Hudson Plant, Part 1: "That's Terraplaning"

Though it has been utilized by various other companies over its lifespan (including Cadillac and Doverspike), this massive Albert Kahn-designed factory on Detroit's east side at Gratiot & Conner Avenues was primarily known as the Hudson Motor Car Co. Body Plant. This is significant, because Hudson Motors is perhaps best known for the innovations they pioneered in automotive body construction, as I will soon explain over the course of this two-part post.

You may remember my talking about this plant in an older post from 2008 about being hunted by feral dogs in the woods next to it, where temporary housing once stood. It was because of that incident that I stayed far away from the Hudson body plant for several years, only going back after it was clear that many others had been going there with no apparent dog incidents.

One of the first things I found upon my first visit inside this plant was the remains of a dead dog...I was never so relieved to see a corpse in my life.

Hudson's main assembly plant was on Jefferson Avenue at Conner, next to Chrysler Motors and Continental Motors, but nothing remains of it today. According to the book Fun at Work, Hudson Style: Tales from the Hudson Motor Car Company by Harry F. Kraus, the Jefferson Avenue plant was torn down after the merger with Nash in 1956 when all production was moved to Wisconsin. Kraus stated that several demolition contractors went broke in the attempt to level the stoutly-built old monster.

Thankfully there is still this old body plant left to visit. The Detroit Historical Society has a historic postcard image that shows all three Hudson manufacturing facilities (the body plant is shown at bottom of card).

But the Hudson story actually starts with Ford, and a neglected 110-year-old brick building on Mack Avenue. According to Robert Szudarek's book How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, Alexander Y. Malcomson started his own car company in 1905, the Aerocar Company, after being asked to resign as treasurer and director of the fledgling Ford Motor Co. due to disagreements over whether Ford should build expensive or affordable cars.

The Aerocar factory was built at 6501 Mack Avenue—across the street from Henry Ford's own plant. That Ford plant burned down in 1941, but the Aerocar plant still stands today and is one of the few remaining examples of that first generation of brick-and-timber automobile factories that were erected in Detroit prior to the dawn of Albert Kahn’s reinforced concrete super-factories:

Aerocar offered three models starting at $1,500, but the company was not successful and production stopped by 1908 (he should've went with Ford's idea of making affordable cars!). A great post with some historic photos of that plant is available at Malcomson sold the Aerocar building to J.L. Hudson, the owner of Detroit's famous Hudson's department store, and the first Hudson Motors cars rolled out of that building in 1909.

According to Robert Szudarek, the Hudson board of directors was made up of Joseph L. Hudson, Hugh Chalmers, Roscoe E. Jackson, Howard E. Coffin, Frederick O. Bezner, Roy D. Chapin, James J. Brady, Lee Councelman, and George W. Dunham. Roy Chapin and Howard Coffin had formerly been involved with the Olds Motor Works before it moved to Lansing, and Hugh Chalmers was at the helm of Chalmers Motor Corp.

Mr. Chapin took the reigns of organizing the Hudson Motor Car Co., since J.L. Hudson was content to merely be its primary financier.

The Detroit Historical Society says that Hudson Motors sold 4,000 of their four-cylinder models in their first production year—the highest number of first-year sales of any car company to that point, a feat which attracted a lot of attention in the industry. By 1910 Hudson was 11th-largest carmaker in U.S. (back when there were over a hundred), and they built their new giant factory at Jefferson and Conner in 1912, officially entering the big leagues.

From model year 1911 to 1915, Hudsons came equipped with six-cylinder engines made by Continental Motors in a plant across the street, but by 1913 Hudson had designed their own "Super Six," which put them far ahead of the four-cylinder engines commonly used in most other cars of the day. In 1916 the Super Six broke records for the first two-way transcontinental trip, and for the fastest climb of Pike’s Peak. It was used in all Hudsons until 1929.

The comprehensive website lists a few of Hudson's innovations, including the first balanced crankshaft (used in their Super Six), which allowed the engine to run smoother and at higher RPM.

Hudson also introduced the first dual brakes—which activated mechanical emergency brakes when the hydraulic brakes' normal braking application was exceeded. They were also the first manufacturer to put oil pressure and generator warning lights on the dashboard.

