Dan Cohen’s beautifully restored 1949 Hudson Commodore Custom Eight convertible stirs up memories. In a lifetime of paying attention to cars, I’ve only ever seen one step-down Hudson convertible with my own eyes. In 1948, it was parked behind Analy Union High School in Sebastopol, California, where I was a schoolboy who had yet to think of becoming a professional car designer. The main reason for remembering it was the highly unusual sheetmetal panel above the windshield, something I’d never seen before. I never saw it again until some firms started making convertibles out of coupes in the 1970s, once it was understood that U.S. safety laws had not actually banned convertibles forever.
Hudson Motor Car Company, in 1925 and 1927 third to General Motors and Ford in sales, was long known for performance. In the 1930s, the sporting British Railton was based on Hudson’s Terraplane chassis. The Hudson Hornet dominated NASCAR from 1951 to 1954 with its five-liter, six-cylinder, twin-carburetor engine, setting some records still not equaled. The Hornet’s side-valve engine was old-fashioned but made of exceptionally high-quality materials, and the balanced, low-center-of-gravity chassis kept it ahead of cars with advanced overhead-valve V-8s for many years. Severe mismanagement killed Hudson: instead of doing its own V-8, the company invested in a really ugly, almost unsalable small car, the Jet. And the 1948–54 step-down design, with a true perimeter frame outboard of the rear wheels, was really safe but also really difficult to restyle.
In a sense, Hudson can be thought of as America’s BMW, but whereas BMW was saved from extinction by the Quant family and the “new class” cars, Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator and became just a nameplate on Nash bodies. Both makes disappeared with the 1957 models. Step-downs, the last “real” Hudsons, are storied in literature and lore. On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s classic novel, was based on his wild travels in a Hudson. A Hudson with a supercharged Chrysler Hemi under the hood created Bruce Crower’s hot-rodding reputation when he drove it to Bonneville in 1954, set class speed records, and then drove it home to Southern California. During its production lifetime, the step-down Hudson had two wheelbases, four different side-valve engines, and either a column-shift three-speed manual gearbox with Hudson’s own bathed-in-oil cork clutch, a three-speed Drive-Master semiautomatic, or, from ’51, an optional GM Hydra-Matic. Hudsons had redundant braking systems long before any other make and were exceptionally well-engineered. More by instinct than design, Hudson stylist Frank Spring did a good job on aerodynamics. Distinguished German aerodynamicist Dr.-Ing. Sighard F. Hoerner, in his 1965 Fluid-Dynamic Drag, gave a Cd figure of 0.51 for the Hudson, bested only by the “bathtub” 1949 Nash (0.45), although Porsche’s 356 coupe (circa 0.34) then trickling out of Austria was better.
So, it’s a great car, one of the best ever from the U.S.A. I still like the controversial shape and would delight in having a street-rod four-door filled with contemporary components.
FRONT 3/4 VIEW
1 Completely superfluous chromed gimcracks were widely considered necessary in the 1940s and ’50s — except in California, where removing them became an art form.
2 These door-edge clip-on exterior mirrors were extracost accessories for many years, however vital they might have been for safe driving.
3 This extension of the roof panel allowed Hudson to have a convertible without the expense of a separately framed windshield surround, common for convertibles.
4 “Wind-wing” quarter lights were useful but began disappearing with the rise of air-conditioning — and the urge to cut costs.
5 Notice how neatly the power-operated folding top integrates into the body form. Only some 1250 Commodore convertibles were made for 1949.
6 Very small fender skirts allowed access to the wheel lugs with the car jacked up high enough to let the wheel/tire assembly drop below the exterior chassis rail.
7 This crease, starting at the badge, runs down the entire side of the car, stiffening all the panels and dropping to the rear all the way.
8 Very ’40s: a large chrome hubcap, a separate bright trim ring right out to the rim, and a bit of painted wheel showing. These whitewalls are probably skinnier than the originals.
9 Only this single bar runs full-width across the front. The total composition is quite restrained, save for the four bumper guards.
10 Big chrome bumper of rounded cross-section has almost no “design” — all the attention was paid to other front-end elements.
11 Vertical bumper guards were very popular through the ’50s but were found to exacerbate accidents by spinning cars after minor intersection crashes.
12 Center portion of grille carries the badge and helps the surface transitions from the domed hood to the horizontal top grille bar.
13 The foglamps seen here were optional. The cars looked a lot better without them, especially as stacked up here with headlights and parking lamps.
REAR 3/4 VIEW
14 Cars were in short supply, so dealers in the ’40s loaded up on accessories, some useful, some not. Spotlights were very popular but are rarely seen anymore. Pity.
15 A six-seater: each bench holds three, unless the rear center armrest is lowered as shown. Hardware like this on the seatbacks is never seen today in our safety-oriented automotive culture.
16 A sprinkling of bright bits all over the rear end. The applied taillights are quite nice, adequately sized, visible from the side, and very much in the modern mode.
17 Probably another dealer add-on, this chrome shield could help avoid paint scratches. But gas jockeys were pros then, and no one self-pumped.
18 One sees very clearly the rounded, bulging transverse body section here, as the skin stretches outward from the cockpit sill to the integrated chassis rail to which the body was welded.
19 Twin glove boxes were not particularly unusual and were much appreciated for convenience. Today the underdash area is typically too crowded to allow it.
20 Notice that the slim crossbar is eccentric to the steering shaft, as witness the partial disk seen below the center section.
21 Horn rings were much prized in the ’40s and ’50s but were quite dangerous, even in low-speed crashes. They were convenient, though.
22 The shift lever and its associated hardware is all chromed, as impressive in its way as the shift gates in older Ferraris.
23 The ergonomics of a line of identical buttons with very different functions is very poor, but they do look nice. Notice the headlight dimmer switch on the floor.
24 The start of the rot: warning lights and only a couple of instruments. The whole panel is nice-looking but not very practical, just the opposite of most panels today.