The Kaiser-Frazer story is a compelling one, about two gung-ho guys who took on Detroit in a big way. One was a long-time auto exec; the other a rich entrepreneur. Neither had ever tasted failure before. Obviously they didn’t succeed, as there’s been no new Kaisers or Frazers to be had for quite a long time, although Jeep is something of an unintended offshoot.
It would be some 65 years before there would be another new serious American car maker. Are there lessons to be learned from Kaiser-Frazer’s failure and Tesla’s dramatic success so far?
Let’s set the stage before we meet our intrepid heroes. There were once hundreds of automobile makers in the early days of the industry and well into the 1920s; the Darwinian process of elimination and consolidation fueled by the Depression was relentless. As the technology matured and once-huge profit margins shrunk, it required scale and momentum to survive, never mind thrive.
The last significant new volume automaker was Chrysler, founded in 1925. And it wasn’t actually all-new, but a re-organization of the Maxwell Company. Due to the spectacular success of the exceptionally-advanced 1924 Chrysler 70, Walter Chrysler quickly gained the momentum and scale (in part by buying Dodge) to create a powerhouse that soon outsold Ford, becoming the number two carmaker in the US. Chrysler’s astonishing success can be attributed to the superb advanced engineering and tasteful styling of the original Chrysler, a lesson that applies to both K-F and Tesla, unequally.
• The Players and the cars they each wanted to build:
Joe Frazer came from an established family, but he cut his teeth in the auto business as a mechanic’s helper at Packard. Although he had exposure to mechanics and engineering, he soon gravitated to sales and promotion, which served him very well indeed. His career took off at GM in the teens where he acquitted himself in a number of roles. He then joined Walter Chrysler at Maxwell, became a key figure during Chrysler’s resuscitation of Maxwell, was general sales manager at Chrysler during its explosive growth, gave Plymouth its name and became that division’s VP. Frazer had become one of the most successful and best-paid men in the industry.
In 1939, Frazer left Chrysler to head up Willys-Overland, which was in deep trouble. Despite the inherent limitations of what he had to work with, he doubled sales by 1941. And after the US entered the war, he saw a golden opportunity in supplying the Army with lots of…Jeeps. Although Bantam developed the concept originally, they lacked the facilities to build it in numbers. Frazer and Willys jumped in, they redesigned it and started cranking them out as fast as they could. Not enough to meet the Army’s demand, so Ford built them too, in even greater numbers, but Frazer had the foresight to trademark “Jeep”, a name he claimed to have was created as a popular contraction of GP, for the Army’s designation of General Purpose. And his tireless promotion of the “Willys Jeep” created an icon.
Frazer left Willys in 1944 after his offer to buy the company was spurned. His plans for Willys’ post-war products had been much more ambitious than Willys Chairman Ward M. Canaday’s plans, which turned out to be just more Jeeps. Frazer soon found a new possible springboard for his post-war dreams: Graham-Paige. After an almost endless string of losses, G-P got out of the automobile business in 1941 and temporarily found salvation as a defense contractor. But that was getting ready to wind down in 1944 when Frazer was given the opportunity to buy in. And he quickly assembled a small team to plan for post-war automobile production in G-P’s Warren Avenue plant. Since G-P had no existing cars or tooling to reuse after the war, there was an opportunity to start from scratch with new and innovative designs.
In a small corner of the plant, two very different designers were working on two equally very different concepts.
One of them was William B. Stout, who had a lengthy career in aviation and the automobile industry. In the mid-thirties, he designed a series of revolutionary aerodynamic rear-engine minivans, the Scarab. A handful were built, but Stout really needed a volume maker like G-P to make the Scarab feasible and semi-affordable.
He continued to work on a number of Scarab-offshoot concepts, like the two at the top. The fiberglass “Project Y” in the lower picture was a running proof of concept, uglier than the earlier Scarabs, but with an incredibly 74″ wide rear seat and a 95 hp Mercury V8 in the rear and a projected $10,000 selling price, some eight times more expensive than a new Chevy.
Stout’s concepts were still seen as being a bit to revolutionary for immediate post-war production, and more as long-term R&D.
