When John Upchurch asked me to speak at an International Car Conference that he and his wife were directing, I agreed. They’re nice people and it meant a July trip to Chattanooga. I thought it was a collection of vintage cars.
It wasn’t until I pulled into the big parking lot of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo and saw the cars that I got excited, my sense of history and personal connections kicking in. It was the annual event for those who collect Hudsons and they had all brought their cars. Oh. My. Goodness. The Hudson Motor Company is part of the foundation of my life, even though I was born years after the last one was produced.
“I didn’t realize it was exclusively for Hudsons,” I exclaimed. I marveled over the restored beauties and their owners, one an old crew chief friend of mine from NASCAR, was proud to show them off.
When I began working in NASCAR racing in the mid-’80s, folks still talked about the Hudson Hornet with respect and awe. In the early 1950s, this super-engineered, slick car had ruled the sport — the Hudson won 27 of 34 events in 1952 — with drivers like Tim Flock and Herb Thomas, both future NASCAR Hall of Famers. Hudson was the first car company to make stock car racing an integral part of its marketing efforts so it was the first to have factory-backed teams. By the way, it is said that Thomas was the inspiration for Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman) in the animated film, “Cars.”
Long before Chevrolet and Ford got the marketing message, Hudson proved the adage, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” All car manufacturers have played a part in NASCAR but Hudson was the grandfather, the innovator. The first who came, saw, believed and conquered.
I interviewed Tim Flock once when I was a young reporter. I found him, of all places, parked with his RV in the front parking lot of Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was mostly forgotten by then except for die-hard fans, but I knew he was a legend. We settled under a shade tree and Flock, still very handsome in his mid-60s, talked about his Hudson Hornet like it was the love of his life, the one that got away. He also raced with a monkey, Jocko Flocko, who became the only winning monkey in stock car history when they won together at Hickory Speedway.
And, if that isn’t enough of a connection, I owe a piece of my heart to the Hudson Motor Company, the piece that is embedded on Sea Island, Georgia. Howard Coffin, an early car engineer, put a new car company together in 1909 with the financial backing of the department store merchant, Joseph Hudson (now Target). Smartly, they decided to name the car after Hudson, reasoning that the fairly new-fangled invention would suffer sales if named the Coffin, after Howard.
By 30, Coffin was a millionaire. During the winter months, he and other automotive manufacturers went to sunny, warm Savannah to race and test cars. Coffin fell in love with South Georgia and purchased Sapelo Island. It became his much-beloved home. Later, he and younger cousin, Bill Jones, bought Sea Island, strengthened a causeway, and broke ground on the original, luxury Cloister hotel. When the Depression threatened, they invited R.J. Reynolds Jr., a newly minted millionaire from his father’s estate, down to consider investing. Reynolds made a hard bargain — he’d only buy Sapelo, not invest in Sea Island. Coffin, heart-broken to lose Sapelo, took the deal and saved one of the most storied places in America.
While Hudson gave the first big boost to NASCAR, it was, ironically, the R.J. Reynolds company that would take hold of it in the 1970s as the series sponsor and launch it into its greatest fame.
Isn’t it funny how paths cross?
Ronda Rich, author of “What Southern Women Know,” writes the Dixie Diva column that appears in several newspapers.