Wednesday, November 23, 2011

We step down for some Hudson history, and check out the Big Country Hudson Meet photos from Kansas City

If you have a kid between the ages of three and ten, or if you are a kid between the ages of three and ten, you know a little about Hudson automobiles. Because when we learn that Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman) was an exceptional 1950s race car in the 2006 animated movie Cars, we are actually getting a bit of a history lesson.

Hudson, the real, non-animated car company, actually did win the NASCAR manufacturer’s championship in 1952, 1953, and 1954, and they certainly would have won it in 1951, but the award hadn’t been created yet. Between 1952 and 1954, Hudson won 66 of the 108 NASCAR races held. That’s an amazing record, especially when you consider how stout the new Oldsmobile “Rocket” V8’s and venerable Ford flathead V8’s were at the time.

So why were these tubby looking things such good stock cars? Well, there are a couple of reasons. One was under the hood, when the 308-c.i. straight six and dual-carburetor set up (Twin-H-Power, baby!) became the hot ticket in 1951. That power plant wasn’t all that state-of-the-art, but man, it would run.

What was state-of-the-art was the car itself. In 1948, Hudson adopted a new design known as “step-down” styling. Basically, they were just doing something that the hot rodders already knew about, when they channeled the body down around the frame, setting the floor between the frame rails. This meant the center of gravity was much lower, the car itself sat lower, and weight was greatly reduced. It was a good race car because it handled better than pretty much anything else on the track; the same reason a Corvette handles better than an Econoline today.

That’s the legacy of Hudson. But the history of this company didn’t begin in 1948 and end in 1954.

Hudson was actually started back in 1909 by department store magnate Joseph Hudson. Like the Ford Model T, the Hudson Twenty was an inexpensive car meant to appeal to the masses. No, it didn’t sell in massive quantities like the Model T, but the innovative Hudsons still sold thousands of units at a time when other car companies would sprout up and die like dandelions on an almost daily basis.

By 1919, Hudson brought out an even more affordable make with their Essex brand. My granddad bought a new Essex boat-tail speedster in the early 1930s, and we have a certificate at home that confirmed that he drove it to the summit of Pikes Peak. He always seemed really fond of that car.

But by 1932, the name “Essex” was apparently considered old fashioned, so the economy brand name was changed to Essex-Terraplane in ’32, just Terraplane in 1934, then back to Hudson 112 in 1938.

Hudson, the parent brand, forged ahead, building advanced, if not weird-looking, cars along the way. They were constantly making big improvements in ride and handling throughout the 1930s and early ‘40s. The cars were generally high-quality and featured neat Art-Deco styling touches. But they also suffered a bit of bloat, with inexplicably odd rear wheel wells that appeared in various configurations before and after production stopped during World War II.

To open this story, we outlined Hudson’s NASCAR success in the early ‘50s, but dominance at the track wasn’t enough to keep Hudson healthy. By 1954, Hudson styling had barely changed in six years, and their budget didn’t allow for significant updates.

Hudson did try and break free from the crowd in 1953 when they introduced the Jet. Now the Jet was very different from what Hudson buyers had been accustomed to. This was a compact car, meant to compete with the likes of the Nash Rambler. It looked a lot like a mini ’52 Ford, and featured Hudson’s famous Twin-H-Power in a tight, 2,600-lb package. The Jet was billed as an economy car, but they had a lot of performance potential as well. Unfortunately, they were also the answer to a question that no one seemed to be asking, and sales never really took off.

Between Hudson’s inability to update the big car, and the expensive failure of the Jet, they were faced with closing the doors forever in 1954. Instead, they merged with Nash, forming American Motors. This is the point where Hudson begins to fade away, kind of like the way people disappear from photographs in Back to the Future.

The 1955 Hudson was basically a big Nash with some Hudson styling touches and a big Hudson grill. They also sold some little Metropolitans and Ramblers as Hudsons, further muddying the waters. Hudson also got a Packard-designed V8 as an option in 1955, encroaching on the Twin-H-Power inline sixes turf. The Twin-H-Power dual carb setup was discontinued in 1956.

1956 Also brought another styling refresh, featuring sort of a “V” theme that may have been partly inspired by the exotic ’54 Hudson Italia sports car.

But it was too little, too late. The Hudson brand simply did not resonate with the buying public anymore. Hudson (and Nash for that matter) was abruptly discontinued before the 1958 model year. The more popular Rambler name took over everything. And just like that, 48 years of Hudson history came to an end.

The slideshow accompanying this story is from the Mo-Kan Hudson Club Big Country Hudson-Essex-Terraplane Regional Meet, which was held at the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park in June of 2010. I wrote a little about this event on the Examiner, but with their small picture size and 20-picture limit, I never got to really show these off until now.


  1. Fabulous pix! Great history lesson. Thx.

  2. agree with rick! some of those look very cool - esp. the gold one with the chrome wheels.

  3. Craig:
    Another great drive down memory the Hudson Hornet.

    Have a great Thanksgiving!

  4. Hudson, Studebaker, and all of the other non 'big three' automakers couldn't stay alive with the cutthroat price war that was going on in the early fifties between Ford and GM. After WW2, Ford was bankrupt and the government was worried that GM would overrun and totally dominate the industry. Fearing a monopoly, they sunk money and brains into Ford, because it had the raw capacity to match GM's output. After a few years of price wars, the others couldn't keep their products updated, so their vehicles became obsolete. The 1954 Hudson was just the best restyle of the 1948 that they could afford. They were the same car, with six year old technology. RIP Hudson.