Car of the Week: 1953 Hudson Hornet

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Since he had known about the car for many years, Brad Kennedy’s 1953 Hudson Hornet probably doesn’t really qualify as a surprise “barn find.”

It was more of a Sleeping Beauty.

The Oconto Falls, Wis., resident knew the car had been sitting idle in his mother-in-law’s garage for more than 40 years by the time Kennedy found out he and his wife were in line to eventually get the car. That day finally came in 2013, when the amazing light gray sedan finally saw the light of day and began its second life.

“My wife and I have been married for coming up on 25 years, so I knew about the car and saw it sitting in the garage with its original tires flat on the rims,” Kennedy said. “My wife’s grandpa bought it brand new in 1953. He bought it new … in Brillion, Wis. His name was Henry Theissen, and he bought it new off the lot for $3,268. After his trade-in he paid $2,250.”

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Henry only drove the sedan for about two years, however, before he died in he 1955. “Then my mother-in-law got it and drove it few a couple years. It’s been my in-laws’ car,” Kennedy said. “My mother-in-law, Jean Theissen, had it until 2013. In 1967 the water pump went out on it and she parked it in the garage. It sat in the corner of her garage under a tarp from 1967 until 2013 at her house in South Milwaukee. She couldn’t part with it. It was her dad’s car. She had many offers to sell it and she refused to sell it. Then we were told we would inherit it, and she had some health issues and she decided she’d like to see it running … So in 2013 we took the car up to Green Bay, Wis., near where we live, and had a new water pump, tires, belts, hoses — all replaced on it. And here it starts right up and runs!”

The Hornet shows 40,000-plus miles on the clock and is a true time machine. Except for a few general maintenance items, everything is original — paint, engine, interior. Kennedy even has the original keys, and all the paperwork from the dealer where it was sold.

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“The original purchase date of the car was Aug. 14, 1953, and we had it back on the road Aug. 21, 2013 — 60 years and one week from the day it was purchased,” Kennedy noted. “I was excited and eager to get it. I told my wife when we get it we’re going to take it to car shows and not only just set up the car, but we created a book with the history of it so we can explain the history to everybody as well.”

Aside from belts, hoses, tires and battery, about the only thing Hudson needed was a good cleaning. A little elbow grease and an S.O.S. pad helped bring back some of the luster to the original chrome. The original bed liner remains in the trunk and the engine has never been apart.

And the engine, of course, was a big part of the appeal of the legendary early 1950s Hornets. It’s part of what made them racing terrors in their day and automotive icons years later. The Hornets were rolled out in September of 1951 for the 1951 model year and featured the “Step Down” design that had debuted in 1948 on one of the first new car models to be unveiled following World War II. The design was never intended to make the Hudsons fast race cars, but that dirt track pilots soon discovered that the Hornets’ low center of gravity gave them a big advantage over the competition when it came to traction and handling.

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The stock Hudson six-cylinder engine delivered 145 hp, but for 1953 the famous “Twin-H Power” with its twin carbs and dual manifold induction arrived. The 210-hp setup included split dual exhausts, bigger valves, hotter cam and a higher-compression head that all helped the Hornets collect NASCAR Grand National checkered flags at a record pace and led them to unprecedented domination on the country’s biggest racing stages. Hudsons captured 22 out of 37 major NASCAR races, with driver Herb Thomas winning championship honors for the season. In AAA competition 13 out of 16 races went to Hudson. The Hornets took checkered flags in 35 of 53 contests.

Kennedy’s Hornet carries its original stock six-cylinder with the single carburetor and Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. It was one of 27,208 Hornets built for the model year, which makes it slightly rarer than the 1951 and ‘52 models, which shared its same sheet metal and body style. The 1953 Hudson Hornet was similar to the previous model bearing the same name, except that the strut bar look was eliminated from the grille and the air scoop hood look was used in its place. Hornets featured front rectangular bumper guards; front outer bumper guards; electric clock; large hubcaps; front and rear foam seat cushions; and hydraulic window regulators for convertibles. The front fenders and trunk were adorned with rocketship-shaped ornaments. Special decorator check weave nylon upholstery was used along with a slim three-spoke steering wheel.

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The list of options and accessories included direction indicators; backup lights; six-tube manual radio; heavy-duty shocks; sunshade windshield; outside rearview mirror; custom wheel discs; rear fender skirts; and remote control “Weather Control” heater.

On his local car lot, Henry Theissen found a light gray bare-bones model with few add-ons. “It doesn’t have anything unusual on it that I know of,” Kennedy said. “There is an emergency light, for if you were working under the hood or something, and we still have that. Then there is a little broom that came with it to clean the car. What’s cool is the carpeting on the inside still looks like it’s brand new.”

Part of the fun of Hudson ownership for Kennedy has been researching and learning about the cars and becoming a member of the Hudson-Essex-Terraplane (HET) Club. He’s learned what a loyal following and huge fan club the cars have and all the nuances and oddities that have made the Hornets so beloved.

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“I really didn’t know much about them until I got in the club,” Kennedy says. “I’ve learned a lot about them. These ‘53s were the last years of the ‘soft’ rear end. They squared them off in ‘54 and that’s how you can really tell the difference. After that they sold off and became Rambler and that’s when [things] deteriorated.”

Kennedy is happy to drive the Hudson to local shows these days, but he doesn’t want to add too many miles to the odometer. With the car in such pristine original shape, he wants to preserve it the best he can. “It’s very nice to drive in. It’s fun to drive,” he says. “We used to store it up north at our cabin, and two years ago when we were ready to put it away for the winter, there is a 10-mile stretch of flat road and I decided to see what ‘old Henry’ here will do, and I decided to slow down after I hit 95 [laughs]. It was known as the race car of its time. It wanted to go, and the scary thing about this car is the faster you go, the cooler it runs. It doesn’t like going 60. It stays warm at 60. If you get it above 60, she’ll start to cool down!”

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Kennedy says he had one particularly memorable voyage with the car when he headed south to Milwaukee to show his mother-in-law the car after it was back on the road. “There were three lanes of traffic and all of a sudden traffic started slowing down … When we got up a little further we saw a red Challenger with the a license plate that said “McQueen’ so we pulled up next to it and we had Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson going down the highway next to each other. That was pretty cool. We got a lot of looks with that.”

Since it’s been in Kennedy’s clan for this long, the Hornet is definitely not going to be finding a new home anytime soon. There have been offers before, and there will likely be more inquiries in the future, but Kennedy isn’t listening. “I’ve been offered to swap even, straight-up, for a ’68 Camaro SS,” he laughs. “And my son [Ryan], who is very involved, said ‘Dad, we could do that!’ But no, I could never sell it. It’s a family heirloom now.”

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