Monday, July 20, 2009

Celebrating the Hudson's 100th anniversary

Legendary pilot Amelia Earhart christens the new Terraplane in Detroit in July 1932.

Somewhere near the headquarters of the Hudson Motor Car Co. on the corner of East Jefferson and Connor avenues in Detroit, nearly 2,000 Hudson dealers, auto industry officials, political dignitaries and members of the media jammed around a specially built outdoor stage. Everyone was filled with anticipation and excitement for the launch of a new car.

The date was July 21, 1932, three years after the stock market crash. My grandfather, Roy Chapin, was about to launch one of the most important new cars in his history as president of the Hudson Motor Car Co.

By 1931, Hudson sales had plummeted. Compared with 1929, they had dropped by 80 percent! Grandfather's solution for slow sales was a new car of extraordinary value. It combined a powerful six-cylinder engine with a lightweight body on a short wheelbase. It would sell for a low price. It was to be called Terraplane.

Grandfather decided to apply airplane imagery to the launch of the new car, so he invited Amelia Earhart, one of the most famous flyers of the day, to participate in the Terraplane launch event on this hot, muggy July day. After all, Americans had become fascinated with aviation following Charles Lindberg's historic 1927 flight. It was an extravagant introduction. Accounts of it appeared in newspapers throughout the country. But most importantly, it demonstrated that my grandfather's remarkable gift for salesmanship on a grand scale was not diminished by the depressing conditions of the time. Following the announcement ceremonies, dealers participated in a parade starting at the plant on Jefferson Avenue and then onto Woodward in downtown Detroit. It was the start of a journey for hundreds of bronze-colored Terraplane demonstrators as they returned to Hudson dealerships in 40 states throughout the country.

Terraplane was only one of the exceptional products designed and produced by the Hudson Motor Car Co. between 1909-54.

The Hudson story began in a leased, 80,000-square-foot plant on the corner of Mack Avenue and Beaufait in Detroit. (The building is still in use today.) My grandfather and a group lead by Joseph L. Hudson held the first board meeting of the Hudson Motor Car Co. on March 6, 1909. During the meeting, it was decided to name the company and the car after Mr. Hudson. After all, he was putting up the majority of the financing, and his name was already solidly established as a leading businessman and retailer in Detroit. His reputation and name recognition were particularly important because in the summer of 1909, there were at least 150 different companies engaged in the manufacturing of motor cars. That's a lot of competition!

The first Hudson was built in July 1909, just 10 months after Henry Ford built his first Model T in a plant on Piquette Avenue in Detroit, about 3 miles up the road. The Hudson was called the Model Twenty. Most everyone agreed it was a handsome new automobile with a low, racy and youthful look. The first Hudson ad promoted the Model Twenty as strong, speedy, roomy and stylish -- all for $900, which was only $50more than the launch price of the Model T Touring.

Maybe the most famous Hudson was the 1922 Essex Coach. In 1919, Hudson had launched the Essex brand as a lower-priced line for the company. By 1922, the company had decided to offer a closed car at a lower premium than anyone had ever tried before. The two-door Essex Coach provided all of the closed car comfort of much more expensive cars, at a price of only several hundred dollars more than an open touring car. Automotive historians generally credit the Essex Coach with being the one vehicle that heralded the end of the open car. Edsel Ford felt the Essex Coach was "Chapin's greatest contribution to the American public and to motor travel everywhere." The head of General Motors, Alfred Sloan, is quoted as saying that nothing like that had ever been seen before.

Hudson Motor Car Co. was one of a number of smaller, independent manufacturers that helped the formation of the American automobile industry. General Motors and Ford Motor Co. dominated in the early part of the 20th century, but many independent manufacturers made valuable contributions in engineering, product design, manufacturing and marketing.

Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator in May 1954 to become American Motors Corp. Although the Hudson name is not around today, the Hudson Essex Terraplane Club is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the company at a gala event this week at the Auburn Hills Marriott Pontiac at Centerpoint hotel on Opdyke Road.

Hudson Motor Car Co. executive Roy Chapin drives a Hudson Model Twenty on the streets of Detroit in 1910.