How Hudson Cars Work


The 1932 Hudson Brougham, a two-door sedan, was part of the Greater Eights line of 1931-32.

Eight Detroit businessmen pooled resources to found the Hudson Motor Car Company in February 1909. Among them was retailing magnate Joseph L. Hudson. Another was Roy D. Chapin, Sr., who led the new firm to high prosperity as its president from 1910 to 1923.

Hudson built some of America's fleetest and finest cars during its 48-year history and was often among the industry's sales leaders through 1950. A key early success was the low-priced four-cylinder Essex introduced in 1919.

By 1925, it had boosted Hudson to third place behind Ford and Chevrolet. Hudson then ran third, fourth, or fifth on volume that reached 300,000 cars by 1929. Unfortunately, total sales fell sharply in the devastated Depression market. Had it not been for the speedy, inexpensive Essex Terraplane, Hudson might have folded by 1940.

The firm forged an enviable reputation in the 1920s largely with its Super and Special Sixes: big, smooth, solid cars offering good performance for the money and fine reliability. But with the advent of an Essex Six in 1924, Hudson decided to move upmarket.

The result was a single 1930 line called Great Eight. Great it wasn't. At 213.5 cubic inches, its engine was actually smaller than previous Hudson sixes, had just 80 horsepower to move a heavy chassis, and wasn't as sturdy. It did boast an integrally cast block and crankcase, and was the first straight eight with a counterweighted crankshaft, but its splash lubrication system was outmoded.

Hudson stayed with this engine for the optimistically named Greater Eights of 1931-32 -- in retrospect it was a mistake for a depressed market where sixes would surely have sold better. Displacement was increased each year: first to 233.7 cid and 87 bhp, then to 254 cid and 101 bhp.

Another 1930 setback was the Depression-related closure of Biddle and Smart, Hudson's longtime supplier of magnificent open bodies. The company thus turned to Murray and Briggs for phaeton and speedster bodies. A few eight-cylinder Hudsons of this period also sported dashing coachwork by the renowned firm LeBaron.

Through 1933, Hudson Eights offered numerous body styles on wheelbases of 119-132 inches: roadsters, Victorias, convertibles, sedans, town sedans, coupes, and Broughams (two-door sedans). It was an attractive line that would have done justice to far-costlier brands, but it wasn't successful. The Greater Eight managed only 22,250 sales for 1931. The '32 total was below 8000, despite unchanged prices and lush new Sterling and Major series.

Seeing the error of its ways, Hudson launched a new Super Six for its 1933 "Pacemaker" line -- the car was essentially the 73-bhp 193-cid Essex Terraplane engine in the 113-inch Hudson chassis. That year's Eights comprised four 119-inch-wheelbase standard models and five luxurious Majors on a 132-inch platform. But production bottomed out at under 3000. Interesingly, Eights outsold Sixes nearly 2-to-1. For 1934, Hudson again abandoned sixes, reserving them for the new Terra­plane line that replaced Essex as the firm's "companion" marque.

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1934, 1935, 1936 Hudson Cars

The 1934 Hudson Deluxe Eight was made during Hudson's transitional design period when a less boxy look was embraced.

Like most other Detroit producers in the early '30s, Hudson began moving away from classic four-square styling, rooted in Greek architecture, to embrace streamlining. The 1934 and '35 models were transitional: still rather boxy but less-angular, helped by skirted front fenders.

The all-new '36s looked something like the previous year's Chrysler/DeSoto Airstreams: modern, but not Airflow-radical. Highlights included tall, rounded, Plymouth-like diecast grilles and all-steel bodies with rather dowdy lines. Engines remained dowdy, too. The straight eight was little changed through 1936, variously sold in Standard, DeLuxe, and Custom series. For '35 came a new six: a 212.1-cid unit that made 93 bhp through 1936, then 101/107. The 1937-38 Eights delivered 122/128 bhp.

