Frank Spring 1893-1959
|Frank Spring is best known for one of the most distinctive American cars
of the '40s, the "step-down" Hudson, yet his career spanned more than 35 years, and he didn't begin life as a
designer. Born into a wealthy West Coast family, he earned his mechanical engineering degree from the Paris
Polytechnic in 1914, and after service with the U.S. Signal Corps, he became an engineer with the Courier Car
Company of Sandusky, Ohio In the early 1920s he joined the Walter Murphy coach- building company in Pasadena as an
efficiency manager, and in 1924, when Murphy's general manager George R. Fredericks drowned in an accident, Spring
took over as general manager. William Murphy, uncle of coachbuilder Walter, was a friend of the Lelands, which led
to the younger Murphy taking the Lincoln agency for California. In December 1926 they changed the agency to
Hudson-Essex. Possibly Spring had links with I-Iudson already, though this has not been proven. Certainly Murphy
built bodies on Hudson chassis, and in 1931 Spring moved to Hudson. Like Harley Earl, Spring was not a hands-on
designer. Strother McMinn, who worked for him at Hudson, says that he made assignments and supervised the design
activity, but never put pencil to paper. Frank Hershey says that he might specify or indicate a preference, but
never invented a design. He was more interested in gadgets and ingenious constructions than in the overall lines of
the body. In his time at Murphy, he adapted a design by the Swiss coachbuilder Gangloff in which the front and rear
doors were hinged at the B-pillar, allowing the glass drop frames to be very close together. This made for a light
and airy interior with maximum visibility. Spring improved on the Gangloff design by substituting an aluminum
forging for Gangloff's light fabrication. This forging extended to the floor level and helped to eliminate side
distortion of the body, even when the top was removed, as on a convertible sedan. Murphy called such cars "Clear
Vision" models and used the design in sedans, convertible sedans and town cars.
In the late 1920s, ties between Murphy and Hudson grew stronger, and although the coachbuilder continued to do work on prestigious makes like Duesenberg and Cord, it offered a line of "semi-custom" bodies on Hudson chassis in 1928. These included a seven-passenger sedan, a convertible landau sedan, a victoria, a fiexed-head coupe and a rumble-seat convertible coupe. They were all on the long-wheelbase Hudson and were very expensive at $5,000, compared with $1,250 to $1,925 for regular models.
As Murphy had no facilities for any degree of quantity production, the bodies were made by Biddle & Smart to Murphy designs. The idea was that the cars would be sold to "community leaders" in selected areas, so that the general public would be impressed to see a prominent citizen in a Hudson, when he might more usually be expected to drive a Cadillac or Lincoln. The semi-customs were only listed for the 1928 season, but for 1929 similar styles were made for Hudson by Biddle & Smart and by Briggs.
In September 1931 it was announced in the automotive press that Frank Spring had been appointed style engineer at Hudson, though he had, in fact, been working there for several months. Like all other car makers except General Motors, Hudson did not have a styling department up to that date. As Don Butler said in his History of Hudson, "Before styling began to emerge as a necessary factor, stylists were rare, and body engineers applied whatever untrained styling touches they could muster."
Frank Spring's influence at Hudson was first seen in the 1932 models which had slightly V-ed grilles with chromed bars, and a greater slope to the windshield. This was the year that the low-priced Essex "lcrraplane, which had rather similar styling to the bigger Hudsons, was launched. Spring designed one Terraplane sports car with cutaway doors, lightweight fenders and no running boards. Its hood length indicates a straight-eight engine, though officially there was no 'lcrraplane Eight until 1933. However, the sporty body was never put into production in the U.S., although various British-bodied Terraplanes had cutaway doors.
Hudsons were never style leaders in the 1930s, but the company kept up with current trends such as fender skirts (from 1933), while the fencer's mask grilles on the 1936 models were certainly eye- catching. The sports-car-loving Frank Spring would doubtless have liked a lower body line, but Hudson was run by a hat-wearing conservative, Edward Barit who, like Kaufman Keller at Chrysler, insisted on a high roof line. It is all the more remarkable that Barit eventually succumbed to the charms of Frank Spring's most revolutionary car, the so-called "step-down" Hudson, which was launched in October 1947.
