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From Early Muscle Car To Stock Car, It’s The Fabulous…

Hudson Hornet 1951-1957

The Hornet was a full-sized car manufactured by Hudson (later AMC). They were originally designed with a combination of unitized and body-on-frame construction with a floorpan dropped between the frame rails for more passenger foot room, first introduced on the Hudson Commodore three years earlier. This Hudson “step-down” design was so named because you literally “stepped down” into a Hudson, giving it a lower center of gravity that was both functional and stylish for a lower, sleeker look, plus the frame rails cradling the passengers made for a very safe car and virtually rattle-free ride. The concept later became more widely used in the automotive industry and was known as a perimeter frame. This was accentuated by streamlined (sometimes called “pontoon” or “torpedo”) body styling with fully skirted rear wheels, not uncommon in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A large 124-inch wheelbase provided a smooth ride and enormous interior space. The car not only handled well but gave the passengers a very comfortable ride and was luxuriously appointed for the time. This was Hudson’s most radical design to date.

First Generation 1951-1954

The Hornet was available as a two-door coupe, a four-door sedan, a convertible or a pillarless hardtop coupe. The only power plant available was Hudson’s high-compression, 145 HP “H-145” side-valve straight-six engine based on Hudson’s previous 262 cubic inch “Super Six” and producing 257 ft. lb. of torque. The H-145 was bored and stroked to 308 cubic inches and “thoroughly over-engineered in the Hudson tradition” with a high chrome-alloy block and featured one single-barrel carburetor. V-8 engines were not common for everyday cars in the early 1950s like they would be towards the end of the decade, and this was the largest displacement six-cylinder engine in production at the time. The large grill with plenty of chrome gave the Hornet a distinctive look from the front. A dashboard-mounted electric clock was standard.

1952 saw the introduction of the optional “Twin H-Power” engine, which was the same 308 cubic inch six but with twin single-barrel Carter carbs. This upped the HP to 170 and torque to 275. Hudson later introduced modifications to tune the engine further to 210 HP. Minor cosmetic enhancements were introduced, but it still resembled the 1948 Commodore.

There were minor changes in 1953 like a non-functional hood scoop and new grill. Four different body designs were produced, a two-door Club Coupe, a Hollywood Hardtop, a Convertible Brougham and a four-door sedan. Hudson’s nearly-unibody perimeter frame made design changes very expensive, so updates were limited to minor cosmetic changes. Sales started to fall because competitors were doing yearly re-designs of nearly their entire cars to keep things fresh, while Hudson could not do the same with the Hornet.

Despite this, in 1954 the Hornet underwent a major square-lined redesign to match the Hudson Jet that was introduced in 1953, which involved a major re-tooling of the production line. This was likely due to market pressure from the competition. The front had a simpler grill that complemented the hood scoop, now functional. This would be called “ventilation” on the Hudson as opposed to the more modern term; ram air. A new one-piece curved windshield graced the front as well as chrome fender accents that were becoming popular, and the formerly sloped rear end was squared-off. The front-to-rear fender line was re-styled for a longer look and the taillights were re-designed along with a new, more modern-looking dash and instrument cluster with new dials and gauges. The updated Hornet Brougham convertible, the only open-top car from Hudson, had hydraulic power windows, leather upholstery and custom-color fabric tops but was overpriced for a six-cylinder car in 1954; for $800 more you could get a Cadillac with a V8. Slow sales were still depleting Hudson’s cash reserves and this forced the company to look for a solution.

The “Twin H-Power” engine could now be had in 160 and 170 HP versions plus the factory-option “7-X” version using a high-compression head good for 210 HP with Hudson’s “severe usage” parts, which were in reality racing parts. The engine produced high torque at low RPMs and helped it beat out V8’s, which could only produce high power at higher RPMs, from the likes of Ford on the racing circuit. It was more powerful than low-priced competition like Ford and Chevrolet, but also medium-priced makes like Oldsmobile and Buick. The engine was capable of much more in the hands of precision tuners like Marshall Teague who claimed he could get 112 MPH out of a NASCAR-certified Hornet whereas the 7-X version could only propel the Hornet to 100 MPH. The combination of handling and power of the huge six-cylinder made them all but unbeatable on the dirt tracks (and few paved tracks) of the early 1950s.

Hudson was the first manufacturer go get involved in stock-car racing, so named because they actually raced stock models back then. Marshall Teague drove his “Fabulous Hudson Hornet,” as it was emblazoned on the side of the car, to a total of 12 wins out of 13 events in the AAA racing circuit during the 1952 season. This brought the Hornet’s record to 40 of 48 events. They had similar success in NASCAR, winning 27 of 34 events in 1952, 22 of 37 in 1953 and 17 of 37 in 1954. This was an impressive achievement for what we would now consider a “near-luxury” model.

The make got a bit of a revival thanks to its featured role in the 2006 Pixar animated film Cars where a blue 1951 Hornet named Doc Hudson, voiced by legendary actor Paul Newman, teaches star Lightning McQueen how to race on dirt tracks. McQueen blows off Doc’s advice until he sees old racing photos of Doc, outfitted in Marshall Teague’s “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” livery and realizes how successful a racer he actually was.

