The Met was a strange car for a strange time. Going into the early 1950s, most American automakers were focused on making bigger, more powerful, more luxurious automobiles. This was a time of Oldsmobile "Rocket" V-8s and the beginnings of Chrysler's obsession with Hemis, a time of tail fins and insomnia-curing suspensions. Heck, even air raid sirens were getting bigger and more powerful. If there was ever a time for small and economical, the early '50s were about as far removed from that time as possible without stumbling into the exciting world of multi-dimensional physics.
Nash saw things a little differently.
Realistically, Nash didn't have a choice--the company simply didn't have the resources to survive as an independent company, much less one pushing the boundaries of performance and luxury. So, knowing full well that it couldn't beat the Big 3 from above, Nash searched for a comfortable niche below. Fortunately, the Big 3 was happy to oblige--all three companies were running in fear from the low-margin, inexpensive, fuel-efficient economy car segment.
This aversion was understandable--Europe was cranking out cheap transportation (and I mean cheap) like it was nobody's business, using cheaper labor and newer or recently rebuilt factories. Nash, however, felt there was still room in the market for American-designed economy cars built to American specification. To fill that space, Nash first built the Rambler, which proved to be a stunning success--it was small, fuel efficient and inexpensive without being cheap, which was a rare combination in those times. Encouraged by its success, Nash decided it was time to turn the dial to 11 and create an even smaller, even more economical car. The result, introduced in 1954, was an almost preternaturally cute little two-seater. The Metropolitan was born.
Though built to the same size and scale as its European competition, the Met was definitely not European in design. For starters, it had distinctively American styling, looking something like a miniaturized Bel Air mated with a bathtub. Handling was sacrificed to provide a softer, more luxurious ride, then ignored altogether to accommodate the inexplicably fashionable wheel covers of the time. Unlike the rest of its competition, Nash didn't skimp on the extras--electric windshield wipers, a map light, cigar lighter, and a covered spare were all standard; an AM radio and whitewall tires were also available. Curiously enough, however, though the Met wasn't European by design, it was, in fact, European by construction--the engine and final assembly were all provided by Austin Motor Company, a company that would later achieve a small-car hit of its own with the Mini. Amazingly, the British-assembled car did not inherently burst into flames, spew oil every 2,000 miles, or fail to start in temperatures below 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Nor did it overheat in temperatures above 73 degrees. Consequently, the Met might be the best built British car ever made.
As impressively constructed as the Metropolitan was, it did have a few things working against it. For starters, saying it did a better job of reaching and maintaining freeway speeds than its European competition would be like saying that my six-month-old son does a better job of running wind sprints than a lump of basalt. Zero to 60 was barely accomplished in under 30 seconds, which, though not completely embarrassing by the standards of the time (the Dauphine did a wonderful job of lowering expectations here), still left a lot to be desired. It technically had a rear seat in much the same way that Luxembourg technically was able to defend itself against the Nazi blitzkrieg. It wasn't until 1959 that you could access the trunk of a new Metropolitan without folding the rear "seat" forward. In short, it was as impractical as it was cuddly. Consequently, by the end of its production in 1962, fewer than 110,000 were sold.
Since the Met's production run, it has enjoyed a level of notoriety that places it in rarified air with the likes of half of AMC's lineup in the '70s, the Renault Le Car, and the Yugo GV. Like many such examples of notoriety, the Met has even experienced something of a movie career, due in no small part to "Weird Al" wanting to show off his new toy in his one and only feature film (fast forward to 8 minutes in):
The top picture is of "Weird Al" driving his Metropolitan to the radio station in UHF, and was courtesy of IMCDb.org. The sales brochure is from History of Metropolitans, which has an excellent archive of various Met-related visual paraphenalia. Finally, because you never see something like this anymore, here's a rusted out Nash Metropolitan, courtesy of Shani's Stuff on Flickr.