Roy Chapin had worked with Ransom Olds, the first man to use an assembly line to build cars.
The Hudson Motor Car Company was founded by auto pioneers Howard Coffin, George W. Dunham, and Roy E. Chapin, and largely funded by department-store owner Joseph L. Hudson.
In 1910, just one year after it was created, Hudson was the eleventh-largest auto company in America — a country then rife with automakers.
Hudsons were advanced for the times. Even their early cars were mainly closed models, sealing out the weather; and Hudson quickly put the steering wheel on the left and hand levers in the center, their modern positions, then adopted GM’s self-starter earlier than most makers, making cars easier and safer to start.
Hudson had the first balanced crankshaft, used in their straight-six engine, to smooth the idle and allow the engine to rev higher.
Other firsts included dual brakes (mechanical brakes kicked in when the pedal traveled lower than the hydraulic brakes’ normal maximum point), and placing oil pressure and generator warning lights in the dashboard. Hudson’s early cork clutch was both smooth and, surprisingly, durable.
In 1919, Hudson brought out its Essex line, inexpensive but steel-bodied, to compete with Ford and Chevrolet. One of the first affordable cars with an enclosed cab, the Essex sold well. Even with the 1919-20 recession, the new line quickly established itself, and within ten years, the brand was challenging Chevrolet.
Essex was launched as a four cylinder in 1919; by 1924, it was a six-cylinder. Essex had factories in Canada, England, and Belgium, and made Hudson the third-largest automaker in the United States by 1929, behind Ford and Chevrolet.
Hudson’s peak was in 1929, when the company produced no less than 300,000 Hudson and Essex cars worldwide. But, despite the popular, inexpensive Essex and Essex-Terraplane (1932-38), the Great Depression mortally wounded Hudson.
An optional eight cylinder engine was launched in 1932, but sales remained slow due to the economy. Hudson began to eliminate Essex in favor of the Terraplane brand; restyled cars brought out in 1932 were named Essex-Terraplane, and starting in 1934 they were just Terraplanes. In 1938, though, the line was renamed to Hudson 112; and Hudson began building cars in Canada through a contract with Canada Top and Body in Tilbury, Ontario.
Some 1935-38 Essex/Terraplane and Hudson models came with a column-mounted electro-mechanical shifter, called the Electric Hand, a Bendix unit which replaced the floor shift. (Drivers still had to use the clutch.)
In 1936, Hudson brought out its “radial safety control” or “rhythmic ride” suspension, which used two steel bars as well as leaf springs to suspend the front axle; this let Hudson use longer and softer leaf springs for a smoother ride, while maintaining directional stability. The cars were also much larger inside than other cars. The 1936 engines ranged from 93 to 124 hp, and had a column-mounted gearshift lever to free front seat space.
In 1938, production numbers dropped from 111,342 (in 1937) to just 51,078. More than half of the production in 1938 was the 112, which had a 175-cubic-inch L-head six that was destroked from 5 inches to 4.5 inches. The 112 had a suspension like the larger Hudsons, a forward-hinged “alligator” hood, and a wheelbase 5 inches shorter than the Terraplane. However, the two-year offering wasn't completely new – it used Terraplane body parts whenever possible. And despite the cost-cutting efforts Hudson made with the 112, it still cost $25-45 more than its Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth competitors.
In 1940, Hudson replaced the radial safety control suspension with an independent front suspension, unusual in its price range; two years later, Hudson brought out the Drive-Master transmission, which gave the driver a choice of manual shifting, manual shifting with automatic clutch, and fully automatic shifting (in essence, a manual transmission with complex vacuum-powered clutching and automatic shifting). The system was also dubbed Super-Matic when coupled to the automatic overdrive. The system was used until 1951, when Hudson started buying GM automatic transmissions to replace the expensive, complicated feature.
The Commodore was introduced in 1941. The next year, it was redesigned and had the option of the “Drive-Master” vacuum-assisted clutch. Production of the Commodore resumed in 1946 after World War II with designing very similar to its prewar versions. In 1948, the Commodore line received “step-down” styling. 1952 was the Commodore’s last year of production.
Hudson won a number of competitive events, stressing economy, speed, and hill climbing, to no avail. Then, for World War II, Hudson converted its factories to make war materials; many military boats were powered by Hudson Invader engines.
After World War II, each automaker brought out their new and restyled models; Chrysler’s stodgy styling belied strong engineering. Hudson’s advanced engineering and styling helped it to compete at first, at least until V-8 engines and constant styling changes became essential.
In 1946, the Hudson Super came with either a 103-horsepower, 212-cubic-inch six or a 128-horsepower, 254-cubic-inch eight and had a 121-inch wheelbase. Hudson manufactured a cross between a car and truck, the Carrier Six, which weighed 3,000 pounds. Only 2,917 Carrier Sixes were made, and it was a one-year-only offering.
The new 1948 Super Six had unit-body construction; the “monobilt” cars were a foot lower than most competitors, but kept the same interior room; the design was a major advance because it lowered the center of gravity, improving cornering and safety.
