Larry Benson: Hornet’s Nest
Dr. Larry Benson drove his ’72 Pantera to pick up his ’53 Hornet.
But the Scottsdale retiree didn’t know about receiving his new classic, and more than one million people have watched it, with not a few tears shed.
To honor him at retirement from dentistry three years ago, his son, Aaron Benson, a Scottsdale real estate agent, bought him a 1953 Meadow Green Hudson Hornet, a car with great racing panache as well as deep personal importance for dad.
“Aaron conspired with Phyllis and found one in St. Augustine, Florida, and had it shipped to his house, where he hid it in his garage,” recalls Benson, who moved to Scottsdale in 1978 from Elmont, Long Island, just across the river from Queens, New York City. “They knew that I was looking for one and couldn’t find a good one.” Phyllis is Larry’s wife.
His son fooled him to come to his house on the pretext that a blogger was starting a video library of car aficionados. “He wanted to interview me about my love of cars and the Hudson in particular,” Benson explains.
“They steered me around to the garage; the door was opened, and they turned me around, and Aaron gave me the keys and a big hug. It’s the gift of a lifetime.” Watch million-hit “Hudson Surprise” at youtu.be/ZHeh5ZnuIfw.
The car love goes back to his dad, George, a PhD. who attended automotive school on the GI Bill after World War II and let him drive the Hudson when he was young.
After graduating from dental school, Larry decided to go West in a ’77 Honda Civic dad had given to him as a graduation present. “I love the sun, and the Air Force was looking for dentists, so I got a job at Luke Air Force Base, where I was commissioned an officer,” he explains.” After three years, he started a practice, and he and Phyllis, a West Orange, New Jersey, native, raised their three children, Aaron, Lee and David.
This automotive love passed to Aaron quickly. “We spent our weekends loading the station wagon with my two brothers and old pieced-together go-karts and heading out to a dirt lot to race each other,” he recalls. “Once we were introduced to my dad’s infectious love for all things on wheels, it was in our blood forever.”
Larry would always talk about cars, especially the ones he owns now, such as the Pantera and the Hudson. They’d also frequently attend car shows.
“I always remember him taking me as a young kid on the back of his Yamaha motorcycle,” Aaron recalls. “It is one of my fondest memories as a kid going down the back of our neighborhood on 44th Street hitting the big dip and feeling your stomach go in to your mouth. Haha!
“Now I take him out in the track in a Viper or my supercharged Z06, and the roles are reversed! Payback!”
Civic Minded and Then Some
•’77 Honda Civic CVC –– Benson wanted a Honda Civic, and only a Honda Civic, after graduating from dental school. “I’m a thrifty person, and it was getting the best gas mileage at the time,” he recalls, noting the high efficiency of its 1.5-liter four-cylinder, producing 62-horsepower engine and connected to a five-speed manual. “My father even offered the upgrade Accord model, but I wanted the Civic.” The car, then made in Japan, took about eight weeks for delivery.
Benson took the seats out and disassembled his motorcycle to take with him to Luke AFB. “I had to sell it when we became a family of five,” he recalls.
But, a year and a half ago, Aaron found him an exact replacement in Florence, Kentucky, and shipped the car to Scottsdale. “It had already been restored and looked just like the original,” he says. “It gets 40 miles per gallon, has 125,000 miles and a fun five-speed, and I drive it almost every day.”
•’85 Toyota Camry –– Benson bought this five-door liftback new for his parents before they moved to the Valley. “I took delivery and broke it in for the first 500 miles before they arrived,” he says.
About 11 years ago, as his dad was getting older, Larry began using it. And, everyone in the family has used it since. “It’s carried furniture and refrigerators, everything you could put in it. It’s a wonderful car,” he says.
He parks it and all of the cars, including Phyllis’ 2007 Lexus, the Pantera, the Hudson and the Civic into his customized garage space. “Once a week, I rotate with the other three cars. It’s just a matter of whose turn it is.”
•’72 De Tomaso Pantera –– Benson was in his last year of school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore: “I was in Washington, D.C., and I saw it on Constitution Avenue. I didn’t even know the car existed, and I was instantly enthralled,” he says. “It did a burn-out and swung side to side, and I knew I wanted to have that car.”
The prototype Pantera debuted in Modena in March 1970 and appeared again a few weeks later. About 7,000 were sold in 20 years, most of the earlier models through Lincoln-Mercury dealerships.
Career and family put that aside, but he always remembered it and mentioned the car to his wife and children. “He never felt like he could spend the money on a Pantera, which was his ultimate dream car,” Aaron recalls. “One day back in 1998, my mom pointed out an ad in a newspaper for a 1972 De Tomaso Pantera. We all went out as a family to see it, and, to make a long story short, that has been his baby ever since.”
The car has the 351 Ford Cleveland powerplant with a five-speed ZF transmission that had been built by Les Gray, a noted Arizona mechanic, just before Benson purchased it.
Also, the Pantera has air-conditioning, a big speedometer, tachometer and those wonderful rocker switches. The car was beautifully repainted black by Innovative Auto Collison in Tempe and has a black interior. It also has the larger European-option rims, 8 inches in front and 10 inches in back, to hold the car down.
He also lowered the De Tomaso half an inch, installed LED headlights and extra gauges and made other small aesthetic changes to make the car sleeker.
“My main intention was to make it meaner looking and sounding,” he says. So, he added larger tailpipes and had chrome exhaust tips from a Cadillac Escalade welded on and pointed upward. “It sounds like a NASCAR racecar with a deep V-8 rumble,” says Benson, a member of the De Tomaso Pantera national club. “You can hear it three blocks away. I love the sound of the car.”
•’53 Hudson Hornet –– The V-8-stinging Hudson Hornet notched 27 of 34 NASCAR Grand National races in 1952; 22 of 37 in ’53; and 17 of 37 in ’54. The standard L-head 308-cid flat six cylinder produced 140 horses, but the “Twin-H-Power” option brought 160 horses to the street through dual carburetion. Benson has one of these legendary cars, and it has great memories.
What’s more, the early Hudsons were stepped down for a lower center of gravity, allowing them to take the turns better than the cars with the bigger V-8s. Hence, the oval track wins.
The Hudson Motor Car Company merged with Nash-Kelvinator in 1955, and the next generation of Hornets are known as “Kenosha Hudsons” because of being built in Wisconsin instead of Detroit. These, however, did not feature the distinctive ‘step-down” styling of the earlier models.
The Hudson was the Benson family car from the time Larry was 2 to until he was 14. His parents were both teachers who had the summers off, so they would crisscross the country in the Hudson, usually to California and back 9,000 miles. “We saw all 48 contiguous states and even Disneyland just after it opened,” Benson recalls.
“I’d steer it sitting on my left leg, which allowed me to see over the top,” he says. “I remember when we stopped, the old checkerboard pattern of the interior was on my leg.”
In 1965, the car was T-boned by a Volkswagen Bug and totaled.
“Fortunately, I remembered to unscrew the shift knob and save it. Fifty years later, we had a family ceremony, and I recorded it,” Benson recalls. “I screwed the knob on, and it was the Hudson like it was years ago.”
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