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Hudson Hornet- NASCAR Champion of the 50s

Hudson Hornet

The 1950s saw the Hudson Hornet dominate NASCAR racing. Of the 34 races in the 1952 season, the Hudson Hornet finished first an amazing 27 times. These results were magnified by the fact that the Hudson Hornet was competing against high-compression V8s of Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles while under the hood of the Hornets were straight six engines. So what gave this car the winning edge and how did its story begin?

Hudson Hornet
‘Fabulous’ Hudson Hornet

Creation of the Hudson Motor Company

The Hudson Motor Company was the creation of industry experts Howard Coffin, George W. Dunham, and Roy E. Chapin in 1909. Joseph L. Hudson, the founder of the Hudson department stores, provided the financial backing for the company. His department stores were highly successful and at one time considered to be the second-largest department stores in the USA.

Roy D. Chapin was a young Detroit executive who helped Hudson establish Essex Motors in 1908. Chaplin knew that most customers didn’t want to ride exposed to the elements, but wanted to ride in comfort. Using Chaplin’s ideas, Essex developed the world’s first affordable mass-produced enclosed car in 1922. The car became so immensely popular that the entire American auto industry followed its lead in shifting from building open touring class cars to completely enclosed all-weather passenger cars.

In 1910, Hudson produced one of America’s first low-priced cars, the “Twenty”, and sold a remarkable 4,508 units in the first year. The achievement placed the newly-formed company in 17th place in automobile industry sales, a remarkable achievement considering that hundreds of different makes were being sold at the time.

In 1916, after previously using engines based on units from Continental Motors, the company began to produce its own all-new engine. Among the new engine’s several innovative features was the world’s first balanced crankshaft. This resulted in allowing the car’s engine to operate smoothly at higher rotational speeds (RPM) and develop more power for its size than contemporary engines.

Because of its successful sales, on 1st July 1926, the company moved into a newly-built $10 million factory in Detroit’s Fairview section and began producing all-steel enclosed bodies for both Hudson and Essex models.

Hudson Motor Company Factory
Illustration of the Hudson Motor Company Factory in Detroit

By 1929, Hudson and Essex were producing a combined 300,000 cars a year in factories around the world to become the third-largest U.S. automobile manufacturer after Ford and Chevrolet.

Hudson created other innovations in the automobile industry including dual brake cylinders, a mechanical parking brake, and a new smoother and more durable clutch oil bath and cork clutch system. The company also introduced dashboard warning lights to alert drivers where there might be a problem with the car’s generator or oil pressure.

When World War II began, all domestic car production ceased and the entire industry switched over to the war effort. The Hudson company contributed to the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ by making aircraft components and Hudson Invader engines for naval boats.

Hudson's first military contract
Hudson’s first military contract starting February 1941 was for Republic Aircraft P-47 ailerons.  Source: American Automotive Industry in WWII

Hudson’s ‘Step-Down’ Design

After the war, production resumed, but most of the ‘new’ models coming out of Detroit were actually renovated, 1941 models. It would be several years before factories could change their assembly lines back to new auto production.

1949 Hudson Commodore
1949 Hudson Commodore

Hudson Motors was the exception. The company was able to retool in record time and, in December 1947 introduced the Hudson Commodore. The Commodore was not only a brand new 1948 model, but it inaugurated Hudson’s innovative new trademarked “Monobuilt” or “step-down” construction. The new process was radical, and a major departure from previous company production featuring a unique profile that measurably lowered the car’s center of gravity.

While most other manufacturer designs used body on frame design, the new Hudsons had floor pans that were slung lower between the frame rails. This resulted in the floor being lower than the door sills. Passengers would actually step down into the car resulting in the name, “step-down”.

Step Down design of Hudson Hornet
Step Down design of the Hudson cars

The new design, which would later be called “unibody”, resulted in the Hudson offering better handling and road manners than nearly every other car on the American market. The large Hudson coupes also featured a sleek, low-slung aerodynamic profile, a stiffer body and frame, and a roomy and well-appointed interior.

The Hudson Hornets First Generation

In 1951, Hudson introduced the Hudson Hornet to complement the Commodore model. The car was sold as a two-door coupe, four-door sedan, a hardtop coupe and convertible. Pricing was similar to the Commodore Eight at somewhere between $2500 to $3000. This would be classified as the First Generation Hornets (1951-54) with the second generation being produced over 3 years from 1955 until 1957 when the Hudson company merged with Nash-Kelvinator.

