THE BIRTH OF THE HENRY J
As we mentioned in part one of the Kaiser-Frazer story, both Henry Kaiser and co-founder Joe Frazer had been very interested in developing a compact car and each had done some initial work on such a model before they even met. For various practical reasons, the first Kaiser and Frazer cars were conventional, full-size models, but Henry Kaiser in particular remained keen on compacts.
In 1946, Kaiser-Frazer commissioned compact car proposals from the Los Angeles-based design firm E.H. Daniels, Inc., and the team of Brooks Stevens and Robert Paxton McCulloch (founder of McCulloch Motors and later Paxton Products), but neither got past the model stage. Nonetheless, when Henry Kaiser went to the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) for a major operating loan in late 1948, he once again promised that Kaiser-Frazer would soon offer a small, economical people’s car with the lowest retail price of any new American automobile. That prospect appealed to RFC officials, who made the introduction of such a car — to go on sale no later than the summer of 1950 — a condition of the $44 million loan; roughly a quarter of the money was set aside to finance its development.
Around that time, Henry Kaiser was approached by Detroit investor Frederick C. Matthaei, then a principal shareholder of the automotive supplier American Metal Products (AMP). AMP and steel fabricator Haber Stump Harris had recently developed a compact car prototype, which Matthaei had originally hoped would allow AMP to become a full-fledged automaker. However, AMP had quickly realized that building a complete automobile was beyond its capabilities and Matthaei opted instead to sell the design to a larger company.
While many of Kaiser-Frazer’s Detroit veterans dismissed the AMP prototype as amateurish, the Kaisers decided to buy it on the not-illogical premise that adapting an existing design would be faster and cheaper than developing a new compact car from scratch. Kaiser was unmoved by the strenuous objections of K-F engineers (and several board members), which he attributed to Detroit’s customary hostility toward any idea “not invented here” — an attitude with which the Kaisers were already very familiar.
Dutch Darrin lobbied hard for his short-wheelbase ’51 Kaiser concept, arguing that it would cost less to tool than the AMP design, but it was to no avail. When Edgar Kaiser offered Darrin a per-car royalty to help the in-house stylists refine the AMP prototype for production, he reluctantly accepted.
As the naysayers had gloomily predicted, turning AMP’s crude prototype into a production-ready car was more complicated and more expensive than Henry Kaiser had anticipated. Among other things, the AMP car could not easily accommodate the Continental six used in K-F’s full-size models. Since the company lacked the resources for an all-new engine, Kaiser-Frazer ended up purchasing four- and six-cylinder engines from Willys-Overland. The AMP prototype’s tubular frame also proved unworkable and was discarded in favor of a new perimeter frame designed by ex-Willys engineer Ralph Isbrandt.
With the RFC-imposed deadline fast approaching, there was little that could be done with the prototype’s awkward proportions, but in-house stylist Herb Weissinger added a new grille (reminiscent of the 1951 Frazer) and stubby, Cadillac-like tail fins. Darrin’s most visible contribution was the body sides, which had a trace of Darrin’s trademark “Darrin dip.”
The finished car, dubbed “Henry J” — officially chosen in a write-in contest, although the Kaisers had apparently selected the name beforehand — went on sale on September 28, 1950. With a starting price of only $1,219, the Henry J was the cheapest new car in America and one of the most economical. Unfortunately, the low price — another requirement of the RFC loan — had been achieved by stripping trim and features to an almost comically Spartan level; the base-model Henry J didn’t even have a glove box. Fit and finish of the early cars was also sub-par and owners soon complained of poor door seals, leaky windows, and an assortment of other minor maladies. Early sales were encouraging, but it didn’t take buyers long to conclude that a used Ford or Chevrolet was a more livable proposition.
Kaiser-Frazer sold about 75,000 Henry Js in the first year, but ended the model year with over 7,000 unsold cars. Sales for 1952 were well under 35,000, despite a deal with Sears, Roebuck to market a facelifted version under the Allstate brand. It was downhill from there: The Henry J did well overseas despite the lack of a RHD version or suitable export suspension, but at home, the compact was going nowhere fast.
THE EXCALIBUR J
Whatever its aesthetic and merchandising shortcomings, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the Henry J’s sturdy boxed-section frame or dependable L-head Willys engines. Contemporary testers like Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics‘ Floyd Clymer chided the Henry J’s assembly quality, but praised the compact as a basically sound package. Aside from its obvious economy, it had an agreeable blend of ride comfort and maneuverability and with the six-cylinder engine it was sprightly, if not particularly fast. Some highly successful sports cars had been built on far less promising foundations, and enterprising builders and hot rodders were soon contemplating a racier Henry J.
