Stock car racing’s surprise star, the Hudson Hornet was the car to beat in the early days of NASCAR, despite being wider and heavier than its competition. Much to the chagrin of the Big Three, the Hornet crossed the finish line on six cylinders at a time when V-8 was the new king, proving that there’s a lot more to winning races than horsepower. Drivers attributed the Hudson Hornet’s unrivaled race performance (the car won 83% of its 1952 races, to be exact) to its low center of gravity, which made for excellent handling on the racetrack and stylish cruising on the boulevard. In the February 1950 issue of Mechanix Illustrated, Tom McCahill described the Hornet as “America’s finest road car from the very important standpoint of roadability, cornering, and steering,” explaining that to keep up on the race course, “these other cars must literally pull themselves apart in the corners, while the Hudsons sail around with effortless ease.”
Founded in 1909, the Hudson Motor Car Company shot to fame in 1916 with the debut of its ultra-smooth “Super Six” engine, which quickly became the standard for early power plants. Twenty years later, the little car company that could was just behind Ford and Chevrolet when the stock market crashed, taking Hudson’s sales with it. It took another twenty years for Hudson and the economy to finally bounce back. In 1948, as post-war demand began to peak, Hudson revealed the secret it had been sitting on during WWII production halts: a brand new “step-down” design which placed the floorboards below the chassis, requiring you to “step down” to enter the car, which Hudson deemed the Commodre Eight.
A Step Up for the “Step-Down” with the Birth of the Hudson Hornet
Though its predecessor, the 1948 Commodore Eight, made the low-slung look a reality, when the Hudson Hornet exploded onto the scene in 1951, it made step-down design famous. The original Hornet came off the assembly line with Hudson’s notorious Super Six: a 308 cubic inch L-head engine with a two-barrel carburetor that produced 145 horsepower and 275 pounds of torque. At the time, it was considered the “largest displacement six-cylinder engine in the world.”
Merging body and frame, the Hornet’s “monobilt” construction pushed the chassis past the rear wheels, creating a strong, sleek-looking car that handled better than any of its road rivals. You knew a Hudson Hornet was passing you by because of its special exterior badging, which featured a chrome rocket blasting through the letter H. And with its well-appointed interior, featuring assist handles, tailored seatback pockets, and chrome-trimmed precision instruments, the Hudson Hornet was the car you bought if you wanted to go fast and look and feel good doing it.
The two-door Club Coupe started at $2,543, pitting the Hornet against other entry-level luxury cars like Buick and Oldsmobile. Hudson also offered the Hornet as a four-door sedan, a convertible, and a hardtop coupe. Car buyers responded to the Hornet’s unique design, exceptional performance, and comfy ride in droves, making it one of the top selling cars in the country with 43,656 units sold in 1951.
A Star Is Born – The Hudson Hornet on the Track
But it was speed, not sales, that made the Hudson Hornet a household name. Back “when stock car racers actually raced stock cars,” the Hornet was a hero on the track, passing up Fords and Dodges left and right. Headed by racing legend Marshall Teague, the Hudson team won 27 of its 34 NASCAR races and 40 of its 48 AAA events in 1952. At special events, Teague sped past his competitors in a car he named the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, which he tuned himself to achieve optimal results on the racetrack. (Today, a new generation of car enthusiasts looks to Teague’s famous car as an all-time great, thanks to Disney Pixar and its 2006 movie, “Cars,” in which the main character Doc Hudson turns out to be the Fabulous Hudson Hornet himself!)
Legendary racers like Herb Thomas, Dick Rathman, Jack McGrath, and Lou Figaro joined Teague on the Hudson team and together, they drove the Hornet to victory. The Hornet’s low center of gravity made for excellent handling and its engine sent it careening around corners at light speed. In 1952, Marshall Teague worked alongside engineer Vince Piggins to develop the Twin H-Power version of the Super Six, paying special attention to 7-X modifications, which turned up the horsepower from 145 to 210. The Twin-H Power featured dual single-barrel carburetors on a dual-intake manifold, a high compression head, and a high performance camshaft. It sent the Hornet team sailing past its competitors and into stock car racing history.
AMC Puts On the Brakes
However, though the Hudson Hornet was the sweetheart of stock car racing, it wasn’t selling in the showroom. Sales dropped from 43,656 units in 1951 to 35,921 units in 1952 and 27,208 units in 1953. Racing typically helped cars that won on Sunday sell on Monday but thus was not the case for the Hudson Hornet. For the 1954 model year, Hudson tried to revive the Hornet’s popularity amongst car buyers with a redesign that updated its look and boosted its engine to 160 horsepower straight from the factory or 170 horsepower with the 7-X upgrade. Though the tweaks put the Hornet’s quality on par with its rivals, it was priced too high to compete: a result of the high cost of updating a monobilt car.
After the failed redesign, a flailing Hudson Motor Car Company joined with Nash-Kelvinator to form American Motors Corporation (AMC). The 1955-1957 models were built on Nash cars instead of the step-down design that made the Hornet famous. Sales continued to suffer despite frills like a 320 cubic inch V8 engine boasting 208 horsepower and journalists hailing it the safest car in the country. In 1955, the Hornet sold 13,130 units, dwindling to 8,152 units in 1956 and a humble 3,108 units in 1957. Blown out like a candle, the Hudson Hornet faded into oblivion and AMC replaced it with its famous Rambler, which it re-introduced in 1958.
The Hudson Hornet Still Stings
The Hudson Hornet’s days in the showroom were short lived but its celebrity on the racetrack lives on over fifty years after AMC stopped production. Today, auto restorers and enthusiasts rank the Hornet at the top of their lists. Russell and Vicki Chilton, 1952 Hornet restorers, consider their Hudson a diamond in the rough: “Most people see a hunk of junk. We see a beautiful piece of the past coming back to life!” I happen to agree with the Chiltons. So, if you happen to see a Hudson Hornet on the road, consider yourself a part of living history.
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