DISCLAIMER: The following article was provided courtesy of Collectible Automobile Magazine, April 1995, p.46-55. Written by Richard M. Langworth. Photos by Unknown.
|Above: The '54 Super Jet Club Sedan listed at $1933.|
1953-1954 Hudson Jet: The Car That Torpedoed Hudson
By the early Fifties, Hudson was in serious trouble. Desperate to revive sales,
the firm bet its future on an all-new compact, the '53 Jet. Though highly praised, it
bombed - forcing Hudson into a merger that cost it its independence, and ultimately its life.
|"I still can't believe he could write such beautiful devotional poetry," Dylan Thomas once said of a fellow poet. "I once saw him fall downstairs wearing suspenders."|
Many must have felt like Dylan on their first encounter with the Hudson Jet, a beautifully engineered, high-performance small car with many wonderful qualities and bearing a distinguished name-but a car that looked perfectly awful from virtually any angle. It bore no family resemblance to the sleek and purposeful big Hudsons, and lacked even that quality of quikiness that somehow saved the Nash Rambler. There was no Jet convertible with windshield frames that didn't retract, nor a cute little sation wagon with a bi-livel roofline. Jets were just conventional two- and four-door sedans, far too high and much too narrow to please the eye, with a front end one owner likened to a "guyyp's mouth." Worse, a stripped Jet cost nearly $200 more than a Chevrolet One-Fifty four-door sedan: $1858 versus $1670 (and $1874 for a top-line Bel Air). It took a very serious Hudson devotee to buy one.
Yet, the jet was an outstanding car in almost every respect except looks. The only all-new American car for 1953, 'The Wonderful hudson jet' was quicker than its competition, more solidly built, free of chromium excess, cheap to run, and eminently practical. Road & Track, always ready to lampoon domestic small cars in those days, admitted that the Jet had changed its editor' minds. "Demonstate this car and it will sell itself," wrote editor John R. Bond. But the problem was that people who bought imports amounted to two percent of the 1953 market. Add those who bought American small cars, and you might just make six percent.|
At left: A '53 Super Jet four-door set a buyer back $1954.
Of course, a car like the Jet was bound to be liked by people for whom an Austin A-35 was ideal family transport, and those who normally sang the praises of imports were exuberant. "You can cruise all day long at 70 to 75 mph without any feeling of engine strain," wrote john Bentley (who couldn't get away with that in his Austin), "nor is it necessary to stand on the brake pedal... nine inch drums provide over 132 square inches of lining area... Compare these figures with those of other Detroit products lugging from 500 to 1,000 pounds more. Congratulations, Hudson."|
Congratulations, phooey. "You just don't take a chance on a car like this," said the late Hickman Price, Jr. a former vice-president of Kaiser-Frazer, who had gone through the same sad story with the Henry J (CA, August 1992)-'not if you are a company the size of K-F or Hudson. We brought the Henry J out in 1950 at only a few dollars more than a Ford and Chevy, and quickly learned even that was too high a price. To bring it out at $200 more would have been suicidal. That was Hudson's experience. i could have saved them the expense of finding out."
The Jet was engineered by Millard Toncray and, as with the big "Step-down" Hudsons, he built it like an armored car with an "all-welded, single-unit Monobilt body-and-frame [with] 5,000 permanent welds." it weighed 2700 pounds, 400-500 pounds less than a Ford or Chevy, but about 200-300 pounds more than its compact rivals, the Aero-Willys, Rambler, and Henry J. Happily, the weight was overcome by a strong powerplant with enough speed options to see off any of those competitors.
|Hudson executives were on hand to see the first Jet off the line (from left): A.E. Barit. President; H.M. Northrup, Vice-President of Operations; M.H. Toncray, Chief Engineer; Joseph Eskridge, Vice-President of Manufacturing; and N.K. VanDerzee, Vice-President of Sales.|
Hudson called the Jet's engine "a scaled down H-145" Hornet six-which it definnitely was not. With a 3.00-inch bore and 4.75-inch stroke, its 202cubic-inch six was clearly derived from the old Commodore Eight, which had been discontinued for 1953. Hudson simply used the existing Commodore engine tooling, subtracted two cylinders, and created the long-stroke Jet Six.
