In the latest installment of a series examining extinct marques and models, Glenn Arlt takes a “short and sleek” look at a truly charismatic American car with a powerful racetrack pedigree.
Hudson began producing cars in 1909, but one of its most memorable models didn’t come along until almost 40 years later with a strong and formidable unit—construction vehicle called the Commodore, the starting point for the legendary Hornet.
Inspired by engineer Frank Spring, a veteran of famed California coachbuilder Walter M. Murphy Company, the Commodore was the most luxurious example of a modern and low “step-down” car in 1948. It garnered rave reviews from the automotive press and public alike and, at least for a while, Hudson sales soared.
All Hail the Hornet
By the 1951 model year, the Commodore saw a styling update, new engine and a new series name to go with it: the Hornet. While all other American car companies began creating cars with modern OHV V-8s, Hudson had no funds for such an endeavor. They continued development of its relatively outdated Hornet L-head six instead, albeit with a larger displacement and performance upgrades. Despite relatively antiquated technology, this engine could (and did) go out and win race after race against Hemi-powered Chryslers and everything else.
At the high-end of the Hudson line was the 1951 Hudson Hornet Hollywood hardtop coupe (priced at $2,869), the company’s first try at the fashionable body style combining a steel roof with convertible-style doors and side windows. The 145-horsepower car was in direct competition with models such as the upper-middle class DeSoto Custom Sportsman hardtop coupe (116-horsepower, $2,761) and the Oldsmobile 98 Deluxe Holiday hardtop coupe (135 horsepower, $2,882), both equipped with the more modern OHV V-8s.
A Racer for the Road
From 1951 to 1954, the Hornet quickly became a name synonymous with sleekness and style among average car buyers. But racers also took notice when the Hornet repeatedly proved it could out-handle and out-accelerate much of its supposedly more powerful V-8 competition.
The car’s engineering advantages allowed Marshall Teague to take home the AAA Stock Car Driver of the Year in 1951. In, 1952, Teague dominated the AAA stock car circuit behind the wheel of a Hornet, clocked at speeds of up to 112 mph and captured the National Stock Car Championship. In the contemporary NASCAR series, a Hudson Hornet was equally successful, capturing 27 of 34 races. In 1953, the tally was 22 of 37 and, in 1954, 17 of 37. Legendary racer Herb Thomas piloted a Hudson to many of these victories during this time and placed himself as one of the top drivers in NASCAR history for his incredible four-year success by winning 39 races.
The Hornet Today
For a brief time during the post-war years, the step-down Hornet was the standard by which most of the competition was judged. But in late 1954, Hudson merged with Nash and by 1958 the Hudson name was retired. By the end of the 1950s the Hornet’s success was already largely forgotten as attention moved on to the newer race cars, all of which had massive V-8s.
But the Hornet never left the minds of real car lovers. If there was ever a doubt to the “cool” factor of the Hudson, one need only look to the famed King of Cool, Steve McQueen, who owned a number of Hornets. In the 2006 Pixar movie, CARS, Paul Newman gave voice to a blue Hudson Hornet named Doc. Today, the cars are cherished by enthusiasts all over the world.