Breaking with tradition and thinking out of the box are the trademarks of the creatively brave, visionary and optimistic. Exploring untested waters is daunting. If one is in a dominant position in an industry it is challenging enough, but if you are a relative small player in the industry, nerves of steel are required.
After World War 2 the so-called Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler) dominated the American automotive market. Meanwhile independent manufacturers like Packard, Studebaker, Nash, Hudson and others battled to survive, with merger talks being common.
The conviction that “bigger is better” was still firmly entrenched in the US. Small car projects were dealt with as “other business” at product planning meetings, and generally left to “foreign” manufacturers to fill what was considered a very small part of the market.
However, the American market after World War 2 was changing dramatically, and two issues particularly stand out. Through their contributions to the war effort, women gained a measure of independence that would likely continue or increase. Meanwhile, the US Government was anxious to ensure security through prosperity and assisted the consumer boom either directly or indirectly.
As a result, women drivers and the two-car family became significant realities.
One person who saw that new patterns of transportation were inevitable was Nash-Kelvinator’s president George Mason. He pushed through the development of the compact, by American standards, Nash Rambler in 1950, and was enthusiastically supported by his chief engineer, Meade Moore, who tried to convince Mason to go even smaller.
Several other Nash-Kelvinator executives were nervous and reticent. This was to an extent understandable, since it was proven that, generally speaking, small cars were not cheaper to build than bigger cars, but that small car buyers expected to pay considerably lower prices.
Mason was optimistic that smaller cars would be desirable, especially for the second-car and for the woman driver, and pushed ahead with his plans against the prevailing attitude.
In late 1948 he commissioned Detroit-based design firm Flajole-Kehrig Associates to design a prototype of a small car, that would become know as NXI; for Nash Experimental International.
Designer William Flajole was involved in a project team to develop a small car for Ford, which was dismissed outright by Henry Ford. Flajole took to public lectures to promote his ideas and designs on small cars and during such an event came to George Mason’s attention.
Mason commissioned Flajole to produce a series of sketches for the NXI project and then develop and build concept prototypes, using the Fiat 500 Topolino chassis and the small Fiat engine (with four-speed gearbox). A second prototype was built with a bigger engine (with a three-speed gearbox) from UK firm Standard.
In order to keep tooling costs to a minimum, interchangeability of many body components was a consideration when Flajole designed his concept prototypes. It was originally planned, as demonstrated on the NXI, that the front and rear quarter-panels be diagonally interchangeable, and the doors be identical.
Originally, one door was hinged at the front, while the other was hinged at the rear, but by the time prototypes and final production cars evolved this plan had been scrapped – with only the outer door skins being interchangeable.
However, a legacy of this original plan was the very symmetrical look of the production car and the closed-in front wheel arches, which matched those at the rear.
George Mason then took another out-of-the-box approach never tried before by an American automotive manufacturer, by conducting marketing research in the form of “Surviews” (previews linked to surveys by way of questionnaires).
To determine the potential of the car, an NXI prototype was shown to a cross section of invited people from all walks of life, including the press. The main question put was “Does America want the Economy Car?”
These Surviews were carried out in January 1950 in several major cities across America. The results showed that the car had solid potential but that important changes would have to be made for the American market.
According to Patrick R. Foster in The Metropolitan Story: “The car was a hit at the Chicago Automobile Show. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, the home of the main Nash factory, 26,000 of the town’s 60,000 residents turned out to get a glimpse of it. In all, roughly 236,000 questionnaires were distributed. Thousands were returned to Nash, some with drawings and diagrams attached, some with suggested names for the new car or ideas for improvements to it.”
There was a clear preference for a bigger rather than smaller engine, while a three-speed gearbox was acceptable. Preference was also expressed for a steering column or dashboard mounted gearshift, a bench front seat rather than bucket seats, and decent side windows.
These changes, and more – including roll-up glass side windows – were incorporated in the production prototypes that were then built and extensively tested. With these prototypes the name was changed to NKI (Nash-Kelvinator International), and photos show pre-production cars with NKI Custom badging.
Tooling costs for manufacturing the car in the USA were estimated at $20 million, and considered totally prohibitive. Labour costs in the USA were also considerably higher than in post-War Europe.
Mason came up with another unconventional solution – having the car built exclusively for the North American markets entirely by an overseas provider.
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The BMC Experience Issue 14. Jul-Sep 2015 Magazine
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