This wasn't as odd as it sounds. The small bore allowed higher compression than could be achieved by a squarer bore/stroke ratio. John Bond figured taht 7.0:1 was the limit for a "square" L-head without sacrificing volumetric efficiency. The Jet had 7.5:1, and 8.0:1 was optional. "The piston speed factor [of a long-stroke engine] can be alleviated by good design and becomes negligible when used with an overdrive r a Dual-Range Hydra-Matic," Bond wrote. "During tests we found that valve-bounce occurred at an indicated 63 mph in second gear, 5500 rpm... We appraoched these speeds at least 75 times and the little stroker was still running as smoothly and as quietly at the end as at the beginning.
"This extremely high-compression ratio gives you unequalled efficiency and maximum economy," said the brochure. "The engine in the Hudson Jet employs the same principles of design-the same type oversize bearings and rugged construction-as the famous H-145 engine in the fabulous Hudson Hornet. It's so smooth, so quietly efficient that a vabration damper is not actually needed, though the best type is provided...Hudson's exclusive high-chrome-alloy cylinder block is the toughest in the industry. It machines to a mirror-like finish and outwears ordinary blocks by thousand of miles. This extra-tough cylinder block keeps your engine running like new longer and cuts oil consumption to an absolute minimum."
At left: The Super Jet Club Sedan rode a 105-inch wheelbase. Although it looked like the'53, the '54 grille bar had ridges and wore a medallion in the center. The '54 Super Jets also sported twobodyside chrome strips. Taillights looked like they had come off an Oldsmobile. Speed Age magazine, testing a '53 Super Jet with Twin H-Power and Hydra-Matic, scooted from 0 to 60 mph in just 12.5 seconds, which was fast enough to embarrass a '53 Ford V-8 (with any transmission). Top seed was 96 mph
The Jet offered an array of engines and drivetrains much broader than its competitors, which relied on low-suds fours or sixes with no pretense of performance. It was the only cmpact besides Rambler with a Hydra-Matic option ($176). Overdrive cost $102. The standard single-carb engine had 104 bhp. Options included a hihg-compression aluminum head, which delivered 106 bhp, and Twin H-power, which gave 112. The two options combined developed 114 horses.|
Twin H-power, optional starting in mid-1952, had actually been on Hudson's shelf since 1944. It consisted of a dual manifold and dual carburetors, providing a very even fuel-air mixture to the cylinders, which in a standard induction arrangement is not idially suited to six-cylinder engines. It required only regular gas, and on the big Hudson was a strong reply to the four-barrel carburetor, premium-fuel V-8s gaining in popularity. On the Jet, it was in a class by itself. The best the 1953 compact competition could muster was 90 bhp, and though a handful of 54 Aero-Willys cars were produced with 118-bhp Kaiser sixes, they were few and far between.|
At right, Hudson urged prospects to "SEE the economy!" of the '53 Jet. They could - this "teacup" demonstrated how far they could go on a little bit of gas. Speed Age checked out the economy of a '53 Super Jet four door...with Twin H-Power and Hydra-Matic. The results: 31 mpg at 30 mpg, 28 mpg at 40 mph, 24 mpg at 50 mph, 22 mpg at 60 mph, and 18 mpg in traffic.
Jet buyers could tailor performance with a wide choice of rear axle ratios. Manual ratios were 4.10 standard, 4.27 for mountainous regions, and 3.31 for economy. With overdrive, 4.27 was standard, but 4.10 was available. Hydra-Matics had 3.54 standard, 3.31 optional. These ratios obviously influenced performance, but whatever the combination, results were well ahead of Rambler, Willys, or Henry J. Typical 0-60 times were 14 seconds, with one automatic Super Jet achieving 12.5. The standing quarter-mile was covered in 19-20 seconds and top speed came in a t 95-100 mph.|
Unfortunately, the Jet's roadability wasn't up to its sprightly acceleration despite Hudson's boast of "the lowest center of gravity among American cars." Motor Trend said the inside front tire "seemed nearly off the ground" in a tight, 50-mph turn, and complained of excessive oscillation above 50 mph: "Bottoming, accompanied by three or four oscillations, occurred at 70 mph, and the front end felt nearly airborne. On sharp dips, full spring travel was reached at 50, and on very severe dips the Jet bottomed at 30 mph...To be a real threat, the Jet will need more than its excellent performance...A wider track plus heavier shocks would improve stability."
