The 1954 Hudson Hornet


ken-hornetMy dad was a Hud­son Motor Car Com­pa­ny deal­er after World War II. He bought a sandy-soiled piece of land along Route 60 between Williams­burg and York­town, Vir­ginia, and built on it the house we lived in and an office/garage for his busi­ness. He staked a sign out by the road: “Oder Motor Com­pa­ny.” He bought Hud­sons at auc­tions in Rich­mond and drove them back to our lot for sale. Every morn­ing, he lined them up in the front yard, fac­ing Route 60, and paint­ed prices on their wind­shields. Cus­tomers pulled into our dirt dri­ve­way and inspect­ed the new Hud­sons in the front and back yards. Dad sold two or three a month and some­how man­aged to sup­port us on the proceeds.

Dad believed that the Hud­son Com­pa­ny made the best cars in the world. In the ear­ly 50’s, the Hud­son Jets, Wasps, and Hor­nets were sleek and stream­lined com­pared to the cars of that day. They fea­tured a mas­sive smil­ing grill, a styl­ish rear bumper, and gleam­ing strips of chrome from head­light to tail­light. And they were just as impres­sive under the hood. Hud­son Hor­nets ruled the NASCAR cir­cuit from 1951 to 54, win­ning 78 races, by far the most of any brand.

Dad said Hud­sons were a salesman’s dream come true, and his sales proved it. When I was four years old I some­times fol­lowed him around the lot while he talked to cus­tomers. One spring morn­ing, he was work­ing on a sale to a tall man wear­ing a white Stet­son. The man looked at a Hor­net that had giv­en dad’s part-time mechan­ic fits. I decid­ed to help him out. “You don’t want to buy that car, mis­ter.” The man smiled tol­er­ant­ly. “Why is that, son?” I made a sour face. “Because my dad­dy says that car ain’t worth a damn.” The man bent over laugh­ing. Dad didn’t laugh, as I recall, but he closed the deal some­how and the man drove that Hud­son off the lot.

To his dying day, dad loved the 1954 Hud­son Hor­net more than any vehi­cle ever cre­at­ed by God and Detroit. It was the queen of the Hud­son hive, a crea­ture of unpar­al­leled auto­mo­tive beau­ty and pow­er. Fueled by duel twin car­bu­re­tors, the Twin-H-Pow­er mod­el Hor­nets boast­ed 170 horse­pow­er, about 30 more than oth­er stock cars of the day. When dad drove his first one back from Rich­mond, it blew by every­thing on the road. He made a sign and put it in the back win­dow. “You’ve been passed by a 1954 Hud­son Hornet.”

Sad­ly, the 54 Hor­net couldn’t save Hud­son from finan­cial ruin. The com­pa­ny was on life sup­port when the first one rolled off the assem­bly line in the fall of 1953, and by March, 1954, Hud­son had no choice but to merge with Nash-Kelv­ina­tor, the man­u­fac­tur­er of Nash auto­mo­biles, to form Amer­i­can Motors Corporation.

Dad hat­ed Nash­es. It almost drove him nuts when AMC changed the Hud­son body style in 1955 to make it look more like a Nash. Then AMC broke his heart when it dis­con­tin­ued the Hud­son line alto­geth­er in 1957, bring­ing to a close its 48 year life-span.

Dad was nev­er the same after that. He limped along as a car sales­man, sell­ing low­ly Fords and Chevro­lets, but he couldn’t get his mojo back. Then, a year after AMC stopped mak­ing Hud­sons, he found his call­ing to preach and rose out of the ash­es. I’m not cer­tain his pro­found grief over the demise of the Hud­son drove him into the arms of the Lord, but you have to admit the tim­ing is sus­pi­cious. I don’t sup­pose it mat­ters what his moti­va­tion was, though, because he turned out to be as pas­sion­ate about his faith as he was about Hud­sons and as good a sales­man in the pul­pit as he was in the car lot.

