Step-Down: The 1948-1954 Hudsons

Best known today for the “Fabulous Hudson Hornets” of 1951-1954, the Hudson Motor Car Company merged with Nash in 1954 to form the American Motors Corporation, disappearing as a separate marque in 1957. This week, we look at the history of Hudson and of their most famous models, the 1948-1954 Step Down Hudsons and the Hudson Hornet.

1951 Hudson Pacemaker badge

THE $1,000 CAR

The Hudson Motor Car Company, incorporated in February 1909, was founded by four former Oldsmobile executives, Roy Chapin, Howard Coffin, Charles Denham, and Roscoe Jackson. The fledgling automaker took its name and a substantial portion of its starting capital from J.L. Hudson, founder of the venerable Hudson’s department store chain and the uncle of Jackson’s wife.

Hudson’s first car, launched later that year, was the Hudson Twenty, which competed in the $1,000 price class — several hundred dollars more than a contemporary Oldsmobile, but still within reach of middle-class buyers. The new company was an early success, particularly after the introduction of its famous Super Six, a six-cylinder car that enjoyed a lively racing career.

Sales really took off with the introduction of a new low-price model, the four-cylinder Essex, in 1919. Essex is most famous today for the 1922 Essex Coach, built for Hudson by Briggs. Up until that point, closed cars were too expensive for many buyers, but by 1924, the Essex Coach sold for a few dollars less than an open Essex touring car. The Essex Coach led a sea change in the U.S. auto industry that saw the market share for open cars shrink to only about 10% by 1929. Thanks to the success of the Essex, Hudson briefly reached No. 3 in domestic auto sales, reaching an all-time high of more than 300,000 sales in calendar 1929 and earning chairman Roy Chapin an appointment as secretary of commerce to new President Herbert Hoover.

Like many automakers, Hudson was hard hit by the Crash. Sales plummeted to fewer than 114,000 units in 1930 and fewer than 57,000 the following year. Even with the introduction of a new low-price brand, Terraplane, to replace Essex, Hudson struggled. Chapin returned in early 1933, managing to boost sales back over the 100,000 mark by 1935, but he died of a heart attack in February 1936 at the age of only 56. His successor was A.E. Barit, who had risen through the Hudson ranks as an accountant.

A new economic downturn and the elimination of the Terraplane brand caused Hudson sales to drop again in 1938, but Barit’s conservative leadership kept the company at least marginally in the black and enabled Hudson to pay off much of its long-term debt. Still, the company’s fortunes didn’t dramatically improve until America’s entry into World War II, which brought lucrative government contracts and enabled the company to face the postwar years with renewed optimism.

HUDSON PASSES THE BUICK

Many automotive stylists of the thirties and forties were colorful figures, and Frank S. Spring, who became Hudson’s first in-house styling chief in September 1931, was no exception. Spring, who had earned his engineering degree from École Polytechnique in Paris, had the carriage and style of a cultured aristocrat, but he cultivated a range of pursuits that would have better suited the late sixties: yoga, health food, vegetarianism, and Asian philosophies. He also rode a motorcycle, which would itself have qualified him as eccentric by the reactionary standards of Detroit’s Golden Age.

Spring and his small staff at Hudson, including his assistant, Art Kibiger, shared a strong interest in the advanced European cars of the thirties and Spring had a collection of prewar European brochures. A particular favorite was the Czechoslovakian Tatra T87, a remarkable streamlined, rear-engined car with independent suspension and an air-cooled magnesium alloy OHC V8 engine. Exotics like the Tatra inspired Spring and Kibiger to essay some radical designs of their own, featuring a variety of advanced engineering concepts.

Most of these had little chance of production, particularly at a company like Hudson, but one idea that Spring and Kibiger did seriously advocate was unibody construction: merging body and frame into a single rigid structure. Lancia had first developed unit construction for automobiles back in 1919, but it had been slow to catch on, particularly in America. Chrysler and Ford had dabbled with semi-unitary designs (using “bridge-and-truss” inner structures bolted or welded to the body shell) with the Airflow and Lincoln Zephyr, but most U.S. automakers remained firmly committed to traditional body-on-frame construction, which had its roots in pre-automotive coachwork.

1941 Tatra T87 front 3q © 2013 Mr.choppers CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
One of the original influences on the Step Down Hudsons was the Tatra T87. The streamlined, V8-powered T87, designed by Hans Ledwinka and built from 1936 to 1950, influenced several postwar cars, including the Step Down Hudsons and the Tucker. Despite its sophistication, the T87’s rear weight bias gave its high-speed handling a diabolical reputation; during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Nazi officers were allegedly ordered not to drive them! The 1936 Tatra T97, which was conceptually similar but smaller and powered by a flat-four engine, was a strong influence on the Volkswagen Beetle. Tatra actually sued Volkswagen designer Ferdinand Porsche, a matter resolved out of court after the war for the sum of 3 million DM (about $715,000). (Photo: “1941 Tatra 87 49870” © 2013 Mr.choppers; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The principal advantages of unit or “monocoque” construction are structural strength and rigidity; a welded, unitized structure is considerably stouter than a separate body bolted to a platform frame. This advantage can, at least in theory, allow substantial weight savings with no sacrifice of strength, although in the decades before sophisticated computer-assisted structural modeling, unit construction often had little if any real weight advantage over an assiduously designed body-on-frame structure. Other associated monocoque advantages include better space efficiency, including the potential for a lower ride height — if the frame is an integral part of the body structure rather than a separate component on which the body sits, the vehicle’s roof can be lower without sacrificing interior room.

Spring and Kibiger discussed these ideas with engineer Carl Cenzer, recently appointed the head of experimental engineering. In 1941, probably at Spring and Kibiger’s suggestion, Cenzer built a low-slung unit-body prototype to show off the advantages to A.E. Barit. Although rival Nash Motors had recently unveiled arguably the first truly unitized U.S.-market production car — the 1941 Nash 600, which featured a monocoque inner structure bolstered by detachable but load-bearing exterior panels — Barit was not yet convinced, put off by the prototype’s low roof and rakish stance. For the time being, the project went no further.

