60 years of the Terraplane

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This year represents the 60th anniversary of the Hudson-Essex Terraplane, that American car which was at times underrated but which was such a good performer for a modest price that it was the basis of the sporting Railton.

The new model from the Hudson-Essex Motor Company was christened in the USA on its advent in 1932 by the famous airwoman, Amelia Earhart, who had recently become the first lady pilot, as Mrs Putman, to fly the Atlantic solo. In spite of troubles with its 420 hp engine, her Lockheed Vega managed the trip in 13¼ hours, a record at that time. After this illustrious send off the Terraplane, launched as the Land Plane, sold well, including in Britain, where in 1926/27 the company had set up premises beside the Great West Road at Chiswick, the first factory built in that London location. The first Terraplane had a six-cylinder engine and this was to be developed into two versions of the six, followed by the celebrated straight-eight model, all be it noted with side valves and splash lubrication. The eight-cylinder Terraplane developed some 128 bhp at 4200 rpm in standard form. It had made its appearance at the 1933 Olympia Show with the chassis priced at £440 and a five-seater saloon at £660. In spite of its simple specification, many refinements were added to the 76.2×114.3 mm (4168 cc) engine. The unit was notably light, by reason of advanced American foundry techniques which enabled thin cylinder-block castings to be employed. The chassis was rigid, and in it the power unit was mounted on rubber. The low-pressure lubrication system was so well developed that it sufficed for the accelerative and fast Railtons, which Noel Macklin built around not-very-much-modified Terraplane chassis. George Brough, of motorcycle fame, also used the Essex engine from 1935 for his luxury Brough Superior cars.

When Rolls-Royce bought a straight-eight Essex Terraplane in October 1933 for its Experimental Department engineers to study, it had a rude awakening. Sir Arthur Sidgraves, R-R’s Managing Director, said the Terraplane was so good that it showed up in a very poor light the 20/25 hp Rolls-Royce, although it sold for less than one-third of the price! Later, Rolls-Royce bought a six-cylinder Terraplane to examine and again they were profoundly impressed. The good qualities of this inexpensive American automobile were demonstrated by its successful appearances in some of the major British rallies of the time, driven in some cases by personnel from the Great West Road factory. Before independent front suspension arrived, the Terraplane was sprung on semi-elliptic springs front and rear and the wire wheels took 17×6.5 in tyres. The simple steering gear gave results that belied the standards expected on US cars of the day. The 1934 chassis caused something of a sensation when it was realised that it was to be sold for £230 in six-cylinder form, and only £275 with the straight-eight. Complete cars were available from £295, or with closed bodies from the same modest price, arid the eight-cylinder saloon cost but £385.

The eight-cylinder car weighed only 24.5 cwt with a 9 ft 5 in wheelbase and it was now shod with 16 in tyres. It is remarkable that the admittedly refined splash lubrication system sufficed until the introduction of the Hudson Hornet in 1954, and it was retained for the Railton, which in the case of Charles Follett’s Light Sports Tourer could lap Brooklands at 112 mph. In America the new Terraplane (in later times to be called the Hudson-Terraplane) cleaned up at the famous Pikes Peak Hillclimb, with the fastest ascent, and it went on to break all the US stock car records in its class. The fame of the Railton has somewhat detracted from the merits of the Hudson-Terraplane and there is no need to enlarge on that effective sporting motor car, because Geoff Moore did this in a most interesting article which appeared in Motor Sport, April 1983. But the Railton OC will be honouring the Terraplane at its National Rally on June 28 (see Miscellany).

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