A reduced 1935-36 market share suggests Hudson was late in shifting to the popular "potato look." Though the firm managed 85,000 units and fifth place for 1934, some two-thirds were low-priced Terraplanes. Output then rose to average 100,000 units per year in 1935-37, but that was good for only eighth -- and Terraplane still garnered the lion's share of sales.

Worse, Hudson likely cut prices below the profit point, as it kept losing money despite this increased volume. From less than $1 million in earnings for 1937, Hudson lost nearly $5 million in recession year 1938.

After serving in the Hoover Administration, Roy Chapin returned as Hudson president in 1933. He departed again three years later after making some key product decisions inaugurated under his successor, A.E. Barit. These involved a consolidated line emphasizing economy rather than performance.

Thus, after four years as a separate marque, Terraplane was put back under the Hudson banner for 1938. Bowing that same year was a new low-priced senior series, the "112" (named for its wheelbase length). With only a small 175-cid six making just 83 bhp, the 112 was sluggish next to the speedy 96-bhp Terraplane: 35 seconds 0-60 mph, top speed barely 70 mph. But it returned up to 24 mpg and was attractively priced as low as $700. The 212 Terraplane engine also powered that year's Custom Six, again tuned for 101/107 bhp. An unchanged eight was reserved for a single Custom line.

The national economy was looking up by 1939, when Hudson dropped Terraplane, trimmed the 112 to a single DeLuxe series, and unveiled new 101-bhp Pacemaker and Country Club Sixes on respective wheelbases of 118 and 122 inches. The 212 six also returned in large, comfortable five- and seven-passenger sedans curiously tagged "Big Boy." Custom Eight became Country Club Eight, but power and wheelbases were untouched.

This was the final year for Hudson's 1936 bodies, and some deft design work alleviated much of their former bulkiness. Long-chassis models were especially graceful, but all of the '39s wore more-horizontal grilles with thick bars that made for a nicer "face" than the controversial "waterfall" ensemble of 1937-38.

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1940, 1941, 1942, 1945 Hudsons

The 1942 Hudson Convertible featured smoother styling than earlier designs.

Hudson's 1940 line was rearranged, rebodied and restyled. Though not innovative, the new look was pleasing and clean, with little side ornamentation and a trendy "prow front" dividing a lower horizontal-bar grille. Hudson added another page to its book of durability triumphs by running more than 20,000 miles at an average speed of 70.5 mph, setting a new American Automobile Association record.

Offerings spanned seven series, three wheelbases, and three engines. Smallest were the new 113-inch Traveler and DeLuxe: coupes, Victoria coupes, two- and four-door sedans, a convertible, and convertible sedan. All carried the 175-cid six, now rated at 92 bhp. The 212 engine with 98/102 bhp powered the Country Club Six and a new 118-inch-wheelbase Super Six, plus the two Big Boys.

The old 254 straight-eight was still around, now producing 128 bhp. Standard Eights shared the Super Six chassis and full range of body styles. Country Club Eights remained on the 125-inch span but were down to one six-passenger and two seven-passenger sedans.

Yet for all this, Hudson volume changed little -- just under 88,000 for the model year -- and red ink flowed again with a calendar-year loss of some $1.5 million.

A mild facelift was performed for 1941, when wheelbases were juggled once more: 116 inches for DeLuxe and new entry-level Traveler Sixes, 121 and 128 for Super Six and new Commodore Six and Eight. All series listed two coupes and two sedans. DeLuxe, Super Six, and Commodores also offered convertible sedans. Hudson had held onto that body style longer than most makes, but buyers didn't much want it anymore, and only 200 or so were built this year in each series.

Rarer still were the new Super Six and Commodore Eight wagons, Hudson's first: only about 100 of each. Prices ranged from $754 for the Traveler coupe to $1537 for the long-wheelbase Commodore Eight seven-place sedan. As it had for many years, Hudson continued selling a fair number of commercial vehicles. Among seven offerings for '41 was a car-style pickup that now inherited the Big Boy name.