These criticisms were valid, but not intrinsic to the design, and could easily have been cleared up along the lines Motor Trend suggested. But no one could criticiza the Jet's performance, or fault its basic engineering. Styling was another matter.
When top management and sales people get involved in automotive styling, the results often resemble Congress' efforts to legislate human behavior. The Jet's design parameters were set not by its engineers nor by Hudson's talented chief of design, Frank Spring, but by Hudson President A. Edward Barit. And therein lies a brief tale.
Barit's basic dimensions weren't bad. His model for the Jet project was Fiat's 1400, a well-designed sedan with a wheelbase and track almost identical to those Hudson came up with, and outstanding interior space utilization. At 105 inches, the Jet wheelbase was spacious compared to 100 for the Rambler and Henry J, offering ride and space advantages that Americans liked. What killed the Jet was its height, which was out of proportion to its length and width. Former Hudson engineer J.J. Hartmeyer said this was dictated by barit: "Frank Spring had wanted to drop the height, to get it down lower like the Mercedes. But Mr. Barit wanted those chair-high seats." The Jet's high build couldn't help but create plenty of headroom, and with 58-inch-wide seats against only 67 inches overall width, it utilized 86 percent of its width for passengers. But Barit's seat specs gave it impossible proportions. Trying to design around these dimensions recalls the late Bill Mitchell's comment that styling a small car is like tailoring a dwarf.
In addition to Barit, the professionals at Hudson had to contend with Chicago dealer Jim Moran, who would often come to the Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit to kibitz on styling matters. Roy D. Chapin, Jr., then in sales, later president of American Motors, told this writer that "Moran was selling about five percent of Hudson output, 3000 Hudsons a year; it was an unbelievable thing. One of his favorites was the 1952 Ford, [which Hudson had seen early enough to] determine the Jet roofline." The problem was that the Ford rode a 10-inch-longer-wheelbase!
"The Jet originally had a small rear window in it," Hartmeyer added. "Ford came out with a wraparound window, and Mr. Barit and this Chicago dealer had us change to a wraparound. Pittsburgh Plate Glass said they could wrap it if we held the Ford curavature." Hudson did - but again, that contour was meant for a much larger car. meanwhile, Ford had moved the fuel-filler cap behind the license plate for '52, so the Jet placed it at the rear, too, but just to the left of the license plante and behind its own spring-loaded door. "Mr. Barit [also] wanted high fenders, and liked the round taillights of Oldsmobile." Hartmeyer recalled. The rear quarters of the production car thus ended up as high, slab-sided affairs, capped with little Olds-type taillights.
It's hard to tie down the Jet's styling evolution because photographs of prototypes are scarce. Years ago, Special Interest Autos created a compsite of what Frank Spring's original proposal looked like, based on the comments of those interviewd. It was a smooth, low-slung affar, reminiscent of the smaller Mercedes of the time. Notably, it had a fuselage and roofline similar to those of the big Hudson, and a much lower hood and deck. The horizontal crease in the production Jet hood, wrote then-editor Mike Lamm, "was Frank Spring's original hood line. Likewise, around back, there's another crease in the decklid. It demarks Spring's original decklid height." There's a rumor that this change occurred by accident at Murray, where Jet bodies were built, but Murray did not make that sort of mistake; its business was built on creating exact copies of prototypes supplied by manufacturers.
Spring, a mercurial aesthete and a brilliant designer, was tremendously upset by the looks of the production car. Although the grille had a slight similarity to that of the big '54 Hudsons, the rest bore no resemblance to the low-built Hornet and Wasp. "I never knew Frank Spring more upset at anything," said the late Bob Andrews, who worked under Spring at the time and would alter help create the Studebaker Avanti." "He was really quite depressed, at times almost suicidal."
