Hudson Italia

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This isn't going to be a story about the downfall of Hudson, or the merger of the company with Nash-Kelvinator to form American Motors. I can't and won't wax on about Hudson's final days as an independent automaker.

I will, however, say a few words about the Italia, and the last 25 diamonds to be plucked from the mine.

What you should know about the downfall of Hudson is that the Big Three automakers in the 1950s had the production base, designers, dealerships, and marketing to put huge numbers of North Americans in cars. This came at the expense of the smaller, so-called "independents": Packard, Hudson, Nash, Willys, Kaiser, Studebaker, and Crosley.

They simply lacked the resources to compete, and all would be dead by the mid-60s. But the 1950s were when the independents were really scrambling—new ideas, new features, new technology, new styling—anything to grab a slice of the market.

It's in this atmosphere that Hudson's design chief Frank Spring was working. 

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The Hudson Jet, launched in 1953, was styled based on the lesser of three designs. Spring had submitted two striking ideas for a small car, and a third that incorporated suggestions from management and dealers. Guess which won out…

Some accounts say that Spring was more like General Motors' Harley Earl—an idea man who knew what he wanted, but not necessarily comfortable with producing endless sketches in the design studio. And so after his preferred Jet designs were ignored—Spring was furious, by the way—management threw him a carrot: take the Jet engine and chassis and make us a halo car.

So off to the Brussels Motor Show Spring went, to meet with Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni, the head of Carrozzeria Touring. Over a shellfish dinner at the Grande Place they drew up—on hotel napkins—the first sketches for the Italia.

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For the prototype, a Hudson Jet was shipped to Italy and Touring applied Superleggera bodywork—before the term was plucked from the past by Lamborghini, it was known as a method for lightweight construction. Derived from the construction of fabric aircraft, a series of small diameter tubes create the outline of the body, while thin alloy metal panels are attached to the tubes to cover the body and give the structure strength.

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The Italia was a sensation—fender-top brake cooling ducts, rear lights mounted in chrome tubes, mesh grille, doors that cut into the roof. Compared with the Jet, the roofline was about 10 inches lower. Spring finally had his way, and Touring was contracted to build 25 more.

Usually, automakers will ship rolling chassis—engine, brakes, frame, steering, suspension—all as one, assembled piece. That way, the body can just be plopped on top.

Hudson didn't do that, though: they shipped the individual component parts to Italy! And so Touring had to sub-contract the mechanical assembly to a small workshop nearby.

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By the time the work was completed, and the car was shipped back to America, Hudson was effectively dead. It was a struggle to sell the 25 cars made. Celebrities ignored the car, for reasons we'll never know. Maybe it was because the Italia had a weedy 3.3-litre straight-six engine with barely 100 horsepower. Maybe because it was only available in a cream colour, with contrasting cream and red interior. Maybe it was because the car sold for 20 per cent more than a Cadillac in 1955.

Most of the Italias survive today, and are considered the company's impressive last hurrah—not to mention sell for upwards of $200,000. The Italia project was killed as Hudson merged with Nash-Kelvinator, and Spring himself would die at the wheel of his Nash Metropolitan in a head-on crash in 1959.

Across the Atlantic Touring was in its own death spiral, with monocoque construction all but erasing the need for coachbuilders. They'd have a few more interesting projects before their doors closed in 1966, but that's a story for another day.

Sources / Recommended reading