Hundreds of thousands of people drive classic cars produced by America’s ‘Big Three’. Chrysler Corporation, Ford Motor Company and General Motors sold their wares in millions each year back in the 1950s and 1960s, and fine examples are still present at most classic car events. They weren’t the only American cars, of course, and among the rarest are those from the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.
Words and Photos: Gordon Campbell
Kaiser-Frazer car production was relatively short-lived. The Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was formed in 1945 as a pairing of two remarkable men – Henry J Kaiser, a giant of the construction industry renowned for his unorthodox problem-solving techniques, and Joe Frazer, a genius in automobile sales and marketing with an uncanny ability to turn ailing car companies into moneymakers. Frazer was the head of Graham-Paige at the time and brought that company with him into the partnership, although it didn’t survive. He and Kaiser were two of the most radical thinkers to become part of America’s automobile industry as manufacturers, and Richard M Langworth’s book, Kaiser-Frazer: The Last Onslaught on Detroit, makes fascinating reading.
Car production began in 1946 in a disused Ford defence assembly plant in Willow Run, Michigan. This 800m-long building was the world’s biggest bomber production plant during the war, and Kaiser-Frazer converted it in just seven months into the largest car manufacturing plant under one roof; in fact, it was the world’s largest building of any kind, with the longest continuous assembly line.
Two of the first post-war designs with up-to-the-minute styling, the Kaiser and upmarket Frazer bore a resemblance to the famous 1949 Ford, which is not really surprising in that era. However, the Kaiser-Frazer cars were on the market more than two years before the Ford. The Kaiser was to have featured front-wheel drive and a shorter unitary body, while the Frazer had a separate chassis and conventional running gear. The advanced Kaiser was abandoned after a lengthy development and testing phase. Instead, it shared the Frazer’s body and mechanicals and was a dressed-down version of its sister car. Initially, both brands sold very well, although, as American author Rich Taylor once wrote, you could sell anything with four wheels and fresh paint in car-starved post-war America.
Joe Frazer and Henry Kaiser fell out in 1949, and Frazer was effectively sidelined. By the end of 1951, he had gone and the company was under the control of Kaiser and his son, Edgar, a young man who obviously meant well and was eternally optimistic that the company would thrive.
As new models from the Big Three finally came onstream, Kaiser-Frazer found it all but impossible to compete. Their research and development budget was miniscule compared to their huge competitors, so it was hard to keep up, let alone stay ahead of the game. However, designer ‘Dutch’ Darrin produced a new and distinctive sedan design for 1951. The ‘sweetheart’ shape of the upper edges of the windscreen and rear window, 1951’s lowest belt-line with its trademark ‘Darrin dip’ and a low wide mouth (it couldn’t really be called a grille) were among numerous features that ensured a Kaiser could be mistaken for no other car. Overnight, the slab-sided first model was transformed into a sleek and stylish car that made the opposition look rather staid and dumpy. A much more conservative Frazer, really just a makeover of the earlier model, was half-heartedly promoted alongside the glamorous Kaiser.
A long list of options was unusual at the time, and apparently it was possible to select any of the offerings the buyer fancied from the ‘100 options’ list, although the top-of-the-line Frazer Manhattan was so ‘loaded’ that few option boxes were left to tick. One option was an automatic transmission for an extra US$178 and Kaiser-Frazer picked the best available at the time – the General Motors four-speed Hydra-Matic, as fitted to Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs.