While at least some of Barit’s hesitation was aesthetic rather than practical, unit construction had some significant downsides, which was why it had not yet been more broadly adopted. Chief among these disadvantages was the high tooling cost, which meant either the seldom-appetizing prospect of convincing buyers to pay more or else accepting a longer amortization schedule than the American norm. Whatever the engineering drawbacks of body-on-frame construction, it had considerable financial and production advantages and facilitated the frequent styling changes that had become the Detroit norm.

During the war, Spring and Kibiger continued toying with advanced designs under the codename “Program 5.” By 1944, with a resumption of civilian automobile production now in the foreseeable future, Spring and his team returned their attention to production car development and the possibility of applying some of their more sophisticated ideas.

1946 Buick Special Series 40 sedan front 3q © 2015 Sicnag (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
The styling target for the 1948 Hudsons was the 1942 Buick, which resumed production little-changed after the war; this is a 1946 Buick Special sedan. (Photo: “1946 Buick 40 Special Sedan” © 2015 Sicnag; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

With the help of Cenzer and engineer Millard H. Toncray, Spring and Kibiger conceived an approach to unit construction that would help to mitigate some of the practical problems. Meanwhile, Kibiger and stylists Bob Andrews and Bill Kirby set to work on a production design. Aside from the Tatra T87, their principal inspiration and target was Buick’s 1942 fastback “sedanet,” one of the last new designs introduced before the war had curtailed automobile production. The goals was to have the new model ready for the 1948 model year.

The early start of the design process caused Hudson executives and designers no small amount of anxiety. There was no way of knowing what other automakers might be cooking up for the postwar years or how quickly new designs might appear to replace the inevitable revived prewar models. If Hudson’s first all-new postwar cars were too conservative, they risked looking immediately dated (as happened to Packard to some extent), but if they seemed too far out, the public might reject or even ridicule them (as happened to some extent to Studebaker in 1947).

Hudson management, particularly Barit, was inclined to err on the side of caution and began to suggest that the stylists tone things down. Andrews and Kirby, fearful that their work would end up hopelessly diluted, resorted to an unusual stratagem: Andrews drew a sketch of an even more far-out streamlined car and convinced Spring that it was a rendering of a postwar Buick, leaked to him by a GM contact. This trick nearly backfired when Spring, alarmed, took both the sketch and a very nervous Andrews to the Hudson board of directors, but the board bought Andrews’ fib. The design was allowed to go forward relatively unmolested, eventually earning Spring’s aprobation and Barit’s reluctant production approval.

STEP DOWN HUDSON

As it finally emerged, the 1948 Hudson stood just 60 inches (1,524 mm) high, a good 5 inches (127 mm) lower than most of its contemporaries. With its high beltline and low roof, the Hudson looked like it had been “chopped” by one of the new California custom shops. It also looked thoroughly aerodynamic, which it was to a point; Hudson didn’t have a test track, much less a wind tunnel, but wind tunnel tests conducted by Nash later found that the Hudson had almost 20% less drag than contemporary notchback sedans. Despite A.E. Barit’s reticence, the press and public reaction to the new Hudson was generally favorable.

1951 Hudson Pacemaker front 3q
The Hudson Pacemaker, introduced in 1950, had a 4-inch (101 mm) shorter wheelbase than the big Step Down Hudsons and stretched about 6 inches (154 mm) shorter overall. It’s still a big car: 201.5 inches (5,118 mm) on a 119.9-inch (3,045mm) wheelbase, weighing around 3,700 lb (1,678 kg). The external “Karvisor” windshield visor, a $21.95 accessory, is effective, but tends to vibrate at higher speeds.

The 1948 Hudson had a frame of sorts from the firewall back: a massive assembly with two sets of widely spaced longitudinal members as much as 6.8 inches (173 mm) deep. The inner rails kicked up toward the rear to accommodate the axle and were bolted and welded at their leading ends to a separate front stub frame that carried the engine and front suspension. (Hudson’s patent filings explained that the front stub frame was not specified for structural reasons, but to facilitate shipping and assembly. The patents also claim that this approach was cheaper and simpler than assembling a traditional body-on-frame car, although we have our doubts about whether that was true in practice.) The outer longitudinal members passed beneath the doors and were welded to the roof pillars, which in turn were integral with the roof rails and windshield frame. The outer rails flared outward just aft of the rear doors to make space for the rear wheelhouses, which sat between the inner and outer frame rails and were welded to both.

Hudson advertising called this “Monobilt” construction, although “overbuilt” would have been equally apt. Having neither the computing power for advanced structural analysis nor a lot of money to spare for trial and error, Hudson engineers were reluctant to risk lightening anything too much. As a result, the new Hudsons — like Ford’s early U.S. unit-bodied cars a decade later — were stoutly built, but far heavier than they needed to be. Nonetheless, they were more than 300 lb (136 kg) lighter than a contemporary Buick or Chrysler, which wasn’t bad for such massive cars. Moreover, Hudson claimed that Monobilt construction was twice as stiff as a conventional body-on-frame design, which was probably a conservative estimate. The new Hudsons were almost certainly the safest cars in America from a standpoint of collision safety, particularly in side impacts or rollover accidents.

What earned the new Hudsons their “Step Down Styling” moniker was that despite their low roofline, the floorpan was sunk between the frame rails to maximize headroom. When getting into these cars, you stepped over the sill and down into the interior, an operation that could be cumbersome for the uninitiated or short of leg. Once you were ensconced, interior space was cavernous, thanks in part to a two-piece driveshaft that didn’t intrude much into the cabin. Hudson advertised the widest seats in the industry and the Step Down cars had genuine six-passenger capacity — more if you didn’t mind crowding.

