and the cars that might have saved them
Henry Ford’s Model T has rightly been acclaimed as the most important of the early motorcars with over 16 ½ million of them sold. At long last the average man could afford a car to take his wife or girlfriend out for the day or the evening and rumour had it that a large proportion of the babies born in the United States were first conceived in a Model T! Perhaps we should draw a veil over that but the fact is that by the end of the Second World War they made up around half of the cars on the roads of America. They didn’t have it entirely their own way though.
The Hudson Motor Company was formed by a hardheaded group of businessmen and financed by a wealthy department store owner, Joseph Hudson, after whom the company was named. They were one of the first businesses to build cars in Detroit and their first one rolled out of the factory gates in July 1909. That first year they built nearly 4 ½ thousand cars; still a tiny number compared to those that Ford were selling but it was still enough to make them the seventh largest car manufacturers in America. Perhaps a foretaste of things to come however was the fact that they could have sold many times that number; but they just didn’t have the finances or manufacturing capacity to fulfil these potential orders.
Henry Ford was a great innovator but his model T suffered from three major drawbacks. The first one was Ford himself. He believed in the old saying; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! He was producing cars in their hundreds of thousands a year and saw no need to change a successful formula.
The second drawback was that the cars were low powered. This was acceptable when they first came on the market in 1908 but by 1919 they were looking rather long in the tooth.
The third was that these cars were open tourers. They were fine to sit in whilst the weather was good but if it was wet, stormy or cold the drivers and passengers could be downright uncomfortable.
By 1917 the car manufacturer Hudson had established a subsidiary, the Essex Motor Company. I haven’t a clue why they picked this name and it didn’t survive for long but it was used by Hudson to manufacture small, cheapish cars, as against the larger and more expensive ones the parent company produced. These were well made open tourers, just like the Model T, and they did well in competition, but it was their fully enclosed Model A that really put them on the map.
This was the first fully enclosed mass produced car in history. This meant that huge numbers of Americans could afford comfortable weatherproof transport and sales rocketed to the extent that Hudson/Essex became the third biggest manufacturer of cars in America. they not only produced fully finished cars for the American market but also exported parts for assembly in Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In just the first year 22,000 were sold and by 1920 the range included a two seat roadster, a two seater Cabriolet, and even a 4/5 seater tourer.
In 1929 Hudson (the Essex Motor Company had been dissolved in 1922) sold about 300,000 cars, helped by production from overseas factories in Britain and Belgium. The future looked rosy. However despite the fact that they were the third biggest manufacturer in the United States they were still relative minnows compared to Ford and Chrysler. Ford in particular was benefiting from the economies of scale and were able to afford (once Henry Ford’s now dead hand was no longer on the tiller) to not only reduce prices but also to spend far more on research and development. This was a problem that was to plague the company for the rest of it’s existence.
1929 was Hudson’s peak year; sales declined from then onwards with occasional up kicks thanks to innovative and often brilliant designs. However it was not unusual for the company to have to go into serious discussions with their bankers about working capital. It was absolutely clear that the big three (General Motors had joined that exclusive club by then) were squeezing out the smaller manufacturers. In particular by 1953 a price war between Ford and General Motors knocked the profitability of Hudson for six and losses were mounting.
By 1954 the company had merged with Nash – Kelvinator to form The American Motors Corporation. This helped to reduce costs and gave the new company a wider based sales organisation but despite excellent management and well-built new products which gave real boosts to sales the problem of following behind three huge competitors, which could afford to make constant styling changes whilst benefiting from the usual economies of scale, caused financial problems and losses started to mount again. The French group Renault bought a stake in the company which helped cash flow for the short term.
The company returned to a record profit in 1979 but this was just a blip. Sales of imported Japanese cars were soaring, the company’s manufacturing facilities needed updating and the banks refused to provide further credit. Renault effectively took the company over but itself ran into financial difficulties, and by 1987 the end had come and Hudson was bought out by Chrysler.
Throughout it’s various incarnations Hudson had been innovative and efficient, producing good quality cars that often sold very well. In the end though they simply could not compete against three huge and strongly financed competitors as well as the superbly marketed products from the East.