REVISED AND EXPANDED — No, it’s not a prop from the classic science fiction thriller, Forbidden Planet. It’s the sensation of the 1956 New York International Auto Show, the American Motors Astra-Gnome. Here’s the story.
First, a big thank you to automotive journalist Kevin Wilson, who suggested the story. Much appreciated. An earlier version of this feature appeared at Mac’s Motor City Garage on October 12, 2012.
You’ll never guess what’s under the skin of the fabulous Astra-Gnome. Believe it or not, there’s actually an adorable little Nash Metropolitan buried inside the fantastic exterior. To create a far-out show car based on the dinky subcompact, American Motors commissioned Richard Arbib, a leading industrial designer of the 1950s who deserves to be far better known than he is today.
Among his many accomplishments, Arbib designed a number of concepts for GM, Packard, and Ford, including the Packard Pan American, and he was also responsible for the asymmetrical Hamilton electric watches (left) so prized by collectors today. He designed the striking Century Coronado hardtop speedboat, and, it is said, created the narrow whitewall. Arbib also reportedly dated famed pinup model Bettie Page, which has nothing to do with design, admittedly, but it does give one a whole new regard for the man. Well done, sir.
To complement the Astra-Gnome’s theme as “the Time and Space car,” a large-faced celestial clock, also designed by Arbib, was installed in the center of the dash, Meanwhile, the wheels and tires were hidden behind full skirts to achieve “a floating special quality,” as Arbib described it, suggesting a spaceship or hovercraft. But underneath, the chassis, powertrain, and running gear were production Metropolitan components.
While the Metropolitan’s stubby 85-inch wheelbase was retained, the floorpan was blown out to a full 72 inches wide, “giving greater comfort and storage,” including large pockets in the front kick panels to stow fitted luggage (as carried by the model in the lead image above). With its acrylic bubble canopy and other quasi-futuristic features, the Astra-Gnome made a big splash at the ’56 New York Auto Show and was featured on the cover of Newsweek on September 3, 1956.
Arbib passed away in Manhattan in 1995 at the age of 77, but the Astra-Gnome is still with us today. You can see it, beautifully restored, at the Metropolitan Pit Stop, a supply house-slash-museum in North Hollywood, California that trades in all things Metropolitan. Meanwhile, check out the period and contemporary images, and some other associated artifacts, in the slide show below.