Driving the 1949 Hudson Commodore Derelict Coupe by Icon

Driving the 1949 Hudson Commodore Derelict Coupe by Icon

The long, black coupe sits in a pool of sunlight washing down through a gap in the overpass above us. The engine burbles a classic V-8 refrain from hidden tailpipes as the headlights and hood ornament glow like candles in a winter window. An elbow rests on the open window sill, but the driver is obscured by deep shadow. Surely, we’ve either stepped back in time or onto the set of a film noir.

Then, all hell breaks loose.

The engine roars, its supercharger screaming over the exhaust careening off the concrete walls. The spinning rear tires compete in the race to damage our hearing as the car becomes one with a cloud of smoke, then emerges from it in a fury.

This isn’t the 1940s, that’s not Humphrey Bogart, and that’s no ordinary hot rod. It’s the 1949 Hudson Derelict coupe by Icon.

The exhaust note was the tell. It wasn’t the smooth hum of a Hudson straight-eight, and it sure wasn’t the straight-six that accompanied this 1949 Commodore down the factory floor. No, the syncopated mumbling that presaged the verbal assault could only be a Chevy V-8. But this is no carburated 350-cubic-inch crate motor, either. It’s a 638-horsepower LS9 from a C6 Corvette ZR1.

But wait, is this a Hudson, a Chevrolet, or a Derelict? ¿Porque no los tres? The same year MotorTrend was founded, this 1949 Hudson Commodore Six rolled out of the company’s Detroit factory with all of 121 hp and a “Drive Master” automated three-speed manual transmission. Seven decades later, Jonathan Ward—Icon founder and the calf muscle behind the auditory onslaught—would pull it out of a barn and nearly sextuple its horsepower under his Derelict line of pseudo-preservation hot rods. It might look nearly original and it fully embraces its three historical generations of patina. Beneath the crackled paint, though, it’s anything but.

Derelict Duty

The Derelict story began 20 years ago when Ward salvaged a 1952 Chrysler Town & Country Wagon, which he would eventually build up into his personal project. Ward’s vision was a thoroughly modern car underneath a carefully preserved, protected, and lightly but discreetly modified body and interior. Sealing the failing paint under a protective coating and leaving the hazy, pitted chrome be, he named it the Derelict—even if it was only true of the look. Replete in its 1952 DeSoto Custom Sedan front clip, the car was an instant hit and was even featured on an episode of MotorTrend’s Head 2 Head.

This Derelict, the 19th in the series, has a similar backstory. It was pulled out of a North Carolina barn rather than a Southern California backyard and was commissioned with a simple request from its future owner: Make me a car I can bar-hop around Nashville. The buyer didn’t even specify the car, just the era. Ward sold him on the Hudson with the help of the owner’s son, who immediately recognized the resemblance to Doc Hudson from the original Cars movie (Doc was a 1951 Hudson Hornet, derived from the Commodore). Ward had been wanting to do a Hudson after he put a Tesla Model S powertrain in a 1949 Mercury, the most famous of the “lead sled” trifecta (the other being the 1949 Ford to which the Mercury was related). Now Ward had his chance.

More than anything, though, Ward had a headache. The third-generation Commodore is best known for pioneering what we now call “unibody” chassis design. Hudson called it “monobuilt” officially and “step-down” casually, but the idea was simple: Instead of setting the body on top of a ladder frame like other vehicles of the time, Hudson made the frame rails pooch out and run around the perimeter of the cabin, under the doors instead of straight under the cabin. This allowed the company to lower the body, the roof, and the seats, giving the car a shockingly low stance by the standard of the day. It also made the car exceptionally strong for the time and safer in a crash. Modern cars still use roughly the same design.

For Ward, this meant he couldn’t just lift off the body and set it on an Art Morrison ladder chassis as he does with most of his projects. Thankfully, Art Morrison also does separate front and rear subframes with independent suspensions. After a lot of engineering work, Icon’s builders grafted the subframes onto the Hudson.