THE "STEP-DOWN"HUDSON A good story about the "step-down" Hudson is that Frank Spring built a prototype in 1941, showed it to Edward Barit, who complained that it was too low, and that the car was relegated to the roof of the Hudson factory until after the war, when Spring retrieved it, smartened it up and re- submitted it to Barit who, having driven it, was enthusiastic and ordered it into production. Unfortunately, the timing is all wrong for the story to be true. The first scale model was not made until 1943, and no prototype can have been running until 1945. Spring certainly oversaw the design, as he had done on all Hudsons since 1931, but the actual work should be credited to designers Robert Andrews,
Arnold Yonkers and Bill Kirby, and chief modeler Arthur Michel, all working under Spring's chief assistant Arthur Kibinger. Spring also brought in Englishman Reid Railton, who had built Hudson- powered sports cars under his own name before the war and was the designer of the Land Speed Record car, Railton-Mobil Special. It is not certain what Railton contributed to the design, but Andrews recalled that he was only seen twice in the Hudson studio.
The core of the Hudson design was an engineering feature. The floor was dropped below the frame sides, so that one stepped down over the frame side members on entering, hence the name. The rear wheels were mounted inside the frame members. Around this frame Spring and his team designed a low, six-window, all-enveloping sedan with a short rear deck. It had the lowest center of gravity of any American car. The grille caused some heartache among the stylists, who had come up with a high horizontal shape, gracefully curved at each side and mounted between the headlights. Below was a substantial double-bar bumper with a single central overrider. Management thought it too radical, so the final design ended up with a lower grille derived from the 1946-47 model, with a single bumper and four overriders.
According to Andrews, Frank Spring was aiming at the 1942 Buick as the style to mark, and once he considered that their design was better than the Buick, they could go ahead. One day he came into the office and said, "Well, boys, I have good news for you. Management and I have decided that, as of today, we've passed the Buick." It may seem a trifle unambitious to model a new car on a four-year-old design but, in fact, the 1948 Buicks were little different from the '42s, and there would be no radical change in Buick lines for several years. The Hudson certainly seemed all new, and it attracted rave notices at its launch. "Sparkling style of an advance character," said Automotive Industries, while the normally cautious British The Motor, called it "... something of a sensation... a daringly original innovation which enables an outstandingly low car to be roomy, strong and of normal weight."
Four styles were offered on the 1948 Hudsons - four-door sedan, two-door brougham, two-door club coupe and convertible. Two engines were available, a six and an eight, and two levels of trim, Super and Commodore. The new Hudsons sold very well at first: 143,697 in calendar year 1948; 142,462 in 1949; and 143,006 in 1950. Unfortunately, the semi-unit construction bodies were very hard to restyle in any significant way. The grille was changed for 1951 and again for 1954, and various trim modifications were made, but the same basic shape continued until the end of the '54 season. By then, what had seemed daring and advanced six years earlier was old hat. Rivals had completely new body shells, and even racing successes, and a new 145hp engine could not keep sales up. They dwindled to a miserable 32,287 in 1954, and for 1955 the individual Hudson was no more. The merger with Nash resulted in a "Hash," Nash bodies with Hudson engines.
Alongside the bigger Hudson was a compact car, the Jet, launched in 1953. Spring had ambitious plans for a really striking small car, but the Hudson management decided they wanted something like a scaled-down 1952 Ford, and that is what they got. Some idea of what the original Jet design might have looked like can be seen from the Italia, a limited-production car styled by Spring but built in Italy by Carozzeria Touring. It was intended to be a specialty car in the manner of the Corvette or Thunderbird, but was a fixed-head coupe with seating for four passengers. It is rumored that a free hand with the Italia was Spring's compensation for having his jet design ignored. Although they always watered down his designs, Hudson management did not want to lose Spring to another company. The Italia was quite unlike any previous Hudson, with a sloping hood lower than the fender line, headlights surmounted by hoods which ducted air to the brakes, and a simple mesh grille not unlike a Ferrari. The bumper was sharply raised to a point in the center, making an inverted V, inside of which was a badge. The door tops were extended into the roof line, and the windshield was a wraparound structure with pillars leaning forward. The Borrani wire wheels were partially covered front and rear.