Kaiser-Frazer’s approach to interior styling was truly unique. It used all manner of materials, with colours and patterns that were unheard of in the industry until then, to produce interiors that exuded charm and slightly quirky opulence, a refreshing change from the drab interior colours that predominated at the time. Mind you, the production models were decidedly conservative compared to the three 1951 show cars. Langworth describes in his book how one car, named South Seas, was upholstered in “straw-like tropical vinyl and brightly multicoloured Hawaiian-patterned linen weave. It had a fish net headliner, straw floor coverings, and a lucite rear picnic table including a barometer, compass and topographical map of the Hawaiian Islands.” The Explorer must have been a bit confused, as it featured polar bear fur seats and a pith helmet lying on the front seat. The third car, the Safari, probably should have had the pith helmet as it was trimmed in zebra and lion skins, while the Caballero had palomino horse and unborn calf hide upholstery, door saddle bags with western buckles and spurs for window winders. Incredibly, Kaiser sold at least three Caballeros, one to Roy Rogers, one to Gene Autry and a third to a Texas ranch owner. Langworth doesn’t tell us whether the animal hides were real or imitation, so we’re left to hope they were the latter.
The Manhattan became a Kaiser as the Frazer brand disappeared, and the Kaiser soldiered on with the Continental side-valve six-cylinder engine that provided adequate performance – just. The Manhattan was pitched, in quality, equipment and especially price, at the Oldsmobile, Buick and Chrysler market, rather than the Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth level. Sadly, the Continental engine’s modest output didn’t have what was needed to compete in that upmarket segment when the horsepower race was just taking off.
Kaiser also needed a wider range of body styles to properly match the opposition. Most other makers offered a full range of two-door and four-door sedans, coupes, wagons and convertibles. The original Kaiser-Frazer duo were available only as four-door sedans, including a Traveler that was a forerunner of modern hatchbacks. Later, handsome convertible and hardtop models were added, but both had four doors, fixed window frames and central pillars made of glass. By then several other makers had real hardtop coupes, and poor sales figures suggest the buying public didn’t see the Kaiser hardtop as the real thing. Kaiser finally got a two-door club coupe in 1951.
Kaiser and Willys-Overland merged in 1953 to form Kaiser-Willys, which meant Kaiser inherited production of the famous Jeep vehicles and the compact Willys Aero cars.
The 1954 model year was a bad one for Kaiser-Willys, as Willys car production dropped by 75 per cent, although its wagon and commercial car output remained strong – buyers continued to choose Jeeps because they were good vehicles and there was no alternative. For 1954 the Kaiser’s front ‘mouth’ was replaced with a curved grille inspired by the 1951 Buick XP-300 concept car, and the headlights were set in intricate surrounds that look remarkably like those on the 1954 Buicks. The back window became a lovely three-piece wrap-around unit that increased the Kaiser’s industry-leading glass area even further.
A Quick Makeover
According to Langworth, the 1954 Kaiser design was ready but the 1953 models weren’t selling well, and several thousand were still unsold towards the end of the model year. They would effectively become used cars unless they could be updated. They’d had the same problem three years earlier and, by changing the bonnet mascot and making a few trim changes, leftover 1951 Kaisers were transformed into 1952 Kaiser Virginians.
The company wasn’t game to try that trick again for 1954, “so the decision was made to fit the leftovers – all Manhattans – with the new 1954 front ends and Safety-Glo taillights and market them as Kaiser ‘Specials’, priced about US$300 less than the K542 Manhattan.
“It wasn’t quite as easy as it looked because the new taillights didn’t cover the full area that the 1953 rear fender crown moldings had, and the cars had to be repainted. Apparently this would have been necessary regardless, as they’d become shopworn sitting out in the weather. But it was an unpleasant and expensive surprise which added to the considerable cost of unhooking and throwing away the 1953 front end sheet metal. An estimated 3500 such Kaiser Specials were built, all containing stock 1953 Manhattan interiors and mechanics.”
That 3500 was a small number in USA production terms but a lot more than the tiny run of 749 actual 1954 sedans. These shared the 1954 Manhattan dash and rear window, but they had less bright work and cheaper interiors, which may be why the first Specials are more sought after than the true ’54s.