Hudson unveiled their Essex brand in 1919 to better compete with Ford and Chevrolet, their two main rivals. Even with the 1919-20 recession allpar says, the new line quickly caught on and began challenging Chevrolet's sales.

Another interesting automotive blog notes that Essex is most famous today for their 1922 model, the first affordable all-steel closed-body car, whose body was built on contract for Hudson by Briggs Body Manufacturing.

The c.1929 Sanborn map labels this plant as the "Hudson Motor Car. Co. Body Plant," and as having been built in sections from 1925 to 1927. Of course, more sections were continually added-on or altered over the course of the plant's life as well.

But as I learned from, this building was originally built by Clayton & Lambert Co., who I talked about in an older post about a different plant on French Road nearby. Clayton & Lambert Co.'s Knodell Division handled all of that company's sheetmetal stamping work, but their biggest outside customer was Hudson—who bought up the Knodell Division in 1929 "to build the first all-steel bodies for Hudson's new 1930 Essex Coach," as well as hoods, fenders, body panels, and die assemblies for both Hudsons and Essexes.

Here it is in aerial view from Bing Maps...notice that the plant was built right over what used to be part of Knodell Street:

Click image for full size.
Another view looking south shows the wooded lot where the aforementioned workers' temporary housing used to be: CLICK HERE

A book by historian Charles K. Hyde, Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors, tells a slightly different version of the story than coachbuilt. It asserts that as part of their drive toward vertical integration and self-sufficiency, Hudson started making their own bodies at this plant as early as mid-1926. Prior to that Hyde says Hudson and Essex had their body work done by Fisher Body Corp. and Briggs Manufacturing Co., while Budd Co. of Philadelphia supplied some steel bodies in 1925, but he does not mention any being done by the Knodell Division of Clayton & Lambert Co.

This plant was built at a cost of $10 million and tooled up to start kicking out 1,500 Essex closed-bodies a day while Briggs would continue handling all other Hudson body stamping needs, Mr. Hyde wrote. Again this arrangement came to an end in mid-1926 when Hudson consolidated all of their body-making operations under this roof (with the exception of a few specialty configurations that were still made by Briggs, or by Biddle & Smart of Massachusetts).

Either way, it seems clear that Hudson made the decision to purchase this plant in order to bring their body-making operations under one roof in a modern structure that was specifically built for the purpose, and I'd say they absolutely made the right move to stay competitive with the giants Ford and GM.

Even though they were more desirable, closed cars were still too expensive back then for most buyers (Cadillac had the first fully-enclosed-body car). But by 1924, because of their advanced manufacturing methods, Hudson's closed-body Essex ended up selling for a few dollars less than their own open touring car model, initiating a sea change in the Detroit auto industry.

According to ateupwithmotor, the market share for open cars shrank to about 10% by 1929, and because of the Essex, Hudson Motor Car Co. briefly ranked third in domestic auto sales, reaching an all-time high of more than 300,000 units that year. Company chairman Roy Chapin was even appointed secretary of commerce to President Hoover. For comparison however, Ford and Chevy were still way out ahead—producing 1.5 million and 1.3 million units respectively—putting Hudson at a very distant 3rd place indeed.

According to an article at, Hudson phased out the Essex nameplate in 1932, and replaced it with the Terraplane brand name. The new brand was even endorsed by Amelia Earhart in high profile advertisements according to, and Terraplanes set many records for speed and endurance. Supposedly the famous aviation pioneer Orville Wright also bought one of the first Terraplanes for himself.

Though I'm not sure where the claim comes from (other than Wikipedia), the 1933 Essex-Terraplane 8-cylinder cars "were believed to have the highest horsepower-to-weight ratio of any production automobiles in the world," and due to their resultant agility (as well as discreet styling), they were allegedly the preferred autos of a few infamous mobsters, including John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and John Paul Chase. I didn't realize they were so scrutinizing in their choice of vehicle as to compare such things as horsepower-to-weight ratios...I guess being an infamous gangster entails a lot of homework.

Incidentally, there also seems to have been a one-hit-wonder 1980s band called Terraplane.

This cavernous hall was where the body plant's massive stamping presses were housed:

Stamping presses are tall machines that dropped a massive weight, forcing a die down onto a piece of sheet steel, driving it into a mold that cut and shaped it into a car fender, hood, trunk lid, or door (Eminem operated one in that movie he made about himself). 

