The 1950s was the beginning of the end of the golden age of independent automakers in the US. At the beginning of the decade there were eight independent brands (Crosley, Frazer, Henry J, Packard, Hudson, Kaiser, Nash, and Studebaker); by 1960 only Studebaker and Rambler (AMC) would remain.
Most of the smaller independents had to find niches in order to avoid potentially fatal direct competition with the Big 3. Kaiser decided to pursue style-conscious buyers, and came up with some of the most interesting designs of the 1950s, culminating with the 1951 and 1953 Dragon models.
1951 Kaiser DeLuxe Dragon
In their goal to appeal to style-conscious buyers, Kaiser was standing on the shoulder of several industry giants: Famed designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin, who (at least in broad strokes) was responsible for Kaiser’s exterior styling, and interior stylist Carleton Spencer, whose interior work was notably a cut above that of the Big 3. Paul has covered both men in detail in his comprehensive history of Kaiser-Frazer.
The story goes that in 1951 Carleton Spencer was looking to make an upscale Kaiser model to fill the hole created by the pending discontinuation of the Frazer Manhattan, K-F’s then top-of-the-line model. Spencer collaborated with one of Kaiser’s suppliers to come up with an alligator patterned (and textured) vinyl for use in this new model. Kaiser called the interior upholstery “Dragon skin,” lest prospective buyers think it was made from the skin of an actual alligator. The name of the model followed from there.
Midway through the 1951 model year, Kaiser would release the Golden Dragon, their most daringly styled vehicle to date. Because of this late launch, the Dragon does not appear in most of the 1951 Kaiser brochures and marketing materials, save for the one ad above that I was able to find online. Technically the 1951 Dragon was not a standalone model but rather an option package on the Kaiser DeLuxe model.
The dragon skin vinyl interior was available in multiple colors. You really had to like the look, because Kaiser put the material everywhere: The dashboard, door panels, parcel shelf, seat fronts and backs, even the pillars were all slathered with the material – pretty much everywhere but the headliner.
The “Dragon Skin” interior is somewhat subdued in black (shown above), but in other colors it can be overwhelming, to say the least.
Of particular note about the 1951 Dragon is the vinyl roof, one of the first cars to be so equipped. Much like the vinyl interior, it had an alligator skin texture to it, giving the car the look of an exotic animal (or less flatteringly, the look of a turtle). The vinyl top was standard on later production Dragons.
There is some confusion over whether these 1951 models are called “Golden Dragon” or just “Dragon,” and the answer is “It depends.” Since the Dragon was just an option package and not a model, the name Dragon does not appear in script anywhere on the car, so Kaiser could (and did) change the naming convention several times over the course of the production run, as we shall see.
Over four months in 1951, Kaiser produced 1,662 Dragons in three different series. The first series models came only with a painted roof, since the vinyl roof was not yet available due to production delays from the supplier. Though available in a wide variety of colors, all Series 1 models were referred to as Golden Dragons, regardless of the actual color. The price for the Series 1 Golden Dragon package was $125 ($1,320 in 2021).
Series 2 Dragons came standard with the vinyl roof and a slightly reworked version of the “dragon skin” interior that was now called “Dinosaur Skin.” These changes raised the price of the Dragon package to $242 ($2553 in 2021) for the second series. Second series Dragons were available in only three exterior/interior color combinations, each of which had a separate trim name: Golden Dragon, Silver Dragon, and Emerald Dragon.
First is the Golden Dragon, the name which now only applied specifically to models painted Arena Yellow with black vinyl top and interior combination. The majority of Series 2 and 3 Dragons were apparently produced in the combination, based on survivorship.
The Silver Dragon wasn’t actually silver (silver was a very uncommon color in the ’50s), but rather was painted Mariner Gray. It came with a scarlet vinyl interior.
The Emerald Dragon (pictured above) was dark green with a green upholstered (not vinyl) interior.
For the third and final series of 1951 Dragons, the same three colors from Series 2 were still available, plus a new Jade Dragon that had green metallic paint and a textured vinyl roof intended to resemble thatched straw. Only one Jade Dragon is known to survive, an OHV-powered prototype from Henry Kaiser’s private collection (of which maddeningly there are no pictures available online).
While technically the Dragon package was available on any bodystyle in 1951, the vast majority were four-door sedans.
1953 Kaiser Dragon
After taking a hiatus for 1952, the Dragon returned for a second (and final) run in 1953. Kaiser made several changes for 1953: For starters, the Dragon was now a true separate model, and not a trim line on the DeLuxe. The exterior color was no longer incorporated into the model name – all 1953 Dragons were simply called Dragon, regardless of color.
To help justify the base price of $4,000 ($41,436 in 2021), Carleton Spencer slathered the exterior of the Dragon with 14K gold trim, with the wire wheels, hood ornament, nameplates, hood, and trunk emblems being gold plated. A plate was affixed to the dashboard with the owner’s name to further enhance the air of exclusivity. And if that weren’t enough, each Dragon buyer received a personal letter from Edgar Kaiser, doubtlessly congratulating them on their wise purchase of such a fine automobile.
While the 1951 Dragon models had a clear reptilian influence, the 1953 models had more of a South Pacific vibe, in keeping with the then-popular tiki fad. The vinyl roof was textured and patterned to resemble a Polynesian grass hut and was available in black, beige, or maroon.
Six exterior colors (Onyx Black, Stardust Ivory, Jade Tint, Frosted Holly Green, Maroon Velvet, and Turquoise Blue) were now available. All were exclusive to the Dragon and (unusual for the time), were in lacquer, not the enamel paint that was used on lesser Kaisers (and by most other manufacturers). Onyx Black and Turquise Blue are the rarest colors: Blue was only used on a few auto show display models, while Onyx Black was dropped early in the production run due to its tendency to show waves and other imperfections in the underlying sheet metal. However, that scarcity didn’t stop our own Jason Shafer from stumbling on a black 1953 Dragon on a used car lot back in 2013.
The tiki theme carried over to the interior. Gone were Carleton Spencer’s exotic animal skins – In its place was a combination of the “Bambu” vinyl, inset with a geometric patterned “Laguna” fabric. The interior was designed by fashion designer Marie Nichols, one of the few female automotive interior designers at the time. Much like the 1951 model, virtually the entire interior was trimmed with these materials, including the pillars, headliner, sun visors, rear parcel shelf, and kick panels.
Sadly, the 1953 Dragon was even less successful than the 1951 model, selling just 1,277 examples.