The Terraplane

In 1909 a group of businessmen in Detroit formed a company to build cars with the aim of selling them at a price of less than US$1000. That would be equivalent to approximately US$30,000 in 2020.

The problem was that building cars is a very expensive hobby. They needed more finance than they could raise themselves and it was provided by a gentleman called Joseph L Hudson, who owned Hudson's department store in Detroit, which in 1961 was the tallest department store in the world. Monet talks and so The Hudson Motor Car Company became the company's name.

The business was initially very successful and the first car came off the production line at the factory a mere five months later. In the first year over 4000 of them were sold. 1910 sales were 4508 and these increased to nearly 6500 in 1911.

By 1919 a subsidiary company called Essex was formed to build cheaper cars, and 10 years later the two companies combined, with factories in Belgium and England as well as Detroit, built about 300,000 cars in one year, making them the third biggest car manufacturer in America, behind just Chevrolet and Ford.

By 1932 however sales of Essex cars were slipping, and there were price pressures as a result of the 1929 depression, so it was time for a rebranding and a new range of low priced cars that still offered reliability and comfort. What to call the new marque? Aviation was very much in the public eye at the time and the name 'Terraplane' was chosen.

Americans are often great marketeers and the launch of the Terraplane was a magnificent affair. Amelia Erhardt, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, was asked to formally launch the car at a huge party thrown for more than 2000 car dealers from all over America. This was a huge publicity success and within a few years sales of Terraplanes actually exceeded those of Hudsons; a fact that many senior executives of the company were not very comfortable with!

The car was inexpensive, but powerful and it was available in touring, coupe, saloon or convertible format. Build quality was high. Initially a 3.2 litre six cylinder engine was available but the following year a 4 litre straight eight cylinder engine was offered, which gave it a maximum speed of 85 mph with acceleration of nought to 60 in 14.4 seconds. It was claimed that this engine gave the highest power to weight ratio of any vehicle in the world. A fast car a needs good braking system; the Terraplane had a dual system, with a conventional hydraulically operated system as the main brake, and just in case this failed, or was not up to the task, a second manually one operating by cable was provided.

A fast car with good brakes was just what certain segments of society were looking for; particularly the gangsters who seem to infest every city in America at the time! Famous ones such as John Dillinger, who led a gang that was said to have robbed 24 banks and who escaped from prison twice; John Paul Chase, a bank robber, bootlegger and long-term criminal; and Baby Face Nelson, a bank robber who helped John Dillinger escape from jail and who reputedly killed more FBI agents than anyone else all relied on Terraplanes for their getaways and other nefarious activities.

The gangster connection was not the only claim to fame for the Terraplane; in 1933 one of them climbed right up to the top of the highest peak in the north-eastern United States, Mount Washington, with the gearlever fixed in top gear, within 13 minutes and 33 seconds. Before the end of the year the car had broken approximately 50 records for hill climbs.

By 1938 it had been decided to phase the marque out, possibly because it was interfering with sales of the more expensive Hudson cars, and after sales of a reported 280,000 cars the Terraplane name was quietly dropped.