifold’s heat from reaching the carburetor, etc. I think one “cure” had something to do with a voodoo doll, but I never tried that one.
Well, Denise and I learned to live with the Met’s Vapor Lock anomaly. We’d plan trips which lasted about 30 minutes (or less) and allowed at least 90 minutes rest before we’d attempt to drive either home or to another stop. And it worked — about 66% of the time. But when you least expected it (and most needed the car to run), the Met would come down with a fresh dose of Vapor Lock.
It got to where, when I’d return from a weekend of Reserve duty at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, I’d walk in the door and say, “Where’s the Met? Let’s go get it.” Sometimes it was at the mall, sometimes A&P, and sometimes the post office. Wherever Denise had been that tripped over that 30 / 90 algorithm.
My memory is a bit fuzzy now, but I also remember a LOT of “push-starting” with the Met. I can’t recall if that was a battery issue, a faulty generator, or if it was tied into the vapor lock diagnosis, but there were many, MANY times I’d be pushing the Met (by hand) and screaming to Denise, “Pop the clutch!” I also recall many instances when I was BOTH the pusher and the popper and I wish we’d had cell phone cameras in those days to prove how agile I was at flinging myself into the moving automobile and turning the key and popping the clutch before it stopped rolling.
I don’t remember having the Met with us in Baton Rouge, during my year of grad school, so it’s possible we both realized the B.R. traffic was too intense and the city much too large for us to risk being stranded with that 30 / 90 vapor lock algorithm.
But we did run it in Jonesville for 2.5 years. I worked in Harrisonburg, which was about a 25 minute drive from Jonesville, so on most days that I drove the Met, it took me safely from home to work and then it had all day to rest up for the drive back home.
We didn’t bring it with us to Shreveport in 1980, probably for the same reason we didn’t trust it in Baton Rouge. Eventually, we traded it to Denise’s sister for a well-used VW bug which their Dad had also worked on and gotten running.
I neglected to mention that during the years we drove the Met, I was always looking out for parts, especially trim. Eventually I purchased (from a junk yard) a 1962 Met which I had intended to use for parts to more completely restore the wiring of the ’57 we were driving. But, alas, I ran out of time and money and ended up forfeiting the parts car.
I miss that Met… and wish we could have held on to it. Somerset has an old car rally – SomerNites Cruise – one Saturday each month for the six seasonable months each year and it would be cool to take that Met downtown and show it off. Alas, in those younger years, we had neither time, money, nor space to store a hobby that large and unproductive… but I still think about it.
Now I’ve never satisfactorily determined exactly what Vapor Lock is, but if it’s anything like the symptoms this Metropolitan exhibited, then I think I have a case of it myself.
More about Cars
In a blog about four years ago, I addressed several of my early vehicle relationships, so you’ll likely want to know about the 1947 Plymouth Special Deluxe (among others):
What about you? Have you ever had an appliance, car or machine that just would NOT cooperate?
[ JLS # 276 ]