Stepping Down Before Stepping Out

How independent Hudson enjoyed one last hurrah before meeting an ignominious end.

Images: the author

Like any American automaker returning to the business of making cars in the years after the Second World War had ended, Hudson realised that the lucrative post-war sellers’ market would not last indefinitely. A prototype of what would ultimately become the famous ‘step-down’ Hudson had been readied as early as 1942, but America entering the war halted any meaningful further development and moreover, Hudson President A.E. Barit was unconvinced by the concept at the time, finding it too low-slung.

When automotive operations recommenced in the autumn of 1945, chief designer Frank Spring managed to convince his boss to change his mind, whereupon Barit gave the green light for a 1948 model year introduction. This put Hudson in an advantageous position compared to most competitors, who would only have their totally new cars ready a year later.

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Hudson’s new car was constructed as a fully-welded structure, as seen previously on cars like the Chrysler Airflow, but in this case the floorpan was mounted below the chassis side-rails which, since one had to noticeably step down into the car when entering, earned it its nickname. The advantages of this construction were that occupants could be placed more fully within the wheelbase, improving comfort and space. Also, it achieved a lower centre of gravity and reduced the height of the car without sacrificing headroom. Better protection against side impacts was also a plausible claimed benefit.

The 1948 Hudson indeed looked strikingly different from its predecessor by being almost 9″ (229mm) lower. It was even 2″ (51mm) lower than the recently introduced new Studebakers. Upon entering the car, one of the roomiest interiors of the day in any dimension welcomed the passengers: headroom was the most generous of any contemporary US car and the front and rear hip-room was 64″ (1,625mm)  and 63″ (1,600mm) respectively. The fold-down central armrest in the rear seat was no less than 16″ (406mm) wide.

The car was well received both by the press and the buying public. As regards propulsion, there was a choice of two engines, both in-line units with either six or eight cylinders. Unusually, the six-cylinder engine had a slightly larger displacement than its moderately more powerful eight-cylinder companion; 4.3 litres against 4.16 litres. Available in Super or more luxurious Commodore versions with either powerplant, the new step-down gave Hudson its best calendar-year sales performance since 1929: 142,500 cars were sold, which was well over 40,000 more than the 1947 model had achieved.

Despite the fact that most competitors introduced their new post-war models in that year, Hudson did even better in 1949. In 1950, however, the sellers’ market was a thing of the past. Hudson added a new entry-level series named Pacemaker to compensate for this but, at the end of the model year, sales were 25% down compared to the previous year.

A couple of factors were starting to hurt the company: it did not yet offer a fully automatic transmission, and the step-down design philosophy had produced a body that, while low yet roomy and sturdy, proved difficult and costly to facelift. On top of that, it took more time for a relatively small manufacturer like Hudson to amortize the costs of re-tooling for a new body. Hudson solved the first problem by buying in Hydra-Matic transmissions from GM for the 1951 model year and, while it once more made only superficial changes to the styling of the car, the introduction of the high-performance Hornet resulted in a recovery in sales performance.

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The new Hornet proved to be a valuable asset for Hudson, as it reigned supreme in stock-car racing, where it would dominate until the middle of the decade. Even though GM and Chrysler now fielded V8 powered cars (the Hornet used the in-line six) which could reach higher maximum speeds than the Hudson, the latter’s roadholding and stability in the corners made it virtually unbeatable: in the 1952 season for example, Hudson emerged victorious in 31 out of 35 races.

However, all these successes in competition could not hide the fact that more and more people now expected a V8 engine under the bonnet at the price level at which Hudson was operating, but Hudson simply could not afford to develop such an engine as sales and profits dwindled. The introduction of its first hardtop, badged Hollywood, was not exactly addressing the sharp end of the problem, and it arrived quite late to the party anyway.

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Hudson extracted more performance out of its engine with a dual-carburettor system under the name ‘Twin H-power’ but, all those victories in competition notwithstanding, this failed to help sell more cars. In fact, only 70,000 Hudsons found owners in 1952, which was the worst outcome since recession-plagued 1938. A mistake that would prove to be fatal for the continued independence of Hudson was the introduction of the compact Jet for 1953: dowdily styled and more expensive than a full-sized Chevrolet, the Jet was a resounding sales flop and all those dollars would have been better spent on developing or buying in a V8, or simply kept in reserve.

