It was not lost on either industry observers or new car buyers that even the smallest and cheapest American cars were growing steadily bigger and more expensive. Even before the U.S. entered the war, a few mavericks like American Bantam and Willys-Overland tried to reverse that trend with a variety of inexpensive compacts, ranging from the relatively conventional Willys Americar to the two-cylinder Crosley microcar. None was particularly successful, hampered by awkward styling, anemic performance, and poor distribution. Nevertheless, some automakers and would-be automakers still believed there would be a strong market for such a car, if it were done right.
During the war, even the Big Three toyed with the idea of compact cars. Until 1945, no one was sure what the postwar economy would be like; the end of the Great War had brought a lingering economic malaise that did considerable damage to the auto industry. Even General Motors feared that when civilian production resumed, buyers would be scarce. To forestall that eventuality, Chevrolet began development of the compact Cadet, while Ford developed a “Light Car” that hearkened back to the no-frills simplicity of the Model A.
By V-J Day, it was clear that however devastated the war had left Europe and Asia, the American market was primed for a consumer bonanza. With a robust seller’s market, most automakers decided there was no point in tooling up for economy cars. Chevrolet canceled the Cadet, while Ford transferred the Light Car to its French subsidiary, where it became the 1949 Vedette. Henry Kaiser and Joe Frazer, who’d wanted to enter the market with an inexpensive people’s car, postponed those plans in favor of conventional full-size models.
Even as they lined up to buy new full-size Fords, Chevys, or Plymouths, however, some customers still clamored for something smaller and cheaper. Despite stringent anti-inflationary measures, list prices were hundreds of dollars higher than in 1941 and up to three times their mid-thirties levels. Furthermore, while gasoline was no longer rationed in the U.S., many buyers remained concerned about gas mileage and general operating economy — memories of the Depression were still fresh.
As we’ve previously seen, Nash became interested in compacts during the war, leading to the launch of the Rambler in April 1950, later followed by the Anglo-American Nash Metropolitan. Henry Kaiser, meanwhile, had not lost interest in building an inexpensive people’s car, resulting in the compact Henry J, which appeared in the fall of 1950.
The Rambler and Henry J got off to a good start. Between April 1950 and the end of the 1951 model year, they sold more than 150,000 units, a little under 3% of the domestic market. By Big Three standards, that was very modest business, but it was enticing to the independents; by comparison, Hudson’s total 1951 sales were about 132,000. If compacts were a market segment that GM, Ford, and Chrysler chose to ignore, so much the better.
It was during that first flush of success that A.E. Barit launched Hudson’s own compact, the Jet. It was a big investment — $12 million, all the profits the company had made in 1948-1949 — but it promised to take Hudson into a promising new market segment.
FRANK SPRING AT HUDSON
The Jet, like all Hudsons of its era, was designed under the auspices of styling director Frank Spring. Spring, who had joined Hudson in the early thirties, was the scion of a wealthy California family. Educated in Europe, he earned his degree in aeronautical engineering from Paris Polytechnic. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War 1, cultivating a life-long love of both motorcycles and airplanes. After the war, he became an automotive engineer, joining the Walter M. Murphy Company in the early twenties and becoming Hudson’s head of styling in 1931.
Spring was a colorful and eccentric character. Although he cultivated the image of a dashing millionaire sportsman, he was as fascinated with Eastern philosophy as he was with machinery and sports cars. He and his wife Clara were fitness and health food fanatics and he practiced yoga long before it became faddish. Spring sometimes came to work on a big BSA motorcycle, silk scarf trailing rakishly behind him, and tried without much success to convince other Hudson execs that riding was better than driving.
Like Packard’s Ed Macauley, Spring was not a stylist in the technical sense. He did not draw or sculpt, but he set the tone and direction for Hudson’s small design staff. During his long tenure, Hudson design was seldom groundbreaking, but always pleasant and tasteful and as finely detailed as Spring’s own wardrobe.
Although Spring’s sensibilities were seldom radical, they still sometimes clashed with A.E. Barit’s extremely conservative mindset. Barit had been very uneasy about the low-slung Step-Down cars, for instance, which he thought were much too low. Spring and Millard Toncray, now Hudson’s chief engineer, had changed Barit’s mind on the Step-Downs, but in the case of the Jet, Barit’s judgment ultimately won out, to Hudson’s great cost.
