Car Show Classic: 1953 Kaiser Henry J Corsair de Luxe – Big Name, Little Car, No Sale

(first posted 7/22/2013)    1951 was the year Kaiser-Frazer should have “made it.” A thoroughly restyled–and beautiful–Kaiser, a facelifted swan-song Frazer, and the all-new compact Henry J meant that Kaiser had spent ample time and money in rejuvenating their lineup. Never again would K-F have such a modern and diverse lineup. Unfortunately, Henry Kaiser’s ego (“The Kaisers NEVER retrench!”), the lack of a V8 option and numerous other factors made 1951 the beginning of the end for K-F in the U.S.

Kaiser seemed to have two big problems: Pricing and lack of a V8 engine. Kaisers were too expensive when compared to the low-priced three, and not impressive enough when shopped against a Rocket 88 or Buick Super. Plus, with the advent of Cadillac and Oldsmobile’s compact V8s, all bets were off for K-F’s success. So what did they do? They introduced a compact car, of course!

One of the problems with the K-F experiment was Henry J. Kaiser’s ego. Perhaps his “my way or the highway” management style worked when his California shipyards were stamping out umpteen Liberty ships a day, but the car biz was a whole different story. So, instead of an updated full-size Kaiser, or perhaps a V8 engine, U.S. buyers got the Henry J–perhaps the most egotistically-named automobile in history.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the HJ is a cool little car, even though it bombed in the marketplace. But the campaign to name the new little K-F product always rubbed me the wrong way. A contest was announced, giving the public the opportunity to suggest a name. But after it was all said and done, HJK said “April fool!” and named the car after himself. Not cool.

So what was the Henry J? It was part of the early ’50s compact car craze–well, craze in the minds of Detroit executives anyway. One by one they debuted–Hudson Jet, Aero-Willys, and the one bright spot in this new niche–the Nash Rambler. Only the Rambler would live to see its fifth birthday–and beyond. For further reading, Jeff Nelson did an excellent Auto History on the early compacts.

The Rambler did well because George Mason realized an el cheapo compact wasn’t going to fly–not when the independents’ smaller wares were about the same price–or more–than a Stovebolt Six Chevy or Ford Mainline. Thus, they were marketed as mini-luxury cars–and arguably could have been considered the first personal luxury car.

K-F took the opposite route, trying to sell the car on price–to their peril. The Henry J on introduction was a car only a true-blue skinflint could love: no glove box, no trunk lid (!) and an interior only slightly more deluxe than the cardboard box your Super Zenith console TV came in. Radio, taillights and turn signals were also optional. And it was still expensive relative to the bigger “Low Priced Three.”

A ’51 model was $1363 with the four and $1499 with the flathead six, when a Chevy Styleline Special two-door sedan was $1403. The Henry J boasted modern styling, mini-Cadillac rear fins, and a 100″ wheelbase. The 68-hp four and 80-hp six-cylinder engines were supplied by Willys-Overland. Sales for ’51 were rather inauspicious, with 38,500 fours and 43,400 sixes built.

1953 Henry J Ad-02

Would it get better? No, not really. For the 1952 model year the 4-cyl. was renamed Vagabond and the six was temporarily discontinued. In Feb. 1952 the six-powered version returned as the Corsair, and received a new grille, grille molding, built-in parking lights, “Corsair” emblems on the front fenders, revised taillights and a slightly more plush interior. The four-cylinder model became a Corsair as well, but kept the cheaper interior of the previous Vagabond.

All the fussy little changes didn’t help. The year saw 3K Vagabonds and 7600 Corsairs made. The supposed compact car “wave” never really crested, and the Henry J suffered right alongside the mini-’52 Ford Hudson Jet and Willys Aero.

1953s got minor changes, most prominently a new rocket-shaped hood ornament, chrome wheel covers and a wraparound rear bumper. As in ’52, the I4 Corsair was plainer, while the I6 Corsair de Luxe (why was K-F playing musical chairs with Henry J model names? The confusion couldn’t have helped) added chrome windshield trim, dome lights with door-mounted switches, an ash tray and nicer interior upholstery and door panels. Our featured car is one of the 8,172 de Luxes built that year.

They look good today, and have one of the coolest hood ornaments I’ve ever seen, but in ’53, K-F dealers might have had trouble selling them even if they weren’t $100 more than a big Chevy on average. Inside, 1953 models added a padded dash and a “dustproof” instrument cluster. Was dust a problem on the gauges of 1951 and ’52 models?

The year saw the aforementioned 8,172 de Luxes and 9,333 Corsairs built. As in the beginning, all HJ’s were built at K-F’s massive Willow Run factory. That same year, the Henry J won the Mobilgas Economy Run, but it didn’t matter. Too little, too late. In fact, K-F was just about ready to close down its automotive division in the U.S. and concentrate on Jeeps, as they had purchased W-O on April 28, 1953.

But for 800 Corsairs and 325 Corsair de Luxes, the Henry J’s short life was over, though the big Kaiser (CC here) would survive to 1962 as the luxury Carabella sedan–but in Argentina, not the USA, which was abandoned after a short 1955 model year.

Henry Js are quite rare these days, having been popular as drag cars in the late ’50s and Sixties. So I was very happy to see this beautiful sapphire-blue one at the Galesburg car show last year. I do not think we will be seeing one of these on the streets of Eugene, Indianapolis or Rock Island anytime soon, so this Car Show Classic will have to do for now. Mr. Kaiser, I like your cars, but I really wish you hadn’t fired Joe Frazer and let your ego get in the way of things, but I still salute you, sir!