1953 Hudson Hornet
1953 Hudson Hornet. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

Hudson was a grand old make in the North American automobile business. It lasted from 1909 to 1957, and it’s ironic that the Hudson star that shone the brightest, the Hornet, was produced just before the last “real” Hudson was built in 1954.

Hudson was formed in 1909 by combining the car building expertise of four ex-Olds Motor Works employees, the most famous of whom was Roy D. Chapin, and the financial backing of Joseph L. Hudson, a successful Detroit department store magnate. Hudson put up the necessary $90,000 start-up funding, so the car was named after him.

Chapin, who served as president of the company until 1922 and again in the ’30s, and his partners, knew the automobile business well. Production of Hudson cars started in July, 1909 in the plant of the short lived Aerocar in Detroit. By July, 1910, more than 4,000 had been sold, a first-year industry record.

The Hudson company grew and prospered over the years and spun off other nameplates including Essex and Terraplane. Production topped 300,000 in 1929, its best year ever, and the company survived the Depression in reasonably good condition. Besides Detroit, Hudson assembly was carried out in Canada by the Canadian Top and Body Company in Tilbury, Ontario, from 1932 to the Second World War, and after the war until 1954.

Powerful six and eight cylinder engines made Hudsons good performers. By the time production stopped for the Second World War, it held 120 American Automobile Association stock car records, most in the hands of the great English record driver John Cobb.

After the war Hudson was one of the earliest companies to get back to building cars, turning out its first post-war vehicle on August 30, 1945. Like other manufacturers, it produced face-lifted pre-war models until a new one could be introduced in 1948, beating out the Big Three, (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler), except Cadillac and Oldsmobile, by a year.

The new 1948 Hudson was a stunner: it was low and wide and featured “Step-Down” design” accomplished by using a dropped floor pan. Hudson had unit construction and a claimed lowest centre of gravity of any American car which made it one of the best handling.

Mechanix Illustrated’s Tom McCahill tested one in February, 1950, and reported that the Hudson was just 1,534 mm (60-3/8 in.) high, but that its seats were 1,626 mm (64 in.) wide. To emphasize the point he had a picture taken with the seat cushion standing on end beside the car. McCahill said the Hudson was a little short on ground clearance, a “worm scraper” he called it in his inimitable style, but his overall conclusion was that it was “a great car.”

Hudson models were powered by either a 4.3-litre inline six or a 4.2-litre straight-eight, both with side valves. This gave them good, although not outstanding, performance.

But the performance did become outstanding with the introduction of the 1951 Hudson Hornet with the six increased in displacement to a whopping (for a six) 5.0 litres. It produced 145 horsepower, up from the 121 of the smaller six-cylinder engine. Although the Hornet was really just a slightly revised Commodore model, the big six transformed it into an exciting car.

Its high power and low centre of gravity soon made the Hornet a name to be reckoned with in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) and American Automobile Association (AAA) races. Hornets won 12 of the 41 NASCAR Grand National races in 1951.

The factory recognized the great publicity value of winning races and made special “export,” or “severe usage” (read racing) high performance engine and chassis parts available, most notably its “Twin-H Power” dual carburetor set. These carburetors plus other modifications such as higher compression were said to push the Hornet’s engine to over 200 horsepower.

Hudsons were the scourge of the racing circuits from 1951 to 1954, winning 79 races during that period. Hudson won NASCAR championships in 1951, ’52 and ’53, and AAA titles in 1952, ’53 and ’54. In 1953 Hornet won 12 of the 13 AAA stock car races.

They were also quite fast in stock trim. Road & Track magazine (7/52) tested a Hornet and quoted a top speed average of 150 km/h (92.9 mph), with a one-way run of 158 (97.8). Motor Trend magazine (8/52) reported a top speed of 160 km/h (99.2 mph). Acceleration was also good for that era, with a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 14.5 seconds reported by Road & Track.

Despite its racing success, Hudson sales were gradually declining, from 131,915 in model year 1951, to 66,143 in 1953. The old stock car adage “Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday,” wasn’t working for Hudson because buyers smelled failure coming.

In 1954, Hudson and Nash Motors amalgamated to form American Motors Corporation, and that would be the last year for the “real” Hudsons; after that they were badge-engineered Ramblers and Nashes, until the Hudson nameplate finally disappeared in 1957.

The Hornet was undoubtedly one of the most colourful chapters in the long and illustrious history of Hudson. It made a fitting swan song for a fine old automobile company that, it could be said got its name from a department store.

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