Car of the Week: 1954 Hudson Hornet


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Story and photos by Brian Earnest


Whenever Jack Stewart decides to take off for a weekend car show, or a weekday gathering of old car nuts — and he does that a lot — he has a decision to make: take his 1935 Hudson Eight, or hop in his smooth-cruising 1954 Hudson Hornet sedan.

And as much as he adores his ’35, Stewart, a resident of Janesville, Wis., usually has a pretty tough time leaving the Hornet at home. For a guy like Stewart who loves Hudsons and is a connoisseur of comfortable, long-distance road trips, it’s hard to beat his big four-door land yacht.

“It’s like riding in a baby buggy,” said Stewart. “It’s fun to drive.

“That’s why I got it, to take all over. This summer we’re going to Oklahoma City … In a couple weeks we’re going to Indiana. Yeah, it does real well. It runs real well with traffic. It’s bigger, it’s got more room in it, and it’s got the automatic transmission so it’s easy to drive.”

The only real complaint Stewart has against his lovely two-tone turquoise Hornet is that it didn’t come with air conditioning. He remedied that problem a few years back at the same time he overhauled the engine. “I put the air conditioning in it because most of the national Hudson meets are in July, late July, and most of the time it’s very hot,” he said. “I want to be able to drive it cross-country.”

Stewart bought his Hornet 20 years ago after it had been restored by Jack Miller of Ypsilante, Mich. He had considered finding a car to restore himself instead of buying a finished product, but he opted for fewer headaches. “I’ve found out spending the money and getting them pretty well done is better than trying to do it yourself,” he admitted. “About 30 years ago I started off trying to restore a Model A, and that didn’t work out so good.

“I was looking for a ’54 with automatic because I had a stroke and it’s hard to shift with that leg, so that’s the reason I bought it. It’s got a radio, power steering, dual-range automatic transmission … That’s about it.”

The 1954 model year marked the unveiling of the last of the “Step-Down” design Hudson Hornets. The 1951-53 models had become famous on the country’s stock car tracks, but that racing prowess did not translate into long-term sales success. For 1954, only 24,833 Hornets were made in five different body styles: four-door sedan, two-door club coupe, two-door club sedan, two-door Hollywood hardtop, and two-door convertible Brougham.

The four-door sedans like Stewart’s carried a base sticker price of $2,769  and weighed in at 3,560 lbs. The Hornet’s wheelbase measured 124 inches. Overall length was about 208 inches.

Exact production numbers by body style are not known, but not many convertibles were built — some estimates put the number at fewer than 4,000. Brougham convertibles were even rarer.

This year the big cars were restyled to look more like the compact Jet introduced the year before. The grille had a heavy, bowed molding tracing the upper radiator opening. There was a full-width, flat horizontal loop surrounding the wedge-shaped parking lights at each end. The main bar (top of the loop) was ribbed towards the middle and held a triangular Hudson medallion in a finned housing at its center. Behind this bar was an angled plate with four additional, wide-spaced ribs. Block letters spelled out the Hudson name below the scoop on the nose of the hood. The cars had a new one-piece curved windshield and new sheet metal from the belt line down.

The Hornets were famous for their stability and surprisingly good handling. Their low center of gravity, balance and power-to-weight ratio made them perhaps the best-performing American cars of their era.

The base Hornet engine was still the hottest six-cylinder engine ever dropped in an American car at the time. At 308 cubic inches, the base engine was rated at 160 hp. The $86 Twin-H option brought dual carburetion that pushed that figure to 170 hp. As good as the Hudson’s famed six-cylinder was, however, it was clear that John Q. Public was more interested in V-8 propulsion — a reality that no doubt had a lot to with the Hornet’s decline.

Among the Hornet’s standard features were: crank-type front ventipanes on all models; cast aluminum “high-compression” head; electric clock; foam rubber rear seat cushions; Custom wheel discs; hydraulic window lifts (in convertibles); and special trims. Sedans and club coupes were upholstered in 15 percent nylon worsted Bedford cloth with broadcloth bolsters and Plasti-hide trim in different shades of the same colors: brown, blue or green.

The last models introduced by Hudson, in Detroit, were the Hornet Specials. They appeared March 19, 1954, at prices $115 to $140 lower than comparable Hornets. They had Hornet Special front fender script, the Hornet engine and a subdued level of exterior brightwork, but Super Wasp interior trim.

On May 1,1954, Hudson officially became part of American Motors Corp. Shortly after that, production was switched to the Nash automobile factory in Kenosha, Wis. On Oct. 30, 1954, the 1954 Hudson model run ended in Detroit.

For guys like Stewart, a Hudson’s “orphan” car status is part of its appeal. With relatively few 1954 Hornets made, demand will probably always exceed supply, and appreciation for the cars never seems to fade. “It’s always well received, yes it is,” Stewart said. “Everybody’s got a Ford or Chevy. I like it because it’s something different.

“When you go to the national meets, that’s when you see a lot of them. The ’54s are what the guys seem to have the most of.”

Stewart says he is holding out hope of someday finding a 1954 Hornet convertible to share the garage with his sedan. If that happens, his choice of which car to drive during his hobby travels might get even tougher.

“I guess if it wasn’t too hot, I’d take the convertible,” he said with a chuckle. “If it’s hot, I’ll take this one because it’s got air conditioning.”

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