Courtesy of Worldwide Auctioneers
  • Driven and owned by NASCAR legend Herb Thomas during ’52 and ’53 seasons
  • Presented in original racing livery; factory “Severe Usage” items throughout
  • The last and only known Hudson factory “Fabulous Hudson Hornet” NASCAR racer in existence

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1952 Hudson Hornet 6 NASCAR racer
Years Produced:1951–54
Number Produced:Approximately 20 (racers)
Original List Price:$2,479
SCM Valuation:$1,265,000 (this car)
Chassis Number Location:Metal plate on right front door jamb
Engine Number Location:Front of engine block right top
Club Info:Hudson-Essex-Terraplane Club
Alternatives:1952 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, 1953 Dodge Coronet, 1952 Ford Customline
Investment Grade:A

This car, Lot 1, sold for $1,265,000, including buyer’s premium, at Worldwide Auctioneers’ Hostetler Auto Museum sale in Shipshewana, IN, on August 4, 2018.

In Pixar’s 2006 animated movie “Cars,” the eventual hero is a callow, self-obsessed rookie racer named Lightning McQueen. Trapped by fate in the backwater town of Radiator Springs, he begins his journey to redemption by realizing that the stodgy, antiquated “Doc Hudson” was, in fact, the famous racer “Fabulous Hudson Hornet.”

I suggest we follow a similar path, to wit: we may look down our noses at the heavy, clumsy old 1952 Hudson Hornet, but in the context of its time, it was a truly special and advanced racer. The “fabulous” part wasn’t just hype.

I was 7 when Herb Thomas was dominating the dirt (and occasionally paved) oval tracks of the early stock-car racing days, so by the time my automotive hormones started to kick in, the Hornet (indeed, even Hudson itself) was an almost lost memory of the time before modern cars arrived with flash and thunder. I started researching this piece with an almost “Doc Hudson” dismissal of the old thing — mostly hype and great graphics, it seemed. Then I started to learn.

Step-down performance

Although long gone, Hudson was once a serious player in the American car business. In 1929 it was the third-largest manufacturer behind Chevrolet and Ford, with a reputation for excellent engineering and build quality.

In the early post-war years, they were the first to see racing as an important marketing opportunity and happened to have an excellent car to work with. Their chassis was particularly advanced: While the other manufacturers were using a ladder frame with the entire car bolted on top of it, Hudson designed a perimeter frame around the passenger’s compartment then dropped the entire car down inside it — what they called the “step down” design. It both significantly strengthened the rigidity of the frame and dropped the center of mass by over four inches, which improved handling and ride.

Although the suspension appeared conventional, with a live axle bolted to leaf springs in back, it really wasn’t. Hudson angled the leaf springs inward like a snowplow, with the result that hard acceleration didn’t cause the nose of the differential to dive. They also used a Panhard rod to locate the live axle.

The front suspension used unequal-length A-arms that were particularly strong and utilized “center point” steering, wherein the steering rotation point (kingpin) was directly above the center of the front wheels. Normal steering swings the tires through an arc while this simply rotates them, making steering much lighter and more resistant to road jarring. The steering is still horribly slow, but it is light. In general, the Hornet drove and handled better than anything America made at the time.

Racing with 6

In the late 1940s, Hudson had made a strategic corporate decision not to develop a V8 engine, but instead to optimize the 6 they had. The decision arguably cost them the company in the mid-1950s, when V8s became the cool thing, but in the early years they had the most sophisticated and powerful flathead ever built.

To start, it was big: 5 liters was about as large as anyone was building sedan engines in those days. Rather than have the valves parallel to the bores in the block, Hudson canted them seven degrees toward the cylinder, which allowed far better porting and combustion-chamber shape than the traditional approach. The intake (particularly the “Twin-H” 2-carb version) and exhaust manifolds were both highly efficient, and the bottom end was strong enough to handle high revs.

Officially the engine made 145 hp at 3,600 rpm, but with factory help was easily tweaked to make 215 at 4,800 rpm, with tons of torque.

In 1952, the competition was just starting to figure things out. Oldsmobile had the first “modern” V8 in their Rocket 88, but it only made 135 hp, and General Motors wasn’t very helpful in getting more “stock” power from it. Dodge didn’t get a V8 until 1953, and it was a 140-hp 4-liter when it arrived, so the Hudson 6 was nothing to sneeze at.

None of the cars were light, so with a roughly 17.5-pounds-per-horsepower ratio, the Hudson was bloody fast for its time.

Hudson was also the first to figure out how to effectively support stock-car racing. In those days, “stock” meant stock, which was what the factory produced, exactly as they produced it. Hudson figured out that they could build virtually anything they wanted and have it legal as long as they offered the parts to their entire dealer network. Thus was born the “severe usage” parts list: upgraded spindles, axles, differential ratios, shock absorbers, brakes, even an entire 215-hp engine — you get the idea. Nobody else did this at the time, and it was an enormous advantage.

Track domination — for a time

For a few halcyon years it all came together — chassis, suspension, engine, and factory support — to create a stock-car racing juggernaut in the early years of NASCAR. But technological development by the competition and insufficient cash to keep up doomed Hudson to obscurity. 1954 was the swan song, as Hudson had to merge with Nash to survive (and didn’t anyway), but it had been a hell of a ride.

The “Fabulous Hudson Hornets” became old, uncompetitive racers and were junked or sold into street slavery, for the most part lost to memory and dusty photos. By fortuitous chance, today’s subject car — one of the greatest examples to boot — survived. It is the only one.

Value in history

How do you value an artifact? It is a relic of a time both impossibly distant and not really that long ago — a heroic tool for my father’s generation to challenge the limits of what a car could do.

Like that generation (and increasingly my own), it has become almost a caricature of obsolescent glory, but in that very fact has maintained an emotional attachment with who we are today.

It is difficult to look at or think about these cars now without something inside going soft and fuzzy, which is why Doc Hudson was essential to making “Cars” work and why we wistfully appreciate Hudsons today. In its time and in its way, it was a truly fabulous car, fairly bought now by someone who is probably pretty nostalgic.

(Introductory description courtesy of Worldwide Auctioneers.)

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