Second Generation 1955-1957

In the mid-1950s, small independent automakers were struggling to compete against the Big Three behemoths GMFord and Chrysler with their multiple makes at levels for every buyer no matter their finances. Packard would be gone by 1958, while Studebaker hung on until 1966. In an attempt to survive Hudson and Nash-Kelvinator merged to form American Motors Corporation (AMC) in 1954, which was the largest corporate merger up to that time. The two automakers hoped that their larger joint venture would provide the economies of scale needed to compete with the Big Three. To save money Hudson’s Detroit plant was closed and all future production of Hudson models was shifted to Nash’s Kenosha, Wisconsin factory. The step-down platform was abandoned and all Hudsons were based on Nash models, but with distinctive Hudson styling cues. AMC claimed the new Hudsons were “new from stem to stern,” but buyers soon began to notice that they were simply restyled Nash models, what automakers would later term “badge engineering.”

The 1955 models were delayed until January as engineers tried to work out how to make two completely different looking cars with identical body shells. Styling came from designers as diverse as Frank Spring, Edmund Anderson and Italian firm Pininfarina. ‘55 Hudsons were conservatively styled as compared to the competition, with the Hornet having a broad egg-crate grill and two-tone paint, and was similar in styling to the new Wasp but with a longer wheelbase. The 160 or 170 HP straight-six 308s were still standard, but for the first time a V-8 was available in a Hornet, a 320 cubic inch unit producing 208 HP, although it was built by Packard and not AMC and mated to Packard’s Ultramatic transmission. Rear suspension was via coil rear springs and a torque tube for the driveshaft, while the front springs were the longest in the industry.

Nashs and Hudsons also had the widest seats in the industry. Hornet models were limited to a four-door sedan and two-door Hollywood Hardtop with two trim levels, Super and Custom. The more luxurious Custom level featured a padded dashboard, a “table-like” center armrest in the rear, transparent sun visors and a Continental kit for the spare tire. The “Weather Eye” heating and ventilation system was highly rated, and the optional air conditioning was priced at about half that of other manufacturers. Automotive journalist Floyd Clymer rated the Hornet as the safest car in the US because of its single-unit welded body, high-quality braking system with mechanical backup, roadability, handling and maneuverability and excellent power and acceleration. Buyers noticed and 13,334 were sold.

AMC decided to give the Hornet more character for 1956, and new designer Richard Arbib created a distinctive look he called “V-Line Styling,” taking the Hudson triangle and applying its V form to the grill and throughout the interior and exterior. Combined with the tri-tone paint, the look was unique and immediately noticeable. The 308 straight-six gained 5 HP both with and without Twin-H Power, but the Packard V-8 was only available for the first half of the year because AMC unveiled the lower-priced Hornet Special mid-year with AMC’s new 250 cubic inch, 190 HP V-8. The new Hornet Special was built on a shorter and slightly lighter chassis as the Statesman/Wasp 4-door sedan and 2-door hardtop. Despite the new styling and Hornet Special model, sales slid to 8,152 cars.

In 1957 the Hornet was the only Hudson model left, available in four-door sedan and two-door Hollywood Hardtop model; the Hornet Special was gone after one year. The “V-Line” styling was still in place, but AMC took the fin craze of the late 1950s to new levels with “finettes” on the rear fenders and “Twin-Fin” trim on the front fenders. AMC’s new 327 cubic inch, 255 HP V-8 now resided under the hood, featuring a four-barrel carb and dual exhaust. The 308 straight-six was retired as six-cylinder models were simply not selling.

Despite the new, more powerful V-8 and lower pricing the Hornet failed to impress buyers and only 4,108 were sold. The dismal sales and the Automobile Manufacturer Association’s 1957 ban on factory supported racing killed the Hudson and Nash names in the middle of the year. All AMC vehicles were now marketed as being made by the new Rambler division.

In 1970 AMC revived the Hornet name for its new compact car to replace the Rambler American, and marked the end of the Rambler brand. This platform would spread out into the Gremlin, luxury compact ConcordSpirit and eventually the innovative all-wheel drive Eagle until AMC was absorbed by Chrysler Corporation in 1987 after an influx of cash by French automaker Renault two years earlier. Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca purchased AMC mainly to get the Jeep brand that it owned and wasn’t particularly interested in producing the Eagle, but wanted the extra production capacity that the AMC plant offered. American Motors was renamed the Jeep Eagle Corporation as a division of Chrysler and its Eagle Premier was produced until 1992, after which any remainder of the American Motors Corporation product line (save for Jeep) ceased to exist. Jeep is still owned by Chrysler and continues to produce several models to this day.

The Hornet was a true international car, with versions sold in the UK, South Africa, Canada and Australia, one of only a handful of mid-20th century automobiles to garner an international appeal. The Pixar film led to renewed interest and the Hornet has amassed a firm fan following.✪

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