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Classic Cars: The Hornet

The Hornet was a winner on the race track, but a loser off it. Andrew Roberts tells its story

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

In the immediate post-war years, there were several small American car manufacturers who were able to take advantage of the vast demand for any new automobile, following the resumption of civilian automobile production in 1946.

The Hudson Motor Car Company was a small firm with a conservative reputation and so its 1948 offering, the Commodore, was a radical development, with its new "Step Down" design – the floor was lower than the sills and thus passengers had to "step down" to enter the car. This design had actually been on the cards since 1941 but it was only seven years later that economic necessity overcame the conservatism of the firm's chairman.

With the Commodore, Hudson was the first US manufacturer to mount a car's floor at the bottom of the frame rails, which meant a sedan that boasted a vast amount of headroom, despite being a foot lower than its rivals. The uni-body was reinforced by steel braces and roof-mounted girders.

Power was from a 4.2-litre sidevalve six that gave a respectable 121bhp and 93mph top speed. There was also the option of Hudson's elaborate "Drive-Master" transmission which, at the press of a button, gave a choice of manual, semi-automatic or fully automatic gear changing.

But despite the Commodore's popularity with the motoring press, Hudson was suffering from a sales crisis only two years later. By 1950 the post-war sellers' market was coming to an end and, unlike the Big Three, Hudson was unable to spend its limited resources to give the Commodore an annual facelift. The heavily over-engineered body shell was the antithesis of the encroaching "disposable society".

Furthermore, although the Commodore's rivals were beginning to offer new OHV V8 engines, Hudson lacked the funds to replace its pre-war units. The response to this encroaching crisis was to produce the ultimate "Step-Down" in the form of the Hornet.

The engine size was increased to a 145bhp 5.0 litre, making it America's largest six engine – and giving the Hornet a 100mph top speed. For an extra $85 the buyer could also specify the Twin-H dual carburettor specification, although Driver-Master transmission was now, sadly, superseded by GM's Hydramatic.

With a price of $2,500 the Hornet was aimed squarely at the affluent Buick/ Chrysler sector of the market and mainly appealed to buyers who favoured engineering over the vagaries of fashion.

The range consisted of a saloon, convertible, "Hollywood Hardtop", the Club Coupé, and the most commercially popular Hornets was the four-door sedan, which looked undeniably imposing, from its menacing V-grille to its rear wheel spats. It could also carry six occupants in superb comfort and, unlike many of its rivals, could actually go safely around corners.

The likes of the Chrysler Imperial were mainly suited to freeway motoring but the combination of the Hornet's weight and low centre of gravity meant for excellent handling, plus the strength to withstand the worst of America's untarmaced roads, of which there were still very many in the early 1950s.

For the cognoscenti, the only cars to compare with the Hornet sedan's dynamic abilities were two expensive European imports – the Mercedes-Benz 300 Adenauer and, a car that bore the Hornet a passing resemblance, the Jaguar Mk VII.

Meanwhile, the inherent racing potential of the Club CoupĂ© was not lost on one Marshall Teague, a Florida garage owner who won a Nascar race at Daytona Beach in 1951. That same year a Hudson competed in the gruelling 1951 2,000-mile Carrera Pan-American race, where its build quality ensured that it did not disintegrate on Mexican roads – and where it cornered with the same verve as a Ferrari.

Additionally, in the early 1950s, a stock car did resemble the vehicles in your local showroom, for special equipment that was a standard option could be used on Nascar entrants.

Realising the inherent publicity of the Hornet's 13 Nascar victories in 1951 – "Win on a Sunday, Sell on a Monday" – Hudson began to give formal backing to other drivers and began to add "severe usage" parts to their catalogue under the supervision of the famed engineer Vince Piggins.

Budding Nascar entrants were now offered high-compression heads, dual exhaust and heavy-duty suspension components, and the following year the Hornet won 27 out of 34 races, as compared with a maximum of three victories from other marques.

These results amazed many Detroit insiders; by 1952 US standards the Hornet looked decidedly dated, its engine was positively archaic and a unit body with a vestigial perimeter frame and sub frames for the major assemblies made for a very heavy car.

However, the Hornet's handling and roadholding was superior nearly to all its American rivals and it was combined with Hudson's determination to derive the most from side-valve technology.

One option originally offered for the lucrative police market was the "7X Special" engine, which became listed for civilian customers in 1953. For $385, your friendly local Hudson dealer would "7X" your Hornet with a bigger bore and valves, polished combustion chambers, a high compression head, a high performance cam, a split dual exhaust and the Twin H-Power carburettors.

All of which gave 75 more bhp over the standard Hornet, making the 7X as powerful as Oldsmobile's much vaunted Rocket 88 V8 models. In 1953 Hudson won 22 of 37 Nascar Grand National races and retained the championship in 1954.

Sadly, the firm's track victories were not reflected in the marketplace, as too few customers wanted the Hornet's special qualities. By 1954 an expensive car with a split windshield and a straight-six engine was seen as anachronistic in the extreme, but Hudson could afford neither a new V8 engine nor a new bodyshell.

A facelift for the 1955 season did little to halt the decline in sales. The "compact" Hudson Jet was a commercial flop and so by mid-1954 Hudson merged with Nash to form the American Motors Corporation. The firm's Detroit plant was closed and the badge was soon applied to a more upmarket version of the bath-tub shaped Nash Rambler.

At least these models were still fitted with Hudson engines, but a far greater indignity was yet to come in the form of the Hudson Metropolitan. The sight of the Hudson badge adorning Nash's Austin-built and BMC B-Series-powered entry model was too much for many of the marque's devotees – Hudson badged Nashes were popularly referred to as "Hashes" – and so there was some relief when the brand went the same way as Packard, Tucker and Kasier in 1957.

Today, the Hornet is regarded as one of America's best post-war cars and has recently enjoyed a higher profile thanks to the Paul Newman-voiced Doc Hudson in Pixar's Cars. Whether Newman would have lent his voice to a Metropolitan remains in doubt.

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