The tale of the Hudson Motor Car Company's 1953-54 Jet compact is one of the saddest in all of automotive history. The annals of automotive failure are replete with four-wheeled Greek tragedies, tales of the pathetically under-engineered and the terminally unreliable, cars which failed due to their own inherent vices and inadequacies.
The Hudson Jet is not one of these.
It was superbly engineered, its unibody sold as a rock. It boasted excellent performance for its day. It was roomy and comfortable. Its fuel economy is decent even by twenty-first century standards. It was a car with no real serious vices--and yet, it effectively destroyed the Hudson Motor Car Company.
The story of the Jet has its origins in the success of the Nash Rambler. Nash brought the first American compact to market in 1950 as a well-equipped little convertible, and soon expanded the model range to cover everything from two-door coupes to station wagons. While most American car buyers in those days were interested only in full-sized iron, the Rambler found a comfortable market niche and Nash was soon selling them as fast as it could make them.
Meanwhile, over at Hudson, sales of its full-sized Hornet and Wasp were in a slow decline. The Hudson "step-down" body styling was becoming dated, and Hudson's use of an L-head six-cylinder engine--albeit a very good L-head six-cylinder engine--when the Big Three were going to overhead valves and V-8s led to a perception that it was behind the times.
Hudson President A. Edward Barit decided that his company would try to get in on the compact market that Nash seemed to be doing so well in. The new car would be built on a 105-inch wheelbase, and use a small-bore, high-compression version of the venerable L-head six. Hudson's talented chief stylist Frank Spring came up with a smooth, low-slung design reminiscent of the contemporary Mercedes W-120 "Ponton" sedan.
Unfortunately, Hudson did not build that car.
President Barit insisted that the new car have "chair-high" seating and enough headroom to wear a fedora while driving. This stretched the design in the vertical dimension. Then, the executive meddling got worse. Mr. Barit invited Hudson's biggest dealer, Jim Moran of Chicago, to consult on the design of the new car. Mr. Moran sold an incredible 3,000 cars a year, 5% of Hudson's total output, and so he was someone that Hudson probably needed to pay attention to. In and of itself, consulting a major dealer on design issues is not a bad idea. The dealer, if he's any good, might know a thing or two about what customers are looking for.
Unfortunately, Mr. Moran's suggestions were based, not on what Hudson customers might have wanted, but on what Mr. Moran personally wanted. Mr. Moran's tastes were, shall we say, a bit out of the mainstream. Like Mr. Barit, he liked high seating and hats and high rooflines. He also liked Oldsmobile tail lights and the curved backlight of the full-sized 1952 Ford.
Thanks to these two, the Jet ended up with a high fender line, a high roof line, tail lights that looked like an afterthought, and a rear window styled for a much bigger car. (Pittsburgh Plate & Glass was able to supply back windows of the proper width to Hudson, but only if it used the exact same curvature as the Ford window.) It was either too tall for its length and width, or too short and narrow for its height, depending on how you look at life. The "guppy-mouth" grille made it seem a little unhappy, as though it knew it wasn't going to win the beauty contest and had only just realized it perhaps shouldn't have entered in the first place.
If you look closely at the illustrations, you'll note that there's a crease running along the side below the door handles. On the fancier Jets, it's set off with a chrome strip. Legend has it that Frank Spring worked that crease into the final styling to demarcate where his original fender line would have been had the guys in the fedoras not messed with the design.
(Viewing the Jet from the perspective of a half-century later, it's perhaps a little hard for us to appreciate just how "off" its proportions looked in 1952. Picture, if you will, one of the more attractive "three-box" compact sedans you see on the road these days. Now, imagine it next to a Chevy Aveo sedan. The Aveo is a little too tall, and a little too narrow, and comes off a little dorky by comparison. Now do you see what I'm talking about?)
Like all postwar Hudsons, the Jet used unibody construction. It was solid, yet relatively lightweight.
The rear suspension used coil springs instead of leaf springs. The high-compression engine (available with the "Twin H" induction system) gave it excellent acceleration for its day (12 seconds 0-60, at a time when 20 seconds was considered average), and the handling and braking were equally worthy. It got 24 MPG when cruising at a steady 50 MPH. Fit and finish and interior appointments were up to Hudson's usual high standards. Other than its odd proportions, it was a car that had absolutely nothing wrong with it.
Except for price, that is.
Hudson subcontracted out the fabrication of Jet unibodies to Murray Products. Hudson didn't have the cash to pay the tooling costs up front, so the tooling was financed by adding an amortization charge to the price of a Jet body. This, and other expenses, and Hudson's inability to take advantage of economies of scale the way the bigger firms could, drove the price of the Jet a little too far down the demand curve for its own good. A 1953 Hudson Jet in base trim with no options cost $1,858. In comparison, a base-model full-sized Chevrolet 150 cost only $1,670. For about the price of stripped-down no-frills no-options Hudson Jet, you could get a top-of-the-line Chevy Bel Air, a Ford Customline V-8 4-door sedan, or a 6-cylinder Studebaker "Loewy coupe."
In the 1953 model year, Hudson sold 21,143 Jets. In 1952, Hudson had sold 70,000 or so cars and made $8 million in profit. In 1953, it sold 66,000 cars and, thanks to the Jet's development costs, lost $10 million. In 1954, it got worse: sales of Jets slid to 14,224, and Hudson lost another $6.2 million through April 30--putting it on pace for an $18 million loss in the calendar year. These losses were so devastating that Hudson was more or less forced to merge with Nash--it was either that or go bankrupt. The two manufacturers joined to form American Motors on May 1, 1954. One of the first things AMC's board did after the merger was to discontinue the Jet.
So, then, it is entirely fair to say that the Jet brought about the end of Hudson as an independent automaker. It was a perfectly good little car, but Hudson could not get the price down to where it needed to be to succeed in the marketplace.
What makes the story even sadder is to consider the opportunity cost of the Jet. It cost Hudson $16 million to bring the Jet to market. (That's about $127 million in today's dollars.) That $16 million could have been used to develop modern overhead-valve engines and freshen the styling of the full-size Hudsons. Hudson was an established player in the mid-priced, full-sized car market. While there's no way to know for certain, it's probable that a restyled Hornet with a modern V-8 would have sold much better than the ill-fated Jet.
As for the Jet itself, in 2009, it doesn't look as awkward as it did in 1953. It looks like just another old car, a little smaller than most. To the extent it's sort of homely, it's homely in an endearing way. Its problems weren't really its fault, it had a good heart under that dorky exterior, and it deserved a better fate than it got.
All of the illustrations in this article came from HudsonJet.net, a website maintained by Jet owner and enthusiast Sarah D. Young. (That's her red and white Jet at the top.) Her website is the premier resource for information about the Jet, including a PDF of the original owners' manual and an HTML version of the official Hudson service manual.
Sarah is also the proprietor of the "Jet Set" special interest group within the Hudson-Essex-Terraplane MotorCar Club. Membership in the Jet Set is open to "[a]ny person who aspires to own, owns, or drools at the sight of a Hudson Jet...." Sounds like our kind of people.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner