My 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 was 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 up-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.