Two extremely large overhead traveling cranes spanned the mammoth, half-mile long bay, though they have lately been cut down for scrap.

Despite being financially wounded by the Great Depression, Hudson continued innovating and upgrading their models throughout the 1930s, to include exceptionally large vehicle interiors, more powerful engines, and column-mounted gearshift levers. In 1940 they added independent front suspension as standard equipment.

I was somewhat amazed to find that some of the old assembly line conveyor machinery still remained in place in this plant:

These pulleys mounted from the ceiling of the third floor here were probably once a big turnaround point in the line:

According to the 1929 Sanborn, the third floor was the "Spray & Enameling" line in those days. It's highly unlikely that this equipment dated all the way back to the Hudson Motor days; they were probably vestiges of Cadillac's more recent use of this plant. Stay tuned to the next part of this series to read the story of this plant's later days.

In another book by Charles K. Hyde entitled Images from the Arsenal of Democracy, he explained that during World War II Hudson received contracts for producing the Navy's Oerlikon guns, the wiring harness and fuselage sections for the B-29 Superfortress bombers, fuselage sections for the Martin B-26 Marauder, wings for the Curtiss-Wright Helldiver, armored cockpits for the Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter, and "Invader" engines for amphibious landing craft.

If you were paying attention to your social media feed in 2015, you might've heard about the "million-dollar" stash of 1990s bush-league hockey cards that were found in this plant. As you can see Detroit is still clearly the land of vast unclaimed riches just waiting to be discovered, and the news touched off a gold rush fever of Johnny Horton-esque proportions:

Where the river is windin', big rookie cards they're findin'
North to Detroit, go north, the rush is on...

But seriously, it was all a complete sensationalization of misconstrued facts, by a British tabloid that got ahold of the story. None of the cards I saw were worth more than a dollar, but I guess if you consider that there was probably 40 zillion of the things sitting in there in boxes they would be worth "a million dollars," if only someone gave a damn about 1990s minor league sports cards—or any collector cards for that matter.

But sadly, this is just another illustration of the fact that Detroit's condition is still fertile soil for sensationalist hack writers to spew misleading pieces with no journalistic merit whatsoever. Worse yet, it showed that once again even the silliest fluff will get carelessly reblogged by even major media outlets such as NBC Sports and Rolling Stone, who were more than happy to cash in on the momentary hype for some clicks without fact-checking it first.

I found out the story about the cards was actually started by an acquaintance of mine, who later told me that the idea was to use the card stash find as a springboard to talk about more substantive things in a real article, but they didn't quite realize at first that they were selling their story to a tabloid, who then of course scrapped most of their ideas and refocused it into a B.S. fluff piece.

It's depressing that the only way for a legitimate story to get carried by the mass media these days is for it to get washed through the tabloids first. One worthwhile blog article did come out of it though, which delved into the question of who the cards belonged to and why they were left behind.

Anyway, an even cooler find than the hockey cards was a couple crates that were still packed with these large wooden blocks, which I believe are actually old modeling patterns for stamping press dies:

If I'm not mistaken, automotive designers created these wooden patterns from their drawings, which then in turn were used to make the steel dies that went into the stamping presses that actually cut and formed the sheet metal parts of the cars themselves. By reading the labels on them, I was able to determine that this particular set was the model from which the 1975 Cadillac's rear window was formed...every 1975 Caddy rolling around out there on the road shares a common parentage with this set of wooden blocks.

It seems like the kind of thing that some artist would find another use for, but alas I am no artist and could not immediately think of a practical reason to make them come home with me, so there they sit.

Unfortunately it would seem that if there was ever a snazzy 1920s-style office wing of this plant like the walnut-paneled Packard Plant had, either GM or Doverspike gut-renovated it sometime in the 1980s or so, and there is nothing photogenic left of it except this staircase:

But periodic renovation is the trade-off of keeping historic buildings occupied.

In one of the rooms I found the stash of blueprints to the plant, and to many of the machines that GM once used here. Most of the prints to the plant itself had already disappeared, but I heisted one that showed a good bird's-eye layout of the plant's buildings, which I promptly passed along to my blueprint guy for flatbed scanning and preservation.

