Auction Classic: 1951 Frazer Manhattan Convertible – Four Doors Out Of Necessity, Not Virtue

 

Quick! Think of a four-door convertible vehicle. The first answer that most people think of is the 1961-67 Lincoln Continental convertible, or perhaps the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited if you are of a more modern bent. However, when I think of four door convertibles, my go-to car of choice is the 1949-51 Frazer Manhattan Convertible.

I’ve been wanting to write about the Frazer Manhattan convertible for a while, but I’ve never seen one in the wild until I saw this rather incomplete example at the Ron Hackenberger auction last July. While not the best or most complete example, with only 131 units made, beggars can’t be choosers.

Before delve into the feature car, a quick primer on the Frazer brand is in order: Kaiser launched Frazer in 1946 (as a 1947 model) as an upmarket complement brand to the Kaiser line. It was more of a companion brand to Kaiser (akin to LaSalle and Cadillac) than a true standalone brand, as the vehicles were sold through the same dealer network and even sometimes advertised together, like in the ad above.

It was named after Joseph W. Frazer, then president and general manger of Kaiser-Frazer. Released several years before the Big 3 would release their first post-war cars, it was styled by Howard “Dutch” Darrin, and had modern styling touches like “straight through” fenders.

Initially, Frazer sales were strong, thanks to this two-year head start on getting new post-war cars to an eager market: 68,775 were sold in the 1947 model year, and 48,071 sold in 1948. However, in the face of new postwar models from the Big 3, Frazer sales plunged in 1949 to less than 25,000.

Henry Kaiser and Joseph Frazer differed in what direction to take the company: Kaiser wanted to avoid direct competition with the Big 3, and focus on inexpensive small cars. He would later go on to realize this vision in the 1950s, with cars such as the Henry J and Allstate. Frazer was more interested in going upmarket (or at least mid-market), as illustrated by the brand that bore his name.

 

In 1949, Kaiser-Frazer decided to expand their sedan and utility-sedan offerings with a convertible for both brands. Since there was no Kaiser or Frazer two door sedan or coupe  of this generation, the funds to tool up a typical two door convertible were not available. That’s the real reason it’s a four door convertible, unlike all of the rest of the convertibles on the market at the time. K-F simply cut the roof off a four-door sedan, leaving much of the header intact (a new windshield was too expensive) and reinforced the frame and body as necessary. Money for this project was extremely tight, and production was anticipated to be low, so many parts were hand-made.

But there was apparently enough money in the shrinking coffers to develop a hydraulically operated power top. The interior trim supposedly rivaled that of any Packard or Cadillac (although given the missing interior of the featured car, this is an article we’ll have to take on faith). Both the Kaiser and Frazer convertibles were pricey, at $3,195 and $3,295 respectively.

 

Update: the window frames in the Kaiser and Frazer convertible were fixed; only the glass in them rolled down. Thus these were actually more akin to a “convertible sedan”, like the first Rambler. This compromise solution was another reflection of the lack of funds available for the convertible.

The work done in making the convertible allowed Kaiser to add back a new, somewhat lighter steel roof covered in nylon fabric, and thus create the first production four-door hardtop, the Virginian. It’s somewhat debatable as to whether this is really a hardtop, as the window frames were fixed, just like in the convertible, negating the possibility of the genuine hardtop experience. There was no Frazer version. It looks virtually identical to the convertible with its top up.

 

 

 

Given that it was essentially hand-built, convertible sales were a dud, with only 62 of the 1949 models sold. No doubt part of the poor sales performance of the soft top had to do with the odd side windows and the ambitious $3,295 price (About $45,000 in 2017).   A significant aspect of the failure of both the Kaiser and Frazer can be laid at the doorstep of the 226 cu. in. L-head inline 6, whose 112 HP was no match for the 8 cylinder engines that were available from the competition.

Things didn’t fare much better for Joseph Frazer than they did for his eponymous car. In 1949, he was forced out as President and Chairman of the Board of Kaiser-Frazer. Henry J. Kaiser installed his oldest son, Edgar Kaiser, as the new leader of the company. Joseph Frazer’s influence was on the wane, as so was the car that bore his name.

1950 Frazer models were essentially unchanged from 1949. In fact, some 1950 models were actually 1949 production that got re-serialized as 1950 model year cars (which makes sales numbers for this model year tricky).

While the 1951 Kaiser sported a very handsome all-new body also designed by Dutch Darrin, the Frazer got nothing more than a restyle, with new sheet metal strategically deployed on the old body. Thus for 1951, there would only be a Frazer convertible, as the new Kaiser body was never turned into a convertible despite there now being a two door coupe/sedan.

Alas; the questionable restyle was mostly for naught, as Frazer sales for the 1951 model year totaled just over 10,000. The four-door convertible, buoyed by a price cut to $3,075, had its best sales year yet, with a whopping 131 units finding owners. 1951 would be the final year for Frazer (the car). Joseph Frazer (and his name) would leave the company in 1953, when Kaiser-Frazer would merge with Willys-Overland and be renamed Willys Motors.

The featured car ended up selling $7,500, which was a good deal for the seller, given the significant amount of missing (and likely impossible to find) interior and exterior bits, and the questionable condition of the powertrain. As a result, my guess is that it will make a better donor parts car than a restoration candidate. As for the buyer, well lets hope things work out better for him then they did for Joseph Frazer.

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