The other designer was Howard A. ‘Dutch’ Darrin, a flamboyant veteran custom coachbuilder. He had worked with Hibbard, then with Fernandez in Paris, and then on his own in Hollywood, where he created some of the most rakish bodies on the various classic luxury cars of the golden era. He was a celebrity, and also did design consultation for a wide number of large car builders, in an era when essentially none had proper in-house design staff. He created a model for G-P (above) that was low and sleek, but hardly revolutionary, reflecting the general trends of the time for new post-war cars. As can be seen, it had a distinctive dip in the fenderline just in front of the rear wheel.
This model apparently had a removable roof so that it could serve as a model for a convertible sedan as well as an enclosed sedan, both of which were clearly two-doors. There’s quite a bit of Chrysler Thunderbolt to be seen in it. Clearly, the Darrin proposal was much more feasible, as it did not contemplate anything really new or different other than its styling. It was a conventional but modern-looking car that Frazer and G-P could conceivably build, if they had the money for the all-new tooling. Which they clearly didn’t. Well, G-P did have $6 million, which in the ’20s would have been enough, but not now.
So Joe Frazer put on his best suit and went begging. While out in California knocking (unsuccessfully) on Douglas’ and Lockheed’s doors, Bank of America founder Amadeo P. Giannini suggested he visit “H.J.”
Henry J. Kaiser was a man of boundless energy who could get anything built—including the world’s first articulated bus—under budget and sooner than projected. He left home at thirteen and before long was a massively successful contractor of major infrastructure projects, including the Hoover Dam. During the war, he built some 1,490 ships for the Navy and the Merchant Marine at his two shipyards in Richmond, CA and Portland, OR. One of them, a Liberty ship, was built four days, fifteen hours and twenty-six minutes, and was launched three days later. His motto was “Problems are merely opportunities in work clothes”.
Kaiser had been thinking about cars for a few years, and during the war he set up an experimental laboratory staffed by some engineers and “idea men”, the latter a commodity he like to have around him in ample numbers, as he was convinced there was always a better and cheaper way to accomplish something if one just applied some creative thinking to the issue. Of particular interest to HJ were a $400 car, new materials, and front wheel drive; not necessarily all in the same car.
Kaiser’s use of GRP was pioneering at that time. Here’s some other versions of the microcar. Henry took Joe on a ride in one; the two corpulent men bulging out the sides was apparently quite a sight. One assumes Joe Frazer was not really smitten with it as much as he was with Henry and his vast resources.
Kaiser was very infatuated with FWD and torsion bar suspension, and bought a number of European FWD cars to evaluate in Emeryville. The one that spoke most strongly to him was the Citroen TA.
His most influential advisor on all things FWD was Jean A. Gregoire, who had designed one of the first successful FWD cars ever, the very low-slung 1927 Tracta. Gregoire made FWD viable thanks to his pioneering constant-velocity joint, which was licensed by many FWD cars for decades.
Towards the war’s end, Gregoire was designing the Gregoire automobile in France, an ultra-light 1100 lbs two-cylinder FWD car chosen by the French government to be one of two low-priced “popular cars” after the war. They featured a cast aluminum chassis/cowl structure, and many of these features would find their way into both the Gregoire cars as well as the Panhard Dynas.
One of the end results of these experiments at Emeryville resulted in this FWD sedan with a GRP (fiberglass) body; it rather hints at the future (and ill-fated) Henry J. Not surprisingly, its wheels look to be French in origin.
It’s obvious from these various concepts that there wasn’t exactly much overlap between Kaiser’s and Frazer’s visions of what to build. In fact, Frazer had ridiculed Kaiser’s publicly, and quite rightly so, for the most part. Americans who were weaned on the Model T were going to buy microcars? Something would have to give. But first Henry would have to give, as in some money.
• The elopement:
It was love at first sight for Henry Kaiser and Joe Frazer, despite their very different backgrounds and automotive ideas. Or maybe precisely because of them. They first met on July 17, 1945; two days later they had already drawn up plans for the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, to be jointly owned by The Henry J. Kaiser Co. and Graham-Paige Motors. On July 25th, they went public with their plans. Henry said the company would build “a new light-weight low-priced automobile” to compete with Chevrolet-Ford-Plymouth on the West Coast while the Frazer would be built in Detroit, presumably in the aged G-P plant.