The Italia's engine and chassis came from the jet; in fact, complete jets were shipped to Milan, where the bodies were cut off, leaving only the floorpan, cowl and some bracing at the rear. Hudson ordered 25 Italias from Touring, but it is believed that only 19 or 20 were delivered; at $4,800 they did not sell easily. Spring also designed a four-door version on the Hudson Hornet chassis, called the X- 161. It was planned to be the regular I Hudson sedan for 1957, but the merger with Nash forestalled that idea, and only one X-161 was made. Shortly afterward, Frank Spring died in a 1959 automobile accident; at least it was not in one of his own designs, but a little Nash Metropolitan.
1953 HUDSON SUPER JET FOUR-DOOR SEDAN Hudson's compact car, made in 1953 and '54, was not pleasing to Frank Spring. His plans for a really striking small car were watered down to something like a 1952 Ford. It was made in two-door Coupe-Sedan and four- door Sedan versions, and used a 202-cubic-inch six engine. Jet production was 35,367 for the two seasons. PHOTO: NATIONAL MOTOR MUSEUM, BEAULIEU
1948 HUDSON COMMODORE SEDAN The "step-down" Hudson was a big step forward in design, with the floor dropped below the frame sides and the rear wheels located inside the frame. Body and" frame were combined in what was called Monobilt construction. Frank Spring led the styling team.
Nick Georgano - the Art of the American Automobile
1954 Hudson Italia designed by Frank Spring, built by Carrozzeria Touring
In 1952, the Hudson Motor Car Company was in the throes of their biggest postwar gamble, the Hudson jet. Their chief styling designer, Frank Spring, had been given this assignment. Mr. Spring had left Murphy body for Hudson in the 30's and had been instrumental in winning the company the styling award for 1948 with their famous unibody "Step Down" design which contemporary auto makers all have adopted. Because of financial restraints along with top management's outmoded policies, Mr. Spring's original design was so altered that the final outcome was boxy and Mr. Spring had left Murphy body for Hudson in the 30's and had been instrumental in winning the company the styling award for 1948 with their famous unibody "Step Down" design which contemporary auto makers all have adopted. Because of financial restraints along with top management's outmoded policies, Mr. Spring's original design was so altered that the final outcome was boxy and homely.
The main competition to Nash's Rambler in the compact market was doomed from the start, eventually leading to Hudson's financial demise in 1954. Mr. Spring was so upset at what had been done to his design that serious consideration was given to his departure from the company. In order to placate him the decision was made to allow him to "play" with a design for an Experimental Sports Car. The company also intended to test public reaction to some rather radical styling concepts that might be used later in the decade.
Frank worked closely with Carlo Felice Bianchi Anderloni, chief designer of Touring Body Works of Milan, Italy. Using the Jet chassis, they had the all-aluminum prototype finished and ready to display at dealerships across the country by late 1953.The public was enthusiastic about the car, and permission was soon given to build a second experimental car on a full sized Hornet chassis. The design was similar, but the proportions never seeme suited to 4 doors and the bigger size. Soon after, Hudson commissioned Touring to build what is believed to have been 50 of the smaller cars, then dubbed the "Super Jet", and sent the needed components over to Italy. The first run of cars consisted of 10 units. Small changes were made in the first several cars, but by serial # IT 10003 the cars remained consistent and all carried their new name, Hudson Italia. Bankruptcy and subsequent merger with Nash ended H.M.C.'S commitment to Touring. Any further dealings would have to be made by Touring with the newly formed American Motors. A.M.C. sent letters to all its Hudson dealers announcing that it would take pre-paid orders from customers for the cars remaining in Italy. A deadline was set. Unfortunately, in those days, nobody wanted what was perceived as a loser. When an auto company went broke, their remaining cars depreciated at an alarming rate. Since the Italia was virtually a 1953 Hudson Jet mechanically, and it commanded a price of more than a Cadillac, orders were almost nonexistent by that deadline, and A.M.C. only committed to have another 15 Italias built.
