Hudson, Which Entered the Automotive Business a Century Ago, Made Many Memorable Vehicles—Including This One.
YOU NEVER KNOW when the old car bug is going to bite…or why. Sometimes it just sneaks up on you when you least expect it and the next thing you know, you’re in love.
That’s sort of the way it happened for Richard Esparza. In 1992, he, his wife and a friend were on a historic homes tour in Carson City, Nevada. In the backyard of one of the homes sat a car like none he had ever seen before.
So, while the others on the home tour went inside, Richard wandered into the yard for a closer look at what turned out to be a 1936 Terraplane. In less time than it would take most people to track down an electrical short, it was his.
The 56-year-old car was in remarkably good shape—very little rust, only a few accessory-type parts were missing, and even the upholstery was good enough to keep.
You could call it a driver, although it didn’t always go in the same direction the wheel was turned and it never went anywhere without a trail of black smoke following close behind.
A Little Terraplane History
The Terraplane was a short-lived car line. You wouldn’t be wrong calling it the right car at the wrong time.
The Terraplane made its showroom debut in 1932 amid a lot of hype for a car which the company said would deliver a “land-flying” performance experience, as the Terraplane name implied.
In fact, to further the flying image, Hudson saw to it that Orville Wright received the first Terraplane and Amelia Earhart received the second. (It’s also said that John Dillinger preferred the performance abilities of a Terraplane for those times when a quick exit was a necessity.)
The Terraplane was introduced as a member of the Hudson Motorcar Company’s lower-priced Essex line of cars, and during 1932 and 1933 they were officially referred to as Essex Terraplanes. Then, beginning in 1934, the Essex name was dropped from the Hudson fold and the Terraplane nameplate stood on its own. With its larger, more-powerful version of the Essex 6, and a top speed in the 80 mph range, the Terraplane proved to be a popular car and, during its four year run as a separate make, it accounted for the majority of Hudson Co. sales, doing quite well against the likes of Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth—competitors that benefited from the stronger financial foundations of their corporate families and more extensive dealer networks.
But in 1937, during the lowest point of the Depression, Terraplane sales started to drop and Hudson decided to no longer offer it as a separate line. In 1938 the cars were identified as the Hudson Terraplane in sales literature and on the hubcaps, and in ’39 it was succeeded by Hudson’s Series 91 Pacemaker and 92 Six.
Making a Restoration Commitment
From the day that Richard Esparza became a Terraplane owner, almost nine years slipped by before the restoration process was started in earnest. By that time, Richard had relocated from Reno, Nevada, to Escondido, California (northeast of San Diego).
It was the first car he had ever attempted to restore, although he had some mechanical experience dating back to his high school days when he drove a 1956 Ford hot rod. His restoration shop would be half of a two-car garage and the driveway.
The process began with a soda blasting treatment on the body. The idea appealed to him because it allowed glass and rubber to remain in place, somewhat simplifying the pre-paint prep job. Although the fenders and hood were unbolted from the body, and the engine and running gear were removed, this was not intended to be a frame-off restoration. That prospect was a bit intimidating. But as the soda blasting progressed, new cards were being dealt and the plan changed. Not being able to blast into the areas where body met frame left Richard less than satisfied, so it was time to take the next step.
But first, a few side notes to the soda blasting work.
The first has to do with the equipment. Richard talked a soda blasting company into giving a demonstration for the local Hudson Club (The Southwestern Borders chapter) at his home. As part of the deal, he got to keep the equipment long enough to blast his Terraplane. So he got a lesson in blasting and then practiced what he learned. Actually, Richard assigned the blasting job to his son, Jeremiah. Not because it’s a dirty job that most anyone would like to avoid, but because at that time Richard was recovering from chemotherapy.
Soda blasting taught the father and son a few lessons. The one with the greatest impact was that while blasting in the driveway, the soda covered all the nearby plants with a cement-like substance and, in Richard’s words, “everything in the front yard basically croaked” and his wife “got sort of hysterical.” On the bright side, some of the plants recovered after just one year.
Early on in the soda blasting process, much of the paint was coming off in huge sheets—an indicator that the car had been poorly repainted at some point in its life. More accurately, the car had been stripped to bare metal, primed and painted. At some point between bare metal and primer, surface rust took hold and seems to have been the culprit behind the crummy paint adhesion.
Another important lesson learned during the soda blasting episode was that sometimes rust can be stronger than soda. Even though the only semi-serious rust that was found was on the undersides of the doors and around the lip of the trunk lid, the aforementioned surface rust could not be scoured away by the soda. To get past this obstacle, the body and frame required bead blasting prior to painting.
After the bead blasting, the body went to Tim’s Paint & Body Shop in Escondido, and the rolling chassis was parked in Richard’s driveway where he would take care of some of the painting chores. The body was painted the original Glacier Blue, which was color-matched from a factory color chip book. After the body was painted, Richard applied NAPA-Permatex spray-on undercoat to the underside of the body. He also primered the frame and added two coats of frame paint before the body and chassis were reunited.