Perhaps because many people suspected war was coming, Hudson recorded 1941-model production of close to 92,000 cars, good for nearly $4 million in earnings. But that profit came mainly from defense contracts, which began materializing in early '41 -- a badly needed breather.

The 1942 models arrived in August 1941 looking smoother, if chubbier. Running boards were newly hidden, the grille was again lowered and simpler, and fenders became more stylishly fulsome. Hudson's famous white-triangle logo graced each side of the prow, and lit up with the headlamps to aid after-dark identification.

Offerings were broadly the same, but wagons were departing, and a new Commodore Custom Eight listed a lush 121-inch-wheelbase coupe and 128-inch six-seater sedan in the $1300-$1400 range. All prices nudged upward, the minimum now above $800. The government-ordered turn to war production in February 1942 ended the firm's model-year car output at just under 41,000. Among them were a handful of Hudson's last four-door convertibles.

Hudson's contributions to winning World War II included "Helldiver" aircraft, "Invader" landing-craft engines, sections for B-29 bombers and Aircobra helicopters, and a variety of naval munitions. The company made small wartime profits, then quickly resumed production after V-J Day. A total of 4735 cars put Hudson fifth for calendar 1945, a spot it hadn't held since 1934 -- and would not hold again.

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1946, 1947, 1948, 1949 Hudson cars

The 1946-47 Hudson cars -- including this 1946 Hudson Commodore -- were very similar to the company's 1942 models.

Like most other Detroit cars, the 1946-47 Hudsons were just '42s with new wrinkles -- mainly a less-elegant front sans prow. However, the small 175-cid six was forgotten, and a vastly simplified lineup offered fewer models spread among Super and Commodore Six and Eight, all on a 121-inch chassis. But there were no fewer than three transmission options: $88 stick/overdrive, $40 "Vacumotive Drive," and $98 "Drive-Master" (with Vacumotive).

Vacumotive operated the clutch automatically, while Drive-Master eliminated both clutch and shift motions. By putting the shifter in third gear, the car would start in second gear and upshift to third when the accelerator was lifted. Slowing to a stop, Drive-Master would shift to second again. Hudson built over 91,000 of its '46 models, two-thirds of which were Super Sixes.

The 1947s were unchanged save details like a chrome trunk­lid nameplate, right- and left-side exterior door locks, and a small lip on the housing of the prominent triangle medallion above the grille.

Hudson produced some 92,000 cars for the model year, but fell from ninth to 11th on the industry board. Other makes were doing better in the unprecedented postwar seller's market. Still, Hudson sales exceeded $120 million in 1946, and the firm netted over $2.3 million. Two years later, Hudson made more money than it ever would again, earning $13.2 million on gross sales of $274 million.

The reason was a brand-new car, the now-famous "Step-Down." Named for its innovative recessed or dropped floorpan, it completely surrounded passengers with strong frame girders in one of the safest packages of the day -- maybe one of the safest ever. It also offered rattle-free unitized construction and a radically low center of gravity that made for great handling. The long 124-inch wheelbase provided a smooth ride and king-size interior space.

The Step-Down was even beautiful in its way: a long "torpedo" with clean flush-fender sides, modest taillamps, fully skirted rear wheels, and a low, horizontal grille. The design evolved from wartime doodles of aerodynamic forms by a design team under Frank Spring, who went way back with Hudson and was way ahead of the times with the Step-Down.

Though Hudson stuck with a four-series lineup for 1948-49, it violated an old Detroit caution about not restyling and re-engineering in the same year. Thus, Super and Commodore Sixes carried a new 262-cid inline six-cylinder engine with 121 bhp, only seven less than the unchanged 254-cid straight eight. It had only four main bearings instead of five, but was as smooth and durable as the eight.

