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Dream machines: A Hudson man for all time
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Dream machines: A Hudson man for all time

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Charlie Nau rode home from the hospital in a Hudson automobile. He’ll probably ride to the mortuary the same way.

The challenge will be picking one. He’s got 15 to choose from, lovingly garaged in a 6,000-square-foot building on Mullan Road signed Charlie’s Hudson Collection.

“I’ve got a very understanding wife,” Nau said of Patricia, his bride of 32 years. “She calls this my toy barn. But a guy’s got to collect something.”

The toy barn isn’t a business or museum, although Nau loves to show his fleet to fellow collectors and fans when he’s not running his construction business. He especially likes the children who realize his favorite car inspired Doc Hudson, Paul Newman’s animated character in the Pixar movie “Cars.”

A vintage ’57 Hudson looks like a sharp-dressed gangster. Its tail fins evoke an Italian-tailored, double-breasted suit. It has little pocket-handkerchief details like Venetian blinds in the rear window and two-tone upholstery. The generosity of its interior space seems a little more than legally allowed. The armrest in the back seat is big enough to support a Monopoly game board.

And who knew there was space between the front grill and the radiator to hide six-packs of beer? Charlie Nau’s teenage friends, that’s who. The half-dozen kids who piled into the cavernous trunk to sneak into drive-in movies.

Ironically, the Montana Highway Patrol liked Hudsons, too. Nau said officers often disconnected the trademark hood lamp to camouflage their nighttime cruising presence.

The MHP started using a few Hudsons in 1936, according to a 75th anniversary commemoration

in the Montana Trooper newsletter. But it mostly stuck with Fords and Buicks. In 1949, the Hudson Motor Co. provided a fleet of Hornets to the agency.

“In 1950, a group of officers flew to Duluth to pick up new various-colored Hudson patrol cars from the manufacturing plant, with many officers stating the Hudsons were the best patrol units in the Patrol’s history,” according to the unsigned Montana Trooper article. “With the Hudsons, it was said that officers averaged 60,000 miles a year and 18 miles per gallon of gas, up from 13 miles per gallon with the Fords. Savings reaped from the lower prices and more economic operating costs associated with the Hudsons enabled the Patrol to buy 47 more FM radios, firearms and other equipment.”

But the Fords and Buicks returned to the MHP lot in 1951.

The company starting having trouble competing with much-larger Detroit manufacturers, and blew much of its reserves designing a compact car called the Jet when everyone else was turning out land-yachts. By 1957, it had run out of corporate gas. Hudson merged with the Nash-Kelvinator Corp., and the whole lot became American Motor Co.

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Now the Naus prowl online sites for rusting Hudsons. In the topsy-turvy antique market, a 1957 Hudson Hornet has a junkyard scrap value of $400. But its wrap-around windshield in good condition can bring $600.

“I go to a junkyard to buy a windshield, and they throw in the rest of the car,” Charlie joked. Finding the chrome trim for the driver’s side door is another challenge. Regular use tends to crimp and roll that strip where the door meets the frame.

“Sometimes I think Hudson went out of business after they ran out of places to hang more chrome,” Nau’s son Terry said, fingering one of the scrunched door decorations. “We’ve got eight or 10 strips for the passenger side in our parts supply, but only one for this side.”

The Hudson Motor Co. never made a pink car. But it was partial to “Ballerina Red,” “Coral Red” and “Sierra Ranch.”

“They wanted a dude to be able to say, ‘I’m not driving a pink car,’ ” Terry said, pointing to three of his not-really-red paint jobs. “You’ve got to man up to drive something that pink.”

He’s happy to do so, trying to put at least 1,000 miles a year on each of his 15 classic autos. In the garage, they sit plugged into battery trickle-chargers to keep their amps up. Even in the cold weather, most start with a single turn of the key.

“If you don’t drive them, you ruin them,” Charlie said. “It’s like a body sitting in a chair. After a while, you can’t get out of the chair. The gas lines go bad. The radiator rusts out. The rubber cracks. You’ve got to keep them moving.”

Restoring a junkyard Hudson takes hundreds of hours and about $20,000. There are rats’ nests to remove, frames to rebuild, knobs to replace and rust to repair. Hudson often used distinctive fabric on its seats, including a “lollipop” motif that must be custom matched.

Terry Nau also got a birthday ride home from the hospital in a ’57 Hudson, and caught his father’s infatuation.

“There’s something about it when you drive one of these,” Terry said. “There’s no effort. It’s like sitting on a couch, floating down the road.”

Terry bought one of his father’s Hudsons at 15, before he could legally drive. Father and son attend six to eight classic auto shows a year throughout the West.

“Why else would you own one?” Charlie said. “You bust your knuckles getting them to this condition. The driving is the enjoyment.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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