The Tale of Hudson’s Demise

Climbing Sales – Then Crash

Post WW II Hudsons, like most other brands were rehashes of their 1942 cars. But Hudson was going to make a dramatic change.

In the two years after World War II, 1946 and 1947, Hudson sales were solid, averaging 90 thousand units – right in Hudson’s sweet spot. Hudson management realized that those cars were just eating up the demand for wheels that occurred after the War.

Immediately, the Company embarked on a program to completely modernize the line with a modern chassis, unit body construction and a sharp new pontoon style body. The aggressive approach scooped the Big Three (Chrysler, For and GM) and stunned their competition – other than Studebaker, who had taken the same tactic.

When that new body bowed in 1948, sales rose, climbing each year. The Hornet performance model’s arrival in 1951 juiced up deliveries as well, culminating in almost 132,000 in that year.

Things were looking good, right? Wrong. At the height of Hudson’s popularity and the Hornet breaking all kinds of race and speed records, sales suddenly dropped, and then shortly after, they plummeted.

This sleek and modern Hudson emerged in 1948 – stunning the competition. Shown is the top level Hudson Commodore Coupe. Performance was not in the picture as yet, but styling was.

In 1952, at the height of Hudson’s popularity, sales dropped by half the previous year, to 70,000. By 1953, barely 66,000 Hudsons left the factory. Hudson reported a loss of over $10 million in 1953 as compared with a profit of $8 million in 1952. By 1954, only 51,314 Hudsons were sold, with Hornets being half the total. People wanted performance and styling; Hornet had one of these – performance – the rest of the line had neither. In just a short 4 years, the Hudson went from exciting to dull.

The handwriting had been on the wall for a while. Even the huge investment in a mid-size Hudson Jet in 1953 did not increase sales – it merely robbed sales from the lesser full size Wasp line. Worse, that investment meant that the full size cars could only get a facelift for 1954.

Hudson CEO A.E. Barit started talks with George W. Mason, CEO of Nash-Kelvinator to discuss the possibility of a merger with Nash. And Mason, who had the vision of merging the four independent automakers (Nash, Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker) into one company to compete with the Big Three, was interested. Mason had floated the idea as early as 1946 with Packard but could find no interest there. Mason and Barit had talked about the possibility all the way back in 1952.

The introduction of the Hornet performance line in 1951 kept Hudson sales strong, at 131,915. of which 43,666 were Hornets. But 33% of total sales were the new model, meaning other models had sagged.

Surprisingly, the talks quickly turned into reality and Hudson merged with American Motors as a junior partner on 14 January 1954.  Nash and Hudson executives took the first steps to bring the two companies together. Hudson sales continued to nose dive, and though they never flat-lined.

This lead both parties to agree to dump the Hudson chassis and go with Ramblers. After ’54, the Hudson became  a badge engineered Rambler. Surprisingly, the Hornet I-6 engine was still available in the 1955 and 1956 Rambler-bodied Hudsons, though the available Packard supplied OHV V-8 and Rambler’s own V-8 were also available and overshadowed the I-6 by then – even  in sales in 1955 and outselling the I-6 in 1956.

Production continued to fall: 45,535 in 1955; 31,603 (with 20,496 of the total being the lower price “Hudson Ramblers”). In the final year of 1957, 4,108 “Hornet V-8s” (reskinned Rambler V-8s) and 719 Hudson (Rambler) Metropolitans finished out the brand.

By 1958, the storied brand, started in 1909, simply disappeared.

What Really Happened?

When Hudson invested in what would later be known as “unit body” construction (no frame plus body, the body became part of the frame construction) in 1948 in an effort to educe weight and lower the center of gravity for good handling, they failed to realize that bi-annual sheet metal changes would not be easily or cheaply done. They had assumed that the 1948 sleek design would hold up for six years at a time when the Big Three was changing styling and adding features every two or three!

The 1954 Hudson Hornet Hardtop was comparable to its competitors in styling, but only the hardtop and 2-door coupe had these looks. The 4-doors retained their old styling with merely the pasted-on front fascia.

Because of the unit body, changing the look meant a complete redesign and retooling – something that was cost prohibitive for a smaller firm. Worse, when profits were high enough, Hudson unwisely invested in a new smaller mid-size car, the Hudson Jet. Once committed to that road,  Hudson did not have the financial wherewithal to make the needed body style changes to the full size line. Also, they were caught introducing a smaller car at the height of full size car growth in all other brands. And the Jet also competed with established brands such as  Nash’s Rambler and Studebaker’s Champion line – both of which had the reputation of delivering solid lower-price cars.

Worse, within three years of Hudson’s 1948 introduction, Ford, Chrysler and GM began to introduce OHV V-8 power plants and automatic transmissions, something that Hudson did not have the cash to invest in. This hurt their view in the public’s eye — with the movement to automatic transmissions and V-8 power huge after 1950. For example, to meet the demand for an automatic transmission, they were forced to buy GM’s Hydra-Matic, reducing profit in each automatic equipped car sold.

Instead,  in 1951, Hudson could only invest in revising their existing L-Head I-6 to give more horsepower. They created a large 308 CID version, hot rodded it to give 145 HP and later almost 220 in Twin H-Power “7X” form. Their reasoning was that if performance sells car, we’ll give it to them. At the same time, the factory embarked on what might be the first racing program with an engineering section devoted to extracting as much power as possible from the L-Head I-6 and with chassis and brake upgrades available strictly for racing. Click HERE to learn about the 308 CID, Twin H-Power and the 7X race engine.

The 1955 Hudsons were cobbled together quickly from a Rambler model. A different grille, some minor sheet metal changes were all that could be done. Surprisingly, the Hudson dash was adapted to the Rambler body – the only piece other than the Hornet I-6 that remained.

But that was as far as that L-Head engine could go. By the time the I-6 in street trim was making 170 HP, mid-price V-8s were able to top 220 in everyday form. And by that time, everyone wanted a V-8 under their hood — especially if they were looking for performance — something the Hornet was supposed to represent.

The fact that the Hornet continued to sell well when the rest of the line faltered,  somehow misled Hudson management. They thought that what they needed to do was juice up their lower price cars, not do a complete redesign of the mid-size car, but to introduce a completely new small car! Money that could have been invested in a restyle of the Wasp and Hornet went to the Jet – in an untried market. Jet sales merely robbed from the Wasp line Thus, in 1953, Hudson CEO, A.E. Barit knew that Hudson was done.

Stuck with Hudson’s last body full size redesign from 1948 and aware that only cosmetic changes could be made, management knew that Hudson’s fate was sealed. The small restyle on the full size chassis in 1954 was just too little, too late. And the Jet introduction, instead of revitalizing Hudson, added no new buyers among the booming middle class – who in those days – bought full-size cars. Merging with American Motors was just a way to keep their dealers alive for a few more years. In reality, Hudson was done by 1954.

This reskinned 1957 Rambler was the last of the Hudson Line – and they called it a Hornet. At least they had the decency to give it their best V-8 as standard equipment.

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