Hudson finally joined the rest of the industry and replaced its outdated splash lubrication with full pressure for the new six. It also delivered surprising performance: 0-40 mph in 12 seconds with Drive-Master; stick-shift cars were even faster. With this gutsy new six in the advanced Step-Down platform, Hudson was transformed almost overnight from an also-ran performer into one of America's quickest, most-roadworthy cars.

Dealers cheered the Step-Down upon its mid-1948 introduction. Here was precisely what they needed for great sales in a heady market where customers sometimes outnumbered available cars. Sure enough, Hudson surged not only in profits but also in production, selling 117,200 of the '48s and 159,100 of the near-identical '49s (only the serial numbers were different).

But there was one big problem. As a unitized design, the Step-Down couldn't be greatly changed without great expense, and Hudson sales wouldn't be sufficient to cover the cost once the postwar seller's market ended in 1950. A slow-selling '53-54 compact only accelerated the depletion of cash reserves.

As a result, the Step-Down wouldn't be updated much until 1954, by which time it was way too late, forcing Hudson to seek refuge with Nash under the American Motors banner. Nor would Hudson be able to afford a station wagon or V-8 engine, two very popular '50s commodities. In fact, Hudson offered only sixes in 1953-54, and though the "fabulous" Hornet engine dominated stock-car racing in that period, sixes were a tough sell in the mostly eight-cylinder medium-price field where Hudson competed.

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1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Hudsons

The Hudson Hornet -- including this 1954 Hudson Hornet model -- was unbeatable in stock car racing.

Sales executive Roy D. Chapin, Jr., the son of the famous Hudson founders (and a future chairman of American Motors), later explained things this way: “If you don't have enough money to do something…and if you haven't learned to specialize in a given thing…sooner or later you find you just can't do everything. [Hudson was] usually reacting, rather than anticipating."

To a large extent, Hudson's postwar plight was shared by all the independents: too little money for enough changes to keep buyers interested, resulting in fewer sales and even less money for new products.

Hudson entered the 1950s in excellent shape, selling more than 120,000 Step-Downs for the first model year. A big hit -- more than 39,000 orders -- was the new low-priced Pacemaker with a 119-inch wheelbase and a destroked 232-cid Super Six. Though horsepower was only 112, performance was as good as that of Nash's top-line Ambassador and well ahead of most similarly priced rivals.

Both Pacemaker and the 1950 Super Six offered fastback four-door sedans, long-deck club coupe, and a convertible and fastback two-door sedan called Brougham. Pacemaker also listed a three-passenger coupe, the 1950 price-leader at $1807. Other standard Pacemakers cost under $2000 except the convertible ($2428).

A few dollars more bought a Pace­maker DeLuxe in the same body types save the long-deck coupe. These used the 262 Super Six engine, which was a bit more potent now at 123 bhp. Commodore Six and Eight deleted two-door sedans, Super Eight the convertible. The main appearance change from 1948-49 involved adding twin diagonal grille bars -- the make's traditional triangle motif.

Hudson also added yet another transmission choice for 1950. Though called Supermatic, this was just a semiautomatic like Drive-Master. Supermatic added an overdrive that automatically engaged at 22 mph when selected by a dashboard button. Price was $199, versus $105 for Drive-Master. Of course, neither was a proper substitute for a fully automatic transmission, which belatedly arrived for 1951: a proprietary GM Hydra-Matic at $158. At that point, Supermatic was dropped.

But Hudson's big '51 news was the powerful six-cylinder Hornet, a four-model line priced the same as Commodore Eight ($2543-$3099). At 308 cubic inches, the Hornet engine was the largest American six offered after World War II, and though it made just 145 bhp in initial form, it was capable of far more in the hands of precision tuners.

Undoubtedly the most famous of Hudson wrench-spinners was Marshall Teague, who claimed he could get 112 mph from an AAA- or NASCAR-certified stock Hornet. An enthusiastic cadre of Hudson engineers helped by conjuring a raft of "severe usage" options -- thinly disguised racing parts.

