This article is about Hudson, an American brand that was in business for over 50 years.
Hudson was founded in 1909 in Detroit by several local businessmen and was named after the provider of the cash to start the venture: Joseph L Hudson. He was an owner of Hudson’s Department store and was born in England but had moved firstly to Canada and then Detroit. The company he lent his name to had been founded to sell cars for under $1,000 and was run by Roy Chapin who like Robert McNamara from Ford, also had a stint in the US Government.
Chapin and his partners, Howard Coffin, Frederick Bezner and James Brady had all worked for Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile and REO fame prior to setting up their own venture. Their first car was the Model 20 and was very successful right from the launch and was only assembled by Hudson – they bought all the parts from other sources and put them together. This was a quick way to get the job done until they could bring the full manufacturing in-house.
The Model 20 had a four cylinder motor producing 22hp with a three-speed gearbox and was available in three different body styles – two types of roadster and a touring version. Several thousand Model 20s were sold over its life. Hudson must have had an average run through the First World War, successful but not spectacular. Why? Well, there is very little about the company until 1919. The cars they sold don’t seem to be recorded or described in many places. What is known is that they put some cash into making their cars easier to drive by adding in dashboard warning lights, a fluid clutch and a redesigned engine that had better crankshaft balancing than other designs of the day.
They also spread the manufacturing to target more geographical areas including Belgium to cover Europe and London that fed demand in Britain. Through solid sales, Hudson became the 3rd largest manufacturer in the US during the 1920s.
However, in 1919, Hudson introduced a new brand – Essex. This could have been the first companion brand – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler also went down this path. Essex was designed to hit the cheaper end of the market and this helped drive the company forward. Initially it was a separate company, however it soon became a sub-brand under Hudson. They produced enclosed cars as opposed to the roadsters and tourers from the parent company.
By the late 1920s sales of Essex models had started to decline and in 1931 Hudson renamed them Essex-Terraplane. The following year, Essex was dropped in favour of the Terraplane name. Hudson were clever in their marketing, they contracted Amelia Earhardt, the aviator, to promote the models with an aeroplane influence. Terraplanes, like Hudsons, typically used straight six motors with optional eights on some models. They were still classed as the cheaper version of the Hudson and their factory in the UK supplied Terraplane bodies to Railton, a British manufacturer.
By 1938, the Terraplane name was abandoned and Hudson had bought the Railton company in the UK. Timing was bad as the Second World War came along and the UK factory was closed. Back in the US, Hudson wanted to soften their image and appeal to a wider audience, so they employed Elizabeth Thatcher, one of the first female car designers. She improved the look and feel of the cars, providing better interior designs and some extra external safety equipment.
Hudson introduced the Drive-Master automatic gearbox in response to the General Motors Hydra-Matic box. With overdrive it became known as the Super-Matic box. This was replaced by GM’s Hydra-Matic when the giant supplied it to anyone who wanted it. For Hudson, this saved on development costs. They also developed better suspension units to improve the ride, making it feel like a much more expensive car.
With the UK factory closing at the start of hostilities, the US one started to build military equipment until the armistice including boats powered by their Invader engine. Then with civilian production restarting, they introduced the step-down body that was adopted by other manufacturers during the 1950s. The step-down is similar to the modern car body with a lower centre of gravity. With the reliable engine and great handling it soon became a favourite with the racers and dominated early NASCAR races with many championship wins.
The early 1950s were a difficult period for Hudson, they, like other manufacturers saw the increasing power of the Big Three dominate sales. To improve sales and to lower manufacturing costs, the smaller companies looked at joining forces with their competitors. Hudson found themselves talking to Nash-Kelvinator, manufacturers of Nash, Rambler and Kelvinator white goods. In 1954 they merged to form the American Motors Corporation initially retaining the main brands but sharing styling, manufacturing and dealer networks.
The Hudson factory was converted for other manufacturing and the cars were built in the Nash factories and although some models shared both Nash and Hudson names, it was still a downhill slide for the marque. AMC was managed by Roy Chapin Jr, the son of Hudson’s original manager.
In 1957 American Motors decided that they should rebrand with AMC becoming the dominant brand and the earlier names were dropped. Hudson was a casualty of this restructuring, although their model names were continued under the AMC logo. AMC also struggled through the 1970s only to be gobbled up by one of the Big Three: Chrysler – just what Hudson was trying to avoid 35 years earlier!
Finally, Joseph Hudson’s department store was sold after his death to Dayton & Co, a rival. They became Dayton-Hudson and in 1962 opened a chain of stores they called Target. These stores became so successful that in 2000 the parent company renamed themselves Target Corporation. Target, as many will know, were major Indy car sponsors with the Target Chip Ganassi team – a nice link back to Hudson’s post war motor sport successes.