Though the cars of the Big Three garner most of the attention when one considers American automobiles of the 1950s, the importance of the Hudson Hornet cannot be overlooked.
By the time Hudson's Hornet debuted in 1951, the buying public had already been captivated by the company's radical styling in the Commodore of 1948. The design placed the floorpan between the chassis frame rails, rather than atop them, and effectively combined the body and chassis structures into a single unit, allowing for a much lower appearance overall, as well as a reduced center of gravity. Thus, you stepped down to get into a Hudson.
The sleek Hornet came as a two-door coupe, a four-door sedan, a convertible, and a hardtop coupe. Its pioneering use of unibody construction set Hudson apart from its Detroit peers, as did its potent L-head straight-6. Originally a 262-ci unit in the Commodore, by the time it was placed into the Hornet for 1951, it had been massaged to a massive 308 ci. With an aluminum cylinder head and high compression, the two-barrel engine put out 145 hp and 275 ft-lb of torque, making it the biggest and most powerful six in the world.
Hudsons were luxuriously appointed, with lots of exterior and interior chrome, attractive upholstery, and room for six adults. For 1952, Hudson introduced an optional engine to the fold--the Twin-H. Using two interconnected manifolds and breathing through dual single-barrel carburetors, the potent unit upped power to 170 hp. Another option, 7-X, upped power further to 210 hp.
Racers took note. At a time when stock car racing really was the racing of stock cars, the attributes of the Hornet made it a natural on the tracks of NASCAR and elsewhere--despite the obvious bent toward luxury. Racing star Marshall Teague drew support from for his NASCAR racing efforts, and he and his #6 "Fabulous Hudson Hornet" won several races that season; in all, Hudsons won 12 of the 41 races in 1951, including the season opening Grand National at Daytona. In 1952, Teague and Hudson dominated completely, winning 27 of the 34 NASCAR races. Another 39 victories would follow over the next two seasons.
But even advanced engineering and racing success in America's biggest series couldn't help sales, which had been slipping since the Hornet's debut. Superficial changes for 1953 included a revised grille and hood, while 1954 saw the addition of a functional hood scoop, a one-piece windshield, and a new rear end. It was all for nought, however, as Hudson's finances were in severe decline and a merger with Nash was in the works.
Hornets are robust, well-built machines that offer plenty of trouble-free miles if maintained, and they drive like no other American car of the period, thanks in large part to that low center of gravity and uniform weight distribution. The big six certainly helps too; even the base 145-hp unit delivers enough oomph for a spirited drive.
Interestingly, the Hudson Hornet is one of those unfortunate cars to which the phrase "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" never really applied. In a period where people wanted the prestige of a big V8, that was the one thing the Hornet just couldn't deliver.