Their goal was to move very quickly to garner a share in what was going to be a huge seller’s market for cars, since the Depression and especially the war had seriously depleted the number of cars still on the road. Estimates put that satiation point somewhere in the year 1948, possibly in 1949. As to what would happen after that, there was not yet much thought or consideration.
The headwinds to establishing a new volume automaker were monumental. The industry had become highly consolidated, efficient and capital-intensive, and the large automakers had built up a huge amount of momentum and volume, the two most essential ingredients and the ones most difficult to achieve for a new entrant. Well, that and working capital; GM was sitting on a $600 million mountain of it. In 1941, 90% of US production was by the Big Three, the remaining 10% fought over by eight independents, all fighting to stay relevant. Joe Frazer’s initial goal was to get to Hudson, Nash or Studebaker volumes, or some 100-150k per year, and then hope for additional growth. The truth was that this wedding was not based on solid projections; Henry said “We’re wading around in a (pink) cloud of estimates”.
It’s easy to question this business plan in retrospect, given that the eight independents combined seemed stuck at around 10% of the market, and that the future would invariably see more advantages be conferred to the Big Three through their ability to achieve ever greater efficiencies. On the other hand, auto production wasn’t nearly as complex back then, and if an efficient plant operated at a high level of utilization, healthy profits were quite realizable. Today, that would be unthinkable, which is why we don’t see new entrants, except for Tesla, which has an essentially unique technology and selling proposition. And it’s still struggling to achieve consistent profits.
The Kaiser-Frazer Corporation had a complex legal structure, as it was not feasible at that time for the two entities to swap stock and just merge. So both companies would jointly fund shared costs (and potential profits), but would continue to exist as separate entities. Both companies would presumably (or not) use the same facilities and integrate car production as much possible (or not), as well as distribution, selling and servicing. In addition to the Frazer car, G-P would build and sell its agricultural equipment. The featured 1947 Frazer is a legally a product of the Graham-Paige Company as stated on its serial plate. Meanwhile, the actual Kaiser-Frazer Company would manufacture just the Kaiser car, hopefully in California. Henry was Chairman, Joe was President, and G-P had four directors to Kaiser’s three.
It was a complicated marriage of convenience, and one whose structure was destined to fail, regardless of the company’s success in general. Both companies would be responsible for 50% of K-F’s operating costs, and that’s where it was doomed. G-P had only so much money at its disposal; Kaiser had vast resources to tap. The 50-50 agreement would not last long.
There was no time to waste on second guessing; time was very much of the essence. On May 29, 1946, the first production car body was mated to its chassis, less than ten(!) months after Joe and Henry first met. This was a truly stupendous achievement, even at a time when cars were simpler.
• The factory:
Within a couple of weeks, K-F fell into a golden opportunity: to lease, with an option to buy, the Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, MI. It was the world’s largest building under one roof with 2.6 million square feet in just on the floor the main building. Built in 1940 to build bombers, it was now surplus and offered to K-F on extremely favorable terms. So much for California production; this is where K-F would stake its future. Securing Willow Run enabled K-F’s first public stock offering, which was massively oversubscribed. It was now full speed ahead.
The building was available as of Nov.1. A massive effort to convert it to automobile production ensued. The dual production lines were 9,754 feet long. Massive presses and paint booths were installed, loading docks built, in a round-the-clock marathon.
That was all mostly out of sight, but in order to keep investors happy and generate enthusiasm in potential buyers, K-F needed to show what it was going to sell. Henry quickly abandoned his ambitious plans for $400 microcars as well as the radical small FWD fiberglass sedans. It was time to get real.
• Creating a workable design:
Darrin assumed his model was just something to show to investors. But Joe Frazer handed it over to John Maxwell Associates and told them to turn it into a practical and buildable sedan. Darrin had no part in that. Two full-size production clays were created, one with a greenhouse that more closely resembled Darrin’s model (top); the other (lower) was an alternative. And that’s the one that was chosen. And Darrin’s dip in the pontoon fenderline was eliminated, to ease the construction of body dies. It was now a four door sedan, the roof was taller, and the proportions changed to suit the demands of a flat floor over a conventional frame. Darrin’s low and airy coupe model turned out to just be a starting point. In Darrin’s words: “It was ghastly, what they did to that car”.