By late 1953, they'd cooked up a hot "7-X" racing engine with about 220 bhp via 0.020-inch overbored cylinders, special cam and head, larger valves, higher compression, and "Twin-H Power" with dual carbs and manifolds -- which Hudson claimed were the first twin manifolds on a six.

The Hornet proved near-invincible in stock-car racing. Teague finished his 1952 AAA season with a 1000-point lead over his closest rival, winning 12 of the 13 scheduled events. NASCAR aces Herb Thomas, Dick Rathmann, Al Keller, and Frank Mundy drove Hornets to 27 victories in 1952, another 21 in '53, and 17 in '54.

Hornets kept on winning after that, but none of their competition successes affected production Hudsons, and sales continued to fall. Though the company kept adding and subtracting series through 1954, it couldn't alter styling much, nor add new body styles after the Hollywood hardtop coupe bowed as a Hornet, Super Six, and Commodore Six/Eight for 1951. Super Eight and the standard Pacemaker were dropped that year, when another facelift brought more-massive, full-width grilles, plus larger rear windows for nonhardtop closed models.

More trim was shuffled for '52, when Super Six was renamed Wasp and gained a slightly more-potent 127-bhp 262 engine that it shared with Commodore Six. Pacemaker and both Commodores vanished for '53, leaving 119-inch-wheelbase Wasp coupe and sedans, the same plus Hollywood and convertible in new upmarket Super Wasp trim, and four Hornets on the 124-inch platform. One bright spot: The Hornet six was now offered in a 160-bhp version, and the 170-bhp Twin-H Power (7-X) mill was a regular factory option.

But Step-Down production diminished in each of these years, falling from about 93,000 in 1951 to 45,000 in 1953. Though government-ordered Korean War cutbacks didn't help civilian sales, military contracts earned Hudson an $8.3 million profit in 1952. Unfortunately, that was more than wiped out by staggering 1953 losses totaling more than $10.4 million.

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1953 Hudson Jet, the Hudson Italia

The 1954 Hudson Super Jet failed to gain sales despite engine and styling updates.

Part of that was reflected in the $12 million bill for Hudson's first compact, the ill-fated 1953 Jet. Bowing as a standard-trim notchback four-door and nicer "Super Jet" two- and four-door sedans, the Jet carried a 202-cid inline six carved from the old Commodore eight. Only 104 bhp was standard, but optional "Twin-H" and high-compression head improved that to 114, which made the little 105-inch-wheelbase Hudsons fairly speedy.

Jets were also as roadable and well-built as any Hudson, but they were not pretty. Over the objections of chief designer Spring, company president A.E. Barit insisted on bolt-upright, slab-sided styling that failed to impress. Hudson tried harder for 1954, adding a cheap Family club sedan at $1621 and luxury Jet-Liners at around $2050. Still, sales went from bad to worse, dropping from 21,143 to only 14,224.

But the Jet did spark a project that might have become the much-needed Step-Down replacement. Called Italia, this was a four-place gran turismo designed by Spring and bodied on the Jet chassis by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan. Advanced features abounded: de rigueur wrapped windshield, doors cut into the roof, fender scoops that fed cooling air to the brakes, flow-through ventilation, form-fitting leather seats, and a 10-inch lower stance than '54 Step-Downs.

But the Italia was too heavy for the 114-bhp Jet inline six-cylinder engine, and its aluminum bodywork was fragile. Of course, these problems might have been licked if Hudson had the money, but by now it didn't.

As a result, only 25 "production" Italias were built, plus the proto­type and an experimental four-door derivative called X-161 (Spring's 161st design project, evidently intended for '57). Project sales manager Roy Chapin, Jr., booted Italias out the door as fast as he could at $4800 apiece. "I got rid of them," he said later, "[but] it wasn't one of my greatest accomplishments."

