(first posted 7/22/2013) Every once in a while a person needs a good challenge to liven themselves up. As humans are so prone to being creatures of habit, keeping things fresh helps stave off the boringness of a routine.
How can one keep things fresh and vibrant? If one is so adventurous, they could try putting gravy on white cake, swapping sides of the bed, or writing a CC on a car they previously had no flipping idea about, other than its existence. Change can be good, because who likes stale?
Take Henry J. Kaiser as an example of keeping things fresh. Starting his professional life as a photographer, he moved to the State of Washington, trading his camera for a crane as he transitioned to the heavy construction industry. In the construction business he was a prime contractor during the construction of the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas as well as the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams over the Columbia River. As he was gifted in identifying various business needs, he was always staying fresh with his various business ventures that would ultimately include ship building and the aluminum production business.
Bored of building big, tangible items like ships and dams, Kaiser branched out to automobiles toward the end of the war, founding Kaiser-Frazer Corporation with business partner, and former Graham-Paige president, Joseph Frazer. Perhaps Henry J. wanted a higher number of tangible and durable goods created in his likeness.
The initial Kaiser was very much ahead of its time and a moderate success with 70,000 being sold in 1947 and 91,000 for model year 1948.
The Traveler version of the first generation Kaiser demonstrated they weren’t horsing around with creating fresh ideas, and they didn’t hesitate to pony up those novel ideas. The Traveler would foreshadow the hatchbacks and crossovers that would scurry about years later. The Traveler was almost as good as a Rambler for young men who entertained ideas of being fresh with their dates!
By 1953, things weren’t looking so fresh and rosy for the Kaiser Motor Company (in 1953, partner Joe Frazer got in a spat with Henry J. and said “auf wiedersehen”). At this point hardtops and V8 engines were all the rage; Kaiser had no hardtop and was still using the Continental sourced inline six. As necessity has been credited as being the mother of invention, something had to be done to maintain the vitality of the Kaiser brand.
Enter Carleton Spencer, an automotive interior designer who could almost pull fresh pastry out of stale bread.
Spencer was given nearly free reign for 1951’s Golden Dragon. For 1953, he created what could be called the Kaiser brand’s masterpiece with the Dragon.
Billing the existing four-door sedan as a hardtop (a little white lie Ford would repeat with their titillating line of LTD’s in 1971), the Dragon was quite the ornate machine by 1953 standards. While this Dragon isn’t as fresh as it once was, finding this particular example was quite refreshing.
The Dragon followed in Kaiser’s ability to create an extravagant interior, thanks to Spencer (some factory custom work can be found here). The material used on the seat was advertised as being dragon hide; the original idea was to call it alligator skin, but Kaiser didn’t care to risk allegations of false advertisement (which resoundingly trumped animal cruelty accusations in 1953). In reality, the dragon hide was vinyl introduced to the basic thermodynamic principles of heating and rapid cooling. This dragon hide was so durable, some sources have made mention of Dragon’s whose seats looked nearly pristine despite the rest of the car decomposing around them. From the picture above, it should be noted they weren’t immune to deterioration.
The rest of the interior, save the floor, was covered in Bambu vinyl. Originally intended to be called “dinosaur skin”, someone wised up, thinking any references to dinosaurs in the same sentence as a Kaiser might be counterproductive.
Amongst all the attention to detail the Dragon received, there was also an available gold plated monogram for the dash. It’s not captured here as your author has only recently learned about it, although it’s hard to imagine the survival rate being that high; really, would someone whose initials are “J.S.” want a monogram on their car that was emblazoned with “P.N.”? Those likely got hastily chucked into the refuse pile after trade-in.
The Bambu theme continued on the roof of the car. All Dragon’s were also unique in receiving gold plated emblems on various exterior components.
Dragon’s cost an additional $1,200 more than a regular Manhattan, but featured many unique items as standard equipment. Being priced at $3,924, the six-cylinder 118 horsepower Kaiser Dragon cost more than a V8 powered Cadillac Series 62 – and within $70 of a Coupe de Ville. For power hungry buyers, there was no reason to pay more money for less power.
For those worried about fuel economy, the Dragon did get a class best 21 mpg in the 1953 Mobil Gas Economy Run. However, if one could afford a Dragon, did they really care about fuel economy?
Yet the fun didn’t stop there. In 1953, Ford and General Motors entered into a pricing war; the losers were all the independent makes such as Kaiser. As Kaiser had a track record of grossly overproducing cars, the sales problem was exacerbated. Left over ’53 Dragon’s got re-skinned, re-detailed, and re-numbered to become regular ’54 models (there was no Dragon in ’54), similar to what had been done with leftover 1951 models. Kaiser even made executive driven and pool Dragon’s available to employees at steep discounts, even desperately seeking offers on a price.
If you do a google image search for “Kaiser Dragon car” you will see they nearly all have wire wheels. This example does not, nor does the Dragon in this 1953 ad. It seems the Dragon’s were made in three batches during the model year; those made after about February 1953 did have the wire wheels as standard. This makes our example one of the earlier Dragon’s produced.
But it gets better as this Dragon was likely one of the first ones hatched. After the first twenty or so Dragon’s were manufactured and shipped, Kaiser received complaints about swirls in the lacquer finish of the black cars; black was promptly axed as an available color option. Black appears to be the original color of this Dragon and it was the only body color available with a black bambu roof, as seen on this example. From the sources referenced, black has been identified as being the most rare color of ’53 Dragon due to its being canned so quickly.
Henry J. Kaiser is credited as saying “A problem is simply an opportunity in work clothes.” Sadly, all of the effort by Kaiser and Carleton Spencer was to no avail, with Kaiser moving only 1,277 Dragon’s for the 1953 model year. Sixty years hence, it does make for a wonderful opportunity to see something so fresh from 1953.