Curbside Classic: 1951 Hudson Pacemaker – My Fluttering Heart Needs a Pacemaker

(first posted 7/19/2017)     Of all the thousands of Curbside Classics I’ve shot the past seven years, this is the one I really want. Well, at least for the moment, as I’ve probably said that a few times and will probably say it again.

Yes, I’ve fallen in love with Corvairs, VWs, a ’55 Chevy, a Porsche 356, and untold others. So many flings, so much passion and hot but brief affairs; but inevitably, when I asked myself if I was really be willing to take it on for the long haul, given what all that entails, the answer was inevitably no.

But that wouldn’t be for this Hudson. I’d take this long, low, brooding fat cat home in a heartbeat. I’m ready to step down, all the way.

As a kid, I was utterly obsessed with long, low, rounded and smooth fastback cars with six side windows, even though they had been out of fashion for a decade or more. As much as I loved all the latest rectilinear cars from Detroit upon our arrival in 1960, I instantly fell in love with an old Hudson I stumbled into on the way to school that fall, thanks to taking a shortcut through back yards and ending up in a dead end street.

It was already some twelve years old, and had been left to molder on the side of the owner’s driveway, where a newer car had usurped its role. The owner was the father of a girl in my class, so she said it was ok to sit in it for as long as I wanted; front and rear. I was in Hudson heaven, despite the itchy old mohair. One time when she said she wanted to come in with me, we opened the rear door and saw a bat hibernating, hanging from the window trim. That broke off what could have been a sweet imaginary ride. But I’m ready to pick up where I left off.

What is the source of my obsession with this shape and six windows? It’s pretty easy to pinpoint. A Tatra 600 Tatraplan lived down the street from us in Innsbruck, and I went by it every day on the way to and from kindergarten, which in Austria back then started at the tender age of 3 (preschool, in other words). There were a few other old cars that fit the mold, more or less, but none were as influential as that Tatra. It was the object of the kind of consuming desire that only a little kid can muster.

Of course there was the Volkswagen, a small-scale pretender and which was obviously a common sight as well as the source of my very first automotive memory of riding in a car. And as much as I bonded with the VW, to the point where I owned several later in life, there was something decidedly more compelling about the larger six-window four-door fastbacks.

One factor has to be their interior space.  All the big old American sedans from the 40s and early 50s were generally very roomy inside, and their small windows and tall seats and high ceilings made it seem like one was inside a very safe and comforting space, big enough to be a kid’s house, really. I would have died to have that Hudson towed into my back yard, and just moved in. I wonder if I could have talked my mother into delivering the meals to my window?

I would have been happy to just spend my time behind that giant wheel, sitting up on some old Yellow Pages. Even then, seeing the road might have been a bit of a challenge. It’s a bit like being in a submarine in one of these. But then it would have been good practice for the cars of today, who are similarly sight-line challenged.

Hudson said their new “Step Down” cars for 1948 were the car “they said was years away“. How about 65 years ahead of its time?

It was the precursor of a shape that has become essentially ubiquitous in sedans: High belt line, six side windows, and a fastback. We just need to get back to enclosed rear wheels, which really are an aerodynamic aid. Who’s going to be the first (other than the gen1 Honda Insight)? `

The Hudson’s shape came out of war-time doodles of aerodynamic shapes by Hudson designer Frank Spring and his team. Stylists were all hard at work during the war anticipating the radical new aerodynamic cars of the post-war era, such as these models in the GM Studios. The pre-war aerodynamic era, as most fully realized by the Tatra streamliners, was presumed to be the dominant theme to come. The pontoon (slab-side) look combined with aerodynamic fastbacks had an aura of inevitability.

This was going to be the new 1948 Cadillac, until quite late in the game Styling Chief Harley Earl pulled the plug.

Instead, he went with a much more traditional look for 1948, with decidedly non-pontoon sides, although the fastback was of course there on the coupes. GM’s new 1948-1949 designs were very significant, because they signaled a wise awareness that the slab-sided and low pontoon-aero look was not going to be the way forward, as it lacked visual complexity, a key component in keeping folks happy to look at the same basic design for years.

Which they did, in the case of the GM cars; the Chevrolet went virtually unchanged through 1953. We covered that chapter if GM design here.

Yes, the slab sides came soon enough (in 1955, for the Chevy), but by then GM had learned how to make them visually interesting too; a bit too much so, by 1957-1958.  This was not really ‘pontoon’ design anymore, as pontoons are unadorned and continuous, as well as rounder. And fastbacks were long gone by then. Design had entered a whole new era, and Hudson had been left stuck in 1948.

Hudson’s advanced unibody “Monobilt” body made any significant changes too expensive for a little company that was just barely hanging on, and obviously had no real long-term future (despite the endless conjecture and scenarios that are a fixture in the comments here at CC). For 1954, they tried to make the body sides look a bit more rectilinear, along with a new front end that looked too much like the ill-fated Jet.

By 1955, it was essentially all over, as the merger with Nash meant that Hudson would now share the Nash body, for the three painful years before the plug was finally pulled on poor old Hudson.

