In the 1950s, the Motor City enjoyed a brief fling with the design houses of Italy. The Italia, Detroit iron in Superleggera clothing, was Hudson’s trans-Atlantic hybrid. Here’s the story.
In Detroit, the city of gray flannel and gray iron, Hudson design chief Frank Spring must have cut quite a figure. The son of a fabulously wealthy California land baron and a world-traveling Parisian mother, Spring was educated in Europe, earning a mechanical engineering degree from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris in 1914. Worldly and urbane, he was a vegetarian, slept on the floor, practiced yoga and Buddhism, and studied Eastern philosophy. His first wife was Avis Sterling, sister of the famed California poet and Bohemian George Sterling.
Spring’s interest in machinery was equally esoteric. His own vehicles included Mercedes Gullwings, Beechcraft Staggerwings, and Vincent and Ariel motorcycles. He worked as an aircraft engineer for the Army Signal Corps in WWI, then designed the engine for the Paige-Detroit auto and was chief engineer of the Courier Motor Car Co. After serving as general manager of the Pasadena coachbuilder Walter M. Murphy Co. from 1923 to 1931, he came to Detroit as Hudson’s first director of styling, a position he held until 1955 as his studio was absorbed into American Motors.
With his continental perspective, Spring was an enthusiastic supporter of light, sporty cars in the European mold. Hudson’s big step-down models, styled by Spring, were noble performers but massively overbuilt—agile tanks, they’ve been called. (Read the MCG historical feature here.) He had high hopes for the 1953 Jet, Hudson’s postwar compact intended to compete against the Rambler, Henry J, and Willys Aero. But when his Jet design emerged from its development tall, homely, and a quarter-ton overweight, Spring was crushed with disappointment.
In Hudson lore, it is said Spring was offered the glamorous Italia project as compensation for the Jet debacle. Another story, more far-fetched, has it that Hudson, hoping to transfer its success in stock car racing down south into victory in the Carrera Panamericana, built the Italias to homologate a lightweight sports car platform for road racing.
Between May 1953 and mid-1954, 26 Italias were constructed: one prototype and 25 production cars. Complete Jets were shipped from Hudson’s Detroit plant at Jefferson and Conner across the sea to Carrozzeria Touring of Milan, where the production sheet metal was sliced off and custom bodies were erected using Touring’s special Superleggera construction. Italian for “super light,” the technique employed hand-formed aluminum panels hung on a superstructure of thinwall tubing.
Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin, among others, famously used Superleggera construction for their lightweight racing models until Touring finally closed shop in 1967. But the Jet’s unit construction dictated that the stock production floorpan and cowl would have to remain underneath, which negated any weight savings. At 2710 pounds, the curb weight of the Italia was nearly identical to that of the production Jet sedan.
And instead of the mighty 308 CID six that dominated NASCAR in big Hornets driven by Marshall Teague and Herb Thomas, the Italia received the 202 CID engine from the Jet. With Twin-H Power (dual carburetors) and an export cylinder head, the puny flathead six made only 114 hp. As a sports car the Italia was no great performer, and it never officially raced in competition anywhere.
What the Italia did have was all the style Spring could get past Hudson’s conservative management. Many elements of his original Jet design were resurrected in the Italia, it’s said. A delta-shaped bumper and fender apertures echo Hudson’s traditional triangle emblem up front; at the rear, wild simulated jet exhaust tubes serve as lamp housings. All Italias were finished in the same ivory exterior paint (known officially as Italian Cream) and red-and-ivory leather interior.
In lieu of a rear seat there’s a luxuriously trimmed luggage shelf. The front bucket seats are unique ergonomic designs created by Spring, with lap belts carrying aircraft hardware. (However, the straps are leather and secured to the seat frames instead of the floorpan. They had to start somewhere.) The passengers face an elegant dash in gorgeous red wrinkle paint with a standard Jet instrument cluster on the left and a radio on the right.
Of the 26 Italias built, 21 are known to survive—plus a four-door prototype with similar Touring bodywork, the X-161, constructed as a potential 1956 replacement for the Hudson big car line. Of course, by then Hudson had gone bust and was merged with Nash-Kelvinator to create American Motors. The last production cars to wear the Hudson name were facelifted, rebadged Nashes—the machine known to gearheads today as the Hash.
An earlier version of this story by MCG appeared in the March 1, 2004 issue of AutoWeek.