1951 Hudson Pacemaker fender
Although most Step Down Hudsons do have small rear fender skirts, the frame’s outermost longitudinal rails flare outward just aft of the rear doors and pass outside the rear wheels; the rear wheelhouses are welded between the inner and outer frame rails and serve to stiffen the rear body structure. The consequence of this unusual layout is that tire-changing is a hassle and getting at the rear suspension a project.

The other pay-off of the low height was excellent handling. The Step Down Hudsons had nothing particularly exotic in the way of suspension, with conventional double wishbones in front and parallel leaf springs in back, although tubular shock absorbers and front and rear anti-roll bars were still not universal in those days. However, even British testers praised the big Hudson’s effective damping (not necessarily a strong point of American cars even today) and the wide track and low center of gravity kept body lean well controlled. The unassisted steering was predictably slow, requiring almost six turns lock to lock, but cornering response was surprisingly direct. In all, the Step Down Hudsons cornered as ably as any cars made in America at the time. With the rigid structure, long wheelbase, and lots of sprung weight, they had an excellent ride to boot.

In straight-line performance, the Step Down Hudsons qualified as “reasonable.” Hudson introduced an entirely new engine for the 1948 cars: a 262 cu. in. (4,288 cc) flathead straight six, the first Hudson engine with a pressurized oiling system rather than simple splash lubrication. With its high-chrome iron block, it was also an exceedingly durable engine and was smooth and reasonably quiet. Hudson advertised the new six at a modest 121 hp (90 kW), although that was with accessories rather than stripped, so it was not as far behind the 135 gross hp (98 kW) of Chrysler’s contemporary straight eight as the paper rating might have suggested. The upper-series Hudson Commodore also offered a straight eight, a 254 cu. in. (4,139 cc) splash-lubricated engine of rather elderly design making a claimed 128 hp (96 kW). The Autocar drove a 1948 Hudson Commodore 8 from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a little over 18 seconds and reached a top speed of around 90 mph (145 kW), not bad for the time and better than a Dynaflow-equipped Buick Roadmaster. Six-cylinder Hudsons were only a little slower.

The Step Down Hudsons inherited a number of the brand’s unusual minor features, which included “Duo-Automatic” brakes — a mechanical system that would engage the rear brakes if the hydraulic system failed — and a cork-faced wet (oil-bath) clutch, something most automakers had long since abandoned in favor of the simpler dry-plate clutch. A less-praiseworthy feature was the use of red warning lights in place of oil pressure and voltage gauges, something Hudson had been doing since the early thirties. At the time, many American manufacturers still provided full instrumentation, although most would follow Hudson’s lead by the end of the following decade.

Hudson did not yet have a true automatic transmission, but for about $100, buyers could select Drive-Master, a semi-automatic version of the manual three-speed with overdrive. Drive-Master had three modes: normal shifting, clutchless manual shifting (with vacuum-powered automatic clutch operation), or fully automatic shifting between second and high gears. A substantial number of customers ordered it, although as with many such systems, its reliability left something to be desired and of course it was not completely automatic.

THE SELLER’S MARKET

Hudsons had never been inexpensive cars and Monobilt construction was far from cheap to build. When the Step Down Hudsons appeared in 1948, the basic Super Six models were more than $450 more expensive than their 1947 predecessors while a Commodore Eight was up over $540. That put Hudson firmly in Buick and Chrysler territory — what today we would call the near-luxury segment.

The Step Down Hudsons were well-equipped to compete there in most respects. The Super Six had more power than Buick’s smaller straight-eight and nearly as much as Chrysler’s. The big Hudsons had excellent build quality and a high standard of trim and of course they handled better than any direct rival.

1951 Hudson Pacemaker rear 3q
Even without the add-on window shades, rear visibility is not a strong point for Step Down Hudsons. The outside mirror (still an optional accessory at the time) is not really big enough and the inside rear-view mirror’s usefulness is compromised by the small rear window, whose curvature causes considerable distortion.

Hudson also benefited from the booming automotive market that followed the end of World War II. Civilian automotive production had ended in February 1942 and did not resume until after V-J Day in 1945. Unlike war-ravaged Europe and Japan, America had emerged from the conflict largely unscathed. Civilian defense workers had earned substantial wages during the war, but rationing and shortages meant there was little to buy until the war was over. Many weary prewar cars were ready for the scrap heap, so as soon as the automakers’ production lines reopened, customers started queuing up to buy. Dealers were soon selling all the cars they could get their hands on at full sticker price and more.

In this climate, the Step Down Hudsons sold well. Hudson sold 117,200 cars in 1948 and almost 160,000 of the unchanged ’49s, enough for the company to post a $13.2 million profit. It was still not the heady days of the late twenties, but it was a definite improvement over the prewar years.

A.E. Barit knew that the seller’s market wouldn’t last; it was already cooling rapidly by 1949. The first 1950 Hudson models were in a new lower-price line called Pacemaker, with a shorter wheelbase and a smaller 232 cu. in. (3,798 cc) six with 112 hp (84 kW). The Pacemaker line was priced under $2,000, still far more than a Ford or Chevy, but now competitive with an Oldsmobile Eighty Eight. The Pacemaker was no match for the Rocket Eighty-Eight in acceleration or speed, but its performance was still respectable; in February 1950, Motor Trend clocked a Hudson Pacemaker from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in a bit over 15 seconds. Hudson also cut prices on all other series by $100–$150 , but the cheaper Pacemaker and Pacemaker Deluxe accounted for about half of Hudson’s 1950 sales.

In 1949, General Motors began offering its Hydra-Matic automatic transmission to other manufacturers. Hudson, Nash, and even Lincoln opted for Hydra-Matic, which by that point was a well-proven and reasonably efficient transmission. It became available on the Hudson line in 1951 and quickly became very popular, supplementing and then replacing the old Drive-Master unit.

