Curbside Classic: 1954 Kaiser Special Club Sedan – Some First Car!

(first posted 6/1/2012)    I consider myself a well informed car nut, but this was a car I didn’t know existed until recently. Oh sure, I knew that Kaiser got started in the car business after WWII, came out with a really attractive, advanced ’51 model whose sales steadily dropped after its initial year, and that North American sales were ended after a handful of ’55 models. But I never knew the facelifted 1954-55 model came in a two door sedan. Well, they are rare.

The 1951 Kaiser was a remarkably attractive car. Completely redesigned by Howard “Dutch” Darrin, all Kaisers featured an extremely low beltline, and increased glass area. A “Darrin dip” in the rear quarter panel eliminated the “loaf of bread” envelope body of 1947-50. There were two more “Darrin dips” in the middle of the windshield and backlight.

Initial sales of 139,452 were respectable, but for some reason, sales fell off a cliff the next year, to 32,131. A detailed report on all the reasons why could make up an article all by itself, but in a nutshell, Kaiser, despite being the most modern car on the road (save, perhaps, for the 1953-55 Studebaker Loewy coupes), had a few things that turned buyers off.

First off, they only came in two- or four-door sedans, plus the proto-hatchback Traveler, a hybrid sedan/wagon with a two-piece tailgate. No hardtop, no station wagon, and no convertible meant that there weren’t any flashy models to lure customers into showrooms. A limited number of dealers (at least compared to the Big Three and even Studebaker and Nash), lack of a V8 at the dawn of the horsepower race and Kaiser’s rookie status as a make all contributed to the decline.

1952 sales of 32,131 were a fraction of 1951 production, and with less sales, Kaiser wasn’t able to fill their coffers and use it to come up with new product. Finally, in 1954, they were able to do an attractive facelift, though there were still only two door and four door sedans. The two doors were now known as club sedans. The Traveler was gone.

Out back, Kaisers had swoopy new taillight clusters, with an additional lens running over the top of the quarter panel. While this second light did not have its own bulb, it was connected to the main lamp, allowing light to diffuse to the second lens. This allowed the taillights to be seen from the side, a unique identifying feature at night and far ahead of the 1968 federally mandated side marker lights.

The front styling was apparently inspired by the Buick XP-300 dream car. New details included a “jet air scoop” grille with a matching chrome hood scoop. This treatment made Kaisers look a lot like a ’54 Buick Special, at least from the front. Headlights were now integrated into a large chrome bezel with simulated mesh grilles and a Kaiser “K” emblem.

One thing Kaiser did on a regular basis, thanks to lackluster sales, was turning leftover cars from the prior model year into “new” cars by adding new serial numbers, and as was the case in 1954, new trim, grilles, etc. Thus, there are two series of the 1954 Kaiser Special (the fancier Manhattans were all genuine ’54s).

The so-called 1st Series Specials were leftover 1953 models with 1954 grilles, headlights and taillights. They retained the single piece  rear window in lieu of the ’54 Manhattan’s 3-piece wraparound affair, and also retained the broader chrome side moldings and fancier interiors of the 1953s. About 3500 1st Series Specials were made, of which about 500 were 2-door Club Sedans.

Our featured CC, as previewed in the Old Car Home post, is owned by K. V. Dahl, and was his first car, believe it or not. It is a 1st Series Special Club Sedan, one of 500 built, and according to the Kaiser-Frazer Club, one of 10 known examples today.

The interiors on these cars were also rather ahead of their time. Although Kaiser automobiles would not see the Sixties, at least in the United States, they had some very advanced features for their time, including a padded instrument panel with all major gauges clustered in the driver’s line of sight.

A manual column-shifted transmission was standard, but a popular option was the GM-sourced Dual-Range Hydramatic. K. V.’s car is so equipped, though at first I thought it was a three-on-the-tree, as the linkage and housing on the steering column does not look much like an automatic. The necker knob, of course, is another, ahem, aftermarket option. Great when you’re out on a date, eh guys?