Hudson put the best face possible on the styling. "Clean and functional, yet rugged and sturdy, is the distinctive new grille on the Hudson Super Jet. The sleek sreamlining reduces frontal surface and enables you to slip along through head winds with a minimum of wind resistance and gasoline consumption... Here is a low-priced car with distinctive continental styling. The lean, low lines of the swept-back fenders, rear lights that are clearly visible from side or rear, and massive, wrap-around bumpers are quality details that give the Hudson Super Jet its exclusive custom look."
Luxury was also touted: "Interiors are as glamorous and rich as a jewel case. Seats are finished in a specially woven two-toned worsted in either blue or green, depending on the exterior color of the car...[The} ultramodern, easy-to-read instrument panel is an example of the luxury that is built into every Hudson Super Jet. Instruments are indirectly lighted and clustered for your convenience. Teleflash signals warn you immediately if oil pressure or generator charging rate drops. The slim, two-spoke steering wheel is color-harmonized to blend with the upholstery." Even the base Jet featured "beautiful new upholstery in a grey weave with red and brown stripes, and this is framed by bolster cloth in a rich tone of solid brown color. This is combined with Dura-fab trim to add even greater durability."
Hudson conjured up a new top-line series for the '54 Jet. Called Jet-Liner, it was offered as a $2046 Club Sen or a $2057 four-door sedan. It featured unique - and more attractive - bodyside chrome trim, bright trim above the taillights (snitched from the '52 Olds Ninety-Eight), and an upmarket inerior befitting a luxury car.
||Two-tone pleated vinyl covered foam rubber seat cushions, and the instrument panel was color-keyed to match. Six average-size people could sit comfortably.|
The stand Jet came only as a four-door sedan, base priced at $1858. About $100 more bought the Super Jet, available with two or four doors, the richer interior, and more exterior chrome around the greenhouse. Unfortunately for Hudson, parts and material shortages, a fire at GM's plant producing Hydra-Matics, plus wildcat strikes and delays in Jet production did not produce the anticipated sales gains. Total volume was jsut over 66,000 cars, actually a bit less than in 1952, and the company lost $10.4 million - its biggest loss in history. The only semi-bright spot was that 21,143 sales were Jets, a reasonably good start given the alte march 13 debut (production had started in January), but not nearly enough to make a profit.|
The Jet had cost $16 million to tool, and its Murray body was the first Hudson shell supplied by an outsider since the Thirties. There was a reason for this: owing to a shortage of funds, Barit had got Burray to agree to a delayed payment plan. "Murray tooled quite a lot of the car by amortizing, by a charge of say $50 a body," Roy Chapin told this writer, "thereby saving the manufacturer the initial capital outlay. As I can remember, there were serious hassles with Murray that the projected schedules were not met, and consequently Hudson amortization and recovering of its tooling costs were running way behind what it had anticipated." This helps explain why hudson could build 70,000 cars and make $8 million in 1952, yet lose $10 million on almost the same volume in 1953.
Chapin believes the Jet's amortization schedules were crucial in Hudson's decision to merge with Nash (as a very junior partmner) the following year: "I can remember some banker friends saying, 'you're not amortizing those tools,' which of course wree charged against earnings. In an automobile company your depreciation and amortization policy can meterially affect, on a yearly basis, at least your bottom line figure."
Owing to unexpectedly low sales, Barit reported to stock holders that"we found it necessary at the close of  to review and adjust all of our amortization charges for tooling and other items incidental to model life." Hence the problem with Murray. Both side were unhappy, Hudson because Murray wasn't building bodies fast enough, Murray because Hudson wasn't selling enough of them to cover the amortization.
