Curbside Classic: 1952 Hudson Hornet – A Victorious Dead End

(first posted 12/3/2011)    The automotive market is cruel. What is once brilliant, within a year or so can be a has-been. And one of the greatest automobiles this fall from grace happened to were the 1948-54 “Step Down” Hudson models.

Hudson spent most of its prewar life as one of the most beloved independent brands; a Buick without General Motors is probably an apt comparison. The brand also had the Essex, and then Terraplane to round out coverage of the same medium price bracket as evergreens Pontiac, Dodge, DeSoto, Oldsmobile and Buick. But by the early 1940s only the solidly upper middle class Hudsons remained.

But like every single established manufacturer, Hudson realized that it couldn’t survive on the stale bread of the early 1940s it started selling after VJ day for long. And something more distinctive than a Quasi-Buick Super was needed.

The all new “Step Down” 1948 Hudsons were designed with an eye on two cars that make for one of the most intriguing points of inspiration; the Tatra T87 and early 1940s Buicks. The trend towards unit-bodied cars in Europe were a significant influence too. The new Hudson merged body and parts of the frame, resulting in a semi-unibody. For their size, they were remarkably light (a Commodore Eight tipped the scales around 3,800lbs, about 500 less than a comparable Roadmaster). The perimeter frame, which extended outside of the rear wheels, added a measure of side impact safety that bordered on overkill for the times.

Other goodies like an insanely wide track and low center of gravity for the time, tied with Hudson’s Center Point steering held over from the previous models made the “Step Down” models some of the most nimble cars on offer. They may well hold the title as best overall handling full sized cars of the post war era until the second wave of the Forward Look in 1957.

But the reason they were really titled “Step Downs” was pretty obvious as soon as you opened the door. And you had to step down, instead of stepping up and into the car, which was typical practice for most American cars at the time. While reducing the overall height of the cars to a mere five feet, the main contribution of this construction was the whole floor pan riding within the frame rails. This became remarkably influential, as most cars lowered their centers of gravity and height, going to someone ridiculous extremes by the late 1950s (I’m looking at you all of you 1959 General Motors cars).

The Hudson step-downs offered unparalleled passenger comfort, both in terms of interior space and ride comfort.

The only place they were somewhat outdated was under that long hood. Both the all new 262 cube six (121hp) and the recycled 254 straight eight (128hp) were flathead designs, just a year away from Oldsmobile and Cadillac unleashing the horsepower war with modern overhead valve V8s. Although more than capable for motoring needs at the time (and remarkably competitive with more powerful competitors, namely the Buick Fireball Eight), the lack of ability to heighten compression ratios or allow for better breathing led to Dead end #1

Dead end #2 was the fact that noir fastback styling was giving away rapidly to the open and airy Hardtop Coupe look. The Step Down body proved pretty hard to modify into chasing new trends, and only significantly jumped into a 1950s milieu for its last year on the market, 1954.

Even then, with an adoption of a one piece windshield and some jumbled cues from contemporary Fords, Oldsmobile and Hudson’s own Jet, at the same time the Step Down lost its individuality and dated itself all in one swoop.

But before the sad end, there were a series of brilliant last gasps starting in 1951. The Hornet model, debuting a stroked version of the flathead six, now with 308 cubic inches and 145hp in standard tune, debuted at the same price point as the Commodore Eight. With mild tweaking and some barely disguised racing engine parts the big six could be coaxed to deliver some very overhead valve V8-like performance.

While the base 308 was good for high 13 second 0-60 runs and a top speed of nearly 100mph, the various forms of the Twin H set up decidedly spiced things up quite a bit. The Twin H set up became standard on Hornets in 1952 (the year of our photo car) bringing 160, then 170 horsepower, on par with a variety of early 1950s V8s, from the original Rocket 303, to the DeSoto mini-Hemi 276 V8.

There was even an extreme usage 7-X version putting out a blazing 210 horsepower. But it didn’t come without penalty. The biggest being prodigious fuel consumption, which wasn’t as bad as a Dynaflow equipped Roadmaster, but not by much the further you went up the horsepower scale. It wouldn’t have smarted so much in the field if the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight didn’t return relatively stellar mileage and a close approximation of straight line performance for fewer dollars.

But the story of the fabulous Hudson Hornet wouldn’t be complete without lavishing praise where it is most deserved. It was the Father of great stock cars. The big six ready to party, paired with the most nimble chassis of the first half of the 1950s meant 13 NASCAR victories in 1951, 27 in 1952 and 22 in 1953. You can now see why Disney/Pixar picked this car as a surly character with a colorful past. The Hudson Hornet indeed had plenty of bar stories to tell before it was put out to stud.

Unfortunately, it only created a mild uptick of “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday” sales. Over 43,000 Hornets went out the door the first year, followed by gradual decreases in volume, settling around 25,000 units for 1953-54. It was sadly dated in looks, but in so many ways superior still, to many near luxury cars in the early 1950s. And in the case of the optional Hydra-Matic, it actually had some of their best goodies.

It’s pretty much assumed wisdom that the Hudson’s failed compact Jet sucked all of the blood out of the possibility of the Step Downs getting some slick completely new sheet metal and a honest to god modern engine. But, it was never to be. And for 1955 the market received what must be the 2nd or 3rd biggest disappointment of the 1950s behind the 1957-58 Packardbakers and the Edsel.

Perhaps the less we say about these “Re-hashed” Nash Ambassadors in drag with an optional Packard V8 is best (CC here). Or we can hope every last one has been run off a cliff, Duel-style by a pack of angry Step Down Hornets. This is one instance where I can totally support a vigilante gang.

It would probably be best to close here, and pay homage to a forgotten hero. (Thanks, Paul Niedermeyer for the interior and engine shots.)