You won’t see any of these details without crawling under the car, and that’s not easy, as low as it sits. Lie on the ground and peek up; you’ll find a modern multilink design in the rear and control arms in front, both supported by coilover springs and shocks. A traditional hot rodder might’ve slammed it to the ground, but Ward has a rule: Any car he builds has to be able to pull up to a parking stop or curb without any risk of damage. Even on Icon-designed 18-inch forged aluminum wheels (made to look like old four-point steel rims) hiding behind the original hubcaps, the Hudson looks the business.

“We lost one showing it up at Pebble Beach,” Ward said of the hubcaps. “We had an original set, and you can’t find these. We put out the word, and a couple guys around the country actually dug original hubcaps out of their barns and sent them to us. Then, somehow, word got around and somebody knew somebody who’d found our hubcap on the side of the road and got it back to us. So now we’ve got all the originals back on the car and a complete backup set.”

Derelict Details

Aside from the wheels, which are so subtle you’d easily miss them, the exterior only has two other giveaways, each in a pair. The most obvious are the copper Derelict badges behind the front wheels. The others are a pair of badges on the doors, just under the windows etched with the letters BAM. No, those aren’t the owner’s initials. They stand for, you guessed it, “Bad-Ass Motherf***er.” But why?

“The previous owner was JC Whitney crazy,” Ward said. Aftermarket visors on the windshield and door windows were removed, along with a grille guard for a Pontiac. They all came off easily, but the badges glued to the doors didn’t. The adhesive had damaged not only the paint but the metal underneath. Patching and painting to match the patina would be next to impossible, so Ward suggested covering the holes. The badges are machined stainless steel aged with acid and sealed with museum wax to give them a period look.

“They looked totally out of place, brand-new stainless on this car,” Ward said. “We tried everything; hockey-pucking them across the shop. Only the acid worked.”

The only other exterior modification is a period-correct aftermarket three-in-one brake lamp, and turn signals mounted between the rear bumper and trunk lid. If you didn’t know it wasn’t stock, you wouldn’t suspect it. That worked for Ward.

Hudson Looks, Corvette Power

What was under the hood didn’t. Specifically, there was nothing under the hood, but it wouldn’t have mattered if the famous Hudson six was there or not. Icons get big power. In went the supercharged LS9, racy dry-sump oiling system and all.

“I’m never doing a dry-sump again,” Ward said. “It was a huge pain in the ass. There’s a reason most builders just put a regular pan on the engine.”

The sump, along with the battery, engine computer, fuse box, and other electronics hide behind a false panel in the trunk. Under the hood, most of what you see is a modern engine and empty space. Typically, Icon would put period-style valve covers on the LS, but the customer didn’t want them. Look closer, though, and you’ll see more of Icon’s handiwork. The Wilwood brake master cylinder that drives the Icon-specific Brembo brakes is obvious, but look again and you’ll see the struts flanking the engine. The Commodore may have been strong for 1949, but this is 2020 and the chassis has to control 517 more horsepower. Look really closely, and you might notice the cable-operated windshield wipers are driven by a modern motor.

“I couldn’t get rid of that system,” Ward said. “It’s too cool. So we just upgraded it.”

Behind the engine is a GM 4L85-E electronically controlled four-speed automatic. Ward wanted to keep it an auto rather than cut up the floor, and he has an affinity for the 4L85. “Four gears is enough,” he said. “Six is too many. So is five.”

Icon-ic Insides

Modern touches are far harder to spot inside the car, in the finest Icon tradition. Aside from Ward’s trademark cast lizard statue on the dash, the gimmes are the carpets and floormats, German wool trimmed in leather that’s cut in ways it wouldn’t have been in the 1940s (with modern noise insulation and heat shielding hiding beneath). If you’re not familiar with the period, the seat covers and door cards might fool you, but each consists of hand-sewn leather with painted alligator skin inserts. Tailoring is a new hobby and side hustle of Ward’s, and he stitched these personally. The cupholders on the transmission tunnel are designed to look like a period aftermarket part, but these pieces are new, too.

