THE HUDSON JET TAKES OFF
To build the Jet, Hudson contracted with Murray Corporation of America, which had built bodies for Hudson in the twenties and thirties. (Ironically, Murray was also building the Willys Aero, which was one of the Jet’s leading competitors.) Part of the rationale for sending the bodies out of house was that Murray agreed to amortize the tooling costs over the production run, reducing the upfront investment. That was attractive to Hudson, which didn’t have the cash to pay the entire tooling bill, but it would prove to be the Jet’s undoing.
The Jet went into production in January 1953 and went on sale in March, months after the start of the 1953 model year. It was offered in two models — Jet and fancier Super Jet — both available as two- or four-door sedans. Like the Fiat that inspired it, the Jet had unibody construction, although it was 12.2 inches (310 mm) longer than the 1400, mostly to accommodate its bigger, six-cylinder engine. A three-speed manual transmission was standard, with either overdrive or GM’s Dual-Range Hydra-Matic optional.
The Jet did not lack for performance. In standard form, it had 104 hp (78 kW), substantially more than the Rambler, Willys Aero, or Henry J. With the optional aluminum head and Twin H-Power, it made 114 hp (85 kW) — almost as much as a Chevrolet, which weighed some 500 lb (227 kg) more. Even with Hydra-Matic, a Twin H-Power Jet was capable of reaching 60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 15 seconds or less, with a top speed of around 90 mph (145 km/h) — quite brisk for an early-fifties family sedan. Fuel economy ranged from around 19 mpg (12.2 L/100 km) in city driving to perhaps 23 mpg (10.2 L/100 km) on the road, also decent for the time.
While the Jet was nearly as fast as the bigger Hudson Hornet, it couldn’t match its larger brother’s nimble handling. The Jet was about half an inch (13 mm) taller than the Hornet and it had a higher center of gravity. It also had softer springs, chosen to provide a more comfortable ride with its relatively short wheelbase. Period testers found that the Jet’s actual grip was surprisingly good, but fast turns brought far more body roll than with the Step-Down cars. Brakes were quite good, however; the Jet’s total brake area was greater than that of many full-size cars of this period.
Despite its virtues, the Jet had two serious failings. The first was its styling — however much Barit and Moran may have liked the hodgepodge of Ford, Fiat, and Oldsmobile design cues, public response was not favorable. The more European-oriented magazines, like Road & Track, applauded it for its reasonable dimensions, if not its aesthetics, but the average buyer was not impressed.
The second problem was price. The base price of a two-door Jet was $1,858, about $275 more than the popular Ford Customline tudor sedan and nearly $40 more than a Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop. The Super Jet started at $1,933, which was edging perilously close to Pontiac territory. Adding Twin H-Power, Hydra-Matic, a heater, and a full load of accessories would bring the tab to more than $2,500, enough to put a canny bargainer into a modestly equipped Buick Special. The Jet was less expensive than any of the big Hudsons, but anyone expecting it to be an inexpensive economy car was sorely disappointed.
The Jet arrived just as the new Eisenhower administration lifted the restrictions on auto production. Regulation W, a controversial anti-inflation measure that gave the Federal Reserve Board the power to restrict consumer credit, had also expired in mid-1952, making car loans much easier to come by. All that might have been good new for Hudson, except that Ford and Chevrolet had responded by dramatically increasing their production. The result was a savage price war, as dealers, pressured to accept more cars than they would otherwise have ordered, went to any lengths to move the metal. The $200-$300 gap between the Jet and the Low-Priced Three swelled to $500 or more, depending on the desperation of the individual dealer. Combined with attractive (and occasionally foolhardy) credit terms, a new Ford or Chevy was a vastly better deal than the Jet, a gap the Hudson’s performance and economy couldn’t overcome. It wouldn’t have hurt if the Jet had been better looking, but it probably wouldn’t have helped much, either.
Because of the late introduction, Hudson sold only 21,143 ’53 Jets, well below expectations. If the Jet had had a full model year, it might have matched the Willys Aero, the best-selling compact that year, but even that would have been small consolation. Despite the launch of the Jet, total compact sales for 1953 were almost the same as in 1952, suggesting that the compact market was close to its saturation point.
With sales well below expectations, the Jet was proving very expensive. Hudson had set its amortization of the Jet’s production costs, which had swollen to $16 million, based on a production schedule that Murray repeatedly failed to meet. Late in the year, Hudson revised its amortization to reduce its per-car costs, which caused considerable rancor at Murray; it essentially meant that Murray was making less money for each body.
The Jet’s lackluster debut might have been less critical if the big Hudsons were still selling well, but by 1953, the Step-Down was a dead duck. Not only did it face the same obstacles as the Jet, its design was now very dated. Barit had authorized a facelift for the 1954 model year, but the makeover did not disguise the fact that the Step-Down cars were now six years old. They were no match for the all-new ’54 Buicks and Oldsmobiles, all of which now had V8 engines. Hudson ended 1953 with a net loss of $10.4 million and an alarming shortage of options.
The 1954 Hudson Jet arrived that fall with very few changes, most of them cosmetic. There was a new model, the Jet-Liner, with a plusher interior and extra chrome, priced around $100 above the Super Jet. Considering that the Super Jet was already considered overpriced, this was a miscalculation, so in April, Hudson added a stripped Family Club Sedan model. It had a base price of $1,621, about $30 less than a basic Ford Mainline tudor and within a few dollars of a Plymouth Plaza business coupe. (A Jet convertible was contemplated, but only one was built, for the son of sales manager Virgil Boyd.) The new models did little to revive Jet sales, which totaled only 14,224 units for the 1954 model year.
The Jet-Liner and Family Club Sedan were holding actions, because Hudson management’s attention was elsewhere. The company was running out of money and rumors of its imminent demise dragged sales down even more. By the fall of 1953, A.E. Barit had concluded that the only hope of survival lay in a merger with Nash-Kelvinator. Barit had previously dismissed that prospect, but there was no longer any choice.
The Hudson board approved the merger in January 1954, although it took another ten weeks to secure stockholder approval. On May 1, 1954, Nash and Hudson reformed as the American Motors Corporation. Since Nash was by far the stronger partner — though hardly robust — Nash-Kelvinator president George Mason became the head of AMC, with Nash’s George Romney as executive vice president. A.E. Barit had a seat on the board and a nominal consulting role, but his tenure was basically over.
Mason and Romney quickly decide to consolidate production on the Nash lines in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Jet was now extraneous; production ended in August, replaced by Hudson-badged Ramblers and Metropolitans. Production of the Step-Down Hudsons ended in October. Hudson’s engines survived through 1956, but the big Hudsons were now restyled Nashes.