Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Carl Laska laughs at his own contradiction. In one breath, the Rudolph, Wis., resident claims he’s too long in the tooth to be a “hot-rodder.” In the next breath, though, Laska admits he recently bought a new Dodge Challenger, then confesses to turning his gorgeous 1952 Hudson Wasp into a bit of a custom creation.
The wonderful Wasp looks all-factory from the outside, and it even might appear that way when you look under the hood. But Laska has actually turned the Hudson into a combination Wasp/Hornet, thanks to an engine swap. He’s also added the Hornet gauge cluster to the Wasp’s dash and made a few other invisible changes. That makes the shiny Hollywood hardtop a bit of a crossover vehicle — part, Wasp and part Hornet, but definitely all Hudson.
“You might say it’s my ‘rod.’ My Hudson hot rod,” Laska jokes. “There is nothing in there that isn’t made by Hudson, other than the ignition system and the electric fuel pump, and it’s got halogen headlights. But I did those things just to make it safer to drive.
“It’s still all-Hudson. That’s the only kind for me.”
Like so many Hudson enthusiasts, Laska has been a lifelong fan of the marque, and his hobby pursuits have centered around Hudsons from the beginning. He’s had a 1951 Commodore Eight coupe and a 1954 Hudson Italia in the past, but he has never had a car he is more fond of than his two-tone Hornet-powered Wasp. As far as Laska is concerned, it was inevitable that there would always be a Hudson of some vintage in his garage, and he’s been playing with his Wasp for 35 years now.
“My dad, those were his cars when he was alive, and I was brought up on them,” he recalled. “I got my drivers license in a ’52, the same as this one, so maybe that’s what the connection is. I don’t know.”
Even after he had acquired his Italia back in 1977, Laska kept his eyes open for other Hudsons that he could adopt. Not surprisingly, he eventually found one that he really wanted. Equally unsurprising was the fact that the owner wasn’t in a hurry to part with it.
“The car came out of Phillips, Wis. It was originally sold to a school teacher, who had it for a couple of years,” Laska said. “And then she traded it off for some other car, and the guy I bought it from ended up buying the car, and he was a Hudson nut and never drove the car in the wintertime. I’m the third owner and it is a rust-free car. Unbelievable! … It took me a couple years to buy this car. The guy knew how much it was worth. He wanted two grand for it at the time, and I offered him a thousand.”
Convincing the owner to sell it turned out to be quite a challenge. Just finding the car was not small feat, either. “I was at a car show [in Stevens Point,Wis.], and somebody said, ‘There’s a Hudson up in Phillips, why don’t you go up there?’” Laska recalled. “So I got home and I got a hold of information on the phone, and I wanted to get a phone number. ‘No, sorry we don’t have anybody with that name.’ I wasn’t spelling the last name right.
“I thought, well, I had enough directions, so I decided I’d take a chance and drive up there, and I found them. It was a ’53 Super Wasp four-door sedan. The [owner’s father] was there, and he said, ‘You ought to see my son’s car!’ So he rolls up the garage door, and there was this car, painted with a brush — maroon with a white top. I looked the car over and it looked pretty good. Finally, in February when we agreed on a price, it was 27-below and I drove up with there with a buddy and I crawled underneath that car. I didn’t believe there wasn’t any rust, but I couldn’t find any. I know where these things rust. They’re sort of like Mustangs where they rust in certain areas, and there was nothing there.”
Laska commenced to doing some parts hunting and hoarding in the years to follow, and 12 years later, in 1991, he finally took the Hudson in for a complete restoration. By that time, he had assembled a “garage full” of extra Hudson bits, and he was ready to let it snap on a total rebuild. “At the time, nobody was buying Wasp parts, so they were cheap,” Laska noted. “Back then it seemed like a lot of money because I didn’t make a lot of money, but compared to a Hornet [parts were cheap]… I must have six sets of tail lights for this thing. I’ve got a spare windshield, and all the side glass. I’ve got all kinds of stuff. I’m not going to get rid of it. My family can worry about it after I’m gone!”
The 1991 restoration included swapping in an engine from a Hornet that a friend and fellow Hudson owner just happened to have sitting in an engine shop. Not only did that mean upgrading from the Wasp’s 262-cid, 127-hp six to a hotter 308-cid, 145-hp six, it was also the cheaper option. “He gave me a price and I knew how much it was going to be to rebuild my engine, and buying his was going to be $1,000 cheaper,” Laska said. “So I just bought his.”