A HORSE DESIGNED BY COMMITTEE
The Hudson Jet’s most direct inspiration was the Fiat 1400. The 1400, launched in 1950, was Fiat’s first unibody car, a boxy, upright sedan with a 1,395 cc (85 cu. in.) engine. Though tiny by American standards, the 1400 was quite large for a European family sedan of its era. According to legend, the wife of one senior Hudson test drove a 1400 shortly after its introduction and became quite taken with its roomy, upright seating. At her request, her husband suggested to A.E. Barit that Hudson should model its new compact on the Fiat. Some of the Jet prototypes actually wore Fiat badges as a disguise.
The early concepts that Frank Spring’s team created were very European, but they sacrificed the Fiat’s boxy profile and upright seats for a lower roofline, complemented by a drooping nose, sloping tail, and low fenders with V-shaped air scoops. Most of those features would have been considered very au courant in Europe, although whether the American public would have accepted them is an open question. In any event, Barit didn’t like Spring’s proposal. He insisted on higher seating, which required raising the roofline significantly, and he wanted a squared-off hood and deck, with higher fenders and round, Oldsmobile-like taillights.
All of that was bad enough, as far as Spring was concerned, but there was also another voice to consider: Chicago-area Hudson dealer Jim Moran. Moran, whose dealerships accounted for about 5% of the company’s annual volume, had considerable influence on Hudson management. Moran was very impressed with Ford’s all-new 1952 line and he convinced sales VP Norman VanDerzee that the Jet should look like the ’52 Ford. Frank Spring protested that the Ford’s themes wouldn’t look right on the Jet, which was more than 10 inches (254 mm) shorter in both wheelbase and overall length, but VanDerzee and Barit overruled him.
Under protest, Spring had his team create new design studies incorporating Barit and Moran’s suggestions. As he had feared, the results were rather dowdy, sacrificing the early concept’s Italianate flavor for a stubby, slab-sided look. To Spring’s dismay, Barit loved it and immediately approved it for production.
Spring was crushed. He had become very invested in the original design and several of his colleagues recalled seeing him with tears in his eyes after Barit’s decision. Spring was despondent for some time afterward and he disclaimed any responsibility for the final design. As a partial consolation, Barit and his son Robert, Hudson’s VP of purchasing, made a deal with Carrozzeria Touring to build a limited number of coupes based on Spring’s original design idea. The result was the Hudson Italia; see the sidebar below.
Hudson announced the Jet in early 1952, about a year before it actually went on sale. Barit told Time that Hudson expected to sell 200,000 units a year, in addition to its current volume — shades of 1929.
It was a bold and hopelessly optimistic prediction. The compact revolution begun by the Rambler and Henry J was already losing steam. Rambler sales were down more than 20% for 1952, while the Henry J fell by more than half. The new Willys Aero stole some of that business, but combined sales of all three compacts didn’t quite reach 114,000, down nearly 25% from 1951′s total.
The problem was that the primary appeal of compact cars for American buyers had been the prospect of lower prices. Many buyers assumed that selling prices went hand in hand with size and expected that a compact economy car would mean a return to prewar pricing. The truth was that compact cars were not substantially cheaper to build than big ones; that was part of the reason Chevrolet and Ford had abandoned their small car programs in the mid-forties. Buyers who might have liked an austere little car like the Henry J if it were priced at $995 were less interested when the price climbed above $1,400. Recognizing that dilemma, Nash tried to position the Rambler as an upscale second car for affluent buyers, but its higher price limited its market penetration.
Without the enticement of a lower sticker price, American buyers had no strong incentive to buy smaller cars. By the late forties, most U.S. states based registration and license fees on price, not engine displacement, a sharp contrast with Great Britain, France, or Italy, where market segments were largely defined by taxable horsepower ratings. Smaller overall dimensions were an advantage in urban areas, but American streets were still less crowded than those of many European cities; furthermore, many U.S. owners lived in suburban or semi-rural areas, where compactness was no great virtue. Gasoline was cheap in America and while some scientists and engineers were already concerned about the limits of oil supplies, it had not yet become a political issue. As for air pollution, smog was perceived as a regional problem and the public did not yet correlate it with automotive emissions.
In sum, there was a market for compacts, but it was not yet as big as the independents hoped — something Hudson was about to find out the hard way.