Interestingly, the 1st Series Specials were more numerous (if you can call it that) than the “real” 1954 Specials. While 3500 1st Series cars were made, the 2nd Series cars amounted to only 749 four doors and 180 two door club sedans. Well, many folks decided to play it safe and get a ’54 Chevy or Ford. Don’t get me wrong, they are nice cars too, but I’d take a Kaiser over either one.

The big news for 1954 Kaisers was under the hood. Standard on Manhattans was a McCulloch centrifugal supercharger, perched atop the Continental-sourced L-head six cylinder. It turned the 118 hp “Super Sonic Six” into the 140 hp “Super Power Six.” While it is not shown as an option on Specials in the Standard Catalog of American Cars, by 1954, Kaiser was so anxious to sell you a car that they would build practically anything you wanted, and never mind the factory specifications.

As suggested in the title, this 1954 Kaiser Special was K. V. Dahl’s first car. At the age of 13, he had saved up enough money from mowing lawns to buy this car, in a rather weathered condition at the time. It was purchased from the wife of the original owner in Bettendorf; they had taken it on their honeymoon when the car was new. Now, while the supercharger is an interesting and desirable option, don’t go thinking it is just like a Duesenberg SJ; it’s not. As K. V. told me, “it’s still slow, the supercharger just makes it less slow.”

I can tell you that that is true, as I was able to get a ride in this piece of Willow Run history. I met K. V. at the dealership, and he said he had to run a couple errands before we could find a suitable spot to take photos; would I like to go along? Oh yes, absolutely! While K. V. warned me it rode a little rough, and it had been restored nearly 25 years ago, I found the ride thoroughly enjoyable. Unlike many modern cars, the Kaiser had great glass area, and thanks in part to the accessory hood visor, the car was more than comfortable in traffic with the windows down, despite the warm day. It was cool to hear the supercharger spool up when accelerating from a stop, too.

One thing you do take for granted in modern cars are those four-wheel disc brakes, but the Kaiser is just fine so long as you plan ahead. And it does have those nice big taillights – and brake lights!

K. V.’s Kaiser also has a nice selection of factory accessories. When he got it, the car had the standard wheel covers, but he has since added the Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels, a $290 option in 1954, and the very same wheels available on early Chrysler 300s. It also has the Dual-Range Hydramatic ($178), white sidewall tires ($22), two-tone paint ($15), and an 8-tube radio that still worked just fine on our brief outing ($89).

Getting back to the 1954 Kaiser lineup, Manhattans were the top of the line model and ran about $300 higher than Specials. They all featured the 3-piece backlight, unlike 1st Series Specials. Standard equipment on Manhattans included bumper guards and bumper wings, chrome wheel covers, chrome tailpipe extension, oil bath air cleaner (yes, it was an option on Specials!), and a rear compartment cigar lighter, among other things.

The new look was attractive, and despite being largely carryover since 1951, the body was still one of the most modern-looking cars on the road, but it didn’t help. Sales crashed to about 8500 for the year, nearly 20,000 units below 1953’s total!

Do these wheels look familiar? They should, as they were a popular item on Chrysler’s muscle-bound “banker’s hot rod” 300 from 1955 through the early ’60s. The original Kaiser hubcap is shown in this photo, but K. V. prefers the Kelsey-Hayes style knock-off hubcap instead. I’m inclined to agree. But he does have a set of four original caps, just in case the originality police bear down on his car.

1954 was bad for Kaiser, but 1955 was even worse. In its final year, 1955, choices were limited to the Manhattan club sedan and four door sedan. With a mere 1231 made (of the 1231, only 210 were sold in the United States; the rest were part of a purchase order from Argentina), Kaiser had had enough. They pulled their car lines (including the Willys Aero, acquired in their purchase of Willys-Overland in 1953) from the North American market, to concentrate on selling Jeeps. The Kaiser, however, did get a second life in Argentina as the Kaiser Carabella, a virtual twin to the 1955 Manhattan sedan and sold through the 1962 model year.

Poor Kaiser. They had a nice car, but the lack of a V8, convertible and hardtop hurt them, not to mention consumers who were leery of a make that had only been in business since the 1947 model year. They were sharp cars, and surviving examples like K. V.’s Special show just how attractive they were. But in 1954, it was just safer to buy a Ford or Chevy. What a shame.