Realistically, Darrin was never likely to be happy styling a mass-production sedan after all of his flamboyant exotics. The production Kaiser and Frazer were certainly quite advanced for 1946, the first full pontoon cars in the US. But their wholly unbroken and unadorned slab sides and resultant lack of visual interest inevitably became boring before long, which explains why Raymond Loewy avoided that with his all-new 1947 Studebakers, as did Harley Earl with the new 1948-1949 GM cars.
And the proportions are off some, with the rear wheel seeming to be too far back. That was done for practical reasons, as the K-F cars had their rear seats wholly ahead of the rear wheels, resulting in exemplary seat width. The 123.5″ wheelbase was long, and afforded a better than average ride.
The Frazer’s chassis and drive train was conventional, and some say influenced by Chrysler practices. A ladder frame with six cross members supported the body and a conventional coil spring IFS and a leaf-spring solid rear driven axle. Steering (manual, of course) had five turns lock-to-lock, and was supplied by Gemmer. Brakes were 10″ Bendix drums.
One very big question remained: what to do for an engine? Designing, developing and building its own was out of the question. This would come to haunt K-F, and is of course the single biggest difference from Tesla, which was always based around its advanced battery and electric motors. To be fair, in 1946, it didn’t really matter that much, as every car planned to go back into production that year would be using the same old engines as they used before the war, and many, possibly most of these engines had their origins in the ’20s and ’30s. The Studebaker Champion flathead six was almost certainly the youngest.
But it was also well known that there would soon be a generation of all-new engines, with overhead valves and high compression to take advantage of the high-octane gasoline that was also on the horizon. GM was hard at work on its all-new ohv Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8s, engines that would set the pattern for decades to come. And GM had already pioneered the first automatic transmission, the fluid-coupling Hydramatic, and was working on a very different alternative, the torque converter Dynaflow and Powerglide. These power train advantages would play a significant role in propelling GM’s market share steadily upwards during the ’50s.
• A vintage engine for the car of tomorrow
Frazer’s engineers looked at various options, but in the end they had no real choice but the venerable Continental L-head (flathead) long-stroke 226 cubic inch six, the same engine that had powered the Graham and so many others in the pre-war era. Continental supplied engines to over a hundred makes in the glory days of the ’20s, but by the early ’40s its fortunes had dropped. The 226, whose origins were also in the 1920s, was also used extensively in low speed agricultural and industrial applications, and was designed for low speed running. It would take some doing to make it relatively more acceptable to the standards of a semi-luxury car like the Frazer.
Not only was the renamed “Supersonic” 226 six modified considerably to increase power (to 100 gross bhp) and durability. K-F was so concerned about being assured of a steady supply as well as controlling the quality, it leased Continental’s Detroit Engine Plant and essentially made it their own engine, although they would also keep buying from Continental’s other plant, as long as needed. K-F would eventually have to make heroic efforts (supercharging) to make this engine suitable for their needs, but it would soon become an uphill battle, and eventually a losing one.
The Supersonic six was backed up a Borg-Warner three speed manual, and overdrive was optional.
Starting in the spring of 1948, a modern ohv V8 was designed at K-F by David Potter and Harold Bullard, ostensibly to be used in the new 1951 cars. It grew from 232 to 255 and then to 288 cubic inches. But costs associated with the upcoming small car and the new ’51 models deprived the V8 program of funds, and it was abandoned. When Nash desperately needed a V8 engine in 1954, George Romney hired Potter, and his experience with the Kaiser V8 was put to good use in the new AMC 250-287-327 V8 that first appeared in 1956.
Despite the lack of a modern engine, for the time being the Frazer team pulled off what needed to happen: create a viable all-new car in a matter of a few months, thanks to a pool of experienced engineers from G-P and Willys that Joe Frazer enticed to come work for him.
• Wrong wheel drive, unibody, and torsion bar all-independent suspension:
But things were not as easy on the Kaiser side. Henry had agreed to forget about a small low-priced fiberglass-bodied car for the time being, and even accepted the need to share the same basic body with Frazer. But under the skin, Henry was determined that it would still be radically different: a unibody structure, FWD, and torsion bar fully independent suspension front and rear. Very heady stuff for the US at the time; it would be decades before anything like this was built by Detroit.