Hudson Hornet side profile
 Steve McQueens 1953 Hudson Hornet. Source: RM Auctions
Hudson Hornet rear
Source: RM Auctions
Interior of the Hornet
Interior of 53 Hudson Hornet. Source: RM Auctions

The Hornet’s standard engine was a large flat head 6-cylinder engine, the biggest six-cylinder ever in a passenger car measuring 308 cubic inches. In stock form, the new engine created about 140 horsepower at 3800 rpm and 275 pound-feet of torque and could deliver top speeds of over 110 mph.

A dealer-optional Twin H-Power unit, which originally was seen as an over-the-counter kit ($85.60) in November 1951, brought two one-barrel Carter WA-1 carburetors and cast-iron intake and exhaust manifolds, and increased the engine’s output to 160hp at 3,800 rpm, with 260-lbs.ft. of torque at 1,800 rpm

Twin H power
Twin H-power Unit. Source: RM Auctions

Although revolutionary in design, sales did not boom. In all, 43,666 units were sold with the Hudson company making a loss of $1 million dollars for that year.

1952 Hudson Hornet Update

During 1952, several modifications were applied to the Hornet in an effort to boost sales. The ‘Twin H-Power’ become a factory-installed regular production option which increased the engines output to 170hp. In addition to the engine modifications, the interior was updated with leather window moldings. During this year sales decreased slightly to 35,921 units.

1952 Hudson Hornet
1952 Hudson Hornet

1953 Hudson Hornet Update

1953 saw an upgrade to the front of the Hornet with a new front Grille and a non-functioning air scoop on the hood. A ‘7x’ engine for stock racing produced around 200HP.

Despite the refreshed look, sales dipped to 27,208 with customers being attracted more to V8s.

1953 Hudson Hornet. Source RM Auctions
1953 Hudson Hornet. Source RM Auctions

1954 Hudson Hornet Update

This year saw the Hornet undergo a major square-lined redesign. The air scoop becoming functional and the car received a one-piece curved windscreen. The sides of the car had period-typical fender chrome accents. Inside the car saw a new dash and instrument cluster. Even though the redesign placed the Hornet on par with its competitors in regard to looks and styles, sales did not show any notable rebound with sales of the Hornet at an all-time low of only 24,833.

1954 Hudson Hornet. Source: Barrett Jackson
1954 Hudson Hornet. Source: Barrett Jackson

Hornet’s Success in NASCAR Racing

In 1935, William France, a car mechanic from Washington, DC, moved to Daytona Beach, Florida to escape the Great Depression. He was also interested in auto racing and Daytona Beach had replaced Belgium and France in the 1920s and 1930s to become the preferred location for world land speed records.

Daytona Beach was also the home of an annual road-racing event that was held on a 4.1-mile course next to the beach. The course consisted of a 1.5–2.0 mile straightaway combined with narrow sections of nearby State Road A1A. Two straight sections were connected together by tight sandy turns at each end to complete the course.

Aerial view of Daytona Beach Road Course
Aerial view of Daytona Beach Road Course in the 50s. Source: Daytona International Speedway

In 1938, William France took over running the Daytona event and promoted a few auto races before the beginning of World War II. He thought that people might enjoy watching stock car races and, on 21 February 1948 along with several influential racers and promoters, he formed The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).

Hudson’s owners had considered auto racing as an integral component of the company’s marketing strategy. The company enthusiastically backed their racing teams by not only providing drivers with cars but also everything they asked for to make their cars go faster.

Herb Thomas racing the Hudson
Herb Thomas in his # 92 Hudson Hornet / Source: This Week in Motors

In addition to company sponsorship, racecar drivers soon discovered the handling and cornering ability of the Hudson Hornet gave them an edge over the competition. This was attributed to the low center of gravity from its functional ‘step down’ design. The car soon became the car of choice for most NASCAR drivers.

Hudson’s new car was unbeatable on both large and small auto racing tracks around the country. In a stunning series of upsets, Hudson drivers found their cars could out-handle and out-accelerate almost all the more powerful V-8 competition and the company used the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet, national stock car champion” statement during its promotions.

Advertisement for Fabulous Hudson Hornet

The Hudson Hornet Drivers

Marshall Teague, ‘King of the Beach’, is well-known for his ‘Fabulous Hudson Hornet’ that established NASCAR strong commercial footing in the early 1950s.