Only a Hudson expert will spot the other big changes. The speaker grilles aren’t original; they’re sand-cast copies of a vintage aftermarket piece Ward had been saving. The steering wheel is an original piece, mostly. The translucent blue rim really was offered on high-trim Commodores, but it’s been recast. Ward also used the opportunity to shrink the wheel diameter to a more comfortable 16 inches, “so it’s not in your lap.” With power steering, a bus-sized wheel isn’t necessary anymore. It’s connected to a reproduction vintage-look steering column that tilts, too.

The air vents are harder for even the experts to spot. The spear-like trim piece running across the bottom of the dash was originally a solid piece, but Icon replicated it in aluminum and added vents with laser-cut vanes and controls that hide 3D-printed ducts. The simple control knobs in the center are modern replicas with new lettering to reflect their functions: headlights, fan speed, vents, temperature, and wipers.

“The originals actually didn’t line up right,” Ward said. “They were too close together and the mechanisms behind them didn’t fit, so they were all off. The design was probably rushed into production because it was never corrected.”

Above them, the original radio is still in place, but it’s been gutted and fitted with modern components. Forget AM—pushing any preset activates the Bluetooth connection. You select the song on your phone; the left knob controls volume, and the right handles treble/bass balance. A subwoofer also hides in the trunk with the battery.

Similarly, the original hand brake lever actuates an electric parking brake.

The original instruments have been gutted and retrofitted, too. It’s one of my favorite Icon details, and it’s deceptively simple. Stepper motors are attached to the backs of the needles and run by a microcontroller with data from the engine computer. In this case, though, to retain the odometer functionality and the bounciness of old gauge needles, Ward used a device that attaches the stepper motors to old-fashioned cable drives that interface with the old gauges. As someone who hates the way modern gauges look in vintage cars, this warms my heart like Ward warming the tires.

Derelict Driving

Being the builder of the car and ultimately responsible for it, Ward is happy to beat on it more than I am. He charged the guy something like $560,000 to build it; selling my house wouldn’t put that much cash in my pocket. He rips the burnouts, and I’m satisfied with the freeway pulls. Out there, it feels damn quick for an old car, though not like a C6 ZR1. Makes sense, since this car is, by Ward’s estimate, 1,000 pounds heavier. Even so, a word to the Nashville car scene: Don’t try to stoplight drag this car. I keep it under 100, where the original dial speedometer runs out. Fun detail: It reads in single digits, so you have to mentally add a zero to each numeral. I thought it was the tach at first. Ward has taken it faster, but burying the needle messed up the calibration, so I save him another headache.

Leaving the highway, I duck through a foothill town and into the mountains north of Simi Valley. I know from driving the Art Morrison chassis in the Derelict Chrysler/DeSoto Wagon years ago that Icon’s cars can handle. But bench seats aren’t conducive to cornering, nor is the still-big steering wheel.

I can sense the car will turn a lot harder than I’m pushing it around these guardrail-free mountain bends. But I’d be trying to hang onto the door with one hand and palming the wheel with the other, which doesn’t seem like the smartest idea. The steering wheel has a little play on-center—enough to fool you into thinking it isn’t modern rack-and-pinion—but once you’re turning, it’s precise.

The brakes don’t mind the car’s roughly 4,300-pound curb weight nor the nearly 100-degree temperature outside. The engine doesn’t mind the heat, either, running a constant temperature whether I’m pushing or cruising.

Cruising, really, is what this car does best. The springs and dampers are on the soft side, allowing it to float down the highway and gently bob up and down with the bigger bumps and dips.

The Derelict feels the way you wish classic cars drove, the way you’d like to imagine they drove when new (but in reality didn’t). That’s because Icon uses modern suspension design, modern power steering, and a modern engine.

In that way, it’s my ideal restomod. I love vintage cars, but they’re painfully slow by modern standards, don’t stop worth a damn, and even the sporty ones don’t really handle that well. I want the look, inside and out, but I want it to drive more like a modern car. I want it to be reliable like a modern car. I want everything to work every time. I want this car. Or maybe the original Derelict. No, what I really want is the Volvo 1800 sunbathing in Ward’s lot, waiting on a new commission after the last one fell through. Just gotta sell the house first.

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