This 1954 Kaiser Special Was a Rolling Slice of Key Lime Pie

John L. Stein

Among industrialists, the eclectic Henry J. Kaiser was like a prototype Elon Musk. Born in 1882 to an immigrant shoemaker, the gritty New Yorker helped build Hoover Dam, constructed WWII Liberty ships, founded Kaiser Aluminum, and co-founded the Kaiser Permanente healthcare giant. Postwar, he created the eponymous Henry J economy car (also sold by Sears as an Allstate), the supercharged Manhattan sedan and fiberglass Darrin roadster, and way more.

Broadly unaware of Mr. Kaiser’s successes, attracting me to this early ’54 Special in 1984 was its curious design, easy $1100 price, and audacious “Bambu” interior, which rocked ivory-toned, bamboo-style vinyl throughout. Whoa, how could someone so credible produce a vehicle mirroring a seasick capybara and appointed like a Polynesian tiki hut?

The Kaiser’s mundane 118-hp 226-cid flathead six breathed through a one-barrel carb and drove through a GM Hydramatic. The sedan started easily and ran across LA’s San Fernando Valley, where I’d found it, and to the Pacific Coast Highway without complaint—at least, until the mechanical fuel pump failed. An SOS call (10 cents at a beachside payphone) to a friend, followed by a ride to Pep Boys for an inline electric pump, got the Special going again. Engaged at the time, I pondered how to justify this glaring purchase since the tropical interior, “widow’s peak” grille and windshield, and Safety-Glo fender lights probably wouldn’t cut it. Then it occurred to me: Give it to the future Mrs. as an early wedding present! Oddly, the ploy worked.

1954-Kaiser-Ad-Full
Flickr/Michael

Except for exterior paint and a patched floorboard, the Kaiser Special was highly original, even if it wasn’t hugely desirable. A step below the company’s supercharged models, it trundled along in a workmanlike manner, eventually making a 200-mile roundtrip to Los Angeles International Airport to meet my future father-in-law. “This is a fine car,” he said. Within a year, though, the Special was undeniably superfluous to our needs. In those pre-Internet days, limited channels existed for advertising classics locally, so we hit an LA Kaiser club Christmas party to distribute photos. It was like attending a cat show with a kitten in a basket, and then trying to give it away. In a festive mood for the holidays, the club members—all seriously doting Kaiser fans—were completely perplexed. “That looks really nice!” they exclaimed. “Why in the world would you want to sell it?”

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