Driving Today: Greatest Car
By Jack Nerad for Driving Today
"Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday."
It is one of the clarion calls of NASCAR, the venerable "stock car" racing sanctioning body that has become one of the hottest success stories of the Nineties and now the new millennium. But, sadly, Hudson Motor Car Company was the exception that proved the rule in the early 1950s. The Hudson Hornet was one of the vehicles that made NASCAR a viable series in its infant and toddler years, but while the Hudson Hornet helped NASCAR in inestimable ways, NASCAR didn't really help Hudson, at least not enough to stave off its inevitable demise just a few short years after racing domination had thrust it into the limelight.
The company that would eventually spring the Hornet on the unsuspecting public was founded in 1909 by Howard Coffin, George W. Dunham and Roy E. Chapin. A substantial portion of the funding came from Joseph L. Hudson, a member of the family that owned and operated Detroit's pre-eminent department store, thus the company was named in his honor. Of the founders, Chapin was the most experienced automotive executive, having cut his teeth at Oldsmobile. In fact, to gain publicity immediately prior to the 1901 New York Auto Show, Ransom E. Olds sent Chapin on a journey from Detroit to Manhattan in a Curved Dash Olds, a publicity stunt that helped make the brand.
Now at the top of his own company, Chapin and his crew immediately set about turning Hudson into a name to be reckoned with. With savvy management and deep financial pockets, the company quickly vaulted ahead of scores of other firms that were vying to make a name for themselves in the fledgling automotive industry. In just its second year of production - 1910 - Hudson Motor Car Company ranked 11th in the nation in automobile production. Chapin realized that most potential customers didn't want to ride out in the elements, as they were forced to in the open cars of the era, so he developed "closed" models that allowed driver and passengers to ride in relative comfort, an innovation that helped sales skyrocket.
Other advances soon followed. Hudson joined the Ford parade and moved the steering wheel and driver's position to the left side of the car, and, at the same time moved the hand levers for gear selection and emergency braking inside to the center of the car. Hudson also was quick to adopt the General Motors-developed self-starter, the device that made gasoline-powered cars viable as a general consumer product.
In 1916 Hudson introduced what it claimed was the first "balanced" crankshaft in its six-cylinder engine. The innovation offered unparalleled smoothness, and it was quickly copied, but not before Hudson established the reputation of its "Super Six."
By the close of World War I Chapin realized that his company needed a competitor to the Ford Model T, which was the dominant vehicle of the era, so he had his engineers develop the Essex line. With an advanced all-steel body, the new brand quickly established itself, despite the 1919-20 recession.
Hudson roared through the Roaring Twenties. On the strength of its growing reputation in the United States, the company went on an international kick and built assembly plants in Belgium, England, and Canada. In fact, the company acted as if the boom of the mid-to-late Twenties would never end.
Unfortunately, for Chapin and Hudson, the boom did end. By 1929 the company had leapfrogged its way to the number three spot on the U.S. sales chart, behind just Ford and Chevrolet, with 300,962 units sold. But that proved to be the high-water mark for the company. The stock market crash of October 1929 and the decade-long Depression that followed hit Hudson particularly hard, possibly because the bullish Chapin continued to be optimistic.
Through the Thirties, Hudson continued to be an innovator with its Essex and Terraplane lines. In 1932 those brands offered a choice of either six or eight cylinder engines, but 1932 was the low point of the Depression, and the expensive changes to the models were greeted with yawns, not with profits. To jump-start sales, Hudson tried stunts. Several hill climbs, economy runs, and speed records were established, but still sales languished.
It wasn't until the United States became involved in World War II that Hudson really shook off the doldrums. Like all major U.S. industrial companies, Hudson became part of "the Arsenal of Democracy," building aircraft parts and huge engines for naval craft.
After the war ended in 1945, Hudson got another chance to vault towards the top of the United States auto industry. Hudson's management was much more attuned to succeeding in boom times than in retrenching when times grew tough, and the American auto market was poised for unprecedented growth. Pent-up demand for cars was at its all-time peak after four war years had completely shut down auto production for civilian use.
Hudson got off to a good start by introducing an all-new Super Six in 1948, but it might be said that the car was too advanced for the marketplace. With unit body construction that Hudson sales brochures referred to as "monobilt," the landmark Hudson Super Six set the stage for today's automobiles, most of which use "unibody" designs. The floorpan of the Hudson was suspended from the bottom of the chassis, a throwback to Harry Stutz's "underslung" technique and the precursor of today's low-aspect vehicle profiles. The chassis also extended outside the rear wheels, giving the car a well-enclosed "low-rider" look. From ground to rooftop it was a foot lower than many of its contemporaries, and there was no doubt it was a handsome design.
The Hudson Hornet, introduced in 1951, took the Super Six chassis, refined it and then added the piece de resistance, a significantly more powerful engine. When the 262 cubic inch displacement in-line six-cylinder engine was bored out to 308 cubic inches, the Hudson Hornet instantly became one of the hottest cars on the road.
On the strength of its powerful engine and low center of gravity, it didn't take long for early Fifties stock car racers to figure the Hornet had something going for it. In some ways it was odd that Hudson's rather mundane L-head straight six became the hot ticket in the early Fifties, because that era was highlighted by the revolutionary high-compression V-8s from Cadillac and Oldsmobile. But the combination of dual carburetion (Twin-H Power) and cubic inches proved impressive in the face of high-tech. It dominated stock car racing in the early Fifties, when stock car racers actually raced "stock cars."
Marshall Teague, who became synonymous with Hudson performance in the Fifties, won 12 of 13 AAA events in 1952. Overall, Hudson won 27 of the 34 NASCAR Grand National races in 1952, followed by 22 of 37 in 1953, and 17 of 37 in 1954. It was an incredible accomplishment, especially from a car that had some legitimate luxury credentials.
The chassis' lower center of gravity, created by the "step-down design," was both functional and stylish. The car did not only handle well, at least in the Fifties idiom, at the same time, it treated its six passengers to a sumptuous ride. The low-slung look also had a sleekness about it that was accentuated by the nearly enclosed rear wheels.
Unfortunately, its unibody design was expensive to update, so it suffered against the planned obsolescence of the Big Three. Hudson's competitors, using separate body-on-frame designs, could change the look of their models on a yearly basis without expensive chassis alterations, but the Hudson Hornet design was essentially locked in until a re-engineering came due. So, despite its racing successes, Hudson's sales began to languish. Finally Hudson merged with Nash and the brand disappeared for good in 1957.