For Jay Leno, the Hudson Hornet Really Is Fabulous

Usually, the phrase ‘celebrity cars’ refers to the cars celebrities own. But a few cars are stars in their own right—and not just the ones in Fast and Furious. There’s Herbie the Love Bug and James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, just for starters. And recently, Jay Leno took a look at the real version of another car celebrity: a 1953 Hudson Hornet.

Long before Cars, the Hudson Hornet had the stuff to be a NASCAR champion

You’re likely familiar with the animated version of the Hudson Hornet: Doc Hudson, aka ‘The Fabulous Hudson Hornet.’ But, while the late Paul Newman brought the character to life on the big screen, the car Doc’s based on has its own venerable history, MotorTrend reports. And, just like the movie character, a lot of it has to do with NASCAR.

The 1951-1954 Hudson Hornet was arguably one of the most forward-thinking American cars at its release, Hagerty reports. Chiefly because of its ‘step-down’ unibody design, Road & Track explains. At the time, most cars, American and otherwise, were had body-on-frame chassis. But Hudson, inspired by the European Tatra T87, decided to go unibody, AteUpWithMotor reports.

A green 1952 Hudson Hornet Twin-H Power
1952 Hudson Hornet Twin-H Power | Bring a Trailer

The ‘step-down’ frame gave the Hudson Hornet several advantages over its contemporary rivals. Firstly, it meant the car and its beltline could be lower, making it look sleeker, Hagerty explains. That also meant the center-of-gravity was lower, which improved its handling. And finally, it made the Hudson Hornet several hundred pounds lighter than its contemporary American rivals.

As a result, the Hudson Hornet dominated NASCAR circuits in the early 50s, Autoweek reports. In 1952 Hornets won over 79% of that year’s races. And it’s still tied with Toyota and Oldsmobile as the third most-successful manufacturer, the NASCAR Hall of Fame reports. Hence why Doc Hudson has the ‘Fabulous’ moniker: that was the racing Hornets’ appellation.

Marshall Teague's 1951 Fabulous Hudson Hornet NASCAR race car at Daytona
Marshall Teague’s 1951 Fabulous Hudson Hornet NASCAR race car at Daytona | ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Unfortunately, the Hudson Hornet was held back by one thing: its engine. Unlike its rivals, Hudson never gave the car a V8. Admittedly, the brand’s inline-6 engines were reliable and smooth, The Drive reports. And in ‘Twin-H Power’ trim, powerful for their day. But the lack of a V8 kept buyers away.

However, it doesn’t bother Jay Leno in the slightest.

For Jay Leno, the 1953 Hudson Hornet showcases one of the best eras for American cars

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Jay Leno’s 1953 Hudson Hornet coupe is one of the Twin-H Power cars. As a result, it has a 5.0-liter inline-6 rated at 170 hp, Hagerty reports. According to Jay Leno, it was the most powerful American-made six-cylinder engine at the time. It actually made slightly more horsepower than Oldsmobile’s ‘Rocket 88’ V8.

But for Jay Leno, it’s not the power that impresses him most about the Hudson Hornet, but the handling. The 1953 car “just barely” pre-dates power steering and power brakes, which means you can “feel the road” properly. Even today, the Hornet handles fairly well for its size and age. In fact, it handles so well that Leno almost didn’t get the first Hornet he owned back from the impound yard after it had been stolen. That’s because one of the cops working there wanted it so badly.

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Jay Leno actually owns two Hudson Hornets. His 1953 coupe is fairly stock, apart from a modern alternator and radiator. It’s a durable car with a generous trunk and a comfortable and high-quality interior. There’s plenty of real chrome and stainless-steel trim inside and out, and the car has a radio, a clock, and a heater.

Admittedly, the radio is a bit old-school, as is the 3-speed column-mounted automatic with overdrive. But the Hudson Hornet does have a back-up mechanical system for the hydraulic brakes, The Drive reports. True, the controls feel a bit heavy at parking-lot pace. But at speed, it handles well and rides comfortably. Back in the 50s, being behind the wheel of a Hudson Hornet was “living the American Dream,” Jay Leno says. And it’s still a dream worth experiencing today.

Star factor hasn’t changed its attainability

Although Cars has undoubtedly raised the Hudson Hornet higher in the public consciousness, prices haven’t necessarily reflected that. In fact, Hagerty reports values have been going down over the past few years.

The green-and-tan front bench seat and dashboard of a 1952 Hudson Hornet Twin-H Power
1952 Hudson Hornet Twin-H Power interior | Bring a Trailer

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Admittedly, celebrity-owned and convertible examples can command high prices. For example, the 1953 Hornet sedan formerly owned by Steve McQueen sold for $165,000 at a March 2019 RM Sotheby’s auction. But most examples sold through RM Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Bring a Trailer go for less than $30,000. A good-condition Hornet is a $15,000-$20,000 car, Hagerty reports, with a pristine one valued at about $45,000.

Sounds like just what the Doc ordered.

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