1934 Terraplane convertible coupe
1934 Terraplane convertible coupe
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

The Terraplane was a product of Hudson Motor Car Co., which was founded in Detroit in 1909 by department store magnate J.L. Hudson. The company soon established a reputation for good, sturdy, although somewhat expensive cars.

To enter the low-priced field, Hudson introduced the Essex in 1918. It proved very successful, particularly the inexpensive, closed, two-door coach model, which helped convert the industry from open to closed cars.

During the Depression when all automakers suffered plunging sales, Hudson’s answer was to freshen up its low-priced model to compete better with the Big Three’s popular priced cars – Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth. The result was new 1932 Essex Terraplane.

Hudson’s earlier six-cylinder 1924 Essex had suffered some reliability problems, so to generate renewed interest Hudson decided to give its renamed 1932 Essex Terraplane a performance image.

Hudson already held many speed and endurance records, and had competed in the Indianapolis 500 several times. Hudson’s engineers welcomed the opportunity to make the Terraplane a fast car.

Their route to high performance was to put high power in a light car. Since Hudson couldn’t afford a new engine it upgraded the Essex six with a chrome alloy cylinder block, a downdraft carburetor, and 295 cc (18 cu in.) more displacement, bringing it to 3.2 litres (193 cu in.). Horsepower went from 60 to 70, five more than the recently arrived Ford V-8.

To reduce weight the Terraplane received a kind of semi-unit construction. Fastening the body and chassis tightly together provided extra structural rigidity. The lightest Terraplane weighed just over 907 kg (2,000 lb), some 91 kg (200 lb) less than the lightest Ford. It claimed the highest production car power-to-weight ratio in the world.

So that no one missed the “plane” connection, the first model built was given to aviation pioneer Orville Wright. The second was a gift to aviatrix Amelia Earhart, after she had christened the new vehicle. Its advertising jingle became: “In the air it’s aeroplaning, on the sea it’s aquaplaning, but on the land it’s Terraplaning.”

It set out to establish a performance reputation, and by the end of 1933 the Terraplane held 50 hill-climb records, the flying mile record at 138 km/h (85.8 mph), and the standing mile at 110 km/h (68 mph).

A six-cylinder Terraplane broke the Pikes Peak record in 1932, and in 1933 the new eight (the lowest priced straight-eight) broke the six’s record. Some of these marks stood until 1951.

The Terraplane image grew so strong that the Essex name was downplayed, then dropped altogether; in 1934 it became just the Terraplane.

The eight-cylinder engine was discontinued for the restyled 1934 models, replaced by an 89.5 horsepower six, only 4.5 less than the eight. It established 72 new American Automobile Association hillclimb and acceleration records in the U.S. and Canada.

With its new “Axle-Flex” front suspension in which the solid front axle’s centre section was replaced by two parallel steel links, Terraplane shared with General Motors in the big automotive story of the year: independent front suspension.

For 1935 Terraplane’s got pre-selector “Electric Hand” shifting in which ratios were selected by moving a small fingertip lever. The shift was completed by dipping the clutch, causing solenoids and vacuum cylinders to shift the gears. It proved complex and troublesome, and was not a lasting success.

For 1935 the standard six-cylinder engine went from 80 to 88 horsepower, while the high-performance version now developed 100.

Terraplane grew larger and roomier for 1936 when they became essentially Hudsons. Now heavier, but with the same power, the performance suffered. Hudsons and Terraplanes adopted fail-safe “Duo-Automatic” brakes that year, a combination of four-wheel hydraulic and two-wheel mechanical systems.

The 1937 Terraplane was even larger and heavier, with “true six-passenger seating.” Still virtually Hudsons, a significant price increase brought them up into competition with marques like Pontiac and Dodge.

This would be the final year the Terraplane name would stand alone. The 1938s were Hudson Terraplanes, and it would be their last year, killed by Hudson’s new low-priced Hudson 112 which was priced $100 under the Terraplane.

The Terraplane, one of the fastest American cars of its era, was gone after only seven years. It established many speed records, and like the Ford V-8, had been a favourite with bank robbers.

It even inspired an international hybrid, the Terraplane engined English Railton. Reid Railton of land speed record fame began building them in mid-1934 in Cobham, Surrey, England.

Terraplanes were also manufactured in Canada by the Canadian Top and Body Company Ltd. of Tilbury, Ontario.

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