Moving On To the Mechanicals
Richard rebuilt the engine in his garage with the help of a local Hudson Club member, Buzz Stahl, someone who knows Hudson engines like a farmer knows his land. Both Richard and Buzz realized this engine was tired. It lacked power and smoked like a pile of burning tires.
Based on a visual inspection as the engine was being disassembled, it seemed likely the in-line six had never been out of the car. When Richard bought the vehicle, the odometer showed 40,000 miles, but he had no way of knowing if it was accurate. After pulling the lower end, however, they were surprised and relieved to find it in fine condition. The Terraplane six-cylinder engine—an evolutionary improvement of a long line of Essex engines that began in 1919 and were not entirely reputable in their early years—still used Babbitt bearings and a three-main-bearing design.
When you see Babbitt, it is supposed to be smooth. When it begins to deteriorate, big chunks fall out, giving it a rough and ragged appearance. The Babbitt in this engine, however, passed inspection and the bearing clearances were within specifications. The crank was polished, but not reground.
By the way, the three-main-bearing, six cylinder engine, like the one in this Terraplane, powered all remaining Terraplanes and then continued in the small Hudson lineup into the early post-WWII years.
The cylinders showed signs of wear, but the engine block was Magnafluxed and no signs of cracking were identified. To clean out the water passages, the block was “tanked” (submerged in muriatic acid) to scour out the scale and deposits that had built up over the years. This is a step that is often bypassed by those looking to save a little money or when the owner is intending to restore a car for show rather than for driving reliability. Buzz, however, calls it a “false economy” to skip this step.
To take care of the cylinder wear, the block was bored .030 over. The engines can take an overbore up to .060 inches, according to Buzz, and that limit is due to the engine design using paired cylinders with little room—and no water passages—between the paired cylinders.
Front-engine, rear-drive, four-door sedan
Type Flathead in-line six
Displacement 212 cu. in.
Bore x stroke 3 in. x 5 in.
Compression ratio (:1) 6
Carburetor Single-barrel downdraft
Power 88 hp @ 3800 rpm
Transmission Three-speed manual
Final drive ratio (:1) 4.11 (factory); 3.51 (as restored)
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
Front semi-elliptic leaf springs, radius rods, tubular shocks
Rear Solid axle, longitudinal leaf springs, tubular shocks
Brakes 4-wheel hydraulic with mechanical reserve
Gemmer worm and sector
Wheelbase 115 in.
Length 195 in.
Height 70.75 in.
Weight 2810 lb.
Tire size 6.00 x 16
During the rebuild, the engine got new pistons and rings (obviously), as well as new wrist pins, valve guides, valves and valve springs. The cam was out of spec, so it was reground. The lifters were reground, too. The block got a little off the top (decking) so the surface was true. The head got a similar treatment for the same reason.
The original honeycomb-style radiator was beyond repair. Rather than go authentic on this, a modern core radiator became the replacement. With the goal of building a driver, in some areas functionality and efficiency trumped authenticity. No one will argue that a modern core radiator isn’t a superior cooling device. And for an extra measure of safety, a six-volt fan was installed in front of the radiator, with an on/off toggle switch on the instrument panel.
In his quest to build a better modern day touring car, the original 4.11 rear end gears were removed in favor of more civilized 3.51s, which were available through the Railton owners club in England. (For those not familiar with Hudson history, Railtons featured English-built bodies over Terraplane and, later, Hudson engines and chassis. They are popular collectible cars across the pond, and some Yanks take a liking to them as well.)
But it was the British club members who created a demand for the 3.51 gears and, ultimately, these ring and pinion sets were remanufactured for the Railton enthusiasts. With them, Richard’s Terraplane drives much more comfortably at 65 mph.
For those of you who think in terms of overdrive transmissions, it wasn’t until 1940 that Hudson added one. That unit will bolt onto the transmission in a 1936 Terraplane, but Richard says overdrives are hard to find and, besides, the overdrive is incompatible with the Bendix Electric Hand shift control, an accessory item Richard covets.
The Mysterious Electric Hand
When new, this Terraplane included the factory-installed optional Electric Hand. The unit, designed to make shifting much easier by pre-selecting gears, was mounted on the steering column just below the steering wheel, where, in theory, it was easy to shift gears without taking your right hand off the steering wheel.
If you’ve never seen an Electric Hand, it’s worth a close examination.
The entire stationary unit is about the size of a hot dog bun. It includes an H Pattern shift gate with locations for three forward gears plus reverse. The shifter that allows the pre-selection of gears is about the size of a large house key. It was designed so the driver could pre-select a gear by moving this small shifter into the chosen gate with one finger. Only when the driver depressed the clutch pedal, would the shift be completed.
Two vacuum cylinders mounted on top of the transmission allowed the Electric Hand to function. One controlled the side-to-side motion when shifting. The other controlled the fore and aft. Each received electrical signals from the hand control unit.
Over the years, these devices had a reputation for malfunctioning and owners often grew dissatisfied, eventually disabling or removing them. Some say this happened rather quickly and others say there are still unrestored “Hands” operating just fine today.