Teague was not only a champion in the driver seat but equally outside the cockpit. He got a foot into the Hudson team by traveling to Michigan to visit the Hudson plant without an appointment. Hudson’s executives were impressed and assured Teague they would not only give him cars but corporate support in a formal relationship.

Marshall Teague trophy winner
Herb Thomas and Marshall Teague in front of their ‘Fabulous Hudson Hornets’

Teague helped the company tune its inline six-cylinder engine so it had the maximum capability for stock car racing while keeping the “stock” format according to the rules set forth by NASCAR.

In February 1951, He finished in first place at the Daytona Beach and Road Course. Teague nicknamed his Hudson Hornet the “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” and painted the name on the sides of his car. Over the next 15 NASCAR Grand National races, Teague won first place five times that year.
1952 NASCAR racing at Daytona Beach. Source: YouTube

Teague and his crew chief, Smokey Yunick, won 27 of their 34 major stock car events during the 1952 season despite having a dispute with NASCAR’s owner, Bill France.

Marshall Teague
Marshall Teague beside the Fabulous Hudson Hornet with his daughter at the Daytona Beach Road Course in 1952. Source: Wikipedia

Teague also was awarded the AAA Stock Car Driver of the Year in 1951. He also won the 1952 and 1954 AAA National Stock Car Champion driving his “Fabulous Hudson Hornet”.

Herb Thomas, another member of the Hudson team, started off the 1951 NASCAR Grand National season driving a Plymouth and an Oldsmobile before switching mid-season to Hudson Hornet. By the end of the 1951 season, he won the championship.

1952 Hudson Hornet, raced to success in NASCAR by Herb Thomas
1952 Hudson Hornet, raced to success in NASCAR by Herb Thomas. Source: Worldwide Auctioneers

Thomas was the dominant driver during the entire 1953 NASCAR Grand National season. He won a total of 12 races and became NASCAR’s first two-time series champion.

The 1952 Hudson Hornet 6 ‘Twin-H Power’, owned and driven by Thomas, was auctioned in 2018. It sold for $1.265 million becoming the first Hudson to ever sell for over a million dollars.

Julius Tim Flock, another early NASCAR two-time series champion, won the 1952 NASCAR Grand National Champion cup driving one of the three Fabulous Hudson Hornets.

Between 1951 to 1954, Hudson’s Hornet dominated NASCAR. Driver Herb Thomas won the Southern 500 in Darlington, SC in 1951 and 1954 while driver Dick Rathmann won the race in 1952. Some of the NASCAR records set by the Hudson Hornet still stand today.

The cars from Hudson cars also won races from 1952 to 1954 sanctioned by the AAA Contest Board. In 1952, Hudson driver Marshall Teague won the 1952 AAA Stock Car Championship and driver Frank Mundy won the race driving a Hudson in 1953.

The Movie “Cars” (2006)

The Hudson Hornet became immortalized in 2006 in the animated movie, Cars. The car was actually shown by the name, “The Fabulous Hudson Hornet”, unlike most of the other cars in the movie.

The movie tells the story of a race car driver by the name of Lightning McQueen who becomes stuck in “Radiator Spring”, a fictitious town located on historic U.S. Route 66. The town’s judge in the Pixar film is a local doctor named ‘Doc Hudson’, an animated, anthropomorphic race car voiced by actor Paul Newman.
Doc Hudson. Source: YouTube

The Doc Hudson car is modeled after a 1951 Hudson Hornet that turns out to be the real “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” and shares many of the same records as the original car. The car’s racing number, 51, refers to the year the original Hudson Hornet was created.

The Final Years

Although the company was experiencing a great deal of success in auto racing events, the post-war marketplace had changed from a seller’s to a buyer’s market. Smaller U.S. automakers, like Hudson and Nash, had difficulty competing with GM, Ford, and Chrysler (“The Big Three”).

In 1954, the company merged with Nash-Kelvinator to form ‘American Motors Corporation’ and the Hudson nameplate was deleted for good in 1957.

The last few years of Hornets were simply Nash models with different trim and Hudson’s final day of production was 25 June 1957. A total of 24,833 Hornets were produced in that model year.

Today, the name Hudson lives on in stories, films, and in the hearts and minds of those who remember the incredible legacy of “The Fabulous Hudson Hornet”.