Among them was designer Brooks Stevens. Although Stevens had nothing to do with the Henry J’s design, he had remained in contact with Kaiser-Frazer as a consultant. In 1951, he acquired several Henry J chassis, added minimalist roadster bodywork with aluminum body panels and simple cycle fenders, and pitched the concept to Kaiser-Frazer as a dual-purpose sports racer along the lines of the Anglo-American Nash Healey or the Allard J2. The Kaisers declined, but Stevens decided to build three of the cars at his own expense. Dubbed “Excalibur J,” the roadsters were intended primarily for competition in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Class D events.
The Excalibur Js traded the Henry J’s L-head six for the newer Willys “Hurricane” F-head engine, also used in the Willys Aero compact. In stock form, the 161 cu. in. (2,639 cc) Hurricane six made 10 to 15 horsepower (7.5 to 10 kW) more than its flathead counterpart; in racing tune, Stevens’ crew extracted a reliable 100+ hp (75 kW). With a dry weight of only 1,500 lb (680 lb) — nearly 900 lb (400 kg) lighter than the already-svelte six-cylinder Henry J — that was enough to give the Excalibur J strong acceleration and a top speed of around 120 mph (193 km/h).
The Willys-powered Excalibur J ran its first SCCA race in July 1952, taking second in class. In all, the Excalibur Js ran in two dozen events in the 1952 and 1953 seasons, winning nine of them and regularly besting European and Anglo-American rivals costing far more.
Around the end of 1952, Stevens showed the Excalibur J to various automotive magazines, apparently hoping to find an automaker willing to put it into series production. Despite the Excalibur J’s racing exploits, he found no takers and only the three original cars were ever built; they continued to race with some success through at least 1957. Stevens subsequently applied the Excalibur name to a Lincoln-powered, rear-engine race car and then to his long-running retro-classic line, which was introduced in 1964.
THE DARRIN SPORTS CAR
In early 1952, a few months before the Excalibur J began its competition career, Dutch Darrin started work on a Henry J-based sports car of his own. It’s not clear if Darrin was aware of Stevens’ efforts or not; it’s certainly possible that Darrin heard about the Stevens proposal, but he later told author Richard Langworth that his initial motivation was simply to assuage his lingering disappointment with the way production Henry J had turned out.
That spring, Darrin and his son Bob developed a clay model of a sleek, low-slung roadster featuring the “Darrin dip”; a peaked windshield, reminiscent of (and perhaps borrowed from) the 1951 Kaiser; a manually retractable fiberglass hardtop, and unusual sliding doors. The doors were a new variation on a concept Darrin had conceived for his stillborn postwar car and subsequently refined for his ’51 Kaiser proposal, which had included electrically operated sliding doors front and rear as well as electric windows that would lower automatically as the doors opened. Kaiser-Frazer had rejected that idea, presumably on cost grounds, but Darrin had applied for a patent on it in June 1948, which was issued in early 1953. Unlike Darrin’s earlier proposals, the roadster’s doors retracted into the front fenders rather than over them and for the sake of simplicity had no windows, power-operated or otherwise.
Like his abortive postwar car, Darrin decided to build the roadster out of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP, or fiberglass) rather than steel or aluminum. Fiberglass had several advantages for auto bodies: It was relatively light, it was more resilient than aluminum, it didn’t rot, it was immune to corrosion, and it could be molded into shapes difficult to achieve with steel. Its most critical advantage, however, was that plastic molds were far less expensive than the tooling for steel bodies — cheap enough to make fiberglass-bodied cars economically viable for small private manufacturers.
When the clay was completed, Darrin commissioned Costa Mesa, California-based Glasspar to produce the body for an initial running prototype, using a stock Henry J chassis and drivetrain. Although Glasspar’s primary business was fiberglass boats, founder Bill Tritt was also at the forefront of an emerging cottage industry in plastic kit cars, including his own Glasspar G2 and the Willys-based Woodill Wildfire. By the time Darrin hired them in 1952, Tritt and the Glasspar staff knew as much as anyone about making automotive bodies out of glass-reinforced plastic; Glasspar would later serve as a consultant to GM and Volvo, among others.