Caretakers at the new National Hudson Motor Company Museum (NHMCM, see our earlier story here) were apologetic when we visited to take these photos. They’d rented the space out for a business luncheon earlier in the day, so some of the cars and displays had been moved out of position to make way for tables. And yet, what struck us most about the recently opened Ypsilanti, Michigan museum is that it’s so tidily and neatly arranged.
Organized and orderly were attributes we’d not come to expect when walking into the old car dealership at Cross and River Streets in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town historic district. After the Hudson brand disappeared into American Motors/Rambler in 1957, this structure housed the last operating Hudson dealership under its proprietors, Carl Miller and then his son Jack, through 2012.
Over more than 50 years, longer than Hudson itself had been in business, Miller Motors Hudson preserved and extended the brand’s history. In the process, Jack Miller accumulated a lot of stuff — cars, parts, official company documentation, artifacts, memorabilia, signs, tools, uniforms, models, books, magazines, films, videos, photographs, posters, furniture, and more.
Expansion into the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum (YAHM) yielded more space, but also a broader mission.
Charmingly cluttered, like your grandparents’ attic but subject to regular dusting and re-arranging, Miller Motors could reward repeat visitors with constant delight, presenting fresh surprises around every corner.
For those already informed and aware of the history, it was a trove of memories and “would you look at that” moments. For more casual visitors who didn’t already know the story and who came in the door hoping to learn, though, it could be a haphazard experience. Miller himself would tell tales and provide context for all that stuff on display, but when he had to retire as curator, much of what tied it all together had left the building.
And that’s where the Hudson-Essex-Terraplane Historical Society (HETHS), YAHM chairman Ron Bluhm and NHMCM president Ed Souers have done a great job by sharpening the focus. The old car dealership’s bones are still here and so is most of the stuff Miller gathered over the years. But now it’s presented like a proper museum, meaning visitors can be not only amused, but also can learn, study and even research. Not everything is exhibited at once, and many of the display panels that will detail Hudson’s story are not yet completed, but the narrative thread is clear.
Founded in 1909 by Howard Coffin, George W. Dunham and Roy E. Chapin and named for financial backer (and Detroit department store proprietor) J.L. Hudson, the company’s first car, the Model 20, established its reputation for progressive engineering and quality construction. The museum has an early Model 20, provided by Hudson-Essex-Terraplane Club members, the Regnerus Family.
In 1919, Hudson added the Essex brand to compete with volume producers like Ford. The first Essex cars had four-cylinder engines, like that in the blue 1920 model HETHS displays here, but later ones had an inline six, Hudson’s favored configuration throughout its history.
Hudson hit its sales peak in 1929, just before the Great Depression, selling 300,000 cars. Now on display in the museum’s dealer showroom is a beautiful 1929 Hudson Roadster, owned by Canadian collectors Hedley and Patti Bennett. It is surrounded by period advertising and décor, in keeping with a plan to organize the space around a theme featuring one decade from Hudson’s history, changing out each year in the manner of annual model changes.
In 1932, the Terraplane moniker joined the range, represented here by a ’33 model donated by Norma Weaver of Ypsilanti. First an Essex model, the Terraplane name (a Hudson neologism patterned after “aeroplane”) later appeared as a Hudson model and as its own brand. Terraplane production ended in 1939.
A giant marine engine that Hudson manufactured (under license from Hall-Scott) for use in military landing craft provides the centerpiece for the story of Hudson’s contribution to the “Arsenal of Democracy” during WWII. Another Regnerus family contribution to the museum, this Invader 168 is an inline six displacing nearly 1000 cubic-inches (997.8, to be precise, from a 5.5-inch bore and 7-inch stroke) with a single overhead cam and hemispheric combustion chambers.
Postwar Hudsons on display include a 1951 limousine on loan from The Henry Ford Museum collection and a 1953 Hornet stock car racer that was restored by Miller and now belongs to Souers.
At the end of the line stands a 1957 model, what Hudson fans call a “Hash” because after the 1954 merger with Nash, the Detroit factory was shut down and 1955-57 Hudsons were built in Kenosha, Wisconsin, alongside Nash models that shared the same basic chassis. The museum displays a ’57 with a V8 engine—a configuration Hudson lacked when it most needed it to compete with the increasingly dominant Big Three.
Cars alone don’t tell the story, here, though. Scale models from the company’s design department and from its engineering division provide insight not only into the cars Hudson made, but how it went about developing them.
And no visitor should miss a visit to the loft above the garage area, home to the Ken Poynter Collection of Hudson memorabilia; much of it representing what life was like for factory workers who built those cars. Uniforms, badges, athletic team trophies and clothing, documents about union activities and strikes and more are found here. There’s also a lot of marketing ephemera supportive of the company’s sales efforts — matchbooks, ashtrays, signs, desktop models and much more.
This new museum, just getting started, really, promises to retain the single most appealing aspect of the old Miller Motors—it should reward return visits with new experiences.
Photos by Kevin A Wilson