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The Rearview Mirror: The Birth of American Motors Corp.


A 1937 Hudson Terraplane. Photo Credit: RM Sothebys

It was a marriage that lasted longer than anyone might expect. Yet this week in 1954, Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson merge to form American Motors Corp. The hope is that by merging, the two independent automakers could better compete against the Big Three. They did, until AMC was acquired by Chrysler Corp. in 1987.

Yet both Nash and Hudson were longtime American automakers, dating back to the early days of automaking — older, in fact, than Chrysler Corp. 

Oldsmobile vets establish a new brand

Of the two, Hudson Motor Car Co. was the oldest, having been founded in Detroit in 1909 by Roy Chapin and Howard Coffin, both veterans of the Olds Motor Works. Its name came from its financier, Detroit department store magnate Joseph L. Hudson. The company quickly became known for their medium-priced 6-cylinder cars, something typically reserved for luxury brands. It was also the first mainstream automaker to offer closed cars. 

A 1951 Hudson Hornet. Photo Credit: NB Center for American Automotive Heritage

The company proved profitable, although the 1930s proved challenging, despite the success of vehicles such as the Terraplane. 

World War II brought a halt to auto manufacturing; its resumption brought with it a sellers’ market and huge profits.

In 1948, Hudson introduced its Step-Down design, a streamlined, unibody car that looked unusually low as other automakers were employing body-on-frame construction. It proved to be very popular, and in 1951, the company introduced the Hornet, powered by a massive 5.0-liter 6 that produced 145 horsepower, although tuners were able to extract far more. For three years, the Hornet proved invincible in NASCAR.

But racing didn’t help a fundamental problem. Being unit body, the Step Down was very costly to redesign. As sales started to slide, Hudson managers took $12 million, and rather than redesign its mainstream sedan, introduced the Jet in 1953, one of America’s first compact cars. It was tall, short and slab-sided. It arrived with a thud in a year that would be a crucial one for all independent automakers. 

A GM exec has had enough

Charles Nash had seen his career blossom with the success of the mercurial Billy Durant. Managing the Durant-Dort Carriage Co. by 1895 in Flint, Michigan. Nash was brought in by Durant as President of Buick in 1910. Two years later, Nash was promoted to corporate president after the board of directors pushed Durant aside. Nash stayed until Durant’s return in 1916.

A 1947 Nash Suburban. Photo Credit: NB Center for American Automotive Heritage

Nash left along with James Storrow, whereupon the pair buy the Thomas B. Jeffries Co. of Kenosha, Wisconsin. The following year, the first Nash automobiles appear. The company proves successful, thanks to Nash’s conservative management. Nash would continue to run the company into his early 70s, at which point he brought in George Mason, vice president of Kelvinator Corp.

Mason agreed to join Nash as company president if Nash bought Mason’s company, appliance maker Kelvinator, which it did in 1936. Charles Nash would die in 1941, and the company spent World War II building Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines. 

Nash emerged from the war in good shape, and resisted restyling until 1949, when it introduced the Airflyte, which feature enclosed wheel housings, a one-piece windshield and bathtub-like styling. The following year, it introduced the Rambler, which would be America’s first successful small car. Mason loved small cars, leading to the introduction of the Nash-Healey sports car, a collaboration with British sports car manufacturer Donald Healey, as well as selling the Nash-styled Metropolitan, powered by Austin mechanicals and built in England. He even brought in Pinin Farina to restyle Nash’s full-sized cars in 1952.

But 1952 saw sales slump, a trend that continued into 1953.

A turning point for the industry: 1953

The year 1953 marked the end of the Korean War and its production limits. It was also Ford Motor Co.’s 50th anniversary, and Henry Ford II was itching to overtake Chevrolet. Ford forced dealers to take on more cars than they wanted, overstuffing dealer lots. Chevrolet responded in kind, ramping up production even more into 1954. The price war devastated independent automakers like Nash, Hudson, as well as Studebaker and Packard.

But Mason had an idea. 

A 1956 Hudson Rambler. Photo Credit: RM Sothebys

He would acquire Hudson, although it was officially called a merger to placate anxious Hudson dealers. In kind, Studebaker of South Bend, Indiana would acquire Packard. Then Nash/Hudson and Studebaker/Packard would merge to form a large competitor to Detroit’s Big Three. 

This week in 1954, Nash and Hudson finalize their merger, which would become official in May 1954. But under the heading “man plans, God decides,” George Mason dies unexpectedly in October at the age of 63. His vice president, George Romney, Sen. Mitt Romney’s father, becomes president of the newly formed American Motors Corp. 

Mason’s plans for further consolidation die with him, as Romney goes about combining Hudson and Nash operations. Both Nash and Hudson dealers are retained, although Hudson production ceases. Hudson’s production is moved to Kenosha using Nash body shells, and are derisively referred to by fans of the brand as Hashes. Hudson gets badge-engineered versions of the Metropolitan and Rambler as well. But by 1958, both Nash and Hudson nameplates are consigned to history, replaced by the AMC name. 

Roy Chapin Jr., the son of Hudson’s founder, would become AMC’s chairman of the board and CEO in 1967. But the company would soon after face its own share of challenges before being acquired by Chrysler Corp. in 1987.

Today, the only remnant of either Nash or Hudson is the Hornet nameplate, which is being revived by Dodge on a new compact crossover SUV.


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