1954 Hudson Italia

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
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
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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Apparently, the original idea behind the development of the 1954 Hudson Italia was to create a fast, sporty car, based on the hotfooted Hudson Hornet. At least 25 examples were to be built, reportedly in order to qualify for the Carrera Panamericana, the famed -- and bloody -- Mexican Road Race.

1954 hudson italia bumper
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The "praying mantis" front bumper on the 1965 Hudson Italia received negative reviews.

Nothing came of that proposal, however, and although 26 Italias were eventually produced (including the prototype), they were based on the Jet chassis, rather than on the full-sized Hornet.

A word about Hudson styling in general, and that of the Jet in particular, may be in order here. Since 1931, Hudson's director of styling had been the talented Frank Spring, formerly general manager of the famed Pasadena coach-building firm of Walter M. Murphy.

Spring was a man of advanced ideas, as demonstrated by the 1948 Hudson Step-Down design with its recessed floors and low profile. But the man who signed the checks was Hudson's president, Abraham Edward Barit. And Barit, who evidently didn't think much of the Step-Down concept, was -- like Chrysler's K.T. Keller -- a man of little imagination and no talent whatsoever when it came to styling.

There was more than a little European influence in the original styling proposal that Frank Spring had developed for the compact Hudson Jet. Features included rounded lines, sloping hood and rear deck, door openings cut into the roof, and "eyebrow" vents atop the headlights.

Instead, Barit and the rest of the company hierarchy insisted on a design that was clearly inspired by the 1952 Ford, though the Ford's excellent proportions were completely lost in the translation, as were most of Spring's original design features. In the end, although the Jet was 28 inches shorter and 10.5 inches narrower than the Hornet, it stood nearly an inch taller than the larger car.

The result was an ungainly, boxy, top-heavy-appearing automobile that may have appealed to Barit, but to almost no one else. And to make matters worse, the Jet ended up costing about $250 more than the full-size Chevrolet.

But to return to the Italia. To have produced even a couple dozen cars in the United States would not have been feasible, because labor costs were prohibitive. And to tool up for series production of the little coupe was out of the question, for having poured $12 million into developing and marketing the Jet, Hudson simply didn't have the money.

At Italy's Carrozzeria Touring, however, labor was cheap, overhead low. With little investment, limited numbers of Italias could be hammered out by hand.

So an agreement was reached whereby a prototype would be built in Milan. The design was based upon sketches by Frank Spring, and developed by Touring under the supervision of Spring and vice-president Stuart Baits.

A complete Hudson Jet was shipped to Italy. There, most of the superstructure was jettisoned and a new aluminum body was formed over tubular framing. The cost to Hudson was said to be an incredibly low $28,000.

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

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Thanks in part to its recessed floors, which had been a feature of Hudson's original Step-Down design, the 1954 Hudson Italia stood nearly nine inches lower than the Hudson Jet from which it was derived. Let's consider more details of the production of the 1954 Hudson Italia.

Styling features included a one-piece, wraparound windshield with vertical "A" pillars. "Jet stacks" -- three ersatz exhaust pipes -- emerged from each rear fender.

1954 hudson italia rear view
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The Italia sported triple exhausts on both sides.

Sometimes derisively known as "organ pipes," the chrome-plated tubes appear somewhat gimmicky by modern standards, but at least they served the practical purpose of housing the tail, stop, and back-up lights. And no one could deny that they attracted a lot of attention.

Doors were cut deeply into the roof in the interest of easy entry and egress. Frank Spring had first used this device at Murphy's, back in 1931, on the prototype Peerless Sixteen. One might have expected occupants to get drenched when the doors were opened during a rainstorm, but such was not the case because gutters effectively drained the water away.

Other features of the Italia included the familiar Hudson triangle, appearing this time in inverted form on the front bumper. Air scoops above the headlamps directed cooling air to the front brake drums. Rear drums received similar treatment, thanks to intakes built into the leading edge of the rear fenders.

Meanwhile, flow-through ventilation provided occupants with a constant supply of fresh air, entering through a cowl vent and exiting via dual slots above the rear window. Sporty chrome wire wheels were supplied by Carlo Borrani.