Prospects continued to deteriorate for the big step-down Hudsons, which were now quickly starting to look dated. For the 1954 models, Hudson finally produced a noticeably changed car: at long last there was a one-piece windshield, and the sloping rear wings and bootlid were reshaped into something more in tune with the times. Given the company’s by now limited means, it was not a bad effort but it simply was not enough to save Hudson.

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On May 1, 1954 Nash-Kelvinator boss George Mason and Hudson’s A.E. Barit signed a merger contract which, in reality, amounted to a takeover of Hudson. The new company was named American Motors Corporation. Hudson’s plant on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit ceased to produce cars but would continue to make engines.

This meant the end of the road for the once revered step-downs, replaced by ‘Hudsonized’ Nashes for 1955. They may have had Hudson engines and instrument panels, but it did not take an expert to spot what they actually were. On the plus side, Hudsons were now finally available with a V8 engine, had a panoramic windshield, and benefited from true unitary construction and AMC’s effective ‘weather eye’ ventilation system. Sadly, sales in these last few years did not justify the business case for Hudson anymore and the 1957 models would be the last. This was apparently a late decision as, in the opening spread of the brochure for the 1958 Rambler, a close look at its front wing nameplate reveals that, thanks to some hasty retouching, the name ‘Hudson’ can still be made out.

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The final decade of Hudson can be summarized as a company that painted itself into a corner in both styling and engineering terms, realised this error too late and invested money in the wrong place in an ultimately futile effort to counter its downward spiral. And what about the ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ maxim? That may ring true for some car companies, but it did precious little for Hudson.

The brochures shown here, including a decidedly tatty 1952 specimen, provide a brief illustrated overview of Hudson’s final years. Interestingly, the brochures of its last three years under AMC display a noticeably different style.

Although Hudsons still have their following, the fact that the marque has been defunct for well over sixty years means that those who experienced the cars in their day, or lusted after them but were too young to afford one, are now literally becoming a dying breed. Hence, you can get a good deal if a seller categorises them as just another old car brochure. They are not, and Hudson deserves to be remembered both in metal and in paper. But don’t tell them that.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

13 thoughts on “Stepping Down Before Stepping Out”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. Hudson, one of those forgotten brands. Probably best known for the DocHudson character in the movie ‘Cars’ I’m afraid. It’s been ages since I last saw one.

    I prefer the earlier car and brochures. The quick, but not quite effective retouching of the photo to make the Hudson name almost disappear is a nice detail. It makes me wonder what the conversation in the boardroom went like.

  2. Hi Bruno, thanks. Those Step Downs are very pretty things, sleek and low slung like – dare I say it? – Jaguars. It’s a tricky thing for manufacturers, especially smaller ones: you need to invest to develop products that will sell, but you cannot invest too much, or everything else will suffer. Hence you need to make choices about what you develop and what will entice enough buyers to flock to your showroom. Hudson wasn’t helped, as you write, by the US market reliance on extensive yearly facelifts, cosmetic though they were and the difficulty to change the Hornet’s bodywork. Hudson’s tale has been repeated many times over, even by once-formidable entities like BLMC, others like Peugeot and VW have skirted disaster and come out of it, partly with good products. I don’t think VW’s situation was especially dire shortly before the Golf arrived, but its future was looking shaky with only the Beetle really selling in large numbers.

    I think the “standard” solution is to have scale, like GM (waning though it seems to be), VW, Toyota, Hyundai/KIA (these days), the other one is to be lean(-ish), independent and extremely focused, like Hudson once was, or Honda is these days. Honda isn’t exactly “small” of course, but it’s certainly not a VW or Toyota-style behemoth and it is in very tight control of the number of projects and product lines it maintains. A third is to be “premium” and command higher prices. The tightrope that Mercedes and BMW have walked is quite impressive, with – one would think anyway – large R&D budgets compared to their sales volume.

