'Grapes of Wrath' Hudson part of film history

Like the film family it carried from the dusty fields of Oklahoma to broken promises of California, this Hudson survived despite bad times. Now a California car collector is the proud new owner of what is believed to be the original “Grapes of Wrath” movie car.
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California car buff Gary Wales recently purchased the 1926
Hudson said to be used in the filming of “Grapes of Wrath.”

Car collector Gary Wales of California has just discovered what is believed to be the original “Grapes of Wrath” movie car — a 1926 Hudson passenger car that was converted to a truck for the film version of John Steinbeck’s legendary story set in the Great Depression.

In the film, this Hudson was one of two used by a struggling family to make a long run from Oklahoma’s sand-tossed “Dust Bowl” to sunny California. According to some reports, the filmmakers also used a second car with a Ford V-8. The car that Wales purchased recently has a Hudson engine.

This 1926 Hudson is the ultimate “survivor” car, since it had gone into storage after the completion of the movie in 1940. It was stored so early in its life, because the roof had collapsed from tremendous weight placed up it.

Over the next 69 years, several owners took possession of the car, and termites and dry rot took their toll on the film car. Wales found the vehicle while he was buying a 1927 American LaFrance fire truck from a collector who was leaving the state. (Wales had placed wanted ads in Old Cars Weekly seeking an old fire truck.)

“I spotted what appeared to be a complete 1926 Hudson with original low miles (there are only 7,777 miles on the odometer),” Wales explained. “But the body was totally shot.”

The owner told Wales the history of the car and said that he was one of several owners it had over the past 69 years. The man had intended to restore it, but somehow never got around to doing so.

“I was hooked,” Wales admitted. “I brought the Hudson home with the help of my friend and fellow restorer Andres Aranda. After a complete examination, we determined that the body was too far gone to restore it, so we decided to restore and rebuild the car into a period race car.”

While removing the body, Wales and Aranda discovered that it was a rare and original, aluminum-bodied factory demonstrator car. It had no rust and the factory paint still covered it.

“The car is in absolutely wonderful condition and prime for our project,” Wales said. “We will be restoring the complete chassis, engine and drive train and will fit an aluminum body. We hope to have it ready for summer.”

Darryl F. Zanuck produced the film version of “Grapes of Wrath” in 1940. Its big star was Henry Fonda. John Ford directed and took an Academy Award for his efforts. Actress Jane Darwell won the Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actress” and the film was nominated for several other Oscars. The film has been preserved in the United States National Film Registry.

Steinbeck won a Pulitzer Prize for the book version. The story is based on the Joads, a family of 14 “Okie” sharecroppers and their dog who suffered through a bad drought and the Depression, before setting off for the California “Promised Land” in their $75 Hudson. They modify the car to be a 1930s version of a covered wagon and head west like the pioneers did a century before them.

“The house was dead, and the fields were dead; but this truck was the active thing, the living principle,” Steinbeck wrote. “The ancient Hudson, with bent and scarred radiator screen, with grease in dusty globules at the worn edges of every moving part, with hub caps gone and caps of red dust in their places — this was the new hearth, the living center of the family; half passenger car and half truck, high-sided and clumsy. “

The car in the story is a well-worn vehicle with bald tires and in need of lots of parts, but Fonda’s younger brother in the film is a good mechanic and keeps it going. “She’ll ride like a bull calf, but she ain’t shootin’ no oil,” he says at one point.

With the centennial of Hudson’s formation kicking off just after Wales’ purchase, the collector value of the car is an interesting question mark. Will it become the next not-really-restorable “Miss Belvedere” time-capsule car, or the next worth-more-than-we-ever-thought Rosa Park’s bus?

Only time will supply the answers to these questions but, for now, Wales is going to have fun with his find.

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