The new Hudson Hornet, based on the Commodore, ran with the look, using a bored-out version of the standard L-head straight-six (308 rather than 262 cid). The low center of gravity and advanced design made cornering superior, and the dual-carbed engine provided power that could go up against the GM V8s. The Hornet was successful in NASCAR for years, and may have kept sales of Hudson’s largest car going. (During 1953-54, Hudson also sold the Wasp, a slightly shorter-wheelbase car with the same basic unit-body shell, and they also sold the Jet, a compact car. — thanks, Phil Waldrop)
The standard Hudsons were an excellent design for a mid-to-upper range car, but over time the lack of money for restyling hurt sales; the same basic look was maintained for years, while the Big Three made annual styling changes.
Hudson tried to get into a new segment with the compact Hudson Jet, but the costly investment in what became a poor-selling car hurt the company. The Jet had styling unlike other Hudsons, but had the same “armored car” engineering as the larger Hudsons, and received a minor makeover in 1954. Its 105-inch wheelbase made it about the same size as the Nash Rambler and Plymouth’s smaller 1949 Deluxe, and in 1954, it also was available with Twin-H Power. But its not-so-compact weight of 2,700 pounds and high list price ($2,057) compared to its competition contributed to it being dropped in favor of the Nash Rambler in the AMC merger.
Hudson’s refusal to bring out a modern V-8 engine also hurt the company; even stodgy Chrysler had brought out its “dual rocker” (Hemi) V8 in 1951. Despite low performance, Ford’s V-8 had been a major asset for salesmen for years, and wins on the track didn’t seem to overcome the American desire for more cylinders. The old straight-eight was smaller in displacement than the company’s own six-cylinder, and correspondingly less powerful.
Hudson, given its bleak long term outlook and continuing losses, agreed to merge with Nash, while Studebaker merged with Packard, with the final goal of putting together all four automakers to cover all segments of the market, share engineering, and have the economies of size they needed to compete with GM and Ford. Hudson’s main demand appears to have been keeping their name alive — their cars were dropped almost immediately, though.
The plan was not to be; Studebaker and Packard eventually faded, still separate. Hudson and Nash coupled in 1954 to become American Motors Corporation (AMC), but the combined company was both too small and too erratic to succeed, though it did survive.
Hudson proudly introduced a new line of Wasps and Hornets in 1955, “new from stem to stern,” but sales fell as customers found that the “new Hudson” was in fact an old but restyled Nash. The corporate leaders gave up on pretense in 1957, calling all cars Nash, shortly afterwards dropping Nash as well, and renaming all their cars Rambler after their most popular car. Eventually, they switched to the corporate name, AMC.
Chrysler bought AMC in 1989 and put its engineering chief in charge of the once-leading-edge Chrysler Engineering staff. In the end, the remnants of Hudson, Nash, and Willys helped to lead Chrysler Corporation to a new, albeit brief, golden age.
A standard 1937 Hudson Eight went to Utah and broke the 1,000-mile
record in its class (and also the unlimited record for closed cars)
averaging 88.9 mph including stops for petrol. By comparison the Hudson
Terraplane Six did the same distance averaging 86.5 mph. That gives you
an idea of their top speed under good conditions and well tuned.
Eight also broke the 24-hour record at 87.67 mph covering 2,104 miles at top speed. So the Hudsons were the top speed winners at this time
over a sustained distance, for standard sedans. These figures are taken from an article on pages 20-23 of Automobile magazine of November 2002.
The 1938 Hudson Eight did 0-60 in 15.0 secs. The 1936 Hudson Eight did
it in 18.6 secs, top speed 86.7 mph and SS 1/4 mile in 21.2 secs but
this was probably a low compression motor. By comparison, the 1934 Ford V8 sedan (85 hp) had a measured top speed of 81.8 mph and
a 0-60 mph on 16.8 secs. [Webmaster note: to be fair, the Hudson was a luxury sedan, considerably larger and probably heavier than the Ford. Supporting this comparison is a 1935 test, in which the Ford V8 was soundly beaten by a Plymouth Six. The Ford did the full mile in 68 seconds, the Plymouth in 60; the top speed for the Ford was 82 mph, the Plymouth 90 mph! No Hudsons were tested that time. Hudson did make two versions of their engine through at least some of the 1930s, a higher performance and a lower compression version.]
The Hudson’s immediate predecessor the 1933 Essex Terraplane Eight was
the car that really made Hudson company’s performance image in the
1930s. It was the original factory hot-rod sedan with 0-60 mph in 14.4
secs, top speed 85 mph, 10-30 in top gear in 6 seconds, 10-60 in top
gear in 18 secs and broke numerous records including many hillclimbs
and the standing kilometre record in its class (36.3 secs) which it
held for 17 years. These figures were staggering in 1933 for a standard
affordable family sedan. I have one and it is a great car to drive. It
was significantly lighter than the later cars with a better
In 1936, Hudson’s launched new six and eight cylinder models with elegant styling. New features were impressive, including hydraulic brakes - the first ones with a separate safety system that automatically took control in emergencies - as well as a more cushioned ride, draft elimination, and “tru-line steering,” which “enables the car to hold its direction, without swerving or wandering, unaffected by spring action, braking, or road conditions.”