STING IN THE TAIL: THE HUDSON HORNET

For 1951, Hudson attempted to retrench by dropping the basic Pacemaker and Pacemaker Deluxe in favor of a single pricier Pacemaker Custom series. A trendy two-door hardtop body style, dubbed Hollywood, was also added to all but the Pacemaker line. The big news, however, was the introduction of the most famous of the Step Down Hudsons: the Hudson Hornet. The Hornet used the long-wheelbase body of the Super Six and Commodore, but had a bored-and-stroked version of the big six, stretched to 308 cu. in. (5,051 cc). This offered 145 hp (108 kW), brightening performance considerably compared to lesser models. A manual-shift Hornet was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 14 seconds and a top speed of around 97 mph (156 km/h), very respectable for the time. Hydra-Matic models were only about a second slower to 60 mph (97 km/h) and nearly as fast all out.

1951 Hudson Pacemaker front
A 1951 Hudson Pacemaker Custom two-door sedan like this one cost $2,102 to start. It was one of the least-expensive Step Down Hudsons, but was $53 more than an Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight and only $25 less than a Buick Special, so it was hardly cheap. The Pacemaker sold well in 1950 and 1951, but by 1952, it was overshadowed by the new Wasp, which combined the Pacemaker’s short-wheelbase chassis with the bigger 262 cu. in. (4,288 cc) engine from the Super Six and Commodore. The triangular grill bars, incidentally, were new for 1951, one of the Step Down cars’ few minor styling changes.

The Step Down Hudsons’ handling was already well known and a few had even found their way into NASCAR competition. Many competitors were faster, but the Hudson’s cornering ability gave it a decided advantage over many competitors and it was also far safer, which drivers greatly appreciated; roll cages were still years away. With the big engine, the Hudson Hornet was a natural for the track.

In February 1951, Marshall Teague, a service station owner from Daytona Beach, Florida, won the NASCAR Daytona 500 behind the wheel of a Hudson Hornet with an engine he had “blueprinted” himself. Soon afterward, Teague visited the Hudson offices in Detroit to ask for support, which the factory provided in the form of three new Hornets (two racers and a tow car) and a young engineer, Vince Piggins, who was assigned to help Teague tune the cars. Hudson also agreed to pay Teague a $1,000 monthly stipend to compete with their cars and to keep any prize money.

Hudsons won in a total of 13 NASCAR races in the 1951 Grand National season, five of those victories going to Teague himself. Teague was joined in August by Herb Thomas, who had previously driven an Oldsmobile Rocket Eighty-Eight, who promptly won five more. Hudson came in third in the Manufacturer’s Championship for that year, behind Oldsmobile and Plymouth.

1953 Hudson Hornet sedan badge
The Hudson Hornet joined the Step Down Hudson line in 1951. A 1953 four-door sedan like this one listed for $2,769, only $17 less than a V8-powered Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight.

Teague and Vince Piggins soon developed a series of “Severe Duty” parts for the Hornet, all intended for the track. Most notable of these parts was a hotter racing version of the big six. Called “7-X,” it was bored and relieved, with a high-compression head, big valves, hotter cam, and “Twin H-Power”: two carburetors on a unique dual-runner intake manifold. The 7-X made about 210 hp (157 kW), a substantial improvement on the standard six. With the 7-X engine, the “Fabulous Hudson Hornets” brutalized their NASCAR competition in 1952, scoring a total of 27 victories. By comparison, Oldsmobile and Plymouth managed only six between them. Teague subsequently left NASCAR for AAA (the predecessor of the modern CART), where the Hornet racked up an additional 22 wins. For 1953, Hornets scored 22 NASCAR and 24 CART victories, setting a new record.

NASCAR rules required Twin H-Power to be sold to the public to be legal for competition, so the twin-carburetor setup became optional on civilian Hudson Hornets in late 1951. It cost $85.60 and bumped power to 160 hp (119 kW). “Miracle H-Power,” as Hudson advertising called it, did not help the Hornet’s prodigious fuel consumption and complicated some routine maintenance chores, but was very popular. For 1953, a hotter cam and higher compression ratio boosted the Hornet’s standard engine to 160 hp (119 kW) — 170 hp (127 kW) with Twin H-Power. The 7-X engine was also available as a dealer-installed option in 1953 and 1954.

1951 Hudson Pacemaker engine
Twin H-Power was first offered as a parts-counter kit in November 1951. It became a factory option on Hudson Hornets in mid-January 1952 and was also offered for the compact Jet in 1953 and 1954. On Hornets, Twin H-Power was good for an extra 15 horsepower (11 kW). It was not available on Pacemakers, but since the Pacemaker’s 232 cu. in. (3,798 cc) six was essentially the Hornet’s engine with a smaller bore and stroke, adding it was presumably not difficult.

FALLING DOWN

Hudson’s racing success didn’t help its overall business, which dropped quickly after 1950. Hudson lost money again in 1951 and made a profit in 1952 only because of its Korean War-era military contracts. Sales plummeted that year to only 70,000 units.

In 1951, Barit opted to develop a new compact model, the Hudson Jet, which he hoped would make Hudson more competitive against the “Low-Priced Three.” We’ve covered the Jet elsewhere, but suffice to say that Hudson sunk some $16 million — the last of the company’s cash reserves — into its development, which proved to be a fatal mistake. The Jet had its virtues, but it sold poorly. Total 1953 sales were only about 21,000, far less than Hudson had anticipated.

1953 Hudson Super Jet front 3q
Other than its somewhat dumpy styling, the Hudson Jet was a fine car, sized like a modern compact and powered by a 202 cu. in. (3,301 cc) six. With Twin H-Power and overdrive it made 114 gross horsepower (85 kW), good for 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 15 seconds and a top speed of about 90 mph (145 km/h) while returning up to 25 mpg (8.4 L/100 km) in gentle driving.

The big Hudsons weren’t selling any better by then. Hudson dropped the Super Six for 1952 in favor of a new Wasp model (essentially the old Hudson Pacemaker with the Super Six’s big engine) and discontinued the Pacemaker and Commodore for 1953, but total sales for the model year, including the Jet, were only 66,143.

