Australia can still draw the series, but they've now surrendered the Urn on three successive occasions for the first time since the 1950s when England won three on the trot.
Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle got Australia off to a flying start when the rain cleared early on day five to leave England well and truly reeling at 3-27, with star batsmen Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen back in the pavilion.
But the clear Manchester skies were just a tease, and only three balls were managed after the lunch break and England were spared a day of survival that was looking incredibly ominous.
They were 3-37 at the close, set 332 to win by Australia, and after more than three and a half hours off the field, umpires decided to abandon the day's play.
England players came out to the dressing room balcony to salute the small crowd that had stayed around, before retreating inside to pop champagne.
It's hard to argue England don't deserve to retain the Ashes - they showed enough class at Trent Bridge and destroyed a sub-standard Australia at Lord's.
But after three Tests, the 2-0 scoreline is not an accurate reflection of the series so far.
Australia were brave and dominant at Old Trafford.
For the first time on tour their batsmen fired (7(dec)-527 and 7(dec)-172), while the fast bowling attack continued to surge.
There was enough to suggest Australia would have won the match had the full 98 overs been available on the final day.
The drawn result provided one silver lining, Australia avoided stretching their Test losing streak to an unwanted record of seven straight defeats.
But it was of little consequence.
Old Trafford could go down as a morale victory for Australia, but it will now be difficult to pick themselves up for the fourth Test in Durham starting on Friday, with little left to play for.
The best Australia can hope for is to win the final two Tests and secure the first drawn Ashes series since 1972 in England.
Australia's blistering start on day five makes the result even harder to take.
Harris took 2-13 from seven and Siddle 1-8 from 3.3.
Joe Root finished 13 not out and had been dropped by Michael Clarke off Siddle, while the Australian quick almost had Ian Bell (4no) on what proved to be the last ball of the day.
Essentially Australia were helpless to do any more, the Manchester weather had conspired.
Harris trapped England skipper Cook (0) plumb lbw in the third over of the day to leave England 1-0.
He had a excruciatingly close lbw review on Jonathan Trott turned down by umpire's call, but got Trott nicking down the leg-side (11) in the next over.
Siddle had Root edging to Clarke at second slip when brought on for his first over, but a simple chance was grassed, the ball hitting the skipper on his wrists.
However, the magnitude of the missed chance was tempered in Siddle's next over when he had first innings centurion Kevin Pietersen controversially out edging behind.
Behind the wicket, keeper Brad Haddin and the slips cordon were convinced there was a nick, and umpire Tony Hill raised his finger.
Siddle had barely appealed and Pietersen immediately signalled for a review, adamant he hadn't hit it.
HotSpot showed nothing, but there was a noise and the umpire's decision stood.
England players didn't arrive at the ground until half an hour before play was originally scheduled to start, believing rain was going to save them from having to go out to bat.
England skipper Cook denied the rain had made their retaining of the Ashes a hollow feeling.
"After three Test matches I would have snapped your hand off to be in this position," he said.
"Obviously the weather hasn't been ideal today but you can't predict that.
"It hasn't quite got the atmosphere because of that but the feeling in the dressing room now is a very pleasant one.
"We set out here to try and retain the Ashes and we've managed to do that and now we want to go win them.
"I think it's been a really good series. Lord's we played really well and Trent bridge was a nail-biting game and glad to get the right end of that result and this game ... fair play to Australia how well they played."
Australian captain Michael Clarke said England deserved to retain the Ashes.
He says Australia will now set their sights on drawing the series - something he believes will be a great achievement.
He said he knew when he woke up that the skies looked as though rain was on the way.
"I tried not to open them (the curtains) to be honest. I can tell from my room if the sun is shining or not and unfortunately it didn't look good with the curtains closed," he said.
"Unfortunate. I certainly don't want to take anything away from England, I think they played some really good cricket and deserved to be 2-0 up in this series, that's for sure.
"And I guess that's the price you pay when you go 2-0 down, in the UK there's always a bit of rain around and we've suffered that today. I'm proud of the boys the way we fought our backsides off this Test match.
"I think it would be a great achievement to leave England 2-2. So we've got a big job ahead of us."