Hudson Jet convertible winters at Ypsi museum

YPSILANTI, Mich. — The Ypsilanti Auto Heritage Museum is a celebration of the automotive history of this old city, the nearby Willow Run manufacturing and assembly facility and, of course, Hudson Motors Cars.

The museum, which dates from 1995, occupies the land and buildings of Miller Motors, a Hudson sales and service dealership that opened in 1927 and which became the last Hudson store in the country as it was still selling Hudson parts as late as the 1990s.

Curator Jack Miller oversees a display of some two dozen cars nestled among signs, photographs, showcases of memorabilia, engines, transmissions and filing cabinets jammed with original records.

“I’m a historian but not a ‘historian,'” Miller says as he locates and makes copies of correspondence, bills of sale and service records in answer to requests from callers and visitors.  Miller’s personal high-speed retrieval of information matches that of the best search engines. He seems to know everyone and everything and patiently tells and re-tells automotive facts and figures when asked.

A recent addition to the museum’s vehicle display is the one-of-a-kind 1954 Hudson Jet convertible, a prototype dating from the last days of Hudson before it merged with Nash to become American Motors. The red Jet belongs to Ed and Mary Souers of Fort Wayne, Ind. Ed Souers says he wanted the car to be someplace where others could enjoy it over the winter rather than parking it in storage with his other special cars.

So the Jet is visiting Ypsilanti.

Souers, who has a fondness for unusual cars, had known of this one-off convertible and found it for sale in e-Bay back in 2007. It belonged to retired Ford designer Harry Mills who several decades earlier purchased it from Ken and Virginia Marshall. Because it was only a prototype and never rustproofed, the Jet after only 10 years was already deteriorating. The story has it that when a container of milk fell through the rusted-out floor of the Jet following some grocery shopping, Virginia Marshall insisted to her husband that they sell the car.

“Harry Mills drove the Jet at Greenfield Village when the Hudson Essex Terraplane Club had its national meet there in 1965,” Jack Miller recalls. “At that time the doors no longer fit and the rear bumper was missing.”

When the Souerses retrieved the Jet  in 2007, the convertible top had been covered which kept it and much of the interior in fairly good condition. The body of the car, Souers says, was so fragile it literally broke in two during the lifting and removal. Souers paid $15,000 for the unique car. Its restoration has pushed the investment to into six figures.

That doesn’t impress everyone, admits Souers. A visitor to one auto show where Souers had the car pointed out to him: “Dude, it’s still a Jet.”

The Jet convertible keeps company with Hudsons, Kaisers, Corvairs, a gloomy Frazer sedan built at Willow Run, a 1984 Cadillac limo with commercial chassis that served as an official limo for the Detroit Tigers and a bright blue fiberglass replica of a ’48 Tucker that had a role in the movie “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” Preston Tucker once had lived in Ypsilanti. Enlargements of some of his plans decorate the museum walls.

The museum’s Tucker was built on a Ford LTD chassis — one of three prepared for the 1988 movie. This is the only one that was driveable and was filmed with actor Jeff Bridges behind the wheel leaving the factory and exploring the streets of Chicago.

The museum car today is without engine. It was shown along with several “real” Tuckers at the 2012 Grenmoor Gather of Significant Automobiles in Canton, Ohio.

Another car with ties to Hollywood is the 1952 Hudson Hornet reportedly given toto and driven by Herb Thomas. This hot Hornet, No. 92, was the role model for Doc Hudson in the Disney/Pixar movie CARS.

Herb Thomas’s career included being the first three-time winner of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Thirty-eight of his 48 wins were in the Hudson Hornet.

Hudson’s racing program was directed by Hudson engineer V. W. Piggins, who left the company when it became American Motors. Piggins headed up Chevrolet’s performance efforts which included the 1955 introduction of the small-block V-8. The museum race car, with its bumper sticker “I’m not speeding. . .I’m qualifying,” was invited to an Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.

In the early 1950s California equated glamor, and Hudson followed suit with the 1952 Hornet Hollywood. The two-door 1952 hardtop in the museum has a 160-horsepower 308-inch engine with Hudson’s Twin H-Power dual carburetor. It retailed new beginning at $3,071. The loaded model in Ypsilanti has an additional $500 in equipment and accessories, including a $95.94 eight-tube radio, directional signals, an outside mirror, white-wall tires and the Twin H-Power ($85.60).

A black, red and white top-of-the-line 1957 Hudson Hornet with 255-horsepower V-8 has a number of impressive features including Solex glass, reclining seats/twin travel beds, “bonderite” rust proofing undercoating. It apparently spent many years in the back of a body shop, bumped up by its earlier owner but rust-free.

The 1951 Kaiser Special Traveler Vagabond is an earlier example of a utility vehicle that could haul goods or be used as a camper.

Among the engines and transmissions on display at the museum is a Hudson Invader 168. The Hudson Motor Car Company manufactured some 4,000 of these giant 997.8-inch sixes during the Second World War to power landing craft and crash boats. The 250-horsepower engine, with several aluminum parts, featured two spark plugs per cylinder. Its peak torque was an impressive 754 lb. ft. @ 1,400 rpm.

The marine engine was donated to the museum by the late Charlie Regnerus, a Hudson collector and owner of Alter Collision Inc. in Detroit, Mich.