Despite the Hornet’s sterling NASCAR career, the unavoidable fact was that the Step Down Hudsons were simply looking old. Several minor facelifts and trim changes couldn’t really disguise a design that was now almost six years old, particularly in an era when buyers were accustomed to significant styling changes every two or three years. Worse, the public had wearied of fastback styling in general — GM had discontinued all of its fastbacks by 1952 — and there was little Hudson could do with the basic shape that would not require extensive tooling changes the company simply couldn’t afford. Spring’s team managed a modest facelift for 1954, but it wasn’t enough.

Engines represented an even bigger marketing problem. By 1953, most of the Hornet’s direct competitors had modern overhead-valve V8s with more power than even the Hornet’s Twin H-Power engine. The big flathead six was antiquated and Hudson did not even have any serious plans for developing a V8 to replace it.

There were other obstacles as well. Raw materials were again in short supply, strikes (authorized and otherwise) were rampant at various automotive suppliers, and tight wartime credit restrictions gave way to a bitter sales war between Ford and Chevrolet, which proved devastating to the independents. By the end of 1953, Hudson was more than $10 million in the red and its situation was becoming grim.

THE AMC MERGER

George Mason of Nash had seen the writing on the wall for the small independent automakers back when the war ended. He had approached Barit twice about the prospects of a merger — which Mason had hoped would ultimately include Packard and Studebaker as well — but Barit had declined. By the end of 1953, however, the Hudson board could see that they no longer had much choice.

In January 1954, the board approved the merger with Nash, forming the American Motors Corporation. Barit received a seat on the new board of directors and a mostly nominal management consultant role; Nash’s George Mason and George Romney were clearly in charge. Hudson formally became a division of AMC effective May 1.

It was the beginning of the end for Hudson. The 1954 model year would be the last for both the Jet and the Step Down Hudsons. For 1955, the Wasp and Hornet were replaced by hastily facelifted versions of the Nash Statesman and Ambassador with a new grille, while the Jet was succeeded by Hudson-badged Ramblers and Metropolitans. Hudson’s flathead sixes survived a while longer, but while the post-merger cars retained unitary construction, they were now based on the big Nash, with none of the old Step Down Hudsons’ solidity or handling prowess. Hudson fans unkindly dubbed these post-merger Hudsons “Hashes.”

To confuse the mechanical pedigree even further, some 1955 and 1956 Hudsons got Packard V8 engines and Twin Ultramatic transmissions, purchased from Studebaker-Packard. AMC’s own V8, a Nash design begun before the merger, became available late in the 1956 model year.

1957 Hudson Hornet front © 2009 Mike's Car Pix (Mike Sawyer) (used with permission)
The post-merger Hudsons’ styling is best described as overwrought. It was an expensive car for its era, too. A 1957 Hudson Hornet Custom sedan like this one had a base price of $3,011, $800 more than a Chevrolet Bel Air Sport Coupe. Sales were dismal. (Photo: “1957 Hudson Hornet-2” © 2009 Mike’s Car Pix (Mike Sawyer); used with permission)

George Mason died in October 1954, putting executive vice president George Romney in charge of AMC. Romney soon decided that the company’s future was in the compact Rambler, in part because American Motors — then still losing money at an alarming rate — simply couldn’t afford multiple product lines. At a highly contentious board meeting in November 1956, he opted to discontinue both Hudson and Nash at the end of the 1957 model year, re-badging the remaining models as Ramblers. A.E. Barit resigned in protest in December, but it made no difference.

Fewer than 4,000 Hudsons were sold in 1957, all of them Hornets. The Hudson sixes and Packard V8s were gone, so all cars now carried AMC’s new 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) V8 with 255 hp (190 kW). The final Hudson rolled off the production line on June 25, 1957.

American Motors never revived the Nash or Hudson names, but in 1969, in an apparent fit of nostalgia, chairman Roy Chapin, Jr. (the son of the late founder), revived the Hornet name for AMC’s new compact. The AMC Hornet sold respectably well through 1977, but it was a thoroughly ordinary compact. Other than unitary construction and a six-cylinder engine, it had little in common with its illustrious ancestor.

Hornets remain appealing collector’s cars, in part because they were built like tanks, but Hudson is slowly fading from the collective memory. AMC is more than 20 years dead now and even Hudson’s department store is gone. The flagship store in Detroit closed in 1983 and in the past decade, the company re-branded its remaining stores first as Marshall Fields and then as Macy’s.

The original “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” returned to the public eye in 2006 courtesy of Pixar. Director John Lasseter made the old NASCAR racer a character in the company’s animated film Cars, voiced by actor and racer Paul Newman. The film may keep Hudson from being completely forgotten, just as comedian Jack Benny’s Maxwell endured for decades after the demise of the company and the car.

Automotive writers tend to conclude histories of defunct independents with 20/20 hindsight on what the company should have done. We’ll spare you because we don’t think it would have made much difference. Even if the company had invested in restyling the Step Down cars or adding a V8 engine, Hudson simply didn’t have the capital to keep pace with the Big Three. It’s too bad, but it points out one of the sad contradictions of the automotive industry: The companies that can most afford to take risks like the Step Down Hudsons are often the least willing to try and vice versa.

