Heavy Metal Affliction - 1951 Hudson Hornet
If you didn’t know, NASCAR stands for National Association of Stock Car Racing. Started in 1948 by Bill France Sr., the series used to actually race “stock” cars. Aside from some tuning, the cars that raced were the same cars that were on the showroom floor. It was a far cry from the tube chassis race machines of today.
Oldsmobile won the championship the first three years but, when Marshall Teague started racing Hudson Hornets in 1951, it began an age of racing dominance that has still never been matched. What’s more, the Hornet was powered by an in-line six-cylinder in an age of 8-cylinder motors. It was the Hudson’s handling, due to its low slung, step-down, semi-unitized chassis and body, that made it unbeatable.
The Hornet was a driver’s car before the term was even coined. In 1952, Hornets racked up 27 NASCAR victories while Oldsmobile and Plymouth only chalked up three apiece. There were even more wins in AAA which later became the United States Auto Club (USAC) for a total of 49 wins. Hornets won 46 times in 1953, and took the manufacturers championship again in 1954. Despite horsepower gains by the big three, drivers could sling the Hornet into a corner and come out faster. Top speeds weren’t far off from the competition either.
The gorgeous Hudson Hornet you see here was restored by team of folks for James Bernstrom and his father Ralph Bernstrom. James is a Product Marketing Director here at Microsoft. Without going into detail, if you are a football fan, you wish you had Bernstrom’s job. Ages ago, Bernstrom’s grandfather put $50 down on a 1948 Ford but, due to World War 2, the wait was too long. So, they went to the local Hudson dealer and picked up a 1949 Super Six sedan. Two years later they bought their first Hornet.
So did a lot of other families. Hudson sales peaked in 1949 at 159,100 models and the highly marketed racing provenance didn’t hurt sales either. Hudson Hornets, Wasps, Commodores, and Jets gave the big three something to worry about, but eventually Hudson was not able to keep pace and faded into the sunset, eventually merging with Nash to form American Motors. Sadly, after 1954 Hudsons were nothing more than re-badged Nash models.
Given the Hudson’s reputation for racing it’s no wonder that one night when Bernstrom’s father was out street racing and crashed his 1949 Plymouth convertible, he came home and stole his dad’s Hornet to get back out on the road and redeem himself. Redemption escaped him, as he ended up crashing his dad’s car as well. It might be surprising to hear that the next morning his father, Bernstrom’s grandfather, said nothing more than, “You must have had quite a night for yourself.”
The punishment was to fix the car with his dad and the help of a family friend. They got the repairs done over three months. The restored Hudson you see here is not that family car, but one that James found with his father so they could endure the restoration process together with the help of a team of experts.
The father-son pair researched every facet of the restoration; the elder Bernstrom through books and magazines, the younger Bernstrom through the Internet. As a team, there was a lot of legwork and sourcing which was one of the hardest parts of this restoration. They don’t call brands like Hudson “orphans” for nothing; production of the cars, and their parts ceased more than six decades ago.
The men that know these cars are getting older too, and it’s not a skill that is taught over generations for the most part. The same guys that worked on these cars in the 1950s are the same guys that are restoring parts for them, parts that get more scarce with every restoration that is done.
When Bernstrom hunted up a good crank, he made sure to buy two. When he found a new fuel pump, the seller would not release it until the old one had been sent in. According to Bernstrom, you can probably count the network of Hudson parts rebuilders on two hands and they are in pockets across the country. “The biggest challenge of all (is) patience,” Bernstrom said.
The restoration took two years to complete. Since the Hornet is essentially a unibody, it was not a frame off restoration but not a bolt was left unturned. The vision was to build a luxury 1951 with the NASCAR engine. For one, that meant sourcing the 308 cubic inch inline-six and the Twin-H Power dual single-barrel carburetors with dual intakes. Little was sacrificed to keep the car original but the transmission was upgraded to a more common TH400 three-speed with overdrive.
For safety, they added front and rear seat belts and upgraded the front brakes to discs. There is a more modern ignition system and Bernstrom opted for a split dual exhaust. The bone stock motor would have put out 210 hp but with these add-ons it is closer to 220, and the sound it makes is like nothing you have ever heard.
The day I met with Bernstrom to photograph the car, I had spent the morning in a BMW I3 recently featured in Heavy Metal Affliction. Driving the Hornet could not have been a bigger contrast in cutting-edge technologies, separated by half a century. The steering wheel, which is right in your lap even with the seat all the way back, takes two full turns to maneuver the average street corner and the curved glass windshield gives the world a slightly fish-eyed view. The ride however is regal and everyone, no matter their age, ogles and rubbernecks to get a look as you pass by.
The other cars in Bernstrom’s garage also get looks. His R35 GT-R represents the innovative thinking of Nissan, and his 1967 Oldsmobile 442 convertible is always a favorite among the hot-rod crowd. The Hudson however is a car that many aren’t familiar with and has stories to tell of its own, whether those be from the family history, the Hornet’s racing legacy, or the restoration process itself. It’s also the car his kids are most excited to be picked up in.
The Bernstrom family Hudson was always covered with sawdust as the grandfather built the family home. The car James restored sat in his father’s shop and was always covered with sawdust from woodworking projects. His dad would say he did it on purpose and it was just time for his son to wash it. Nowadays it is kept clean, but is still awash with the memories that it has created for generations in this family.