  3. From an advertisement point of view, why all this upper class portrayal, men in dinner suits, women in dresses, accompanying their new sleek huge motor car? Were all customers then aspiring to a rich life? And all this tonnage of metal to build just one car? 1500, 2000 kg? Was back there any practical meaning to all this?

    1. Different times, different world gpant. In the early postwar period there was room for optimism once again in the USA (and most of the world) after a depression followed by a war. America’s cars, now increasingly painted in brighter hues, reflected this optimism of better times (the American Dream) and almost all aspired to climb the societal ladder.
      But on the whole, and not only in the USA, in that era people “dressed up” for a lot more occasions than they do now; a visit to the cinema for example was often reason enough to put on a suit and tie and a nice dress. Ditto for a church visit on sunday.

      Also, Hudson was operating in the upper/medium class -about the same level as Buick- and they targeted exactly the kind of upwardly mobile customers that aspired to prosper now the circumstances allowed it. Many Americans, but not all of them, did.

      I hope this sheds some light on your question.

  4. Thank you brrruno for shedding some light on the social question. The dress up and the bright colors are psychologically understandable. Engineering wise, why a north American driver would request to drive a 1500kg mass of raw materials turned in car shape, and the same time a French or Belgian driver would be happy with a Citroen/Renault/Peugeot smaller car? That, by the way, being a better engineered vehicle than the american lorry-resembling-car, less than 1000kg, more nimble, better handling? All the world had gone through economic depression and hard times, certainly.
    The customers who were shopping in the medium/upper class in the 1950s, how did they continued their car shopping in the next decades? Could you please explain in a future article the continuity of market segments in north american car market and their evolution, along with new technology and fashion?

    1. “Could you please explain in a future article the continuity of market segments in north american car market and their evolution, along with new technology and fashion?” That would require a book rather than an article I’m afraid…. Speaking of which, your question why American motorists generally prefer larger vehicles than their French or Italian counterparts: this is a result of several factors such as the infrastructure of the country, taxation laws, population density and more. The excellent book “Drive On!” by LJK Setright, published by Granta Books, covers this in great detail.

  5. Ah, the “step-down” Hudson. Thanks Bruno. One of my favourite cars.

    For a you-may-only-have-one-vehicle-situation, my only choice would be between feathered fowl (2 CV, here in Germoney called “duck”) and insects (wasp or hornet).

    Since we have more “ducks” than these yellow-black insects here in our area (we had a wasp plague this year, but those were those nasty little stinging insects, that doesn’t count in terms of automobiles) a Hudson will probably always remain a dream.

  6. Very late to school today, sorry Bruno. Thanks for the lesson on Hudson, a company about which I knew nothing other than its name before reading your excellent piece.

    The early 1950s Hudson Hornet really does appeal to me, with its super-low ‘slammed’* roof and smooth lines:

    As Tom said above, there’s more than a little Jaguar (Mk X) to be seen in those curvaceous flanks.

    * Are we allowed to use that word anymore in an automotive context, as I understand it is now slang for the abuse of certain ‘recreational’ drugs these days.

    1. To be strictly accurate, there is more than a little Hudson to be seen in the Jaguar Mark Ten’s flanks and greenhouse… given the timelines; albeit, I would wager that the resemblance was unintentional on Billy Lyons’ part.

    2. We have to call them ‘non-therapeutic’ drugs these days, Daniel – the concept of recreation has been banned.

  7. Tom V, Daniel and Eòin: Interesting, I hadn’t made the Jaguar connection yet but I see what you mean. Although I would agree with Eòin that it is likely coincidental. In any case, I like these step down Hudsons too; they were sturdy cars and looked it, but without (IMO) appearing stodgy.

  8. My restoration shop worked on many Hudsons, especially the ’48 thru ’53 versions. Most spare parts were available, even trim pieces. I personally owned 2 Hudsons; a metallic grey 1950 Commodore 8 with Super-Matic & overdrive, and a very late 1954 Hollywood hardtop, red with yellow roof, power steering and Hydra-matic. Both were quite fast and easy to drive. Most people who saw the ’54 at first thought it was an Oldsmobile 98.

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