The first major hurdle was how to position the engine. Henry was against mounting it behind the axle centerline, as had been the near-universal tradition up to this time, because he felt it resulted in less than ideal traction as well as intrusion of the engine into the body. An engine mounted fully ahead of the axle, a la Audi, was tried, but the heavy iron six stuck way too far out front and made the car too front heavy.
The solution would be similar to what GM did with its 1966 Toronado: place the engine over the axle centerline, take the power off the rear, turn it around and send it to the front axle. In this case, the conventional Borg Warner three-speed manual transmission was mounted behind the engine, and the power was then routed forward and downward by a transfer case and carried to the differential.
These specs of the FWD Kaiser and the Frazer shows the Kaiser engine having 187 cubic inches, a smaller and somewhat lighter Continental six. The suspension, dubbed “Torsionetic”, has trailing arms at the front and rear, with transverse torsion bars, which were not only seen as advanced, but also allowed packaging them to be conveniently out of the way of the FWD power train.
The other significant aspect was the Kaiser’s unibody. This was still a fairly novel approach in the US; the Lincoln Zephyr had it in 1936 and the Nash 600 in 1941, but this was the first time it was being conceived with a body shell shared with a BOF car, the Frazer. This required strategic reinforcements and a stronger floor. The Kaiser also had a shorter wheelbase, with the front wheels set back some six inches to better accommodate the FWD “Packaged Power” unit, which could be removed as a whole for servicing.
Two hand built prototype FWD Kaisers and a single Frazer were designed, engineered and built from scratch by a team of 395 in just 90 days. Who says that new cars took 3-5 years to be developed, styled, engineered and built back in the day? One of the Kaisers the Frazer had their first public showing in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York. An endless line of 160,000 would-be gawkers waited in the cold outside for a chance to walk through and see the cars that they had heard so much about. It was a huge success. Orders quickly piled up, and eventually topped a million by the August of 1946, backed by deposits of $100-$300 each. Shades of Tesla.
But no one could touch them, never mind drive them. That is, until intrepid Tom McCahill of Mexhanix Illustrated wrangled a drive of both Frazer and FWD Kaiser prototypes on the Willow Run Expressway. In McCahill’s typical bombastic style, he raved about the Frazer’s ride, comfort, visibility, and even the power, and called it “a hot automobile”.
As soon as he got behind the wheel of the Kaiser K-85 FWD prototype, he instantly noticed the very heavy steering and a whining noise from the front end. Engineers told him they would lick the noise before production began. But McCahill was impressed with its roadability and general performance, even with the smaller engine.
But the very loud front end noise, from the prototype transfer case, was not licked readily, nor the very heavy steering. Welcome to the inherent challenges of FWD. The next big American car to have it, the 1966 Toronado, had power steering standard. That would have been vastly too expensive in 1946. And the expense of having Borg Warner tool up the transfer case and front differential would have been great. It might all have been possible to work, but not on the extremely short timetable and limited budget available to the engineers.
• Capitulation and Production Hell
By April 1946 or so, Henry had to capitulate on his FWD Kaiser. Joe Frazer offered the way out: “Henry…the Frazer is a very good automobile…let’s just make a plainer edition of the Frazer and sell it alongside, and it will still be a good automobile”. Realistically, there was no other option. And given that both cars would be built in the same plant anyway, it meant that there would of course be much better production efficiencies. But it must have been a pretty painful come-down for Henry Kaiser, who had always gotten his way. He was quickly learning that the automobile business was quite different than building roads, dams and ships.
Now the big push was on to actually get these cars into production. Henry’s son Edgar, who was largely behind the success of Kaiser’s rapid ship-building, became K-F General Manager in January of 1946, and it was largely on his shoulders to make it happen. Instead of “production hell”, it was “logistics/supplier hell”. In the immediate post war era, there were massive shortages of all industrial materials as all non-essential domestic industrial activity had been suspended for some four years. This issue alone could have derailed K-F, but it was the area where Kaiser’s wide reach and creativity turned out to be indispensable.