But back in 1948, America was cheering Hudson on! They put everything they had in their new Step-Down cars. It was all-new, except for the straight-eight engine in the Super Eight and Commodore Eight. There was a brand new six cylinder engine for the lesser cars, a 262 cubic inch flathead that 121 hp, only seven less than the ancient 254.5 flathead eight. That was a bit awkward from the get-go, as Hudson was trying to cover a wide range of the market, but the eights weren’t really worth the extra money, as the lighter sixes could keep up or even out-run it. But even though it was a good performer, the idea of developing a new flathead six for 1948 was a bit odd. How about an ohv V8? The Hudson six had to be the last all-new flathead engine; certainly in the US. In the world?

But it was shockingly capable, when it was bored and stroked to 308 cubic inches for the Hornet, at least for a few years before the Chrysler hemi (and others) showed the way to go. It developed as much as 170 hp from the factory, and considerably more in the right hands, and became the terror of the NASCAR tracks. It is still revered and sought after.

So wouldn’t I rather have a Hornet instead of this lowly Pacemaker? Umm, sure, but I haven’t found one yet, but I did find this gem of a Pacemaker. The 1948-1949 models, which were identical, only came in 124″ wheelbase models. But in an effort to compete a bit more effectively in the lower price ranks, Hudson cropped the front end, reducing the wheelbase to 119″. At $2145, it was still significantly more expensive than say a Chevy sedan, which went for some $1600. But it helped prop up sales, which were otherwise already in a downward trajectory.

Hudson sold 117k cars in 1948, but that was a short year. 1949 was the peak, with 159k. 1950 dropped precariously to 122k. The Pacemaker boosted sales a bit in 1951, up to 133k. But that was a short-lived uptick, as sales collapsed to 70k in 1952, and a mere 45k in 1953 (not counting the 21k Jets sold, which was a dismal start, and probably the single biggest coffin nail in Hudson’s demise. 36k Step-downs were sold in their final year, 1954.

Although the 1951 Pacemaker came with a de-stroked 232 inch six, making 112 hp, because of its shorter wheelbase and lighter weight (3,460 lbs), it was still surprisingly peppy for its time, and would keep up with all but the Hornet. Works for me, if I couldn’t find a 308 to drip into it.

I wouldn’t exactly be taunting new cars into stop-light drags, but with some deft work on that long column-mounted gear handle and showing that rugged six the spurs, I’m sure it would keep up with traffic well enough.

With their relatively light weight, low center of gravity, and wide tread, the Hudsons had the best all-round performance, handling  and roadability in their time.

The Hudson speedometer is not exactly a model of legibility, but who cares? Just need to turn that clock into a tach. Maybe it already has been.

The owner of this car has taste that seriously resonates with mine. This is how I like my old cars; authentic, with genuine patina. I was into patina long before it was cool. That old Hudson’s dashboard in 1960 was already well on the way to looking like this. Oh, and check out the turn signal handle that he welded on; it’s about two feet long!

This is a work in progress, obviously. My guess is that it was something like the classic barn find, and the owner has rightly focused on getting it road-worthy. The back seat was either gone, or is getting worked on; two folding seats are in its place, for now.

In the trunk reside a fuel cell; undoubtedly the tank is suffering from acute rustomytis. I would have to have that back seat back asap; it’s one of the best features of these Hudsons.

There was just nothing wider and more comfortable, at age seven or sixty four, thanks to the magic of Step-down design, and just being wide and long.

This was one of those rare instances when the artist didn’t have to shrink the passengers to pygmy size in the renderings. A genuine six seater. With a six shooter under the hood.

Well, I’ve prattled on long enough. So let’s just savor the nigh-near perfect degree of weathering this Pacemaker has developed over the decades since it left Detroit.

Here’s a bird’s eye look at the patina. What a shape.

Let’s see it in profile again, from the other side. Love that green fender, which is not from a 1951.

It’s from a Wasp, which replaced the Super Six Custom. Hudson nomenclature was a mess, as was their model line-up. When the Hornet appeared in 1951, it was priced identically to the Commodore Eight, despite having a vastly more powerful and larger engine. It’s hard to imagine anyone still willing to pay the same for the geriatric straight eight.

Let’s also take in that divine hub cap. Has there ever been a finer one, with that red triangle in the middle? Not in my book. I need to stop now, before I start having powerful urges again.

Hudson was the first of the independents to go under in the post-war era. Back in 1934, Hudson (with Terraplane) could claim the fifth place in the market with a mere 86k total units. 1950’s stellar sales put them back into ninth position, ahead of Nash, Studebaker, Chrysler, DeSoto, Cadillac and a few others. But Hudson couldn’t maintain momentum, despite its aerodynamic design. Or because of it.

But there’s no question that for me, at least, Hudson was the cream of the crop. And I’m ready to hop in this Pacemaker and set my heart beating to the rhythm of its big six. And show the rest of the world the finest ass of its time, and the best tail lights to boot.