Regardless, no Terraplane or Hudson relied completely on the Electric Hand for shifting. The units had on/off switches so the driver could choose to use the manual shift at any time.
When relying on the Electric Hand for shifting, the standard floor-mounted shifter was detached and stowed forward of the passenger-side door. But at any time, if the Electric Hand ceased to function, it was easy to retrieve the shifter and get back to a more common method of driving a car.
Richard purchased a “Hand” that needs restoration before it can be installed in working order. He’s excited for that day to come, despite warnings from many of his Hudson buddies. After Richard drove a friend’s car with the Electric Hand, he was sold on it.
“A lot of them are disabled on cars that I see today,” Richard admits, “and everyone thinks I’m nuts for restoring one.” But he quickly adds, “I’ve seen some cars at meets with original Electric Hands that have always worked.” (Hudson offered the Electric Hand option in its 1935-37 models.)
To further accentuate the convenience of a near-automatic transmission, Hudson also offered a vacuum-assisted clutch. When used in conjunction with the Electric Hand, the driver needed only to preselect a gear, then lift off the accelerator in order for the shift to be completed.
Accessorizing the Terraplane
Hudson offered a long list of accessories for the Terraplanes, and Richard has his favorites. He’s always admired cars of the 1930s because of the flair that a side-mounted spare brings to these automobiles. So he set out to find a fender with the side-mount pocket for the passenger side.
First he found one for a Hudson, but it was too long. The Hudsons had a wheelbase eight inches longer than the Terraplane, and on the body almost all of the extra length was in the cowl area. As it turned out, the Hudson fender couldn’t be cut to Terraplane size because the side-mount “pocket” location wasn’t easily adaptable to the Terraplane.
Misgivings about using the Hudson fender led Richard to a ’36 Terraplane truck fender. A Terraplane truck looks just like the car from the windshield forward, but again the pocket was the problem. It was designed to carry the spare at a different angle than the passenger cars.
Making His Own Side-Mount
So, why not cut a hole in the perfectly good fender on his car? Because it’s a perfectly good fender, that’s why. Cutting up good metal is a punch in the gut for some guys, Richard being one of them. But he really wanted that sidemount and, eventually, he decided his original fender could be altered.
A highly recommended metal expert, Perry Spring of Perry’s Custom Metal, in Ontario, California, got the job and Richard held his breath. Much of Perry’s work comes from Hudson owners.
“He did a beautiful job,” Richard says. “Instead of welding in the pocket, which is what one body shop suggested, he crimped it over the way that it was done at the Hudson factory.” Mission accomplished, at least for the time being.
Both front fenders are going under the knife sometime soon, as Richard has located some rare front fender-mounted parking lights that he likes a lot.
Among the other accessories that can dress up a Terraplane are usual items such as a radio, heater, sun visors and clocks, but there also are some unusual goodies such as fender guides that match the car’s “winged carrot” hood ornament, full wheel covers, fender skirts, and a banjo steering wheel. Richard has a banjo wheel that he hopes to restore and use.
A Few 1936 Terraplane Insights
• Oddly, the ’36 Terraplane has many one-year-only features. You can park a ’37 next to a ’36 and think they are identical, but don’t try to swap fenders or doors or hoods or glass. Even the trim pieces are unique. Mechanically, it had some interchangeability with ’35 and ’37, but it’s not as widespread as is typically found when comparing one model year to the next.
• In terms of engineering, the most prominent improvement was the braking system, stepping up from mechanical to four-wheel hydraulics. Although hydraulic brakes would soon become universal, there were misgivings about their reliability among the driving public. So Hudson and Terraplane brakes were designed with a mechanical brake back-up. If the brake pedal was pushed beyond the normal resistance point that activated the hydraulic brakes, the two-wheel mechanical brakes were brought into play.
• Terraplane and Hudson also redesigned the front suspension in 1936. Two drop forged torque rods, fitted to the frame side rails, allowed the I-beam front axle to rise and fall without its previous restrictions. In modern terminology the torque rods would be referred to as radius rods, and by helping to carry the load that would otherwise be placed on the springs, lighter springs could be used. This front suspension design was used through the 1939 model year by Hudson and was replaced in 1940 with fully independent suspension.
• Another engineering feature that distinguishes the 1936 Terraplanes and Hudsons is the all-steel, single-stamping roof. It replaced the roof design that had an oval opening and cloth insert, but it also avoided multiple smaller stampings that required welding to form an entire roof.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Hudson automobiles and the 50th anniversary of the Hudson Essex Terraplane Club. To celebrate the occasion, the HET Club is planning an event July 13-17 in Pontiac, Michigan (just north of Detroit), with the Marriot/Centerpoint Hotel serving as the host location.
The anniversary event is expected to draw an array of Hudson vehicles produced between 1909 and 1957 and activities include tours of the former Hudson Motor Car Co. factory, the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum (home of the last Hudson dealer and a large Hudson memorabilia collection), Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford Museum, the Chrysler Museum, and the Ford Rouge Factory. Additional information can be found at the Club’s Web site: http://www.hudsonclub.org/2009NationalFiles/national2.htm