Here’s just one example of numerous ones: Harrison couldn’t make enough radiators because of copper shortages. The copper producers needed more natural gas, but the gas companies couldn’t get enough steel pipes because the steel companies lacked pig iron to make the pipe, and the blast furnaces lacked coke to make pig iron.
But the Kaisers found some coke, which they exchanged for pig iron, which was sent to the steel mills, who produced the pipes for the gas company, which then could send increased amounts of gas to the specific copper producers, who then sent the additional production to Harrison to make more radiators for K-F. And so on. At times, airplanes were even pressed into service to send steel panels from California to Willow Run. The resulting prices were often colossal. But it was all essential to getting the cars into production.
The first Frazer came off the line on May 29, 1946, and a few weeks later, the first batch of conventional Kaisers started rolling down one of the two long lines.
The Kaiser was anything but a Chevrolet-Ford-Plymouth competitor, being priced at a lofty $1868, which was solidly in Pontiac-Mercury-Dodge territory. The Frazer, better trimmed and with a more elaborate dashboard, started at $2053, competing with the Chrysler Windsor, Oldsmobile and some Buicks.
Both cars initially had a tiny “Darrin-styled” badge on their trunk lids, despite Dairrin’s strong request to delete them. That only happened after the supply of pre-punched trunk lids was exhausted sometime in 1947.
At the end of 1946, production was still ramping up, and costs were enormous. Both G-P (Frazer) and Kaiser were losing money on their respective ends of what was essentially something of a partnership in K-F. Joe Frazer essentially threw in the towel, and recommended to the G-P board that they sell its automotive assets to Kaiser, via a stock swap and debentures. The consolidation of automobile production under K-F would reduce costs and protect G-P from possible further losses that it could ill afford. A total of 8940 Frazer cars were built with the G-P identity.
In March of 1947, K-F began building its own engines in the leased Continental plant, but Continental’s Muskegon plant also built some 150 per day for K-F. Production kicked into high gear by the summer of 1947; in June they built 12,039 cars, topped only by the Big Three. 2000 cars per day were planned with two shifts per day. Things were looking up. And morale was high; there was a palpable enthusiasm throughout Willow Run.
• Interior Heaven
By having only a four door sedan, K-F was limited to the 50% of the market that bought that body style. And there were no resources to make significant annual body restyles. But K-F did have one ace up its sleeve, in the form of Carlton Spencer, who oversaw color choices and interiors.
Spencer was way ahead of his time, and his unerring good taste gave K-F a distinct advantage over the competition when the doors were opened. It would take a few more years before his bold choices really came into their own in the 1951 Kaiser Dragon and such, but from day one, K-F cars had invariably stylish and tasteful interiors.
Carlton’s first big splash was the Frazer Manhattan, announced March 23, 1947. It had subtle but distinctive exterior trim and a more luxurious interior appointments with distinctive materials and fabrics.
I don’t know whether this restored Manhattan’s upholstery is 100% historically correct, but it looks like it might be or very close. At the time it made quite a splash.
The Manhattan was priced at $2250, which really put it into pretty august competition, from the likes of the Chrysler New Yorker, Packard DeLuxe Eight, the Lincoln, and only a couple hundred dollars below the Cadillac. And all of these cars had at least eight cylinder engines and significantly more power. The Manhattan’s share of Frazer production was consistently quite high, in the 35-40% range.
Before long, there was also a Kaiser Custom, later called DeLuxe, with similar upgrades, although not quite as expensive and elaborate. But it never found a strong following and was eventually dropped.
In a somewhat typical example of how the creative-thinking Kaiser folks worked, the 1949 Kaiser DeLuxe was graced with a chrome plated script on its front fender that spelled out the exterior color, Horizon Blue, in this case. One wonders whether having “Clay Pipe” (gray) spelled out on a luxury car was really all that prestigious. Never mind the cost of some 20 different badges, and the headaches they caused to K-F parts managers. And good luck finding a replacement today.
1947 closed out on a very high note. K-F had produced 145k cars, and netted a $19 million profit, which almost perfectly wiped out the same sized loss from 1946. It was now the largest of the independents with a 4.06% of the market.
