Independent Kaiser-Frazer went down swinging for the fences
Kaiser-Frazer burst onto the scene as an all-new carmaker in 1946 with what were truly the first new post-war designs. The partnership of shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser and Graham-Paige executive Joseph Frazer launched the same sedan models under two brands, using a six-cylinder engine as the sole power offering.
Pent-up consumer demand helped get the fledgling automaker off to a solid start, but the Big Three and other independents soon caught up with their own postwar offerings, some with exciting new V-8s. Kaiser-Frazer sales tanked in 1949.
From hard times innovation sometimes springs, and this was the case with Kaiser. Good ideas can take a company only so far, however. Execution and follow-through fell short, and, along with market mistiming, kept three interesting cars from achieving their potential.
Kaiser Traveler: The first hatchback
The hatchback idea was hatched seven decades ago by upstart Kaiser-Frazer. Having only a sedan body shell to work with, and no budget to tool up for a station wagon, K-F engineers cooked up the Traveler utility sedan. The deluxe version was called Vagabond. Essentially, Kaiser sliced and diced the top rear section of the car, creating a drop-down trunk opening and an upward-opening section that included the rear window. It was more clamshell than hatch, but the idea of easy cargo access was similar.
Folding the rear seat yielded an eight-foot-long cargo space. A flip-down license plate kept the registration visible even when driving with the hatch open. The left-side rear passenger even got a novel armrest via the covered spare tire, which bolted to the inside of the door. The door was welded shut, but it still had an exterior handle. Kaiser promoted the Traveler as a kind of instant station wagon when you needed it. The price was $100 over the regular sedan, and another $200 over that for the plusher Vagabond. Some ads depicted the car hauling camping gear, while others showed household items.
Kaiser’s idea seemed sound, but execution was lacking; owners experienced leaks and squeaks. By then, Plymouth had fielded a low-priced all-steel station wagon, and that body style was about to catch on with the public. About a quarter of the 100,000 or so Kaisers shipped for 1949–50 were Traveler and Vagabond models. Sales plummeted from there. The Traveler continued with the restyled 1951 models, and the Traveler Deluxe replaced the Vagabond before the body style disappeared.
Henry J: An American Beetle?
In the face of sagging sales, when partner Frazer suggested cutting back on production to meet demand, Kaiser instead pressed ahead with a plan to expand. A federal loan helped, but it came with strings attached. The car to be developed had to be an economy model which could seat five people and would retail for no more than $1,300.
The company built a bulbous prototype and had renowned designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin apply some of his styling touches. Henry J. himself liked the idea of a modern-day Model T so much he named the car for himself. The 1951 Henry J redefined “basic transportation.”
Just 175 inches long on a 100-inch wheelbase and with a choice of four-cylinder or six-cylinder Willys engines, the Henry J could have been a contender in the emerging compact segment. First-year sales of 81,000 was promising, but an overall sense of cheapness stigmatized the little beast. Cost-cutting moves deleted an exterior trunklid; the space was accessed via the fold-down rear seat. Kaiser eventually installed a real trunklid.
Sales plummeted to 23,000 the second year and 17,500 for 1953. The public found the Henry J was too small and too stark for its $1,300–$1,500 price. The Henry J, disguised with a different grille, was also marketed as the Allstate by some Sears stores, but just fewer than 2,400 were built. The Henry J disappeared after a brief run in 1954.
Kaiser Darrin: An instant (and rare) classic
Dutch Darrin saw some potential in the Henry J chassis and in 1952 designed a rakish roadster body with doors that slid into the front fenders. Glasspar, which built fiberglass boat hulls and bodies for the Woodill Wildfire sports car, would build bodies for the Kaiser-Darrin.
The swanky convertible reached production in 1954, just as Chevy’s Corvette was floundering. The Kaiser-Darrin had the mark of a world-renowned designer, but the 90-horsepower Willys inline six was short on power, even for the car’s low 2,200-pound weight. Only 435 were built, and Kaiser ended car production in 1954.
Darrin himself sold off the last 100 or so of his namesake roadsters, some with supercharged sixes and others with Cadillac V-8s—a precursor to the Shelby Cobra. Today, Kaiser’s most memorable automotive legacy is this charming two-seater, a star of the concours circuit.