WILCOX — Maybe Mel Falk was watching from Heaven last Saturday when his daughter, Karla Falk Steele, drove his newly restored candy apple-red 1953 Hudson Hornet convertible down Central Avenue.
In 2020, Steele restored the classic car and brought it to Cruise Nite last weekend. Now living in Papillion, she took two lane roads for the trip to Kearney. It took four hours.
“I didn’t trust I-80,” she said.
A lifetime lover of old Hudsons, her father had purchased the Hornet for $85 in 1968. When he retired from teaching in 2015, he at last had the time and money to restore it.
He took it apart. He installed a NOS ‘56 engine. He took the body to a paint shop in Holdrege. But before the car could be put back together, Falk died of a sudden heart attack on April 3, 2016. He was 73. That Hornet was the last car he ever drove.
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“Not only did he leave that car in pieces, but also our hearts,” Steele said.
Falk bought that 1953 Hudson Hornet convertible in 1968 for $85. It didn’t have seats, so he and his wife Susan sat on five-gallon buckets when they drove it around. “That gives a new meaning to ‘bucket seats,’” Steele said.
Susan added, “It was actually pretty fun. It had peace signs painted on the side, and the inside and the top were badly beat up, so he painted it gray to cover the peace signs. Then he put it away. He planned to restore it some day.”
Falk put off that restoration for numerous reasons. He taught. He had a family. He sent his two daughters, Karla and Lynn, to college. “We didn’t go without, but he didn’t have the extra money to restore the Hudson Hornet convertible,” Steele said.
After Falk died, Susan sold other old Hudsons he had owned. She had planned to sell the 1953 Hudson Hornet, too, but nobody wanted to buy it because its parts were packed up in dozens of cardboard boxes.
“We couldn’t guarantee that all the parts were there, and nobody wanted to take on the project because it was such a rare automobile,” Susan said.
Only 20 to 25 Hornet convertibles were manufactured in 1953.
Finally, Steele, who owns an advertising agency in Papillion, decided to restore the Hudson Hornet and pay for it herself.
“What were we going to do with all those pieces and a half-put-together car?” she said.
Through the Hudson Essex Terraplane Club, of which her father was a popular member, she located a man named Russ Maas in Heyworth, Illinois, an chiropractor by day who restores Hudson convertibles on the side.
Before they set out, they scouted for all the parts. “My uncle, Ron Falk, found pieces of that car that we thought we had but didn’t,” Steele said.
One piece came from a car that Falk dug out of a river. “His persistence of saving the parts helped get the convertible to completion,” she added.
In May 2020, Steele and her sister Lynn Lebsack of Kearney loaded all the parts in a U-Haul and drove them to Heyworth, which is 10 miles south of Bloomington in central Illinois.
“COVID had shut everything down. Restaurants weren’t open so when we stopped for lunch, we had to eat in the parking lot,” Lebsack recalled.
After delivering the car in Heyworth, they dropped off the U-Haul nearby. Lebsack’s son Elliot, then 19, drove them back to Nebraska in his Honda. He had followed them to Heyworth in his car for that purpose.
It took Maas 18 months to complete the restoration. One of his employees then transported the Hudson Hornet in an enclosed vehicle to Steele’s home in Papillion.
“When it arrived, I was overwhelmed. I was relieved that it was completed,” Steele said.
Lebsack hurried to Papillion to see the car. As she and her sisters drove it around Papillion, “People were honking and giving us the thumbs up,” she said. The sisters christened it Miss Ruby.
“It was breathtaking, but there was a tenderness about it, too,” Lebsack said. “When you see something your parents had worked so hard for and dreamed about, but didn’t get to see it come to fruition, there was a little bit of heartache, but I am so proud of Karla. The work and time she gave to this really honors Dad.”
Mel Falk always loved Hudsons. He bought his first one, a 1935 coupe, when he was a teenager, trading his electric train to get it. It’s now sitting on the porch at Kitt’s Kitchen and Coffee at 2001 A Avenue. Kitt’s co-owner Brock Arehart, Susan’s brother, purchased it after Falk died.
Falk, his brother Ron and their father Carroll owned more than 100 Hudsons. They kept many cars and parts on property east of the Wilcox-Hildreth Public School in Wilcox. They restored many of them and entered some in parades and car shows.
Falk organized the International Hudson meet in Kearney in 2006 and showed his 1947 Hudson at that event. Falk served in the Nebraska-Iowa Hudson chapter and attended Hudson car meets across the country. He supplied parts and supplies to other Hudson enthusiasts. He loved the history of the Lincoln Highway, too.
“He was a gifted teacher who was beloved by many, but he was really gifted at fixing cars. That was his passion. Hudsons were just something that took with him,” Lebsack said. “He loved them.”
On April 2, 2016, the night before he died, he drove the 1937 Hudson Terraplane owned by his parents, Carroll and Leona Falk, to Wilcox High School because it was prom night, and he thought the students might want to include it in prom pictures. “He was so involved in the community,” Lebsack said. Steele added, “The last car he drove was a Hudson.”
When Falk died, he and his brother had more than 30 restorable cars, but now that figure is down to two. Ron keeps many old parts in Albion, where he lives.
Those cars may be gone, but the memories live on.
The Falks honeymooned in the blue 1954 Hornet Coupe. Falk had purchased it in 1965, the year before his wedding to Susan in 1966. In that car, they brought their babies home from the hospital. They took both daughters to their weddings and later brought grandchildren home from the hospital. They drove it regularly until 1971.
Susan drove that car to her husband’s funeral and burial, too.
The family vacationed in that Hudson and a 1947 Commodore 8 Coupe, in the summers. They took those cars to Hudson car club events in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Houston.
“I remember being stuck on the side of the road with the car overheating one year. There were no cell phones,” Lebsack chuckled.
Susan also remembers riding in the Hudson in the 2013 Lincoln Highway centennial celebration. “Mel had all of us in Hudsons. We had little kids at that point, but it was so much fun,” she said.
Now, that 1954 Hornet Coupe belongs to Lebsack and her husband Grant.
“That car is such a part of our life. We drive it to church on Sunday just to get it out and keep it going,” she said.
She, her mother and other family members joined Steele at Cruise Nite last weekend. Lebsack parked her blue classic car next to her sister’s newly restored car on Central Avenue.
Lebsack, a teacher, is grateful that her sister brought Miss Ruby back to life.
“Cruise Nite was so much fun,” she said. “Being on The Bricks with the 1953 Hudson Hornet convertible was very special. I was so happy for my sister to get to enjoy the fruits of her labor and honor our dad at the same time.”