1948 Kaisers and Frazers had only very slight differences, at least externally. There were a number of changes under the skin, but nothing substantial. They still looked very modern, as the Big Three ’48s were still warmed-over pre-war cars, except for the new GM C Bodies that arrived late in the model year. They were considered competent, with certain advantages over the competition, although nothing really substantially so. Consumer’s Union felt performance was adequate, with a well-built body and finish. Its advantages were deemed to be its wide seats and very large trunk, but visibility was judged poor due to the high cowl and the front roof edges being too low. They also felt both the Kaiser and Frazer were “much overpriced”.
Objectively, that’s hard to argue against. The enthusiasm by certain buyers for a completely new car had been infectious, but that could not be banked on for the long term. Somewhat curiously, farmers represented the biggest occupation demographic of K-F buyers, but then they were flush with cash after the war.
Others felt that the K-F cars exhibited excellent road manners, and were ideal for long, fast distances. But realistically, there were no exceptional qualities to them, except perhaps their trunks, which were vastly bigger than any of the competition.
These comparisons show how the various 1948 Kaisers and Frazers were positioned against their competition. Note that a Chevrolet started at $1270 (as a frame of reference) and had roughly the same performance (or better) from its 90 hp ohv six and lighter weight. It’s quite clear that it was a stretch to sell these 100 hp six cylinder cars for their asking price, or it would be, when the new-car excitement wore off. Especially so after the all-new cars from the Big Three arrived in 1949.
Model year 1948 production was low, because of a shorter model year, but calendar year production showed a healthy increase from 144k to 181k. And in December, F-K bought the Willow Run plant outright, for $15 million, with 20 years to repay. But profits for the year decreased significantly, to some $10 million, due to changed product mix of more Kaisers and fewer Frazers, among other factors.
1949 brought the first obvious external styling changes, with a new heavier horizontal grille for Kaiser and a Cadillac-esque egg crate grille for Frazer (above). A number of other smaller changes were also visible, to make them look lower and longer along with new colors, interiors, dashboards, and numerous technical changes. A dual manifold-dual carburetor option that was first available as an option on the 1948 Manhattan was now standard on all Frazers and optional on the Kaisers. It elevated output to 112 or 117 bhp, depending on the source.
But the big news was something very innovative, the Traveler and Vagabond utility models, with a hatchback upper section and a fold-down tailgate. Henry Kaiser is given the credit for it; he was frustrated with the creaking and other limitations of his wood-bodied station wagon (of some other brand) in his household, and came up with the idea as an alternative. It was certainly cheaper than building a proper wagon, and almost as practical.
The rear seat folded down, making room for a bed, if so desired. The only compromise was the spare, which had to be mounted upright behind the driver’s side rear door, which was disabled. It cost only $100 more than a regular Kaiser; thus much less than the hand built wood-framed wagons typical of the times. And they accounted for some 25% of 1949 production.
The other model expansion was a convertible. We’ve covered this in greater detail in another CC, but here’s the short story: it was the first four door convertible in some years, but not because that was seen as inherently superior. K-F lacked a two door model to use as a starting point, so the four door sedan was the only alternative. The budget was extremely modest, and the first versions were just sedans with their roofs cut off. The result was unsurprisingly horrific, structurally. The frame needed an X center section, and other reinforcements to the frame and body were made on a trial-and-error basis.
It wasn’t a true convertible even then, due to the fixed window frames. There just wasn’t the budget to engineer frameless windows. And because the sedan’s center pillar was just cut away at the belt line, the area between the side windows needed to be filled. The solution was a small framed window. The whole thing looks quite cobbled up, which it was, but don’t tell K-F fans that. They were also expensive and slow, due to all the extra weight. There were both Frazer and Kaiser versions.
Once the sedan’s roof had been cut off, the K-F stylists put another one on, to create a hardtop, the Kaiser Virginian. Of course the fixed window frames and fixed center window kept it from being a true hardtop, but it added some needed style to a lineup that was starting to get a bit stale.
Carlton Spencer was given free rein with the Virginian’s interior, and the first really extravagant Kaisers was the result. It too was expensive, and in the end, only 54 or 255 (depending on the source) convertibles and some 945 Virginians were built. Those that didn’t get sold in 1949 were given new serial numbers for 1950.
