Curbside Classic: 1956 Hudson Hornet – Waiting For Death In A Borrowed Four-Tone Suit

(Revised and updated from the original, first published 3/23/2011)

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 others here have found them since. 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 so wrong.

The Step-down Hudsons (full CC here) were the real end of the road for another of America’s independent makers in the mid-fifties. The postwar 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 their 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, albeit in a distinctly American idiom. The Step-down’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 Hornet dominated the early stock-car circuit for several years–something made all the more remarkable given its flathead six engine at a time when the Big Three were unleashing a wave of new OHV V8s.

To make a long, sad story short, the Step-down Hudson’s body style ended up not being a la mode very long–if it had ever been, really. GM’s more upright, glassy and rectilinear styling trend was the new direction, featuring 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) shows all too clearly the challenges of adapting the Step-down.

All of the independents found GM’s increasing lock-grip on the medium-to-upper end of the market to be very uncomfortable indeed and started looking at 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 was the dumpy, Step-up Jet (above); a dismal failure that burned up what little cash they had left, it was essentially Hudson’s death warrant. Well, that and the 1953 sales war unleashed by Ford, which ultimately proved to be the proverbial last 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. That lofty goal eluded him, but the 1954 merger he engineered with Hudson was the beginning of American Motors (AMC), whose name certainly didn’t belie his ambitions. Needless to say, the merger, like the Packard-Studebaker hook-up, 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, resulting in “new” Hudsons–essentially badge-engineered Nashes–that were derisively referred to as “Hashes”.

The Fairna-influenced Nash body that had arrived in 1952 started out as quite clean. The 1955s became a bit more flamboyant.

Hudson Wasp 1955 fq

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. They were now officially a Hash.


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–courtesy of AMC Design Chief Ed Anderson. Does its fiendish grin remind you of someone?

I have given a name to my pain, and it is…Nash.  I’m only laughing on the outside / My smile is just skin deep / If you could see inside I’m really crying / You might join me for a weep.


His outfit almost matches color-wise too.


My photographs, taken over a chain-link fence at some distance, do the car the small favor of having soft focus and blurry details, especially when it comes to the front end:

If not the Jokermobile, then maybe something from Russia? The Chaika Hornet.

The “Hashes” also had a quite a hash of engine choices to power them toward 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, remaining in action through 1956, and a Packard-sourced OHV V8 for 1955-1956. It was replaced by AMC’s own new 250 CID V8 in ’56, and the final ’57s, all of which were now 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, every time it comes around again and again, the clean aero look never seems to take hold in America for very long. Americans do love a bit of ornamentation and, well, “visual interest”, shall we say?

Sales plummeted: the last ’54 Step-downs sold all of 36,000 units; the ’55 Hashes were down to 20,000, the V-Line ’56s garnered 10,000, and the almost-identical swan song ’57s didn’t break 4,000. It had been wrong to resist the inevitable death of Hudson with the Hashes, and it certainly was useless.