The 1954 Jets were essentially a repeat of the '53s with more trim varations and a newly ribbed grille bar with a medallion in the center. There were now three series, with the new Jet-Liner topping the line. Starting around $2050 and available as a two-or four-door sedan, the JetLiner had a beautifully pleated-vinyl interior with foam rubber seat cushions. Contrasting colors of red, blue, or green with cream were offered, and instrument panel colors were keyed accordingly. On the outside, there was more chrome trim around the windows, gravel shields, and door-base moldings. The Super Jet series also wore some bodyside chrome, while the base series added a two-door sedan, Utility Sedan (with a folding trunk divider partition), and, in April, a price leader called the "Family Club Sedan."
Mitch Frumkin, CA's Director of Research & Development, feels that the Jet needed more body styles - with more pizzazz - to be competitive. After all, Ford, Chevy, and Plymouth all had snazzy hardtops, which sold very well - 276,560 between them for '53. They also offered station wagons that were popular in suburbia; Ford's Country Squire even sported a woody look. Chalk up another 220,008 sales for the low-priced three. So Mitch rendered a '54 Jet-Liner Hoolywood hardtop (name borrowed from the big Hudson hardtops) and a woody wagin. The Jet Hollywood (above) is based on a Jet Club Sedan, and uses its roof, windshield, and rear window. All that's new is the side glass and grames. The wagon (below) keeps the Jet four-door sedan's windshield, doors, and trunklid valance. It would ahve been more expensive to tool, however, because of the new roof, tailgate, and rear windows. The wood and Di-Noc trim are attached to the existing body panels. Jack C. Miller, head of Miller Motor Sales, specializing in "Hudson and Terraplane Automobiles and Parts" (the last Hudson dealership) in Ypsilanti, Michigan, photographed the Jet convertible prototype a while back. As he found it, it was in need of a great deal of work.
Introduced at $1475, but quickly raised to $1621, the Family Club was the cheapest Jet ever. Like the Henry J, it was said to heave been created for the millions of people who could never before afford a brand-new car. In fact, it was a desperate attempt to find buyers for the Jet, which was badly lagging in sales. It had no exterior brightwork other than bumpers and hubcaps, rubber moldings around the windshiled and backlight, cheap cloth upholstery, and rubber floor mats. Although it offered the usual range of drivetrains, it failed to relieve the accumulating deficit. A single Jet convertible was also built as an experiment; sales manager Virgil Boyd bought it for his son.
Through April 30, 1954, when Hudson closed down as an independent company and joined Nash to form American Motors Corporation, it had lost $6.2 million on sales of only $28.7 million. Had`the year continued at that pace, Hudson would have lost $18.6 million, almot double the 1953 record loss. As it was, AMC didn't report separate Hudson results after the May 1 merger, but Hudson production continued in Detroit through October 29. Only 50,660 cars were built for the model run, and just 14,224 of those were Jets. For the next three years, all Hudsons would be based on Nashes and built in kenosha, Wisconsin, after which the marque would disappear forever.
In the writing of two score books about cars, this author has always tried to avoid the temptation of singling out one model as ther eason for failure. The One Twnety did not sink Packard, nor indeed did the Packard Six, although the Six contributed; the Lark didn't comdemn Studebaker; even the Henry J, as bad a product decision as it was, cannot be called the car that killed Kaiser. The Edsel was a marketing miscue, but hardly the catastrophe it is often held to be; Ford was making record profits a couple years later. The Corvair or Vega meant nothing in the broad GM picture.
But if ever there was a single model that had a devastating effect on its maker, it was the Hudson Jet. Product-wise, it was almost exactly wrong. Its timing - at the height of the horsepower race, with the public besotted by longer, lower, wider cars and V-8 engines, and GM and Ford virtually giving away their cars in a price war - was almost guaranteed to make it a failure no matter how good it was - and it wasn't that good. It gobbled up $16 million in toolin gexpenses at a time when cash was needed to update Hudson's stock-in-trade, the big Hornets and Wasps, which hadn't seen a new body in seven years and desperately needed a modern V-8 to meet the competition. Despite its good qualities, the Jet was not, in the end, the car those big Hudsons had been, not evena junior edition of them. Hudson, afterall, was not a big company. Sixteen million meant a lot. There is no doubt at all that the firm should ahve put that money intoa car with a proven market: a V-8 Hornet, for example.
The Jet finished Hudson, all right.