Amelia Earhart’s plane is still missing somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. But her car—recently stolen—has been found.
The vintage 1932 green and black Hudson Essex Terraplane had been stashed in the back of a locked trailer on an industrial parking lot in Los Angeles, when thieves drove off with the trailer last week, likely not knowing what was inside. Police recently found the car dumped by the side of the road.
During the depth of the Great Depression, car sales were seriously stalling. Manufacturers like Ford, Chevrolet, and Hudson competed for customers’ attention by trying to cut prices while adding value. Hudson quietly developed an all-new car that was endowed with performance credentials revered in better times, according to Automobile magazine. The light all-steel frame allowed the car to max out at a then-remarkable 60 mph and cost a reasonable $500.
Hudson called the new model the Essex Terraplane, to tap into the country’s fascination with the nascent aviation industry. And in an ingenious marketing move, Hudson hired the most popular aviatrix of the era to christen and promote the new model.
Amelia Earhart, fresh off realizing her dream of becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, was at the height of her popularity. In May of 1932, she had faced strong winds, icy conditions, and mechanical issues in her nearly 15-hour solo flight from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland.
That summer, hired by Hudson, Earhart christened one of the first Essex Terraplanes by cracking a bottle of gasoline over its chrome nose. The event was filmed as a newsreel and shown in theaters across the country. And though she got to keep the car, it was not the first Essex Terraplane to roll off the assembly line. That one went, fittingly enough, to Orville Wright, according to Automobile.
Earhart apparently didn’t drive the 1932 Terraplane much, because even all these years later, there are only 17,000 miles on the odometer. She had several other cars, including a much faster 1933 convertible Essex Terraplane.
In 1937, Earhart disappeared as she tried to fly around the world. With Fred Noonan as her navigator and only crew member, Earhart left Oakland, California, on May 20, 1, for Miami, Florida (with stops along the way), where she announced her intent to circumnavigate the globe. She and Noonan had flown 20,000 miles and had only 7,000 left over the Pacific Ocean when they disappeared somewhere, perhaps off the coast of Howland Island, in July. An intensive two-week search cost $4 million, a breath-taking sum in 1937. No evidence was ever found of wreckage or the pair. Amelia Earhart was declared officially dead on January 5, 1939.
When World War II started, most Essex Terraplanes were melted down for their metal. Today, there are reportedly only 14 still in existence. Earhart’s car is said to be worth $500,000.
After Earhart’s death, the 1932 Essex Terraplane changed hands several times. In 1986, a former top-fuel drag racer and car collector, Jim Somers, bought the car for $9,000 after persuading the previous owner he would take good care of the vintage vehicle. Somers discovered the car’s provenance only after he had it in his possession. He and his mechanic checked the car’s serial number to ensure it was truly Earhart’s.
Somers had to do little to restore the Terraplane. The upholstery is all original. He’s spent about $15,000 on upkeep and motor repairs, according to the Orange County Register.
Somers, now 76 and retired, likes to take the Terraplane to car shows. He plans to take it to Earhart’s hometown of Atchison, Kansas, in July so it can be displayed during the annual Amelia Earhart Festival commemorating her birthday.
Somers says people frequently offer to buy the car, but he refuses. “This is how I keep myself alive,” he told the Orange County Register. “I’ve been in cars all my life.”