Three models were available (arguably a single car with three variants): buyers could choose a six with a 120-inch wheelbase (at 93 and 100 horsepower, coincidentally the same ratings as Chrysler’s later 2.2 and 2.5-liter fuel-injected engines), or an eight on a 120 or 127-inch wheelbase, boasting 113 and 124 horsepower.
The Hudson’s interior boasted considerable space for six passengers, with a full 145 cubic feet - compared to 121 cubic feet in “the largest of other popular cars.” The rear seats have what seems like incredible leg room, and though the sloping roof looks like it would cut into headroom, there is still plenty of room for even tall passengers. Each seat was 56 inches wide above the armrests, 53 inches wide at shoulder level. Upholstery was done in mohairs and worsteds, with new two-tone fabrics never before used in cars. The driver's seat was adjustable, which was still unusual; the steering wheel was also adjustable, a feature not to be common for many years.
Hudson called “radial safety control” one of the greatest engineering advancements of all time, perhaps a bit of hyperbole. In essence, the front axle was held in place by two large forged steel arms, so that axle movement could not affect the sprints, and steering or braking would not move the axle. They claimed it was “one great step beyond independent springing which motor car engineers have been seeking,” perhaps not quite getting the point. The axle was supported up-and-down by leaf springs, with the large two arms being able to move up and down but not side to side.
(D. Palmer added:) The radius-rod front suspension had a further important benefit of anti-dive braking which was promoted at the time by Hudson - I can vouch for the fact that they are very powerful brakes with zero dive under maximum tyre-squealing retardation.
Rhythmic ride was also touted. This is essentially due to the use of oil-cushioned shock absorbers and softer leaf-springs (since the steel arms helped to keep the axle in place, springs could be softer). The springs were also made longer for a more comfortable rhythm. Adding to that were “air wheels and big pillowing tires,” in Hudson’s words.
The same system brought “Tru-Line Steering,” otherwise known as the ability to keep the steering centered (or return to center). Again, since the axle was held in place left-to-right by two arms, rather than being attached by springs, the car could be stopped in a straighter line, and hitting bumps had little effect on the steering direction.
Duo-automatic hydraulic brakes were a key safety feature. The regular service brakes were normally used, with a separate channel “in the rotary equalized reserve system” coming into play at the bottom of the brake pedal travel; if the primary brakes failed, the secondaries would be used. D. Palmer wrote: “The dual action brakes were hydraulic on the primary circuit and cable on the emergency circuit. If the hydraulics failed, you always had cable back-up working on the rear brakes only, ie the park brake circuit.”
The automatic draft eliminator was one of those clever features used in the days before full-blown climate control. The system included weather-tight doors and a wide cowl ventilator; fresh air was drawn in by the cowl, and sent out through a small opening in the floor by the rear of the car. The fresh air actually was passed through a filter, not unlike the system used in many cars today, though the filter then was in bag form.
When lots of fresh air was desired, the Hudson featured sliding rear quarter windows and draft deflectors that operated when front windows were opened. “Turn the handle and they are windscoops, turn again and they roll right down into the door with the rest of the window.” (These were essentially a split window, with the forward portion being used as a wind deflector or scoop.)
Storage space was quite good even by today’s standards, due partly to a design which today could be called a modified hatchback; the car looked like a wagon, with no separate trunk, and a very large rear hatch opening with 17 cubic feet of space in the trunk. (If the spare tire was carried inside, that went down to a meager 12.5 feet.) In “trunk models,” cargo space went up to a full 21 feet (16.5 with the spare), good by today's standards. The main difference appears to be a cargo door that bulged outwards rather than a flat door.
Hudson also bragged about their engines, with gas mileage of 18-20 mpg (20.1 mpg in a national economy test), and a built in oil cooler that allowed oil to last longer. Another drivetrain feature was the Electric Hand option, which “shifts gears at finger touch.” The Hudson apparently set economy records at Bonneville Salt Flats, and, according to the company, was used extensively by law enforcement.
Both the six and eight cylinder were in-line, L-head designs (not V6 and V8, but I-6 and I-8). Durabilty features included a six-blade water pump impeller, new thermostatic control that provided heat in winter without overheating the engine, a downdraft carburetor with anti-vapor lock and backfire arrestor, oversized generator, molybdenum alloy steel rear axle with wide-toothed gears and oversized bearings and shafts for durability and quietness, a crankshaft with forged counterweights (made by Hudson itself), a well-sealed oil-cushioned clutch, heavy duty battery, roller cam tappet design, cooled and forced lubrication, high-chrome alloy cylinder block (without the need for special valve seats), and silicon aluminum alloy pistons with four pinned rings for lower wear and lighter weight. D. Palmer wrote that the 1936 Hudson Eight was tested by the English Motor magazine at 86 mph top speed and 0-60 in 15.6 seconds.
While Dodge Brothers was known for being the first automaker to use only all-steel bodies, Hudson claimed both the world's safest chassis and the first car body made entirely of steel, noting “Hudson is the only automobile manufacturer making its own steel bodies.” After 27 years in operation, Hudson said they had 2.25 million cars on the road.
Models made in 1936 included:
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