To understand the 1954 Hudson Italia, one must reach further back into auto history. One could make a pretty fair case for the assertion that the malaise affecting the U.S. auto industry in the early 1990s dated from the demise of the smaller, independent manufacturers. More often than not, it seems, it was the independents that were the innovators -- the ones that kept the industry on its toes.

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1954 hudson italia front view
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The look of the Hudson Italia was perhaps ahead of its time, but to some eyes it was also controversial. See more classic car pictures.

There was, for instance, the 1939 Studebaker Champion, America's first six-cylinder "economy" car. Or the "Step-Down" Hudson of 1948, standing a full five inches lower than the contemporary Buick.

Then there was the 1950 Nash Rambler, responsible for starting the trend toward compact automobiles, and in 1955 it was Packard that introduced torsion-bar suspension on this continent.

Reaching further back in time, to 1921, it was Duesenberg that first brought out a production straight eight in America. That same year the firm introduced another first: hydraulic brakes-three years before Chrysler, and 15 years ahead of General Motors.

The first use of rubber engine mounts came in 1922, in the four-cylinder Nash. And the first closed car to sell for less than $1,000 was the six-cylinder, Hudson-built Essex coach. Introduced at $975 in 1924, it was selling for just $695 within two years.

Or consider the Hudson Italia. Its concept wasn't all that different from Ford's original Mustang: a small, sporty, eye-catching coupe that fairly bristled with styling innovations. The Italia was about the same size as the Mustang, and like Ford's "ponycar" it borrowed its mechanical components from the company's existing compact sedan. But it pre-dated the Mustang by a full 10 years.

Yet, only 26 examples were built, while Ford turned out nearly 681,000 Mustangs during its long first model year alone. Some would say the Italia came along too soon, before there was a ponycar market. Others believe it came too late, for Hudson was in big trouble by the time the Italia was first displayed, and there were serious questions about the company's prospects for survival.

Which brings us to the Italia's raison d'etre -- as well as the reason it was produced in such limited numbers. Between 1950 and 1953, Hudson sales had fallen by nearly half. The compact Hudson Jet, introduced for 1953 in an effort to emulate Nash's success with the Rambler, went over like the proverbial cast-iron balloon; Rambler outsold it by at least two-and-a-half to one.

With people staying away from Hudson showrooms in droves, the company desperately needed something to rekindle the public's interest. As Hudson vice-president and assistant general manager Stuart G. Baits later explained to John Conde, of AMC Public Relations:

"The whole [Italia] program from beginning to end was designed to get some good publicity for Hudson...The car was too impractical to build in quantity."

As we shall see, Baits was undoubtedly correct in his appraisal.

Go on to the next page to learn about the development of the 1954 Hudson Italia.

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