How to Start and Drive a Hudson Hornet

My understanding is there are a lot of people out there for whom driving a car from the mid-20th century is an oddity, a curiosity, or a life experience they can't relate to. This is for the non-experts, and non-Hudsonites to get an idea of what it's like.

There are some significant differences between driving the Hornet and most other cars you come across today. Some of them are just because there are sixty-six years between the Hudson and the 2019 model year. Others are Hudson-specific. Many people who I've talked to have said that they would feel intimidated driving my car (whether that's because of its perceived complexity or obvious value to me). So, for those who just want to know how it's done: here is how you start and drive a Hudson Hornet.

The Gauge Cluster, Switches, and Controls

Open the door, slide onto the bench seat, and sit behind the [massive] steering wheel. For those who haven't experienced it before, it feels like you have a whole lot of room at your disposal, almost like there should be more matter occupying the space around you. In front of you is probably the shiniest dashboard you've ever seen. It's simple, and probably slightly familiar.

From left to right above the steering wheel you have:

From left to right under the steering wheel you have:

Also, underneath the dashboard on the left there is a parking brake handle and hood latch release and on the right there is an arm which raises and lowers the fresh air cowl vent. Think of it as "recirculate" in more modern vehicles. If you're looking for the turn signal lever it's the tiny stick to the left of the steering wheel. The indicator is the little yellow light on the far left of the dash. There's only one so it flashes when you're signalling left or right. We also added our own air conditioning system, something Hudsons never came with from the factory.

Dual-Range Hydramatic

The first thing that might confuse some folks when they first see the car running is the shift lever. Many Hornets came with three-speed manual transmissions that were shifted from the column (overdrive was an option). However, lots of owners paid extra for the optional "Dual-range Hydramatic", a fully automatic transmission from General Motors. Truly, this car has a 4-speed automatic that requires no manual shifting during normal use, making it that much easier to take a boatload of people to get milkshakes.

Behind the steering wheel is a shift indicator that deviates from the "PRNDL" pattern most folks are familiar with. From left to right (shift arm fully at the top to arm fully towards the bottom), the 'gears' are:

Neutral isn't just a mid-way point between reverse and drive in this car. It's a necessity. With automatic Hornets (and Hydramatics in general), neutral is used to start the car. There is an electric lockout preventing the car from being started in any gear but neutral, so you do have to put the car in neutral before you turn the key (if you're on a hill put your foot on the brake or engage the parking brake).

Drive is split into 4-Dr and 3-Dr, which basically decides whether the transmission utilizes high gear. In the owner's manual, Hudson recommends using 3-Dr for driving around town (as the low RPMs delivered by high gear means unnecessary shifting in and out of 4th gear) and 4-Dr for highway driving. It really depends on what speed you're going to be driving at but there isn't anything wrong with driving around in 4 all the time. I typically leave it in 4th at sustained speeds above 45MPH. You can switch between these gears any time while moving.

Low gear basically locks the transmission in 2nd gear so you don't spin the wheels. The owner's manual says this is for pulling out of sand or dirt if you get stuck.

Reverse works just about how you might expect but with an added catch: if the engine is off it acts as park. That's right. When you turn the car off you can put it in reverse and the transmission will engage a lock pin to prevent the car from rolling. You can't start the car in this gear because of the lockout however so you have to shift into neutral to start the car. So for starting, put it in neutral, for stopping, put it in reverse.

Choke and Gas

For cold starts, our Hornet (and I believe this was common for other Hudsons of the time) is equipped with an automatic 2-stage choke. Push the pedal all the way to the floor once to set the choke. After the car has started and has warmed up, kick the gas quickly to the floor and release to cancel the choke.

For warm starts the engine doesn't need the choke but likes to be given just a little bit of gas while cranking.

The Keys, Ignition, and Warning Lights

Hudsons like mine come with two keys. The octagonal one is for starting the car, it's used in the ignition. The round one is used for the door and trunk locks (and I believe in my case the glove box). My understanding is this is actually reversed from the majority of Hudsons and is due to a locksmith error at one point or another.

The ignition switch sits so that the teeth of the key enter vertically. Turning the key left powers accessories like the radio. Turning the key right once switches the car to "ON" which will allow the engine to be started and remain running.

Here's where some things may vary depending on the year of the car. For '51 Hornets, there's a separate starter button located all the way on the left control pod. For these cars, you put the key in and turn it to "ON", and then press and hold the button until the car has started up. For '52 Hornets onwards, the ignition switch also activates the starter if you turn the key past "ON" (like in most modern vehicles).

If you turn the key to "ON" you'll see two red warning lights appear on the dash next to the indicators marked "AMP" and "OIL". These are [alternator] charging status and oil pressure status lights. Our car is equipped with a 12-V alternator system so the AMP light really comes on if there is low voltage while the oil pressure light comes on when there's low oil pressure. These lights will only appear with engine off, key "ON" or if something has gone very wrong.

Starting and Driving

So now that I've gone over the basics of all the components, here is the normal starting procedure. It actually varies depending on whether the engine has been warmed up. That's life with carburetors.

From cold:

From warm:

Stopping and Parking

Note: I usually engage the parking brake AND put the car in reverse, just to be safe. If you had to pick one however I would use the transmission in case you're on a steep hill and your brakes fail for whatever reason.

And there you have it! Not much is different from most cars around today but there are one or two quirks (more about old cars than about Hudsons in particular). The only major thing to keep track of while driving is that you have no power steering, so get ready to anticipate turns sooner and use more of the wheel with every turn.