The 1954 Manhattan could be ordered with a McCulloch supercharger that raised the power from 88kW (118bhp) to 104kW (140bhp). In modern times a proud owner admitted that the supercharger simply made the car less slow, but that’s an unjust criticism in Langworth’s view. Kaiser was working on an overhead valve V8 engine with alloy heads in 1951, but a lack of money stopped its development. It’s generally accepted that this engine was resurrected by American Motors Corporation, and Kaiser cars may have been around for a good few more years if it had been able to get the V8 into production. The company also had an air-cooled boxer engine that showed great promise in testing and an all-alloy overhead camshaft in-line six under development 10 years before Pontiac. Again, Kaiser lacked the resources to get either engine into production.
The End – Sort Of
Kaiser built just 6101 cars of all models for the year and finally accepted that car making was never going to work for them and it would be much better off sticking to Jeep vehicles. The Kaiser Special was dropped for 1955 and only the Manhattan was offered, totalling a pitiful 226 sales of four-door sedans and 44 of the two-door cars. Thanks to the Jeep range, Kaiser Industries’ car-making arm made its first profit since 1948.
Kaiser cars didn’t actually die in 1955. The company name was changed to Willys Motors and it continued to enjoy great success with the Jeep in various incarnations, including the relatively luxurious four-wheel drive Wagoneer station wagon. The Willow Run factory was sold to General Motors, which immediately started manufacturing their Hydra-Matic transmissions there and did so until 2010.
Although production of Willys Aero and Kaiser cars in Toledo ended in 1955, the Willys plant was sold to Willys-Overland do Brasil and the Kaiser tooling went to a new joint venture in Argentina, IKA (Industrias Kaiser Argentina SA), established to make Jeep vehicles and Kaiser cars in Buenos Aires. Production started in a brand new factory in 1958, and IKA bought the tooling for the 1951 Alfa Romeo 1900 in 1960/61. They gave the front a most unfortunate facelift and marketed the car as the IKA Bergantin. Meanwhile, across the continent in Brazil, the Willys Aero range was back in production and the Brazilians soon added their own models and flavour to the line-up.
Willys Motors became Kaiser Jeep Corporation in 1963 and the parent company, Kaiser Industries, sold it to American Motors Corporation in 1970, finally signalling the end of Kaiser’s involvement in the motor industry.
For Henry Kaiser, making motor cars had been an adventure, almost a bit of fun, albeit a massively costly one, while Joe Frazer saw it as a serious business to be run on conventional and conservative lines. The Kaisers had no such restraints – a lack of orthodoxy had served them well in the construction industry, so why not in car making? History suggests they may have been better off on the well-trodden path.
The Kaiser-Frazer automobile story is one of highs and lows, of forward thinking and innovation and some downright strange decisions. It was also one of huge financial losses – the company lost $30 million in 1949, more than any other car maker had ever lost in one year and the loss from 1946 to 1950 was $34 million. The company wasn’t operated along accepted motor industry lines and its costs were generally out of control. The introduction of the Henry J model, America’s first post-war compact car, cost a fortune and didn’t really repay in sales figures.
A Special in New Zealand
I’d never seen a Kaiser, so when Michael and Kevin, the owners of the Iso Rivolta we featured in the January-February 2021 issue of NZ Classic Driver, casually mentioned they had a Kaiser in their extensive collection, it was an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up. I wasn’t disappointed. Like the Iso and most of their other cars, the Kaiser is in beautiful condition and is a real head-turner in its outstanding bright pastel-green paint.
However, it wasn’t always so. About five or so years ago Michael and Kevin went on an online shopping spree, buying 10 cars from America. Kevin freely admits that he was naïve in the extreme and obviously too trusting, as they were in for a nasty shock when the first of the cars arrived. The Kaiser was one and had been advertised as a show winner. It even came with several plaques and cups from various shows, although it’s hard to tell what shows they were and what the car won. When it arrived it looked as good as it had in the photos and Kevin fondly imagined he would simply turn the key and drive it to the local compliance centre.
That’s when he learned about the standard of some American ‘restorations’ which only involve what you can see with a cursory inspection. Underneath, the Kaiser was in poor shape, being very rusty. This story was repeated as the other cars trickled in, and it’s a testament to the pair’s fortitude that all of the cars are now in pristine condition.