Most of these were sold to the more eccentric customers who lived in the So. Calif. area. Amazingly, of the 26 that were built, 21 have been found to date. It is interesting to note that all but one of the missing 5 are in serial numbers 5 through 10. The two in this group that have surfaced are both in Europe, leading speculation that these 6 cars were never delivered to America. It could have had something to do with Hudson's bankruptcy. The Italia was truly one of the most uniquely designed American sports cars produced during the '50s, which is no doubt why so many survived.
FREDERICK J. ROTH
With the advent of the all-new "Step Down" Hudsons in 1948, the pickup was dropped from the line. However, one experimental "Step Down" pickup was built but apparently never got the go-ahead for regular production by Hudson Motor Car Company executives of the time.
In 1948 Hudson introduced the strikingly advanced "Step-Down" models with streamlined "Monobuilt" unit-bodies. Passengers "stepped down" into their seats, located within the car's massive perimeter frame rails (a safety feature). A lower center of gravity and wider bodies enabled full six-passenger seating. Buyers could choose between a new 262 cubic-inch six cylinder engine or the old reliable straight eight. Pent-up postwar demand helped boost sales to over 100,000 for the first time since 1929.
Hudson introduced the Jet and the Italia in 1953. The Jet, built in 1953-54, was an early "compact car." Despite its excellent quality of construction, its styling was mediocre, and sales were disappointing. The Italia was a limited-production "dream car" with a hand-made body built in Italy on the Jet chassis. Twenty-seven were built in 1953-54; most survive.
The end of the postwar sales boom and increasing competition from the "Big Three" was hard on the seven remaining "independent" auto companies. Hudson merged with long-time rival Nash in 1954 to form American Motors (which survived until the mid-1980's). The 1955 Hudsons shared bodies with Nash at its Kenosha, Wisconsin factory; the Jet and Italia were dropped. As AMC's Rambler grew in sales, Nash and Hudson sales declined, and those nameplates passed into history at the end of the 1957 model year.
The Monobuilt design consisted of a chassis and frame that was combined in a unified passenger compartment, producing a strong, light-weight design, and a beneficial lower center of gravity that didn't effect road clearance. Hudson coined this innovation "step-down design" because, for the first time, passengers had to step down in order to get into a car. Most cars today are still based on the step-down premise
Early 1950s Hudson Hornets may be best remembered for two popular themes-the company's patented "step-down" styling, introduced in '48 on all model's, and stock car racing victories. Racing was an odd crown because Hudson kept producing its L-head straight Six at a time when the V8 was new and hot and coming on strong. Hudson, in fact, desperately wanted a V8, but with the limited budget of a relatively small independent car company, it had to just keep overbuilding the L-head. For '51, the engine had grown to a 308-cu.-in. lion, propelling the fabulous Hudson Hornet to become the king of the stocks. Incredibly, Marshall Teague, who is synonymous with Hudson stock car racing, won 12 of 13 AAA events in 1952. Overall, Hudson won 27 of the 34 NASCAR Grand National races in 1952, followed by 22 of 37 in 1953, and 17 of 37 in 1954. Meanwhile, the step-down design, created by dropping the floorpan, was both functional and stylish. It created a chassis with a lower center of gravity, which helped the car handle well-a bonus for racing. The design also gave the Hudson a lower and sleeker look that was accented by streamlined styling. In the 1948-to-1954 model years, the car's unique, low slung appearance and silky handling earned Hudson an image that–for many buyers–eclipsed luxury marques like Cadillac's.
Oddly, Hudson's racing publicity did not serve it well in showroom sales. Hudson owners, often the country club set, were surveyed in an April 1954 issue of POPULAR MECHANICS and most said that racing wins had not influenced their purchases.
The '54 was the last all-Hudson, Hudson. The company merged with Nash-Kelvinator on May 1, 1954, and the '55 Hudson became a restyled Nash badged as a Hudson. Gone was the innovative step-down styling, although the '54 and earlier models did continue to win stock car races further into the 1950s.
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