A half-cen­tu­ry after AMC sent the Hud­son to the bone yard, my two broth­ers and I were cast­ing around for ideas about what to get dad for a birth­day gift. I made a jok­ing remark to my nephew that we ought to buy the old man a 1954 Hud­son Hor­net. He dropped that pearl of wis­dom on my broth­er, and he took it seri­ous­ly, which pitched us all into a cou­ple months of furi­ous activity.

We scoured the nation and found an aban­doned 1954 Hud­son Hor­net in a field in Ver­mont. Under the rust you could see rem­nants of the orig­i­nal two-toned lime-green/hunter-green paint job. The junk-heap had the Twin-H-Pow­er duel car­bu­re­tors, so it was one of the elite horse­pow­er mod­els. It didn’t run and you could see the ground through holes in the floor­board and the uphol­stery was torn, mildewed, and rot­ting. But, hey, the thing was almost as old as I am. I was amazed it whudson-hornet-editedas still intact.

We thought we could restore it, so we bought it and hauled it down to Vir­ginia. On the day of the par­ty, we did every­thing we could to build up the sus­pense about the sur­prise gift. Then we herd­ed every­body into the front yard and wait­ed. I’ll nev­er for­get the look on dad’s face when my nephew backed a flat-bed trail­er car­ry­ing the old beat-up, rust­ed-out Hor­net into his dri­ve­way. Dad stared hard at it; his jaw dropped; and then a wist­ful smile crept across his face. “A 1954 Hud­son Hor­net,” he said in a small voice.

It has some­times been dif­fi­cult and heart-rend­ing to live three thou­sand miles away from my par­ents and broth­ers, but there have also been dis­tinct advan­tages. One of the biggest was not being avail­able to help restore that old Hud­son. My younger broth­er, who lived a cou­ple miles from my par­ents, almost went crazy over the next three years, hag­gling with mechan­ics, uphol­ster­ers, chrome dip­pers, car painters, and the like, but he did the job and brought the Hor­net into near-mint con­di­tion and drove dad all around the coun­ty in it.

The three of us broth­ers had some fun togeth­er along the way, too. When the restora­tion was still a work in progress, I went out there for a vis­it. My broth­er had got­ten the engine run­ning like a top, but the inte­ri­or and exte­ri­or were still wrecked. The Hor­net looked like a big old base­ment fur­nace with lime-green high­lights peek­ing through a heavy coat of rust, but my broth­ers and I climbed inside any­way and we took turns dri­ving her around all day. Late after­noon, we were head­ed hudson-on-the-roadup-hill on a four-lane high­way. I was sit­ting on the pas­sen­ger side in the front seat, try­ing to adjust my rear end to accom­mo­date a bust­ed spring that had punc­tured the crum­bling seat cov­er, when my broth­er decid­ed to floor the accel­er­a­tor. The engine roared like a Mack Truck in sub-low gear. The speedome­ter climbed slow­ly but steadi­ly. When it crest­ed sev­en­ty, my broth­er veered into the pass­ing lane and we pulled even with a shiny new black Ford F‑150. The farmer behind the steer­ing wheel looked over at me. I flashed a Ted­dy Roo­sevelt grin out the cracked win­dow and waved bye-bye.

He couldn’t have looked more stunned if he’d been passed by a sub­ma­rine on wheels. He had no idea what the hell had just blown by him. If dad had been with us, I know what we would have done. He would have scratched it out in his quiv­er­ing hand, and we would have placed the piece of card­board in the rear win­dow. “You’ve been passed by a 1954 Hud­son Hornet.”

Post-script: An old Hud­son takes cen­ter stage in my sec­ond nov­el, Old Wounds to the Heart. When Joleen Huk­step wakes up Thanks­giv­ing morn­ing to find her hus­band miss­ing, she goes search­ing for him in her lime-green 1954 Hud­son Hor­net. It serves her pret­ty well, giv­en that her severe myopia casts every­thing more than ten feet ahead in a fog­gy blur. Among their many escapades, she and the Hud­son chase a Pon­ti­ac Bon­neville into a tele­phone pole. Need­less to say, Joleen’s Hud­son was inspired by the one we gave to dad.