As a final note, both Frank Spring, who’d been Hudson’s chief designer, and Marshall Teague, who had made the Hornet a force to be reckoned with on the track, died in 1959, both in car crashes. Bob Andrews and Arthur Kibiger, who had been the principal designer of the Step Down cars, left Hudson for Willys-Overland in 1947, where they helped Brook Stevens create the Jeepster. Andrews subsequently joined Studebaker and then became one of Raymond Loewy’s designers, working on the 1963 Studebaker Avanti. Vince Piggins, who had worked with Marshall Teague to develop the “Severe Duty” parts for Hudson racers, later joined Chevrolet, where he was responsible for Chevrolet’s performance hardware, including the immortal Camaro Z/28.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for the history of Hudson and the origins of the Step Down cars included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Dana K. Badertscher and Millard H. Toncray, assignors to Hudson Motor Car Company, “Motor Vehicle Frame Structure,” U.S. Patent No. 2,669,462A, filed 7 April 1948, published 16 February 1954; Arch Brown, “Another Visit with George Romney,” Special Interest Autos #77 (September-October 1983), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons: driveReports from Hemmings Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), p. 96; “Mrs. Chapin’s Commodore: The Ultimate Postwar Hudson,” Special Interest Autos #89 (September-October 1985), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos Magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 42-45; “1927 Hudson Super-Six: Middle-Priced Performer” and “Essex: The Tail That Wagged the Dog,” Special Interest Autos #99 (May-June 1987), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons, pp. 4-11; “1939 Hudson 112: Heir to the Essex,” Special Interest Autos #83 (September-October 1984), reprinted in ibid, pp. 36-43; “1941 Nash 600: Bristling with innovations, this pre-war economy car offered excellent value,” Special Interest Autos #60 (November-December 1980), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Nashes: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 70-76; “1946 Hudson Super Six: Hudson’s Postwar Success” and “Roy D. Chapin,” Special Interest Autos #72 (November-December 1982), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons, pp. 48-56; “1956 Hudson Hornet Special: Hudson, Nash or Hash?” Special Interest Autos #77 (September-October 1983), reprinted in ibid, pp. 90-97; and “Why Studebaker-Packard Never Merged With AMC and other revelations by Governor George Romney,” Special Interest Autos #66 (December 1981), pp. 50-55; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Tad Burness, Cars of the Early Twenties (New York: Galahad Books, 1968); Carl W. Cenzer, Walter I. Nyquist, and Millard H. Toncray, assignors to Hudson Motor Car Company, “Motor Vehicle Body Frame,” U.S. Patent No. 2,627,426A, filed 26 June 1948, published 3 February 1953; John A. Conde, “Rare Pair: Twin 1948 Nash Convertibles,” Special Interest Autos #37 (November-December 1976), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Nashes, pp. 78-83; David R. Crippen, “The Reminiscences of Robert F. Andrews,” 2 August 1985, Automotive Oral History Project, Accession 1673, www.autolife.umd. umich.edu/Design/ Andrews_interview.htm [transcript], accessed 8 August 2009); Jim Donnelly, “Pioneers: Hans Ledwinka,” Special Interest Autos #200 (April 2004), p. 22; Kit Foster, “1929 Hudson Sport Phaeton: Middle Class Classic,” Special Interest Autos #127 (January-February 1992), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons, pp. 12-20; Ken Gross, “Hudson Jet: There was nothing wrong with this early compact…except that it killed the company,” Special Interest Autos #60 (November-December 1980), reprinted in ibid, pp. 68-75; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Maurice D. Hendry, “Hudson: The Car Named for Jackson’s Wife’s Uncle,” Automobile Quarterly’s Great Cars & Grand Marques (Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly/Bonanza Books, 1979), pp. 70-85; Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Tim Howley, “1954 Hudson Hornet,” Special Interest Autos #185 (September-October 2001), pp. 32-39; Beverly Rae Kimes, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, Inc., 1989); Michael Lamm, “driveReport: 12,000 Miles Later,” Special Interest Autos #21, reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons, pp. 58-63; “Italia…Hudson’s Last Fling,” Special Interest Autos #8 (November-December 1971), reprinted in ibid, pp. 84-89; and “Bathtub!” Special Interest Autos #9 (January-March 1972), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Nashes, pp. 90-95; Mark J. McCourt, “Hudson Twin H-Power,” Hemmings Motor News 1 August 2008; Jack Nerad, “The Hudson Hornet – ‘Win On Sunday, Sell on Monday,'” Driving Today, www.drivingtoday. com, accessed 30 August 2009; Jan Norbye, “Half-Hour History of Unit Bodies,” Special Interest Autos #18 (August-October 1973), pp. 24–29, 54; Jim Richardson, “Driving Mrs. Chapin,” Special Interest Autos #200 (April 2004), pp. 24-29; Graham Robson and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Volkswagen Chronicle (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1996); Bob Rovegno, “The Step-Down’s Next Step,” Special Interest Autos #164 (March-April 1998), pp. 34-37; Michael Sedgwick, Classic Cars of the 1950’s and 1960’s (Twickenham, England: Tiger Books International PLC, 1983); Don Spiro, “Stinging Sensation: Cruising Tucson in a 1953 Hudson Hornet Club Coupe,” Special Interest Autos #177 (May-June 2000), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Hudsons, pp. 64-67; Millard H. Toncray and Frank S. Spring, assignors to Hudson Motor Car Company, “Motor Vehicle Body Frame,” U.S. Patent No. 2,627,437A, filed 22 July 1948, published 3 February 1953, and Roland Via, “Hudson Racing,” Legends of NASCAR, 11 March 2008, www.legendsofnascar. com, accessed 16 August 2009; James Arthur Ward, The Fall of the Packard Motor Car Company (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995); and the Wikipedia® entry for Hudson’s (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson%27s, accessed 30 August 2009).