Nor, for that matter, was the last-gasp Step-Down of 1954. Somehow, Hudson found money for a one-piece windshield and a below-the-belt reskin that imparted fashionable GM squareness -- and an unfortunate resemblance to the dumpy Jet. Cheap Hornet Specials -- club coupe and two fastback four-doors -- were added at around $2600, but the Step-Down was just too old to sell anymore. Model-year production ended at just 36,436 units.

The 1954 Hudsons had bowed amid rumors of a Hudson-Nash merger. The talk was true, and Nash couldn't have come calling at a better time. From January 1, 1954, to its demise as an independent in April, Hudson lost more than $6 million on sales of just $28.7 million. However, Nash president George Mason insisted on one condition: The Jet had to go. Hudson chief A.E. Barit resisted, but not for long. He was in no position to bargain.

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1954, 1955, 1956, 1957 Hudsons

The 1955 Wasp Sedan was part of the first group of Hudson-Nash merger cars.

The merger amounted to a Nash takeover. Mason had hoped to add just-married Studebaker and Packard to make his new American Motors Corporation into Detroit's "Big Fourth," but that was forever forestalled by his untimely death in October 1954. Mason lieutenant George Romney succeeded to the president's chair, and soon put all of AMC's eggs into the compact car basket.

Meantime, Hudson's Detroit plant was closed and the Nash factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin, retooled for an "all-new" '55 Hudson. Of course, everyone knew what it was: a restyled Nash. Still, it wasn't all bad. Hudson could not only continue to tout unit construction but also Nash's all-coil suspension in lighter, trimmer cars that promised better fuel economy.

AMC stylists hid the Nash origins well, giving Hudsons a handsome eggcrate grille, distinct trim, a different rear end, full front-wheel openings (instead of semiskirted), plus Nash's new '55 wrapped windshield. One direct link to the Step-Down was carried-over 1954 gauges.

Offerings began with Wasp Super and Custom sedans and Custom Hollywood hardtop with 114.3-inch Nash Statesman wheelbase and a 202 "Hi-Torque" six from the now-departed Jet. Hornet Six rode Nash's 121.3-inch Ambassador platform and offered the same three models with 160/170-bhp 308-cid engines. Topping the line were a trio of 208-bhp Hornets ­powered by Packard's new 320-cid V-8 (a legacy of Mason's planned four-way merger).

Twin-H Power was again available for sixes, and Nash's tiny Metropolitans and compact Ramblers gained Hudson badges to give the make broader market coverage. Yet for all this -- and a banner Detroit sales year -- big-Hudson volume continued sliding, reaching just over 20,000.

Fewer models and horrendous "V-Line Styling" arrived for '56. AMC design chief Edmund E. Anderson gets blamed for the ugliest Hudsons in a generation. These really did look like a "Hash," as some latterday wags refer to post-'54 Hudsons. The Hornet Six was otherwise unchanged, but the Wasp was down to a lone four-door, and Hornet V-8s gave way in March to downpriced Hornet Specials with AMC's own new 250-cid V-8 -- which had only 190 bhp. An anemic engine and terrible looks only depressed demand, and AMC built just 10,671 non-Rambler '56 Hudsons.

Styling didn't improve in '57, but horsepower did. The AMC V-8 was newly bored to 327 cid, netting a more-respectable 255 bhp for a four-Hudson line of Hornet Super and Custom sedans and Hollywoods.

But buyers had long since branded Hudson a loser, and all but 3876 stayed away from the '57s. With that, Hudson was put out of its misery, as was Nash. In their place for '58 was a new Rambler Ambassador line with cleaner new styling originally intended for Hudson and Nash.

In retrospect, dropping these venerable makes was just common sense. As Roy Chapin, Jr., later recalled: "…[T]he decision really was one that said we've got to spend our money and our effort and our concentration on the Rambler…" Thus expired two once-great names, with Hudson perhaps the greater, sadder loss. Given the Hornet's great performance record and the Step-Down's engineering legacy, one can only guess what Hudson might have become had things been different.

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