1954 Hudson Italia
1954 Hudson Italia. Click image to enlarge

Join Autos’s Facebook group
Follow Autos on Twitter

Article and photo by Bill Vance

The Hudson Motor Car Company was born in 1909 and quickly built a reputation for fast, reliable mid-market cars. it survived the 1930s Depression, contributed to Second World War defence production, and did well for a few years after the war in the seller’s market caused by the war-time interruption in car production. Its new 1948 “Step Down” design was a sensation and the low, fast, good handling Hudson Hornet with its powerful big six side-valve engine ruled stock cars tracks during the early 1950s.

But victories on the track were not transferring to orders in the showroom, and in spite of introducing the new compact 1953 Jet model, Hudson sales shrank almost in half from 1950 to 1953. Something was needed to refurbish Hudson’s image, and management decided the answer was a fast, sporty model, perhaps one that could win the famous Carrera Panamericana, better known as the Mexican Road Race. To qualify for the race at least 25 cars had to be built.

Hudson stylists created a design for a low, futuristic two-door coupe with a sloping hood and one-piece wraparound windshield. Scoops above the headlights directed cooling air to the front brakes, while slots at the leading edge of the rear fenders cooled the rear brakes. For flow-through cabin ventilation, air entered the cowl vent and exited through slots in the trailing edge of the roof.

The front bumper had a large inverted V echoing the shape of Hudson’s corporate badge. Rear styling was dominated by three short, horizontal exhaust pipe-like tubes on each rear fender. They housed the taillights, stoplights and backup lights. Wheels were wire spoke type with knock-off hubs.

Although originally envisaged on the Hudson Hornet platform, it was shifted to the smaller Jet’s 2,667 mm (105 in.) wheelbase chassis. Apparently visions of winning the Carrera Panamerica were gone. It’s 4,648 mm (183 in.) overall length was a compact package and a recessed floor contributed to a sleek height of only 1,372 mm (54 in.). Entry and exit to the low car was facilitated by curving the doors up into the roof, aircraft style.

Under the hood was the Jet’s 3.3-litre, long stroke (201 cu. in.), side valve, 114-horsepower inline six with Hudson’s dual carburetion “Twin-H-Power.” It drove through a three-speed manual transmission and the prototype was fitted with overdrive, although this did not make it to production.

Inside, the Italia was handsomely finished in deep pile carpeting and anatomically designed reclining leather seats (included some vinyl when it entered production). Seat belts were standard, an advanced feature for that time, although they were anchored to the seats, not to the frame. There was no trunk lid so cargo space had to be accessed from inside the cabin, and there was some luggage space on the platform behind the seats.

Since it would have been prohibitively expensive to produce the Italia, as it was named, in low numbers in the United States, Italian Milan-based coachbuilder Touring was contracted to build a prototype. A Jet was shipped to Touring who stripped off the body and hand created the first Hudson Italia of aluminum panels over a tubular frame.

Hudson management approved the design and in the fall of 1953 introduced the Italia to the public. Letters went to Hudson dealers inviting them to place orders for the new car for 1954 delivery, but response was only lukewarm, in part because the Italia’s nearly $5,000 price was several hundred dollars more than a Cadillac coupe. It also lacked the famous Hornet engine that would have given the Italia the outstanding performance many considered it needed.

Although media response to the Italia had been generally enthusiastic, the tepid dealer response prompted Hudson to order only 25 more Italias built by Touring.

Italia production began in August 1954, but the timing for it was terrible. On May 1st, 1954 Hudson and Nash had joined to form American Motors, and a lot of corporate energy was directed toward making the new entity work. All production would be consolidated in Nash’s factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin. AMC designs would prevail, albeit some with Hudson nameplates, and the Hudson Hornet engine did carry on for a while. Nash’s successful compact Rambler made the Hudson Jet redundant.

The amalgamation spelled the end for the Hudson Italia, although its high price and competition from cars like the Chevrolet Corvette, Kaiser-Darrin and soon to arrive Ford Thunderbird made its future questionable anyway. A total of 26 Italias – the prototype plus the 25 – were built. Hudson’s attempt to add some Italian cachet had come too late.

Connect with Autos.ca