We also consulted the following period road tests: “The Hudson Commodore 8 Club Coupé”, The Motor 23 March 1949; “The Autocar Road Tests No. 1380: Hudson Commodore Saloon,” The Autocar 20 May 1949; Walter A. Woron, “Keeping Apace with the Hudson Pacemaker,” Motor Trend February 1950, “Motor Trials: Hudson Hornet Fastest Yet Tested…97.5 MPH,” Motor Trend March 1951), and “Two Hudsons,” Motor Trend, August 1952; John R. Bond, “Road and Track Road Test No. A-4-52: Hudson Hornet,” Road & Track July 1952; “1953 Hudson Hornet, Wasp and Super Wasp,” Automobile Topics December 1952; Barney Clark, “Road Test: Twin Hornet,” Auto Sport Review May 1953; “Super Jet: Power plus–30 mpg,” Speed Age August 1953; “The Hudson Line for ’54,” Automobile Topics November 1953; Art Nicholas, “Road Test: Hudson Hornet,” Motor Life March 1954; “Hudson Hornet: Designed for Travel,” Motor Trend March 1954; Tom McCahill, “McCahill Tests: The Hudson Hornet,” Mechanix Illustrated August 1955; “Hudson Hornet Six,” Complete Road Test 1956; “Hornet and Ambassador: American Motors’ Big Brothers,” Auto Age November 1955; Jim Lodge, “Nash and Hudson Special V8 Road Test,” Motor Trend July 1956; and “Hudson Road Test,” Motor Life June 1957, all of which are reprinted in Hudson 1946-1957 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 2004).


22 Comments

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  1. Wow, great article! Love that 1957 Hudson, it’s pretty sweet!

  2. The 1949-51 Nash Airflytes make for an interesting comparison with the step-downs. Both championed aerodynamics, but whereas the Hudson was a truly new design, the Nash was a clever rehash of a pre-war platform.

    Note that in 1941 Nash had switched to “single-unit” construction. In contrast to the step-down, which was designed primarily for performance and safety, Nash focused on fuel economy. Perhaps responding to the success of the Studebaker Champion – essentially the first mid-sized car – the entry-level Nash weighed less than a low-priced Ford or Chevy. In contrast, the step-down weighed roughly 500 pounds more than a comparable Nash model.

    The step-down may have been the more technically advanced design, but the Airflyte made more business sense. Whereas Hudson essentially bet the farm on the step-down, Nash was able to use the seller’s market to build its savings and wait for post-war design trends to emerge before investing in a completely new body in 1952.

    Perhaps just as importantly, the Airflyte’s weight advantage was central to Nash’s ability to move farther downmarket than Hudson. By 1951 this gave Nash a decisive sales advantage despite its less modern design.

    The introduction of the step-down represented Hudson’s repudiation of its successful strategy in the 1920s and ‘30s of maintaining a presence in both the low- and premium-priced markets. Nash effectively stepped into the void left by Hudson when it moved upmarket. This goes a long ways toward explaining why Nash survived and Hudson didn’t.

  3. Not so well known fact is that Frank Spring, my great uncle, was terminated after the AMC merger, just two weeks before he would have been eligible for his pension.

    1. Another not so well known fact is that Carl Cenzer, my great grandpa, was practically forced into retirement early because he did not have a college degree. So Romney, who bought out the company, did not want him to be the vice president of the company.

  4. My understanding, having been a Hudson enthusiast for about 40 years, is that the Pacemeker had a 4 inch shorter wheelbase, 120, vs 124 for the larger stepdown cars. You can immediateely tell the difference between a long and short wheelbase Hudson by the length of the front fender ahead of the door and behind the front wheel opening. The 4 inches is quite noticeable there.

    Hudso did use a sway bar in the front, but the rear bar is a Panhard rod, or track bar, and does not add roll stiffness to teh rear suspension.

    Hudson handled exceptionally well for a number of reasons, not the least because they were the first to understand roll oversteer, and to locate the rear springs to minimize it. The low center of gravity, relatively anyhow, and a pretty good front suspension design, considering they still had kingpins, also helped.

    The torsional stiffness of the stepdown body also helped the handling, something that only recently has been realized in other cars. Hudson had been a leader in this area. Earlier Hudsons, while not unibody in the narrow sense of the word, tied the frame and body together with no isolation to form, essentially, a unibody. They used a very light frame, relying on the body for the torsional stiffness.

    The short wheelbase Hudsons had much quicker steering. They had a different steering gear, and the shorter wheelbase also reduced the overall steering ration/turning radius ratio.

    Good article on the stepdown.

    Bob

    1. Thanks for the clarification on the rear suspension. A number of sources describe the Step-Down cars as having front and rear “stabilizers,” and it’s evident that some automotive writers are not clear on the distinction between an anti-roll bar and a Panhard rod. I’ve amended the text to clarify.

      As for the Pacemaker, its wheelbase was five inches shorter than the others, rather than four, but it is pretty apparent, nonetheless.

  5. Not to belabor the point, but my Hudson service manual lists the wheelbases, in 1950, as 120″ for the Pacemaker and 124″ for the Super and Commodore series.

    I have an original Hudson vehcile layout drawing of the Pacemaker which shows teh wheelbase as 119 7/8 inches, which is real close to 120″.

    classiccardatabase.com lists the wheelbases as 119.875 and 123.875 respectively, which is real close to 120 and 124. I suspect that the build tolerance is more than the 1/8 inch.

    I also suspect that some people looked at the 119.875 number and rounded it off to 119.

    I always enjoy your articles, and I hope you continue to publish new stories.

    Bob Elton

    1. Okay, that makes sense — I’ll go with that.

  6. Got my 1st Hudson in ’55, 2nd in ’57, A Hornet in ’62. Began again in ’98 with a 49 Commadore, then a ’36 Terraplane, a ’47 Pickup daily driver and a ’52 Hornet Twin H..all on the road, and drive them all at least once a week. Attend many car shows where a Hudson will suck most of the attention from all the cars around it, because they are so different. A 40 eight coupe in the works and a 46 Pickup with a ’39 eight.

    Great Article and the first time I’ve seen that Twin H air cleaner arrangement. Maybe because this car is a short wheelbase which crowded the standard air cleaner arrangement. Generally they are parallel across the engine.

  7. In 1955, AMC used the 320-cid Packard V-8; the 352-cid V-8 was used only in Packards that year. For 1956, AMC used the 352-cid V-8 when Packard’s larger engine went to 374-cid.