Beyond that, Laska didn’t have to make many changes to the Wasp. He swapped in new glass and headlights, replaced some warn and tarnished bits and reupholstered the interior. The car didn’t really need a total makeover, but after waiting 12 years, Laska wasn’t in the mood to cut too many corners. He also returned the car to its original Golf Green and Boston Ivory two-tone paint scheme.
“After I took the maroon brush paint job off, I could see the green underneath,” he said. “The door jambs were green… I had a friend of mine that had a ’52 Commodore Eight four-door sedan with this color and a black top, and I almost went with the black top, but this was the original color, and I said, ‘Nope, I’m going exactly the way it was.’ Black was nice, but this is nice also.
“It was a frame-off, as much as you can get a frame-off on one of these things. Every nut and bolt was taken off this car — everything. The front end was pulled. And it was all sandblasted. The fenders are all painted on the inside, the same as the outside. The bottom is all painted. Everything was done on it.”
Laska is still amazed the car survived so long while showing no signs of the ravages of winter in a northern state. The Wasp had 60,000 miles on it when he brought it home — about 10,000 ticks fewer than it has today — and Laska still isn’t certain it’s ever seen a flake of snow. “It was well-worn. The interior was a white steering wheel, and when you’d go around the corner the plastic would roll around on the steel rods. But, it ran good. It had only 60,000 miles on it,” he said. “It was a good car, and it was a good car to restore!”
Eventually, after the car was restored, Laska contacted the previous owner and asked the man if he would like to see the car again. “The guy who owned it is retired now, and I called him up one day and took him the car,” Laska said. “He had tears in his eyes when he saw it… He’s just the nicest guy you’d ever meet, and I wound up making him some great big pictures of the car, and he was just thrilled. He thought he’d died and went to Heaven.”
The 1952 model year was the rookie campaign for the new Hudson Wasp Six, which was constructed on the Pacemaker platform. The cars were an inch longer and just a bit fancier than the Pacemakers, and the following year, the Pacemaker was renamed Wasp and the term Super Wasp was saved for the cars with the bigger engine.
The year 1952 was a big one for Hudson, of course, as the step-down Hornets won 27 of 34 NASCAR events with the help of drivers like Marshall Teague, Tim Flock and Herb Thomas. In the 1952 Mexican Roach Race, Teague piloted a Wasp to sixth place. The Hudson’s low, heavy-looking body certainly didn’t scream performance, but the cars’ balance, center of gravity and power-to-weight ratio made them great performers in competition.
The Wasps were somewhat lost in the shadow of the higher-profile Hornets of the era, but sales figures were certainly respectable. A total of 21,876 of the cars were built for 1952 in five different configurations: Hollywood hardtop coupe, convertible Brougham, four-door sedan, two-door Brougham and club coupe. Only 1,320 of the Hollywood hardtops were built, making them second only to the convertible (220) when it comes scarcity among ’52 Wasps today.
Standard 1952 Wasp amenities included tan special-weave cord upholstery with red and brown stripes, brown leather grained dash, door courtesy lamps, wind-up clock, three-spoke steering wheel with half-circle horn ring, windshield and window reveal moldings fender skirts and a pop-out lighter. The cars came standard with three-speed manual shifting. Overdrive was a $111 upcharge and Hydra-Matic was also available for an extra $175.
Laska’s car has the manual with overdrive. “There were no options on this one, other than overdrive,” he said. “That’s it. Hudson didn’t have a lot of options.”
Over the years, Laska has had issues with his left leg that have made driving the manual transmission a challenge. He hasn’t ruled out eventually turning his Wasp into an automatic. “If I find somebody to do it for me, I’ll modify it,” he said. “But the old ’52 Hydra-Matic is what it’s going to have to be.”
Laska definitely plans to keep the bigger engine, however. The Wasp got a valve job in the new engine not long after Laska got it home, and the car has been running like a champ ever since. “A lot of people want to know why I didn’t put dual carbs on it,” he said. “Well, they’re kind of a pain when they get out of adjustment, and I’m not a hot-rodder anymore. Those days are long gone. It’s funny now, you can go around a corner at 5 mph in this thing and it doesn’t buck or growl or nothin.’ It doesn’t even know you’re going that slow, and it’s got torque like you just wouldn’t believe. That’s the one thing about that 308, it did have torque!
“This car, it just drives like a dream. It drives great. It drives almost as good as my Challenger!”
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Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975
This revised 4th Edition is the most thorough post-WWII automobile reference ever assembled. This huge reference book includes complete model information for every American-made car manufactured from 1946-1975.