When the Hudson Jet was first announced in 1952, company officials thought the compact sedan would be a renaissance for the venerable automaker. Today, many historians will tell you it was Hudson’s fatal mistake. This week, we look at the origins and history of Hudson’s much-maligned 1953-1954 Jet.
HUDSON, ESSEX, TERRAPLANE
As automobiles and automotive brands fade into history, one thing that’s often lost is a sense of their original socioeconomic position. It’s becoming difficult, for example, to grasp that the Chrysler badge once possessed a fair degree of prestige or to assess the class distinctions implied by driving an Oldsmobile rather than a Chevrolet. For the same reason, unless you’re a fan of the marque, it may surprise you to know that Hudson was once quite an expensive car. It wasn’t at the level of Packard or Marmon, but it was the price of several Model T Fords, enough to keep it out of reach of even lower-middle-class buyers.
Whatever the snob value of an upmarket brand, there’s comfort in volume, especially in tough economic times. For that reason, Hudson made several stabs at offering smaller, cheaper products to complement the middle-class line. The first of these was the four-cylinder Essex, launched in January 1919. The Essex, which initially started at $1,595, was by no means an inexpensive car, but it undercut the cheapest Hudson Super Six by nearly $400, giving it a considerably broader appeal. The introduction of the Essex allowed Hudson to triple its 1918 sales volume, which was undoubtedly reassuring in the face of the severe postwar recession that followed.
The Essex is best remembered today for the Essex Coach, launched in 1922. The Coach, developed by Hudson engineers Millard Toncray and Stuart Baits and built by the Briggs Body Co., was the first moderately priced closed body in American production. With a starting price of $1,495, it was still $300 more than an open Essex — nearly the price of an entire Model T — but that was a much smaller premium than any rival charged. Hudson steadily reduced the price and by 1925, the Coach was actually slightly cheaper than an open Essex touring car. The Essex Coach precipitated an industry-wide shift to closed bodies, where they’d previously been restricted to luxury cars and limousines.
The Essex was a great commercial success and by 1929, it had the number-three slot in domestic auto sales. Hudson’s combined volume reached about 300,000 units, its all-time high.
The Crash brought Hudson’s prosperous streak to a screeching halt. Its 1930 volume was less than half the 1929 total and 1931’s sales were barely half of 1930’s. Hudson’s response was to move even further down-market, with the 1932 Essex Terraplane. Priced to compete with Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth, the Terraplane shared the Essex’s 193 cu. in. (3,165 cc) six, but it rode a new, shorter chassis and was more than $200 cheaper.
The Terraplane was not a smash hit, but it did respectable business in the worst part of the Depression. For 1933, all Essexes became Terraplanes and there was even a Terraplane Eight, powered by a 244 cu. in. (3,998 cc) straight eight with 94 hp (70 kW). By 1934, the Terraplane brand had completely supplanted the Essex and began moving back toward the mid-price field. By 1937, it was bigger than the old Essex and priced in the same class as Dodge and Pontiac.
Terraplane was successful enough that A.E. Barit, who had replaced the late Roy Chapin Sr. as Hudson president in early 1936, became concerned that it was cutting too deeply into Hudson sales. Terraplane was outselling Hudson by more than four to one by then, which was bad for the company’s profit margins. In 1938, Hudson launched a new, cheaper “112” model (so named for its 112-inch/2,845mm wheelbase), which undercut the cheapest Terraplane in both size and price. Hudson subsequently phased out the Terraplane marque, which was discontinued entirely in 1939.
The 112, renamed Traveler, continued through 1942, but it did not return at the end of the war as Hudson decided to concentrate production on the more profitable Super and Commodore lines. By 1947, the cheapest Super Six was over $1,700, well out of the low-priced league.
In late 1947, Hudson introduced its first postwar designs: the 1948 “Step-Down” cars. Sleek, low-slung, and surprisingly agile, despite their tank-like “Monobilt” construction, the new Hudsons did well in the booming postwar market. Hudson sold over 117,000 cars in the 1948 model year and over 159,000 in 1949, the best the company had done since the Crash. Hudson racked up a $12 million profit, also quite good.
By the summer of 1949, however, Hudson’s lack of an affordable entry-level model was becoming a problem. The cheapest 1949 Hudson, the Super Six business coupe, was more than $2,000, as much as a Buick Super or Oldsmobile Rocket Eighty-Eight. The latter comparison was particularly troubling because the ’49 Olds came standard with both a new OHV V8 engine and Hydra-Matic, neither of which Hudson could match at any price.
For 1950, Hudson launched a cheaper Pacemaker series, reviving a name it had used intermittently in the mid-thirties. The Pacemaker shared the big Hudsons’ Monobilt construction, but rode a 5-inch (127-mm) shorter wheelbase and had a smaller engine. It was about $170 cheaper than the Super Six, starting at just over $1,800. The Pacemaker still wasn’t an inexpensive car — it cost as much as a Pontiac Chieftain Eight — but it did well, accounting for about half of Hudson’s 1950 sales.
The success of the Pacemaker suggested that there would be a market for an even smaller, less expensive Hudson, a modern successor to the old Essex and Terraplane.