A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist. ~Stewart Alsop
I’d rather hoped to find a genuine Step-Down Hudson, and celebrate its brilliant life as the last true Hudson. It’s one of my (many) all-time favorite cars, and I now have a lead to one that will be followed up soon. But it looks like fate will have us do the Hudson story backwards: we took a sunny day off to hike and browse bookstores in Corvallis, and what do I find in a (locked) storage lot: a Nash-bodied Hornet. Hudson deserved a nobler death; this is just wrong.
The Stepdown Hudsons were the real end of the road for another of America’s independent makers in the mid fifties. The post war boom gave all the independents, Willys, Studebaker, Kaiser, Packard, Hudson and Nash their one last chance. Flush with defense contract profits, the results were some of the most innovative and flamboyant cars ever. Hudson’s new 1948 models were deeply inspired by the aerodynamic influences of the Tatra 87 as well as the chopped and channeled “California customs” and other new trends.
The result was quite spectacular, if in a distinctly American idiom. The Stepdown’s low center of gravity and sturdy semi-unitized body construction also endowed it with the best handling of any American car of its time. The legendary H-Power Hornets dominated the early stock-car circuit for several years, all the more remarkable since its engine was a flat head six at a time when the Big Three were unleashing a wave of new OHV V8s.
To make a long sad story short, the Stepdown Hudson’s body style ended up not being a la mode very long, if ever, really. GM’s more upright, glassy and rectilinear styling trend were the new direction, including wrap-around front and rear glass and hardtops. The Hudson’s semi-unitized body was very difficult if not impossible to adapt to the rapidly evolving styling trends. The Hollywood hardtop (above) showed the challenges of adapting the Stepdown all too clearly.
All the independents found GM’s increasing lock grip on the medium-upper end of the market very uncomfortable indeed, and started to look to the lower end of the spectrum for salvation, or at least a brief life extension until someone came up with a better idea.
Hudson’s effort at penetrating the lower end of the market, the dumpy Step-up Jet (above), was a dismal failure, and essentially their death warrant, as it burned up what little cash they had left. Well, that and the 1953 sales war unleashed by Ford, which ultimately was the final straw that forced consolidation among the independents. Two marriages of “un-equals” resulted: Studebaker – Packard, and Nash -Hudson.
Nash boss George Mason’s vision was to merge all four, a lofty goal that eluded him. But the 1954 merger he engineered with Hudson was the beginning of American Motors (AMC), and its name certainly didn’t belie his ambitions. Needless to say, like with the Packard-Studebaker hook-up, the merger resulted in near-instant rationalization of production. The last true Hudsons were 1954 models, sadly restyled a bit to look like the crashed Jet, no less. For 1955, the Hudson factory was put to defense contract work, and the “new” Hudsons were essentially badge-engineered Nashes, and derisively referred to as “Hashes”.
The Fairna-influenced Nash body that had arrived in 1952 started outquite clean. The 1955s become a bit more flamboyant. But any semblance of cohesiveness was tossed overboard with the Hudson versions. Actually, the 1955s weren’t all that bad, but they certainly weren’t Hudsons. The real coup de grace came with the 1956s: AMC probably wanted to hasten the Hudson’s demise by giving it a truly wretched re-hash, the so-called V-Line styling.
My photographs, taken over a chain-link fence at some distance, do the car the small favor of soft focus and blurry details, especially the front end:
Looks like something from Russia, no?
The “Hashes” also had a hash of engines to power them to their death. In addition to the small 202 CID six from the crashed Jet, the hi-line Hornets also got a jumble of engines to speed them along. The big 308 CID flathead six was still in action through 1956, and a Packard-sourced OHV V8 in 1955 and and 1956. That was replaced by AMC’s own new 250 CID V8 in ’56, and the final ’57s, which were now all Hornets, had the 327 CID version of that engine.
This ’56 Hornet was even graced with a continental spare, no less, to complement its four-tone paint job. Yes, the clean aero-look never seem to take hold for very long in America, every time it comes around, again and again. Americans do love a bit of ornamentation and “visual interest”, shall we say?
Sales plummeted: the last ’54 Stepdowns sold all of 36k units; the ’55 Hashes were down to 20k, the V-Line ’56s garnered 10k, and the almost-identical last year ’57s didn’t break 4k. It had been wrong to resist the inevitable death of Hudson with the Hashes, and it certainly was useless.