    The 1955 Hudson grille was actually very nice looking, sorta like a larger 1955 Chevrolet. For 1956-57, designer Richard Arbib modified the front end design into that “V”-shaped thing.

    1. Oops! You’re quite right about the engine sizes, and I’ve amended the text. Thanks.

  8. The American Motors 327 displaces about 5.3 liters. It was probably designed for Kaiser as a 288 cid OHV V8. AMC’s first in-house V8 displaced 250 cid and was rated at 190 HP with a 2 barrel carburator. In its second year (1957), it was enlarged to 327 cid and rated at 255 HP with a 4 barrel carb. However, the car was offered in a solid lifter, fuel injected version which was rated at 288 HP. This engine propelled the Rambler Rebel to 0-60 in just over 7 seconds the quickest sedan made in America in 1957. Only the fuel injected 283 Corvette was quicker.

    My first car was my dad’s 10 year old 1954 Hudson Hornet with a sorry Borg Warner 3 speed automatic.

  9. The ’55 Hudson was not “ghastly”, it was a decent looking car, superior looking to most other 55’s from the big 3. Still, it was an easy guess that underneath it was a Nash, so what? Everything you see today was something else at one other time, like a Chevy is an old Saturn, or a Cadillac is an old Opel. The 55 Hudson was superior looking to the 55 Nash with its still enclosed front wheel wells, talk about ghastly. But, Hudson was the weakest of all independents, and would not have survived 1954 on its own. The tragedy is that AMC and SPC did not merge as intended. Really a monumental tragedy. I am pretty sure had they done so, something would still be in production today, tho I dare wonder what.

    1. The aesthetic virtues of any car are obviously a matter of opinion. I will grant that the ’55 Hudson was not nearly as awful as the ’56-’57 cars, whose front end treatment is in the “What were they thinking?” category.

  10. I just re-read this article, for enjoyment since I was a proud Hudson owner when young. My great-uncle swore by Hudsons and my grandfather had a ’37 Terraplane I remember as a child in WWII. I began with a ’46 Super Six, and later had ’48 and ’49 Super Sixes and finally, in 1958, a ’54 Hornet — no Twin-H but with overdrive. It would outrun and outhandle a lot of cars even with all the V8s running around.

  11. Exceptional and careful writing about Hudson’s history and technical excellence here by Alan Severson and in your Reply comments!
    or several years, I have written a column for the White Triangle News, international publication of the Hudson Essex-Terraplane Club. I did not know the strength of influence of Tatra on Frank Spring’s Stepdown design. There is a strong similarity in subframe and stepdown unit siderails with the prewar French Citroen Traccion-Avant as well.

  12. Back to the 1955 “Hash”. I have always admired the stepdown and especially the 1953 Hornets. But thanks to Richard Langworth’s commentary in “Hudson: The Post War Years”, I began to pay attention to the first AMC made cars, the 1955 Hudson Hornets and Wasps. Automotive styling has always interested me more than performance, but I did drive a totally unrestored 1953 Hornet Twin H sedan all the way from Poplar, Montana to Atlanta, GA, back in 1977. This time when I was bitten by the bug, I had visited Richard Polese’s 1955 Hornet Custom sedan in Santa Fe. It took from August of 2006 until September of 2011 to finally make the purchase and this time I trailed the car back to Cleveland, GA. I had the whole package thoroughly gone over by Georgia’s ace Hudson Mechanic, Dan (Hud) Fullerton, who rebuilt the original 308 and made it as responsive and smooth as a new one. Except for a few little tweeks, Kate (Hudson) is as original as possible and she runs and drives quite well. However, power steering and air conditioning would be welcome options. I said all that to say this: Yes, the Nash body is somewhat less “at home” on the road than that 1953 Stepdown. It definitely steers harder and doesn’t corner as well, but it is still a formidable road car and the Twin H equipped 308 moves her along with the 2014 traffic. You can get a look at her on AmericanTorque under members’cars, Hudsons.
    As to styling, yes, you can tell it started out as a Nash, but the grill looks like a Cadillac egg crate, the horizontal line and two toning are unlike any version of the Nash and give the car a high in the front, low in the rear look. The “C” pillar on both the Hollywood and the sedan are more attractively swept back and blended better than the Nash’s. Of note as well is all the chrome trim -door handles, medallions, ornaments, etc are Hudson on the 1955’s. Totally different from the 1955 Nash. The 1954 Hudson instrument panel gives the otherwise dull Nash dash a unique and more advanced look. I will admit that my second car, a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker back in 1966, was more modern in lots of ways than my 1955 Hornet. But there is a certain element of just raw power that the Hudson has beyond the Chrysler. Of course, the Hudson’s dual range hydromatic was a better low end performer than the New Yorker’s PowerFlite.

  13. My first car was my dad’s 10 year old 1937 Hudson Terraplane after he passed away in 1947. The feature that astounded my friends was the ability to shift gears with one finger with the gadget mounted on the steering column.

    1. @Dave Sherick, Is the one finger shifter you mention related to the Bendix ‘Electric Hand’ employed on the Cord 8xx vehicles ?

      1. That was what I was assuming. The Bendix Electric Hand mechanism was optional on Hudsons from 1935 to 1939. The shift mechanism, which used an electrical switch to trigger vacuum-operated shifts, was similar to the Electric Hand system used on the Cord 810/812, but the transmissions themselves were not the same — Cord had a four-speed box, whereas Hudson and Terraplane applied the system to their three-speed.

  14. Aaron, if you’d like a picture that shows the perimeter frame with the rear fender off the car, let me know. I am just wrapping up the refurbishment of a 1950 Hudson Super 6 Brougham 2 dr sedan, and just like all these cars, I had significant metalwork repairs.

  15. Thanks for the article and insight. I was born in 1953 and now looking for a really nice ’53 Hudson Hornet Club Coupe with the Twin H-Power motor to sit in my garage. Those early 50’s Hornets were just cool looking in my opinion, especially in the two-tone paint.

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