CLASSIC CARS NASH: The golden age of flying bathtubs

The Nash was a preposterous car. Brian Sewell on a monster he rates as one of the all-time uglies
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
IF NASH is recalled as a marque by anyone in Britain, it is as the fons et origo of that thing of ridicule, the Metropolitan - the bathtub looks of the 1950 Nash Rambler reduced to fairground roundabout proportions, built by Austin, running on outdated working parts derived from the Austin A40 Somerset, and marketed in America as "Milady's perfect companion for shopping trips''.

The firm had not always been so foolish - indeed, in its first full decade, the 1920s, this latecomer had proved to be the maker of sturdy and reliable machines sufficiently handsome to appeal as private transport to the more modest dynasties of Europe, and even to the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts (though only as servant runabouts). The middle-class virtues of chassis that were unbreakable, carrying unburstable low-revving lazy engines and bodies as robustly built as the proverbial brick privy, carried Nash comfortably through the Great Depression that killed so many more inspired manufacturers; and caution, and never being first with what might be a dangerous idea, took it through the Thirties and into a prosperous war.

Nash, always trailing General Motors, Ford and Chrysler in invention and output, could afford to be slightly (but only slightly) adventurous in style, and in the mid-Thirties, its cars could have been mistaken for large Opels, or Hudsons, or even cautious derivatives of Chrysler's outrageous Airflow; not until 1949 did its designers take leave of convention, strike out on their own and introduce a controversial house style that owed nothing to any other marque or to the general fashion of the day. They called it Airflyte; commentators, friendly as well as hostile, called it Bathtub; both were right. By some, it is claimed to have been the inspired notion of Nils Wahlberg, who had been with Nash since its beginnings in 1917, a designer of safe engines secretly infatuated with aerodynamics, this his personal reconciliation of that science to the practicality of the family saloon. Others attribute it to a back-of-the-envelope exercise by Holden Kato (one of the Loewy team that worked for Studebaker) as early as 1943.

In the Airflyte idiom, contours were rounded, forms inflated and even bulbous, and all four wheels enclosed behind slab sides that made changing wheels absurdly difficult - this last a trick of styling already tried and abandoned by several European manufacturers and coachbuilders.

In spite of their length and width, these new Airflyte Nashes were so disproportionate as to seem tall and narrow as well as bloated, their preposterous appearances not a whit improved by the sickly two-tone colour combinations that were the standard device employed to give them a semblance of line, nor by desperate ventures into as many as four colours on one car - in beige, cream, pale blue, grey, green and pink, they matched perfectly the American ice-cream parlour's offerings.

All were vile. Even so, as America's first home-grown semi-compact car, they were not, at first, unsuccessful, and seemed to answer some not clearly identified need for smaller rather than ever-larger cars. Perhaps, in an age of flying saucers, flying bathtubs seemed quite cool, even if they had the handling and acceleration of a bathtub, the maximum speed of a bathtub, and so huge a turning circle that they were virtually impossible to park.

The advertising mantra, "There's Much of Tomorrow in All Nash Does Today", was not wholly mendacious; in unitary construction, Nash was still ahead of some other manufacturers, and with curved screens and fastback tails, they were, with a drag coefficient of only 0.43, ahead of competitors by as much as 20 per cent.

No other American car could be driven 600 miles on the 20 gallons of petrol in the first bathtub's tank (small American gallons, too), and for that the low drag was entirely responsible, for under the bonnet there was nothing better than an old straight six of 3,848cc first used in 1935.

The bathtub body style was applied across the whole Nash range for five years or so, the smaller cars called Ramblers, the larger Ambassadors, the smallest engine (apart from the 1,200cc of the Austin-powered Metropolitan) an old six of 2,828cc, the largest V8s of 5,244 and 5,768cc made for Nash by Packard (another dying firm). The four-door fastback bathtub spawned station wagons with two doors and four, saloons with boots, saloons with boots and a retro-Thirties upright spare wheel casing, with two doors as a coupe and, with limousine styling on a lengthened wheelbase, the Nash Statesman.

The most preposterous of all the variations, and a car that has my backing as one of the all-time uglies, is the Statesman Country Club Saloon of 1955 - a monster with wraparound windscreen and rear window, all wheels enclosed, its boot embellished with the upright spare, and a vaguely Art Deco division of colour on its flanks.

Without detailed description, it is as difficult to distinguish one Nash Rambler or Ambassador from another as it is to know what a man in a pub means when he says that he has a Ford Cortina. The first Ambassador was introduced in 1935 (in England, offered with a Perkins diesel engine, this must be among the rarest of all cars), the last (I believe) in 1958, by then a car so confusing in its encyclopaedic accumulation of styling cues from other marques that it makes the Statesman Country Club Saloon seem exquisitely coherent. Rambler was a name in use for 38 years.

By 1955, Nash was en route to meet its nemesis. The previous year it had engaged in desperate alliance with Hudson, another faltering firm, in what they called the American Motors Corporation. In 1957, they dropped all references to Nash and Hudson and began to market their cars as Ramblers. Hudson, once a worthy marque with at least one "world car" to its credit, the Terraplane, sank without trace; remembered only for the bathtub and the Metropolitan Nash, American Motors, AMC, Rambler - call it what you will - fizzled out forever in 1987. How did the tail manage to wag for so long?