It arrived thirteen years after the Ford Model T, but the 1922 Essex Coach proved that there was still room for more revolution with the automobile. While Henry Ford brought motoring to the masses, Hudson’s Essex brand put the comfort and dignity of a closed cabin within reach of the common people. At its debut, the Coach cost $300 more than a comparable open-air Touring model, but the price soon fell to the point that the closed car was actually cheaper. Sales took off, and Hudson’s affordable companion brand led the company’s sales.
Essex still paced Hudson’s numbers in 1931, but the Great Depression had ravaged the auto industry, and carmakers were hunting for a new direction. While competitors dropped prices on existing vehicles, Hudson quietly developed an all-new car. Value was as important as ever, and the $425 base price initially undercut the competition from Ford and Chevrolet. But Hudson also endowed the car with the performance credentials that were revered in better times. Records in hill-climbs, the standing mile, and the flying mile quickly accumulated, and the new name, Essex-Terraplane, played on the world’s fascination with aviation. Amelia Earhart christened the first Terraplane by cracking a bottle of gasoline on its chrome nose. Earhart would receive the second car built; the first Terraplane aptly went to Orville Wright.
Only Ford’s bargain V-8 could out-buzz Hudson’s freshest creation in 1932. By the third year, Essex would be dropped from the name and the car was known simply as the Terraplane. The 1937 Terraplane Series 71 Deluxe seen on these pages was purchased by Ann Arbor’s Bob Elton in 1980. At least, Elton thought he’d bought a Terraplane. The pile of parts said to make up one complete car had been created by two previous owners. Both had progressively dismantled the Terraplane, all the while getting further from the end goal of restoring the car. It turned out, though, that several key parts were missing, and some items clearly belonged to vehicles that weren’t a 1937 Terraplane.
But the new owner had the tenacity to complete the project. It took five years of parts hunting and labor – Elton even shaped the lower front fenders by hand – to finish the project. He admits that it isn’t a fully polished restoration: the three-person bench seat is in need of fresh upholstery, the bumpers are ready to be rechromed, and the three-decade-old paint is showing its age in places. But those items are merely cosmetics; Elton’s restoration included an engine freshening, and his Terraplane runs like new.
For this twenty-something writer, driving a car this old is a very new experience. The Terraplane’s synchro-less three-speed manual transmission is like a kindergarten lesson in patience. Hurry through a shift, and the painful grinding becomes the sound of personal disappointment – and a reminder that the teacher is looking over my shoulder. When I get it right – holding my breath on the inhale, pausing in neutral, and waiting for the next gear to suck the stick in – it’s a humbling victory.
Elton’s car features the upgraded in-line six with a high-compression cylinder head and a two-barrel carburetor that raised output from 96 hp to 112 hp. In their day, Terraplanes were widely regarded as exceptionally fast. Today, Elton’s car is still fast enough to outpace traffic, although a subcompact would likely top the Terraplane in any real measure. To make the car more comfortable at highway speeds, Elton has replaced the original 4.11:1 final drive with a 3.23:1 unit. Radial tires keep the Terraplane tracking straight, a blessing since the steering is quite lifeless on-center. Put the Terraplane through a turn, though, and the steering wheel takes on some serious heft, fitting for its monstrous diameter. At our first right-hand turn, I fear, for a heartbeat, that I’ll direct the irreplaceable car into a pickup truck stopped in the left-turn lane. Without thinking, I work my hands faster and we make it past by a wide margin.
Like any car from this era, the Terraplane is a challenge for a rookie to drive fluidly, but Elton shows the casual mastery of experience. Piloting the car along a winding riverside two-lane, he asserts that the 1937 coupe “handles better than a Jeep Wrangler,” and we don’t contest that. Rigid axles in the front and rear are connected in a manner that limits roll, so the tall Terraplane exhibits surprising body control. More noticeable is a front-to-rear pitching induced by bumps and potholes. Still, the suspension and ride are better described as simple and direct rather than crude or harsh. Even today, when an isolated family sedan can legitimately qualify as a performance car, it’s easy to see how this relic from eight decades ago earned its reputation.
Much like Essex, Terraplane proved to be an indisputable success. In 1936, for every Hudson-branded car sold, Terraplane delivered almost four vehicles. So it’s practically inexplicable that the parent company abandoned the marque so quickly. The cars were called Terraplane Hudson in 1937, Hudson Terraplane in 1938, and disappeared by 1939, having been replaced by the smaller Hudson 112. The company’s ability to produce exciting cars wasn’t over yet, but the Terraplane name was gone forever.
Engine: 3.5L flathead I-6, 96-112 hp
Transmission: 3-speed manual
Suspension, front: Rigid axle, leaf springs
Suspension, rear: Live axle, leaf springs
Weight: 2715 lb
83,436 including coupes, convertibles, and sedans. Coupes are quite rare.
From a philosophical standpoint, it’s the Subaru Impreza WRX of the 1930s. Price may have sealed the deal, but it was the performance that made people want a Terraplane. For their age and simplicity, Terraplanes exhibit a sprightly attitude capable of entertaining. We like the ’37 model for its wraparound vee grille (1936 models were similar but had a two-inch-shorter wheelbase and a wider grille). And in contrast with the abundant Fords and Chevys of the same era, the Terraplane is a rare piece of automotive hardware and history.