In a major undertaking, the rust was removed from the Kaiser and it was prepared for Canterbury Classics to apply the beautiful pastel-green paint that’s an exact match for the original Jade Tint colour. The interior was in excellent condition and no mechanical work was needed, so the Kaiser was now in as good shape as it looked.
On a happier note, Michael and Kevin made a couple of trustworthy contacts in America and subsequent purchases have mostly been of a very high standard. Like so many others, including me, they learned a valuable lesson the hard way, and they’re happy to share their story so that others may avoid the same heart-breaking experience.
This car is one of the unsold 1953 Manhattans fitted with the 1954 facelift features, identifiable by its smaller one-piece rear window and 1953 dashboard. Being an updated and re-badged Manhattan, it has that model’s sumptuous interior. It sports a vinyl material called ‘Bambu’ and it’s easy to see why, as it looks for all the world like fine bamboo matting. Combined with touches of ‘Dragonleather’ false alligator skin material and heavy cloth, the interior exudes an air of quality and luxury.
The car bristles with delightful details. For example, in a nod to Henry J Kaiser’s industrial empire, the horn button features a large stylised ‘K’ surrounded by images of a car, a ship, a factory and the Hoover Dam, all built by the Henry J Kaiser Company. The crowning glory is the wonderful, extravagant ‘Safety-Glo’ taillights. The part that runs forward on top of the rear guard isn’t separately lit, but light from the actual taillight diffuses through to the forward section.
Kevin and I took a short drive to a photo spot, which was enough for me to learn that the Kaiser’s progress could be described as leisurely but I wouldn’t call it slow, although the Continental ‘Super Sonic Six’ didn’t exactly live up to its optimistic name. It has an ace up its sleeve, so to speak – early Kaisers and Frazers were noted for fuel economy that was streets ahead of equivalent cars. An overdrive-equipped model could use less than 12 litres/100km on a long steady run, while the 1949 Ford was doing well to get below 16 litres/100km, on a good day, for performance that was also fairly leisurely (unless you were willing to really push it at a cost of even worse consumption). The later Kaisers, and particularly those with automatic transmission, weren’t so economical, although they still tended to be better than the opposition.
Typically for the era, the Kaiser’s steering required a bit of effort at very low speeds, which was offset by the excellent transmission.
On the road, the car somehow confirms its visual impression of quality and refinement. Modern owners have been known to favourably compare their Kaiser’s ride with that of their modern cars and, although we didn’t go far, it was enough for me to think I wouldn’t disagree with them. It really is that good and must have been a revelation back when the car was new. Their handling also gained top marks with road testers back then.
The ‘Special’ model name on this car is appropriate, as this is a rare and special car that’s now worthy of its show winner description, thanks to the courage and determination of its current enthusiast owners. It may be rare but they’ve made sure it’s not forgotten.
1954 Kaiser Special
Engine Continental six-cylinder inlet over exhaust, water-cooled, cast iron cylinder block and head
Capacity 3707cc (226.2ci)
Bore/Stroke 84.14 x 111.13mm
Valves Side valves
Compression Ratio 7.3:1
Max. Power 88kW (118bhp) @ 3650rpm
Max. Torque 271Nm (200lb/ft) @ 1800rpm
Fuel System Carter 2-barrel carburettor, 64-litre fuel tank
Transmission Four-speed General Motors Hydra-Matic automatic
Body/Chassis Four-door 5/6-seater saloon, steel body on steel platform chassis
Brakes Drums front and rear
Suspension Front Independent, coil springs with telescopic shock absorbers
Suspension Rear Leaf springs withtelescopic shockabsorbers
Steering Worm and roller
Wheels 15-inch steel
Tyres 6.70 x 15 (original)
Track (F/R) 1473/1492mm
Overall Length 5476mm
Dry Weight 1499kg
Top Speed 143km/h
0-100km/h 19.4 seconds
Ave. Fuel Cons 15.9 litres/100km