• The Divorce
1949 would be a watershed year for K-F. Joe Frazer’s influence, and of the men he brought with him from G-P, were clearly on the decline, and had been since 1948. In part, Frazer even encouraged that, on the basis of recommendations from others to not stand in the way of the Kaisers, with their deep pockets. Meanwhile an ever greater number of Kaiser men were showing up from his far-flung empire. They were mostly from California, and were deeply steeped in the kind of creative thinking Henry always encouraged. But they lacked automotive experience.
Joe Frazer, who did have deep experience, predicted that 1949 would not be a good year for a company with mildly face-lifted cars against an onslaught of all-new cars from the Big Three. He recommended a retrenchment, to build only some 70k cars for the year, cut costs, and hope to turn a $7 million profit.
That did not go over well with Henry, who said “Kaisers never retrench” at the climactic meeting. Kaiser wanted to build 200k cars, and was prepared to borrow up to $40 million for operating capital to tool up for 200k cars. There was little choice but for Joe Frazer to call it quits. He didn’t have the money or the board seats to do otherwise, so he resigned the presidency, and quietly slipped away with a three-year consultant’s contract. But he was never asked to consult.
From this point forward, the influence of the remaining G-P men dwindled, and Edgar Kaiser and the unorthodox “orange juicers” consolidated their power in all aspects of the company. It had been a clash of cultures, and the dynamic, creative and well-heeled Californians had won the battle, but not the real war, the one against Detroit.
Substantially revised 1950 models had been planned, but by late 1948, it was obvious that they would not be ready. So starting in November 1949, existing unsold 1949 cars (some 20,000) were relabeled as 1950 MY cars, by replacing their serial plates, as a first step in dealing with a glut of unsold cars. Joe Frazer’s prediction turned out to be optimistic. Only a pathetic 58k cars were built. It was a very ugly situation, and in November, a liquidation of K-F was considered, as at that stage the company could be wound down and still be able to pay its debts.
But the Kaisers were rightfully concerned that a liquidation would reflect badly on the rest of their empire, and erode public confidence in it. So they doubled down, and borrowed more from the Reconstruction Finance Corp. and other sources. The reported loss for the year was a whopping $30 million. The company had now accumulated losses of $21 million. But there was a new surge of optimism, in the form of a new 1951 model, with a radical new design.
• End of Part 1 – and a sneak preview of Part 2
We’re going to take up Part 2 of the Kaiser-Frazer story when we find a suitable curbside gen2 Kaiser. But here’s a sneak preview:
Dutch Darrin’s contract with K-F gave him the right to present his ideas for any future cars before the company settled on any final design. When he heard that K-F was well along designing a new car in the spring of 1948, he showed up to see what they were working on. Not the least bit impressed, he hired the young Duncan McRae to help refine a small model he had and to make the drawings. The result is at the top here: a very low and airy car, something of a direct evolution of his first model, and a two door coupe, once again.
It was a battle, but in the end Darrin’s design was chosen. Full sized clays were built. A kink was added to the C Pillar. Compromises were made, the most significant one being (once again) a taller roof, especially at the rear, because Darrin’s idea to have a lower rear seat by having the frame rear kick-up be unconventional was not adopted. Although the end result was not without its faults, it was dramatically lower, with unprecedented glass area. It was also lighter and shorter, promising dynamic improvements, especially considering the now-seriously outdated flathead six. Although Darrin was (inevitably) not satisfied, he was apparently not “aghast”.
There were still so many leftover body shells from ’49-’50, that the 1951 Frazer continued on with them, along with a restyled front end and new rear fender extensions. It was an expedient and fairly effective make-over, but marked the end of the Frazer brand.
Henry finally got his small, cheap car too, the Henry J. It was not cheap to develop, tool, and build. Priced starting at $1363 with poverty-level appointments (no opening trunk), it was only some $180 less than a new Chevrolet, never mind a one year old one.
And Kaiser wasted even more money on a sports car, the Kaiser-Darrin.
Both the new 1951 Kaisers and Henry J sold fairly well initially in their extended 1951 model year. Total K-F sales peaked, with some 232k sold in total.
But it’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal that it all went downhill from there.
Sources: primarily Richard Langworth’s excellent book “Kaiser-Frazer – The Last Onslaught On Detroit” (1975).
Related reading at CC:
Auction Classic: 1951 Frazer Manhattan Convertible