It seemed like a sure thing: an alliance between the auto industry’s most dynamic and respected salesman and one of the 20th century’s most visionary industrialists. It was a partnership that promised to transform America’s wartime production might into a new automotive colossus, but by the time the end came, less than ten years later, it had become a cautionary tale of the perils of challenging Detroit on its own ground. This week, we present part one of our history of the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, including the company’s foundation and the 1947-1950 Kaiser and Frazer cars.
THE LAST BUFFALO: HENRY J. KAISER
When industrialist Henry J. Kaiser died in August 1967, a former competitor told Time that Kaiser was successful because he had no sense of his own limitations. Certainly, Kaiser never suffered from a shortage of confidence or ambition. Born in a farmhouse in upstate New York in 1882, he dropped out of school at the age of 13. By the end of his life, he had built what could without exaggeration be called an industrial empire, encompassing more than 100 different companies spanning the manufacturing, construction, steel, and aluminum industries.
Kaiser’s first company was a gravel and cement business, founded in Vancouver, British Columbia in December 1914. He hit the big time in 1927 with a $20 million contract to build roads in Cuba. In the thirties, his was part of a combine of companies that built the Hoover and Grand Coolee dams, along with other large-scale public works projects.
Kaiser was extremely successful, thanks to both his exceptional organizational abilities and his penchant for lateral thinking. If he were faced with a shortage of steel, for example, he would start his own foundry, or find a way to substitute aluminum. One of his favorite aphorisms was that trouble was only opportunity in overalls and work boots.
In 1939, Kaiser turned his attention to shipbuilding. He had never built a ship before, but by 1943, his companies employed more than 300,000 workers in seven shipyards across the U.S. In areas that lacked the infrastructure to support such a workforce, Henry Kaiser and his son Edgar organized the construction of entire cities in a matter of months. The Kaiser yards ultimately built 1,490 ships, representing more than a quarter of the Allies’ total merchant shipping tonnage. In November 1942, Kaiser’s Richmond, California yard completed a 14,245-ton Liberty ship, the SS Robert E. Peary, in only four and half days, less than half the time of the previous record-holder — another Kaiser shipyard.
The press took to calling Kaiser a miracle worker, a description Kaiser himself modestly refuted. Still, he took an evident pride in his ability to do the seemingly impossible.
When Kaiser went into the automobile business, his advertising agency selected the buffalo as an emblem, calling it a perfect symbol of the western spirit. Joe Frazer, who became Kaiser’s automotive partner, later said that it was a perfect description of Henry Kaiser.
As early as 1942, Henry Kaiser was thinking about cars. The U.S. government had halted civilian automobile production in February 1942. No one yet knew how long the conflict would last, but it didn’t take a lot of imagination to see that when peace returned, the market for new cars would be ferocious.
Like many in the thirties and early forties, Kaiser was fascinated by the idea of a compact, lightweight, inexpensive people’s car. In mid-1942, he organized a staff of “idea men” in Emeryville, California to explore design possibilities. That group, which included engineer Jean Gregoire of Simca, purchased and disassembled dozens of cars, while conceiving radical new designs of their own. Most had plastic bodies and incorporated front-wheel drive, still a radical idea in those days. Kaiser was fond of wild thinkers, people unencumbered by conventional wisdom, but the Emeryville operation raised many eyebrows among Kaiser’s more conservative executives, who were perturbed by the eccentric characters the boss had recruited.
By war’s end, this research culminated in a prototype called the K-85. It was not particularly compact — 197 inches (5,004 mm) long on a 117-inch (2,972mm) wheelbase — but it had many technical novelties, including “Packaged Power” front-wheel drive, unit construction, and “Torsionetic Suspension,” with torsion bar springs and an unusual torsion-beam rear axle. Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated, who drove a prototype a few years later, lambasted its heavy steering and persistent gear whine, but thought that if the company could fix those problems, its chances were good.
Despite such encouragement, Henry Kaiser understood that he still knew too little about the auto business. What he needed was a partner.