by Jennifer Harrington
The Hudson Hornet, a relatively small and light car powered by a straight-six engine, was one of the cars that made NASCAR racing popular; after a stunning series of upsets, when it beat V-8 powered cars from the “majors,” it was immortalized in the animated movie Cars. Unlike most cars in that movie, it was actually shown by name, “The Fabulous Hudson Hornet.”
Industry veterans Howard Coffin, George W. Dunham, and Roy E. Chapin had created Hudson Motor Company in 1909. Joseph L. Hudson, founder of Hudson’s department store in Detroit, provided most of the funding.
Hudson designed “closed” models after Chapin realized most customers didn’t want to ride out in the elements. The driver and passengers could ride in comfort, and sales skyrocketed. They moved the steering wheel and driver’s position to the left side of the vehicle, as Ford did, and gear-selection and emergency-braking hand levels moved inside to the center.
Hudson also adopted the General Motors-developed self-starter, which made gasoline-powered automobiles more like general consumer products — and ended the chance of breaking one’s arm or wrist when the car suddenly started during cranking.
In 1916, Hudson launched the first “balanced” crankshaft in its six-cylinder engine. It gave incomparable smoothness, and after the company gained a reputation with its “Super Six,” the design was copied by other manufacturers.
Hudson did very well throughout the Roaring Twenties, building plants in Belgium, Canada, and England. However, after the company hit the number three position on the U.S. sales chart (with 300,962 units sold) in 1929, it was hit hard by the October 1929 stock-market crash and the Great Depression.
Chapin remained optimistic, though Hudson’s profits declined in the 1930s; they tried to jumpstart sales with hill climbs, economy runs, and new speed records. When the U.S. entered World War II, Hudson joined the many other companies in the “Arsenal of Democracy,” making aircraft parts and Hudson Invader engines for naval boats.
After the war ended in 1945, the demand for cars was at its all-time peak. The new Hudson Commodore Super Six was launched in 1948, with unit-body construction (“monobilt”); its floor pan was suspended from the bottom of the chassis, and the chassis extended outside the rear wheels. The car was a foot lower, from ground to rooftop, than many of its contemporaries. Sales of the Super Six version hit 91,333 in 1949, not including the less popular, more expensive Super Eight. The Custom series added roughly another 60,000 cars for that year.
For 1950, Hudson added the Pacemaker series, a little smaller, using the same grille as the 1950 Commodore. Sales were decent, with around 60,000 sold for the year; Commodore added around 60,000 more cars as post-war demand slowed. The Hudson Hornet arrived just one year later, in 1951.
Available as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, convertible, and hardtop coupe, the Hudson Hornet used a refined version of the Super Six chassis and a more powerful (145 hp) engine; weight was greater than the Pacemaker and Commodore, at around 3,600 - 3,800 pounds (the convertible was, as usual, much heavier than other models).
It did not quite flop, but it was hardly a barnstormer, with fewer than 44,000 sold for the year. Overall, Hudson sold 131,915 cars for the extended model year — 92,859 for the calendar year — with losses of $1 million for the year.
The Hornet one of the hottest vehicles on the road thanks to its 262-cubic-inch inline six, bored out to 308 cubic inches; it also found itself to be one of the hottest cars out on the race tracks. The Hornet had a low center of gravity, and stock-car racers in the 1950s took advantage of that, the dual carburetion (Twin-H Power, available as an option in 1952), and the robust L-head (H-145) engine.
Surrounded by high-compression V8s from Cadillac and Oldsmobile and low-compression V8s from Ford, the Hornet still dominated stock-car racing in the Fifties, largely because it could easily out-handle competitors.
Twelve of 13 AAA events in 1952 were won by Marshall Teague, who became synonymous with Hudson performance in that era; he claimed 112 mph in the Hornet. In the NASCAR Grand National Series, 27 of the 34 races in the 1952 season were won by a Hudson; 22 of 37 were won by a Hudson in 1953, and 17 of 37 in 1954. Other Hornet drivers included Herb Thomas, Tim Flock, Al Keller, Frank Mundyand, and Dick Rathmann.
Teague, Flock, and Thomas all drove “Fabulous Hudson Hornets;” the original Fabulous Hudson Hornet can be found in the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum in Ypsilanti, Michigan — formerly known as Miller Motors, the last Hudson dealership. Winning 40 out of 48 events, the Hornet had an 83% winning percentage.
The Hornet’s superior handling came from its chassis’ low center of gravity, thanks to its stylish and functional “step-down” design; its floorboards were lower than the door sills. Six passengers could enjoy the impressive ride. The low-slung look and nearly closed rear wheels gave the car a sleek design.
The Hornet’s sophisticated unibody design was both a help and a hindrance; it was expensive to update, while body-on-frame manufacturers could change designs on a yearly basis.
For 1952, the Hudson Hornet was based on the Commodore Eight trim level; it added the high-compression six-cylinder engine, leather window moldings, “Flying-H” badges, a gold and chrome hood ornament, and various medallions. While buyers could get an in-line eight-cylinder with the Commodore, that engine put out just 128 horsepower, while the Hornet Six, with its larger displacement and higher compression, pushed out 145 hp. Still, there were just under 36,000 Hornet sales this year. At that, it was responsible for around half of Hudson sales.
In 1953, the Hornet gained a new front grille and a non-functional air scoop on the hood, as well as a special “7X” engine for stock car racing, with around 200 horsepower; but sales dropped again, to 27,208 (of 66,143 Hudsons). Changing fashions and a bitter struggle between Chevrolet and Ford hurt Hudson, especially among its core customers; using the old straight-eight took away bragging rights to “a V-8” as well.
The next year, the air scoop became functional, and the car received a one-piece curved windshield and a squared-off redesign. Hornet sales dropped again, to 24,833 — now around half of Hudson’s sales. The higher-profit upscale cars that kept Hudson afloat were taking a beating, and the Hornet was’t selling well enough to make up for it.
Despite the company’s racing success, Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator to become the American Motors Corporation in 1954; it was the largest corporate merger at the time (worth $197,793,366) and was just one part of the upcoming megamerger among Hudson, Nash, Packard, and Studebaker.
The Hornet was soon equipped with Packard’s 320-cubic-inch V8, which produced 208 horsepower, and had Packard’s “Ultramatic” automatic transmission.
In 1955, a new line of Hornets were available, “new from stern to stern,” but the redesign didn’t help Hudson sales — and there was no reason why it should have: they were simply restyled, rebadged Nash cars. It was available as a two-door hardtop and a four-door sedan, and compared to its competition, was styled fairly conservatively. In 1956, it received “V-line” styling; in its last year, Hudsons were only available as Hornets in “Custom” and “Super” versions. The Hornet’s price was reduced and its power was increased with AMC’s 327-cubic-inch, four-barrel V8, but it still wasn’t enough to have the Hudson name continue on (in the opinion of AMC’s leaders).
Hudson’s final day of production was June 25, 1957. A total of 24,833 Hornets were produced for that model year. Both Hudson and Nash were dropped, and the popular Rambler was elevated from a model to the marque for all of AMC’s cars.
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