Monday, April 18, 2011

Charles Hyde Speaks at the Library

By Frank Boles

Charles Hyde spoke about his book, Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors (Detroit :Wayne State University Press, 2009) on March 29. A leading historian of Detroit’s automotive industry, Dr. Hyde focused his talk on the history of the Hudson Motor Car Company. Like so many auto firms, Hudson was a Detroit company. The firm’s name came from the founder of Detroit’s leading department store, J. L. Hudson.  J. L wasn’t much interested in the auto industry, but his niece had married one of the firm’s founders. With money running short, she pleaded with her very rich uncle to invest in the firm.  J. L. did, and the car was named in his honor.

Dr. Hyde used the firm to demonstrate how small, independent automobile manufacturers competed with the “Big Three” through creative engineering and imaginative marketing. Hudson was among the first companies to produce a low-cost automobile. In 1916 Hudson introduced the first “balanced” crankshaft, which allowed for a much smoother operation of the powertrain and made it possible to get better overall performance using smaller engines.  Hudson was an early adapter of the idea of an inexpensive, closed-cab car; the Essex.  In 1932 Hudson hired world-renowned aviator Amelia Earhart to introduce the Terraplane, its low-cost successor to the Essex.

Pluck, luck, and good engineering, however could only take a small automobile company so far. Hudson eventually faltered. It merged in 1954 with Nash-Kelvinator, another failing firm, to form American Motors. In 1954 the last Michigan-made Hudson was produced. In 1957 the last car bearing the Hudson nameplate rolled of a former Nash-Kelvinator assembly line in Wisconsin.  Dr. Hyde pointed to the company’s long years of engineering smarts, shoestring financing, and marketing savvy as examples of how the firm made automotive history.