The Italia was finished, appropriately, in Italian Cream, and its interior incorporated some more of Spring's advanced thinking, including a non-reflecting dash finished in red. Bright red Italian deep-pile carpeting covered the floor, while individual "anatomical" seats for the driver and passenger were upholstered in red-and-white leather.

The reclining backrests were made up of two contoured bolsters, one for the shoulders, one for the lower back.

The foam rubber for bolsters and squab was supplied in three different densities for maximum comfort. Even seatbelts were standard issue. This was a very advanced idea in mid-1953, when the prototype Italia was built.

Unfortunately, however, the belts were anchored to the seat itself, rather than to the frame, which meant -- as author Mike Lamm has observed -- that "about all they're good for is to hold up your pants."

Mechanically, of course, the Italia was pure Hudson Jet. The engine was a flathead six, with an unusual 1.58:1 stroke/bore ratio. The long-stroke design was admittedly anachronistic, particularly at a time when most manufacturers were adopting the over-square configuration.

But as editor John Bond pointed out, it enabled Hudson to use a higher compression ratio than would otherwise have been feasible with the L-head layout.

Equipped with "Twin H-Power" -- a high-compression (8.0:1) cylinder head and two single-barrel downdraft carburetors -- the engine was rated at 114 horsepower. This actually provided the Italia with a slightly better power-to-weight ratio than the fabled Hudson Hornet. The prototype's transmission was a three-speed, column-mounted manual with overdrive.

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

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The success of the 1954 Hudson Italia was mixed. The first 1954 Hudson Italia made the rounds of the major automobile shows in the U.S., and some of the European salons as well. In January 1954, it was exhibited at the International Sports Car Show.

1954 hudson italia engine
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Though the Italia had originally been envisioned as using the Hudson Hornet 308-cid engine, it received the Jet's 202-cid L-head six with Twin H-Power.

AMC later claimed in a press release that more than 5,000,000 people saw the Italia on exhibit. The evidence indicates, however, that -- for whatever reason -- it failed to generate as much excitement as its builders had anticipated.

Motor Trend Magazine
mentioned the Italia in its November 1953 Spotlight on Detroit column, calling it "a possible new version of the Jet in future years."

said that "it's capable of taking the 160 or 170 bhp Hornet engine. The Italia will do well over 100 mph. It has never been extended, but with the proper gearing, it should be capable of doing close to 120, considerably higher with the Hornet engine."

Earlier, on September 23, 1953, Norman VanDerzee, Hudson's vice-president for sales, issued a letter to Hudson dealers announcing the Italia, along with an order form for those interested in ordering one.

Response was lukewarm, partly because the $4,800 price was a stiff one by 1953 standards (a Cadillac Sixty-Two Coupe de Ville started at $3,995), and evidently only 18 or 19 firm orders resulted from the offer. Reportedly, some dealers were disappointed that the Hornet engine hadn't been used.

Nevertheless, in early December 1953 an agreement was made with Carrozzeria Touring, calling for 25 more Jets to be shipped to Italy, there to be reincarnated as Italias. The cost to Hudson of the conversion was $2,300 per car.

Then, on August 12, 1954, it was announced that the Italia was in limited production. The bulletin went on to declare that "orders from dealers far exceed planned production of the Italia." To call that statement a gross exaggeration is to put the matter politely. It would be more accurate to describe it as a flat untruth.

"Production" Italias differed from the prototype in only a few respects. Overdrive, for example, was omitted, the instrument panel was different, and combination leather-and-vinyl upholstery was used.

The trunk was accessible only from inside the car, an inconvenient arrangement, though the large luggage platform behind the seats, complete with straps to hold cargo in place, mitigated that somewhat. So did lockable storage compartments on either side of the platform.

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

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The legacy of the 1954 Hudson Italia is mixed. Whatever its merits -- and they were considerable -- the 1954 Hudson Italia was doomed from the start. Interestingly enough, though, Special-Interest Autos, in its November/December 1971 issue, quoted Stuart Baits as saying that the Italia was not a money loser.

"As I remember," he commented, "we about broke even on them -- I think [the Italia] about paid for itself on the whole deal."

1954 hudson italia aluminum
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The Italia's aluminum body was handbuilt by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan, Italy.

