1929 Essex Speedabout; photo by Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance
The Hudson Motor Car Company was founded in Detroit in 1909 with the financial backing of department store magnate Joseph L. Hudson. It established a reputation for quality cars which gradually grew more expensive. To broaden its market share, in 1919 Hudson introduced a new light car called the Essex, named after an English county in the hope of giving it a little extra cachet.
The name wasn’t the only English influence. The Essex’s four-cylinder engine had “European type” dimensions, meaning a small cylinder bore (favoured in Europe for tax purposes) of 85.7 mm (3.375 in.) and a long stroke of 127 mm (5.0 in.). It displaced 2.9 litres. A further unusual feature was an F-head design with the intake valves in the cylinder head and the exhaust valves in the block.
With 55 horsepower, in an era when the Ford Model T had only 20, the Essex was quite fast. It soon established numerous speed and endurance records including a marathon 50 hours in Cincinnati covering a distance of 4,890 km (3,037 mi) at an average speed of 97.81 km/h (60.75 mph).
The Essex had Hudson’s traditional “wet” clutch with holes in the clutch plate into which round cork disks were inserted. They were heat and pressure treated to stay in place. It ran in an oil bath and was smooth and effective if the oil level was maintained.
With over 20,000 first year sales the new Essex sold well, although not in the Ford Model T league. Then in 1921, Essex made a pioneering move by offering a two-door closed coach body style priced at only $1,495. While this was $300 more than an open model Essex, it was still reasonable compared with other closed cars.
The price of the coach would be reduced to $1,245 in 1922, and ultimately to $895 in 1925, five dollars lower than an equivalent closed car. Although competitors derided the Essex coach as “a packing crate on wheels,” it was exactly what the market wanted. It prompted General Motors’s legendary executive Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., to remark: “Nothing like that had ever been seen before in the automobile industry, and the Essex coach had a considerable vogue.”
The moderately priced Essex coach led a revolution. Up to 1925, open cars had predominated, but after that year more closed cars were sold and open cars gradually shrank to a permanently small percentage of the market.
For 1924 the Essex abandoned the four in favour of a small “high speed” six, again with a “European” bore and stroke of only 66.67 by 101.6 mm (2.625 by 4.0 in.), and displacement of 2.13 litres.
It was “high speed” out of necessity because the Essex had a truck-like rear axle ratio of 5.6:1, which made the poor little long-stroke six spin 3,700 revolutions per minute. And its 28 horsepower was pretty anaemic compared with the lusty four, so it lacked considerably in performance.
Since the Essex six paled before the four’s speed, Essex decided to launch a sportier model to give the marque some sparkle. This was the 1927 Speedster, which unfortunately was a Speedster in name only. John Bond of Road & Track wrote that the Essex could reach just 55 mph, and “for 3 minutes only.”
Essex decided to get more serious about sportiness, and in 1929 introduced the boat-tailed Speedabout that lived up to its name. With the six now up to 2.6 litres (160 cu in.) and 55 horsepower it gave the Speedabout some 70 mph, and a claimed “60 mph (96 km/h) all day.”
This cruising ability was made possible by an unusual transmission in which second gear was an overdrive with a higher ratio than high gear. The technique was to start off in first, shift to third, and then back to second. Although unorthodox, it saved the engine from high rpm. The overdrive second eased the strain, but the car was actually faster in high where its 113 km/h (70 mph) required 4,000 rpm.
The Essex engine had another unusual characteristic in that its counterweights were bolted onto the crankshaft, rather than cast with it as were others. It was a long time Hudson feature.
Unfortunately the Speedabout’s introduction was soon overshadowed by the stock market crash and the Great Depression. The result was that few, reportedly only five, were built, making it one of the rarest of cars.
The Depression saw Essex sales plunge so in 1932 Hudson launched the Essex Terraplane model with its six-cylinder engine now up to 3.5 litres (212 cu in.) and 90 horsepower. Its performance rivalled the newly introduced Ford V8. The Terraplane name became so popular that the Essex designation was discontinued after the 1933 models and another interesting nameplate slid into history.