This article was originally published at Hemmings Daily by
To battle the latest overhead-valve V-8s in stock car racing the early 1950s, one didn’t need correlating power. Rather, it took innovative chassis design, an unconventional engine builder and one of the most dominant drivers in stock car history, all of which helped make Herb Thomas’s No. 92 Hudson Hornet “fabulous” and which led representatives of the National Historic Vehicle Register to decide to include the Hudson on their list.
Thomas, a recent addition to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, first raced in NASCAR in the inaugural Strictly Stock race in 1949, but didn’t notch a win until a year later and didn’t start racing Hudsons until 1951, when Marshall Teague convinced him to switch from his Plymouths and Oldsmobiles to the step-down Hudsons, probably the most unlikely contenders in NASCAR due to their flathead six-cylinder engines.
Contend they did, however, thanks in part to their semi-unibody construction that allowed a lower floor and thus a lower center of gravity than their competition. Credit also went to Hudson for throwing its support behind Teague’s racing effort by providing severe-duty parts and engineering the Twin-H dual-carburetor setup for the company’s torquey 308-cu.in. six-cylinder (not to mention the 220-hp 7-X version of the Twin-H engine that Teague and Vince Piggins developed for Hudson) and to Teague’s engine builder, Smokey Yunick, for figuring out how to wring the maximum possible power out of the engines at a time when stock meant just that in NASCAR’s rules.
Thomas, who took 10 wins in a Hornet over the latter half of the 1951 season and the first half of the 1952 season, bought this particular Hornet directly from Hudson in either late July or August of 1952 after wrecking his previous car and over the next season and a half took another 15 wins with the car, ultimately taking the 1953 championship with it. All told, Thomas, Teague, Tim Flock, Dick Rathmann and others would give Hudson 80 wins from 1951 through 1955, dominating the sport and forcing the Big Three into providing factory support for stock car racers running those cars.
Old race cars – particularly old stock cars – don’t have much of a shelf life after they’re retired, but Thomas’s actually became a street-driven car in the South after he bought a third Hornet from Hudson for the 1954 season. By the mid-1970s, it ended up in eastern Kentucky, and its owner, looking to put the car back on the road, called up Jack Miller in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for brake parts. “I sent him the parts, but he called back and said the seals looked too small, they just fell through the holes in the drum,” Jack said. “I told him he had some severe-usage parts on it and the car could have been a race car or a police car, which used those parts.”
He said he’d be willing to buy the car, but then didn’t hear from the customer for about 10 years, when the customer called out of the blue and said he was willing to sell it. “It’d been primed so many times, and most of the stainless was missing,” Jack said. “He didn’t have it running, and the parts I sold him were still on the front seat. And there was a hole in the driveshaft hump in the back floor from where a driveshaft broke and punched through.”
Jack put it in storage in Detroit and then didn’t touch it again for another 10 years, when a friend of his started to remove the primer and found a No. 92 still painted on the car. Years earlier, Jack had obtained some of the Hudson racing paperwork from John Conde, then the PR man for American Motors, which included the canceled promissory note for Thomas’s Hornet. By matching up the serial number on the promissory note to the serial number on the car, Jack confirmed that it was indeed Herb Thomas’s old steed, so he finished the restoration in time for the 1998 Eyes on Design show.
“I had a lot of fun with that car,” Jack said, noting the times he took it to Daytona for display at the Living Legends of Auto Racing Museum and the times he drove it in Daytona beach parades. He would later get to meet Thomas and many other former NASCAR drivers. (Thomas retired in the early 1960s and died in 2000 at the age of 77.)
He did not, however, get to meet the crew from Pixar behind the 2006 film Cars, which featured a character, Doc Hudson, patterned after the several Fabulous Hudson Hornets. While a number of replicas of other Fabulous Hudson Hornets have been built over the years, to date the Herb Thomas 1952 Hornet remains the only authenticated example of a racing Hornet extant.
Jack sold the Hornet last November to Hudson collector Ed Souers, who said that the Historic Vehicle Association contacted him a couple of months ago about including the Hornet on the National Historic Vehicle Register. “I’m just getting familiar with it and starting my own research into it,” Ed said. “But apparently, the people from the HVA read enough about it to think that it’s worth including in the register. When you start to think about the importance of NASCAR and of Herb Thomas – he was really an early superstar in NASCAR – it’s a pretty impressive car, and probably is worthy, at least as much as the other cars they’re looking at.”
Those other nominees for the National Historic Vehicle Register, which the HVA presented on the National Mall this past weekend for the Cars at the Capital event – which organizers claimed to be the first-ever car show on the National Mall – include Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 Pierce-Arrow presidential limousine, currently in the care of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Virginia; the 1895 Chicago Benton Harbor, currently in the care of the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania; the Tucker “Tin Goose” prototype, currently in the Swigart Museum in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania; one of two gold-plated 1981 De Lorean DMC-12s; a 1976 Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar; a 1963 Studebaker Avanti; a 1926 Duesenberg Model A; and a 1933 Graham Blue Streak.
They all joined “Old Red,” the first Meyers Manx dune buggy, for its official inclusion on the register. According to Mark Gessler, president of the HVA, all 10 of the nominees for the register were extensively photographed and laser scanned while in Washington this past weekend, and all will officially make the register sometime over the next 18 months.
The four criteria for a vehicle to be included in the National Historic Vehicle Register include: association with important American historic events, association with important American historic figures, its design or construction value, and its informational value. Selection to the register involves a complete documentation of the vehicle, including a fully referenced narrative of the vehicle’s provenance and full photography, which will then be placed in the Library of Congress. No restrictions are placed on subsequent use or sale of the vehicle.
For more information about the Historic Vehicle Association and the National Historic Vehicle Register, visit HistoricVehicle.org.