With one exception, it was the wrong gamble at the wrong time. Lacking the resources of multi-line manufacturers like GM, Ford and Chrysler, these independents couldn't afford to develop and launch both a compact car AND update their full-size cars. The exception was Nash. They pulled it off and introduced their very handsome full size Ambassador and Statesman models in 1952 after introducing the Rambler in 1950. The failure of the Willys Aero in the marketplace led to Willys merging with Kaiser. Later, Nash (which became American Motors) picked up both Jeep and Kaiser-Willy's successful south American operations and Willys ceased car production in the U.S. The compact car gamble sank Kaiser and forced Hudson to merge with Nash.
Hudson's chief designer, Frank Spring had created a sensation with his 1948 "Step Down" Hudsons. (The late actor Steve McQueen owned a 1953 "Step Down" Hudson Hornet.)
Those Hudsons were exceptionally well-built cars. They were fast, quiet, luxurious and superb road cars. But by 1952, the design needed updating and Hudson's unitized body did not lend itself to easy facelifts. Instead of launching an all-new full size car, Hudson management chose to develop the compact Jet.
Hudson Designer, Frank Spring, had been given this assignment, but he did it with his hands tied. From the beginning, the Jet project was hampered by Hudson President A.E. Barit, who disregarded the suggestions of Spring and other advisors. Barit insisted that the compact-sized Jet offer full-size car amenities. While designers attempted to form a car that was lower, wider, and proportionally sleeker to the dimensions of a smaller compact car, Barit would not back away from features such as chair high seating for passengers and a "tall" greenhouse with a ceiling that would allow riders to wear their hats while in the car. Barit also decided that the Jet's rear design would incorporate Oldsmobile-like high rear fender and small round tail light design. The design was further changed to accommodate the personal likes of Chicago, Illinois Hudson dealer Jim Moran, whose dealership was the number one sales outlet for Hudson, accounting for about 5% of Hudson's total production - more than 3,000 units a year. Moran fancied the 1952 Ford's wrap around rear window and roofline, and Barit ordered a similar design for the Jet. The final result was that the Jet's styling closely mimicked the larger 1952-1954 Ford in most respects. The Ford's excellent proportions were completely lost in the translation, as were most of Spring's original design features. In the end, although the Jet was 28 inches shorter and 10.5 inches narrower than the Hornet, it stood nearly an inch taller than the Ford.
The result was an ungainly, boxy, top-heavy-appearing automobile that may have appealed to Barit, but to almost no one else. When it was launched, the Jet sold for about $250 more than a full-size Chevrolet. It drained Hudson's coffers and bombed in the marketplace.
Designer Frank Spring was so infuriated over being hamstrung in designing the Jet that he was on the cusp of leaving Hudson. Barit threw Spring a bone by allowing Spring to design a European-inspired sports model. The original concept was to have been built on the full size Hornet platform and was to have evolved into the replacement for the 1948 "Step Down" body shell. One prototype of the full size car was built and when Frank Spring retired from Hudson, he was given this running prototype and he drove it home to California from Detroit. As he worked through what became the Italia design, Spring settled on the Jet platform for the car that was actually produced.
A prototype was built in Milan, Italy by Carrozzeria Touring. Hudson management approved a limited series of Italias to be built by Touring.
Styling features included a one-piece, wraparound windshield with vertical "A" pillars. "Jet stacks" - three ersatz exhaust pipes - emerged from each rear fender. Sometimes derisively known as "organ pipes," the chrome-plated tubes appear somewhat gimmicky by modern standards, but at least they served the practical purpose of housing the tail, stop, and back-up lights. And no one could deny that they attracted a lot of attention.
Doors were cut deeply into the roof in the interest of easy entry and egress. Frank Spring had first used this device at Murphy's, back in 1931, on the prototype Peerless Sixteen. One might have expected occupants to get drenched when the doors were opened during a rainstorm, but such was not the case because gutters effectively drained the water away.
Other features of the Italia included the familiar Hudson triangle, appearing this time in inverted form on the front bumper. Air scoops above the headlamps directed cooling air to the front brake drums. Rear drums received similar treatment, thanks to intakes built into the leading edge of the rear fenders.
Flow-through ventilation provided occupants with a constant supply of fresh air, entering through a cowl vent and exiting via dual slots above the rear window. Sporty chrome wire wheels were supplied by Carlo Borrani.
The Italia was finished, appropriately, in Italian Cream, and its interior incorporated some more of Spring's advanced thinking, including a non-reflecting dash finished in red. Bright red Italian deep-pile carpeting covered the floor, while individual "anatomical" seats for the driver and passenger were upholstered in red-and-white leather.
The reclining backrests were made up of two contoured bolsters, one for the shoulders, one for the lower back.
The foam rubber for bolsters and squab was supplied in three different densities for maximum comfort. Even seatbelts were standard issue. This was a very advanced idea in mid-1953, when the prototype Italia was built.
Mechanically the Italia was pure Hudson Jet. The engine was a flathead six, with an unusual 1.58:1 stroke/bore ratio. The long-stroke design was admittedly anachronistic, particularly at a time when most manufacturers were adopting the over-square configuration, but it enabled Hudson to use a higher compression ratio than would otherwise have been feasible with the L-head layout.
Equipped with "Twin H-Power" - a high-compression (8.0:1) cylinder head and two single-barrel downdraft carburetors - the engine was rated at 114 horsepower. This actually provided the Italia with a slightly better power-to-weight ratio than the fabled Hudson Hornet.
Response was lukewarm, partly because the $4,800 price was a stiff one by 1953 standards (a Cadillac Sixty-Two Coupe de Ville started at $3,995), and evidently only 18 or 19 firm orders resulted from the offer. Some dealers were disappointed that the Hornet engine hadn't been used.
In June 1953 Hudson president A.E. Barit opened negotiations with George W. Mason, his counterpart at Nash-Kelvinator, and on May 1, 1954, a consolidation of the two firms was announced, with the combined firm taking the name American Motors. As we have seen previously, this was part of the Mason-inspired plan to merge his Nash with Hudson, Studebaker and Packard to form the fourth full-line auto maker, American Motors. At Packard, James Nance bought Studebaker. Then Mason died of pneumonia before the merger could be completed. George Romney, father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, took the helm at American Motors and took AM on a very different course, one that did not include Packard and Studebaker.
In the fall of 1954, Hudson's plant in Detroit was closed and production of both marques was concentrated in the Nash plant at Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Jet was summarily dropped, replaced in Hudson showrooms by a Rambler wearing Hudson badges.
Meanwhile, though Hudson's L-head sixes were temporarily retained for cars ordered with six cylinder engines, the larger Wasps and Hornets for 1955 were really Nashes dolled up with a few Hudson styling cues. Those Hudsons (and full size Nashes) that were ordered with V8s and automatic transmissions got the V8 and Ultramatic Drive Packard supplied as part of the planned merger until Romney cancelled the component sharing plan with Packard.
Only 25 or 26 Italias were built. Romney cancelled the Italia program. Some 21 of the Italias have accounted for. This Italia sold at the Monterey auction for $265,000.