(first posted 1/24/2014. This coming week we’re going to be saluting AMC in a series of reruns)
Lots of companies can claim some small connection to the late American Motors Corporation, but there is really only one company whose identity is virtually inseparable from that of AMC. That company would be Nash. This 1953 version would be the final year of an independent Nash before the creation of AMC in early 1954. But this car (and its smaller brother, the Nash Rambler) would form the foundation which supported AMC for much of the rest of its life.
In 1908, a man named Charlie Nash had been made President of the Buick Motor Company by William Durant. When Durant lost control of GM in 1910, Nash was asked to take over. Unfortunately, when Durant regained control of GM in 1916, Nash was out, and vowed that he was going to work for himself this time. He found a little company called the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company, whose owner was looking to sell. It should be noted that Jeffrey’s first car in 1902 was called the Rambler. Nash bought the Jeffrey company, and lured some GM talent into going with him. The following year, Nash renamed the Kenosha, Wisconsin auto manufacturer after himself.
Nash Motors became known as the place to go for a good, solid middle-class car. Nashes didn’t really excel at any one thing, but also had no major vices, and were a good value besides. The company was an early adopter of overhead valve engines and, in the 1930s, pioneered both the modern fresh air heating system and also what is perhaps Nash’s most famous legacy – seats that folded down into a bed.
One of Charlie Nash’s best calls was choosing George Mason, chairman of the appliance manufacturer, Kelvinator Corporation, to take over leadership of the company upon Nash’s retirement. Mason agreed, provided that Kelvinator came along as part of the deal. The result was the creation of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation in 1936, with Mason at the controls. Mason was widely considered to posses two traits necessary for long term success (and which are not all that often found in the same person): he was not only a solid manager, but a visionary as well.
Mason maintained Nash as a sound, profitable car company, but eventually came to the conclusion that N-K was not cut out for long term success in the cutthroat world of auto manufacturing. Soon after World War II, Mason envisioned a four-way tie-up of Nash, Hudson, Studebaker and Packard. This combination, Mason believed, could trade blows with the Detroit Big Three as an equal.
Mason eventually succeeded in getting Hudson on board in 1954, in what he hoped was a first step, thus giving birth to American Motors. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it turned out) Mason was unable to sell Studebaker and Packard on the wisdom of the combine before his untimely death in late 1954. Most sources indicate that George Romney, who succeeded Mason, had no interest in working with James Nance of Studebaker-Packard–and that was the end of that. It is curious that Kaiser-Willys, the only company left out of Mason’s plan, possessed the only product line that would grow and prosper over the long haul. Had AMC not bought Kaiser Jeep in 1970, the company would surely have succumbed to the same fatal strain of Independent-itis that had claimed every other smaller car company.
While visions of American Motors were dancing around in Mason’s fertile brain, he had a car company to run, and did so with some success. The 1949-51 Nash Airflyte would be the company’s big postwar bet, and would turn out to be a pretty successful one (CC here). In fact, the Airflyte (or bathtub Nash, as it was more commonly called) gave Nash its three best production years in history to that point in time (up to 205,000 units in 1951).
For its second postwar act, Nash would follow its hit Airflyte in 1952 with the… Golden Airflyte, to commemorate the company’s fiftieth anniversary (at least after tacking on the years of the Jeffrey Company). The Golden Airflyte was vintage Nash, appearing to be an all-new car, yet having not all that much to distinguish it from earlier models. The Golden Airflyte would retain the unit construction which Nash had popularized with the 1941 Nash 600 (1948 model here). To give the big solid new Nash a little style, Pininfarina was hired to do the design work. At least according to the advertising.
In actuality, Pininfarina’s idea probably looked something more like this 1951 proposal…
…instead of this. Gotta make it look like a Nash, don’cha know. That became Ed Anderson’s job in the Nash styling studios–to take that crazy, exotic Eye-Talian number and turn it into something that conservative midwestern Americans would buy. At least the thin aluminum door uppers made the cut. Actually, those looked quite modern for 1952 and undoubtedly helped this basic body to age relatively gracefully through its final 1957 iteration. In sum, there is more of Ed Anderson’s Nash Continental prototype in this car than there is Pininfarina.
Oh well, he was being paid handsomely for the use of the name, and there were at least a few exotic lines on the car.
And that hood ornament? The one part of the car that looks unabashedly European was was designed neither by Pininfarina nor by Nash. Instead, it was designed by pinup artist George Petty, known for his Petty Girls in Esquire magazine and elsewhere. This 1953 version is one of several that he designed for Nash after World War II. Unsurprisingly, these Petty-designed flying ladies last adorned the 1955 models, and did not make it any further under George Romney’s management.
Mechanically, the 1952-54 Nash would retain the same prewar-era powerplants as earlier cars. The lower-priced Statesman would continue with a flathead six (called the Powerflyte) that in 1953 displaced 195.6 cubic inches (3.2 L) and put out 100 horsepower. The more expensive Ambassador partially justified its higher price by an overhead valve six (called the Jetfire) that displaced 252.6 cubes (4.1 L) and churned out a firebreathing 120 horses. Both lines were offered with a three speed stick, with or without overdrive, and an optional Dual Range Hydramatic sourced from General Motors. It is interesting that while Buick was unwilling to combine the blunt shifting of the early Hydramatic with its torque tube drive, Nash seems to have made the pairing work.
The Golden Airflyte did get a new front suspension system in which old-fashioned kingpins were replaced by not quite as old-fashioned trunnions. Yes, unit construction, six old cylinders, a torque tube and trunnion suspensions – is anyone here still wondering where AMC’s 1960s Ramblers came from?
Unfortunately, the Golden Airflyte did not do nearly as well as its predecessor. Even including the smaller Rambler, Nash production was a respectable 154,000 units for 1952, then dropped to 122,000 and 91,000 for each of the following two years. While it is tempting to say that this car’s styling was becoming quite an artifact by 1954, the truth is that all of the independents were suffering steep sales declines by then. Between Ford and Chevrolet’s war for market share and the beautiful new designs that were pouring rapidly into the showrooms of the Big Three, the poor old Nash, good as it was, was being left behind.
Five years after this car was built, there would no longer be a Nash automobile. George Romney’s vision for the future of American Motors could scarcely have been more different from Mason’s. Instead of bulking up to take on the big guys, AMC under Romney would trim down and concentrate on the niche for a quality smaller car like the Rambler. Within a couple of years after the merger, almost all traces of Hudson had pretty much evaporated, save some little plastic nameplates that adorned slightly re-trimmed Nash models.
Aside from its rarity today, this odd-looking car is significant for at least two reasons that I can think of. First, this was the last new design for Nash. This car would not see a replacement and Charlie Nash’s long-serving namesake would disappear after 1957. More importantly, this car represents the foundation of American Motors. Although this particular platform would prove to be a dead-end, its mechanical underpinnings would all either supply or influence almost every new car introduced by AMC until well into the 1960s. The unit body, torque tube, Weather Eye, fold-down seats and even the Kenosha headquarters would soldier on for quite a number of years. It is not hard to look at this Nash, dressed in black, and hear the voice of James Earl Jones saying “AMC–I am your father.”