No matter, in June 1953 Hudson president A.E. Barit opened negotiations with George W. Mason, his counterpart at Nash-Kelvinator, and on May 1, 1954, a consolidation of the two firms was announced, with the combined firm taking the name American Motors.

Commencing that fall, production of both marques was concentrated in the Nash plant at Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Jet was summarily dropped, replaced in Hudson showrooms by a Rambler wearing Hudson badges.

Meanwhile, though Hudson's L-head sixes were temporarily retained, the larger Wasps and Hornets for 1955 were really Nashes dolled up with a few Hudson styling cues.

Ironically, it wasn't until the October 1954 issue that Motor Trend could announce that the "Hudson Italia Goes Into Production." By then, the Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Thunderbird, and Kaiser-Darrin were also reality, which perhaps prompted MT to say that "Nothing pleases us more than being able to announce a new addition to Detroit's production sports car stable."

MT also commented that even just a few months earlier "...the Kenosha whale had not yet shown the voracious appetite which has since almost swallowed Hudson whole. How the Italia survived to get into even limited production is a happy surprise."

But, in fact, it was a brand new ball game in Kenosha, and in the American Motors scheme of things there simply was no place for the innovative Hudson Italia. The only nameplate that would matter at AMC in the future would be Rambler.

Go on to the next page to learn about the 1954 Hudson Italia's specifications.

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Here are extensive specifications for the 1954 Hudson Italia.

Price $4,350 New York POE according to an AMC PR Dept. press release (undated; $4,800 f.o.b. Detroit, per September 23, 1953, Hudson letter to dealers and October 1954 Motor Trend
Standard equipment
Borrani chrome wire wheels, white-side wall tires, “Twin-H-Power,” aluminum cylinder head, leather-and-vinyl upholstery, carpeting, reclining bucket seats, seatbelts, radio, heater, back-up lights, directional signals
inline 6-cyl L-head
Bore x stroke (in.) 3.00 x 4.75
Displacement (cid)
Compression ratio
Horsepower @ rpm
114 @ 4,000
Torque (lbs/ft) @ rpm
166 @ 2,000
Taxable horsepower
Lubrication system
Main bearings
Valve lifters
Fuel system
2-1 bbl carburetors, mechanical pump
Cooling system
centrifugal pump
Electrical system
Exhaust system
single dry plate
Diameter (in.)
3-speed selective, synchronized 2nd and 3rd Speeds, column-mounted lever
1st, 2.60:1, 2nd, 1.63:1 3rd, 1.00:1; reverse, 3.53:1
Hotchkiss type
Drive axle
Gemmer worm-and-roller
18.2:1 gear, 20.2:1 overall
Turns lock-to-lock
Turning diameter (ft)
Brakes4-wheel internal hydraulic
Drum diameter (in.)
Effective area (sq in.)
unit chassis platform with steel perimeter frame and front sub-frame; reinforced aluminum body
Body style
2-pass grand touring coupe
Body builder
Carrozzeria Touring, Milan, Italy
Suspension, front
independent A-arms, coil springs, torsional stabilizer
Suspension, rear
rigid axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Shock absorbers
tubular hydraulic, direct-acting
WheelsBorrani chrome wires, knock-off hubs
6.40-14, 4-ply, tube type
Measurements and weight

Wheelbase (in.)
Overall length (in.)
Overall width (in.)
Overall height (in.)
Tread, front/rear (in.)
Minimum road clearance (in.)
Shipping weight (lbs)

Crankcase (qts)
Cooling system (qts)
Fuel tank (gal)
Transmission (pts)
Differential (pts)
Calculated data

Stroke/ bore ratio
Weight (lbs)/bhp
Weight/sq in, (brakes)

Top speed (mph)

19.8 sec/68.6
0-30 mph (sec)
0-60 mph (sec)
Stopping distances:

From 30 mph (ft)
From 45 mph (ft)
From 60 mph (ft)
26 (incl prototype)

¹From an August 1953 road test of a Hudson Super Jet with Twin-H-Power and Hydra-Matic transmission. Because of its more aerodynamic shape and stick shift, the Italia was undoubedly a bit faster.

²Average of four runs.

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