I found an interesting stairway near the back of the factory (far from the plant offices, where architectural decor is usually seen), which had a fancy bannister going down the stairs partway, but it was a standard steel-pipe railing above that:

This steeply-angled structure facilitated connecting the moving conveyor system from the 4th floor to the 1st floor of the plant, while keeping it protected from the outside elements:

Employee locker rooms:

Crossing over the 2nd-floor bridge between buildings, we entered the northernmost building to find this little example of UAW handiwork at the gates:

It's a heraldic sort of shield someone made with the Cadillac Motor Division emblem at the bottom, and the words "YE-OLE TIN SHOP, 7:30 TO 4:00" welded onto its surface, indicating the hours of operation of the metal workers who inhabited this small area of the plant, though it seemed nothing was left behind that I could directly connect to what specifically they might have done in here:

This triangular stairway reminded me a lot of the one by the ramps in the Packard Plant:

It led up to a small little triangular perch at the very southwest corner of the plant, from which there was a nice view:

According to the c.1929 Sanborn map, this building below housed the salvage department, some stamping operations, as well as a "tram charging room":

The brick structure on the corner facing the railroad tracks strikes me as some sort of control tower, perhaps where the foreman of the shipping yard might have sat. Unfortunately the door was sealed so I wasn't able to go inside. There is also an underground pipe tunnel shown on the Sanborn leading to this building from the powerhouse nearby, though this aerial conveyor was probably added later:

The view to the south was dominated by the two brick smokestacks of the now mostly-demolished Federal-Mogul Forge, which I explored in an earlier post:

The downtown skyline, several miles away:

From the roof one can almost see the runways and control tower of Detroit City Airport nearby, which explains the occasional thundering of propeller-aircraft passing over the plant at low altitude:

In high-zoom, you can also see the side of the former D.U.R. Gary Transfer Terminal, which I explored in an older post...the blank space is where the Gary bus garage used to be:

Elsewhere is just the vast sea of Detroit's green canopy, making the plant seem like an industrial island in the wilderness...

I found the roof of this plant to be a fun little place to climb around. This cable tray almost resembles a diving board into the lush jungle:

The highest roof level...

The complex geometrical patterns of factory window monitors themselves have always been a favorite photographic subject for me...

Mmmmmm, geometry....

This "M"-shaped monitor forms the roof over the stamping press hall that I mentioned earlier:

As you can see, most of the window panes have been painted-over in white.

Metal waves on the ocean of industry:

Evening is a beautiful time in this part of the city...

This shed building seen in the next photo with steel Quonset-hut style roofs was probably added in the 1940s or 1950s, and was torn down some time in 2015:

Parts of this top floor are clearly inundated with large amounts of water on a regular basis (as illustrated by these vast carpets of moss), and might even qualify as federally protected wetlands, heh...

The top two floors of the building were added sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, by erecting steel framing on top of the existing roof.

These railings enclose a square hole in the floor that served as a pass-through for the assembly line—either a conveyor or a parts drop was here to facilitate the moving of work from one level of the plant to another:

Seen from below:


Bathed in golden light, sunset is an awesome time to be up here.

I brought an acquaintance from Germany here one evening, and he openly lamented the fact that no one builds factories with huge windows like this anymore—or companies actively cover up the existing windows on their older factories. Clearly this guy was a man after my own heart.

For awhile I was sure this place was going to become the next Packard Plant, in terms of being the de facto free-for-all hangout for every scrapper, graffiti kid, arsonist, and general bozo under the sun.

But despite this place remaining openly accessible for a long time while the Packard became less accessible, the Hudson plant has somehow remained basically untouched. At time of writing, the owners have somewhat better-secured the plant, so that it isn't quite so gaping.

Stay tuned for more.

Sanborn maps for Detroit Vol. 18, Sheets 91-92 (1929)
Fun at Work, Hudson Style: Tales from the Hudson Motor Car Company, by Harry F. Kraus
Images from the Arsenal of Democracy, by Charles K. Hyde, p. 73, 206, 225
Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors, by Charles K. Hyde, p. 124, 138, 158, 164
How Detroit Became the Automotive Capital, Robert Szudarek, p. 108, 192
American Odyssey, by Robert Conot, p. 430, 444

1 comment:

  1. Really nice job. Terrific pictures. Mostly true information but an honest job. Stay tuned for more developments as we start the revitalization process.
    The Owner


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