As we saw in our first installment, Kaiser-Frazer’s initial success in the postwar automotive boom came to an abrupt end in 1949. The debacle that followed ended the partnership of Henry J. Kaiser and Joseph Frazer and left the company more than $43 million in the red. Things were bad enough that Henry Kaiser and company president Edgar Kaiser seriously discussed liquidation, but they decided to stay the course, betting that they could turn things around with a stylish new ’51 Kaiser and a new compact car called the Henry J. This week, the second half of our history of Kaiser-Frazer, including the stylish 1951 Kaiser, the Henry J, and the ultimate fate of Kaiser’s automotive venture.
DUTCH DARRIN DROPS HIS PANTS
When Joe Frazer and Henry Kaiser first became partners in 1945, they had had grand ambitions of building an advanced, compact economy car, possibly with front-wheel drive and other innovations. As we saw in last week’s installment, expediency led them to shelve those plans by early 1946; the first Frazer and Kaiser production models were orthodox, full-size cars. Although they sold well in the postwar boom, everyone involved considered them interim models and work began on the second-generation cars by the end of 1947. They were slated for release in 1950 as 1951 models.
Both the Frazer and the Kaiser were based on a tossed-off design by acclaimed styling consultant Howard “Dutch” Darrin. Although early Frazers carried badges proclaiming them “Darrin-styled,” Darrin was never happy with the design, which he had not intended as a production model. Disgruntled, he left Kaiser-Frazer in 1946 to return to his studios in Hollywood, although his contract gave him the right of first refusal on the design of future K-F models.
The Kaisers, particularly Henry Kaiser’s son, Edgar, who became the company’s general manager in 1946, were not sad to see him go. Joe Frazer had hired the mercurial, temperamental Darrin because Darrin was well known and respected in automotive circles, but the Kaisers had opposed many of the terms of Darrin’s original contract, including the per-car royalties he would receive if Kaiser-Frazer used his designs. Darrin got along well with Henry and Edgar personally, but the company seemed determined to shut him out, particularly as Joe Frazer’s influence waned.
In March 1948, Frazer — at that time, still Kaiser-Frazer’s president — called Darrin in Hollywood and suggested that he fly out to the Kaiser-Frazer offices at Willow Run as soon as possible. When Darrin arrived, he discovered to his annoyance that the company already had clay models of two different proposals for the second-generation Kaiser: one developed by the in-house styling team, led by ex-Chrysler designer Bob Cadwallader, another created by consultant Jim Floria of Brooks Stevens Associates. Commissioning those proposals was technically a violation of Darrin’s contract, but there was little to be done about it. If Darrin wanted a shot at styling the ’51 Kaiser, he would have to work fast.
At first, the in-house styling team seemed reasonably accommodating. Bob Cadwallader assigned Kaiser-Frazer stylist Duncan McRae to help Darrin refine his design concepts — which Darrin dubbed “Speed Styling” — into a full-size model. The initial pretense of cooperation faded quickly. Darrin later alleged that K-F employees actually tried to bar him from the styling studios and he said that at one point, he had to offer a $5,000 contribution to the workman’s fund to convince the staff to let him in. With much work to be done and little time, Darrin eventually bribed some of the clean-up crew to stay late to help him and McRae finish their model. As the deadline drew close, Cadwallader forbade McRae from working any overtime on Darrin’s project, although McRae disobeyed him, working till midnight night after night.
By the end of April, Darrin and McRae’s model, dubbed “Constellation,” was ready for viewing. It incorporated a variety of novel features, the most unusual of which was sliding doors, a concept that Darrin patented and later applied to the short-lived Kaiser-Darrin sports car. The model incorporated Darrin’s signature “Darrin dip” in the rear beltline and distinctive “widow’s peaks” at the centers of the windshield and backlight. With its steeply raked windshield and sloping roof, the “Constellation” was sleek and almost racy, particularly in comparison to the upright, rather stodgy design developed by the in-house team.
All three proposals were shown to Henry and Edgar Kaiser at the end of the month. As Darrin tells the story, on viewing day, Cadwallader, recognizing that Darrin and McRae’s design was a serious threat, ordered his stylists to line up in front of the “Constellation” model, completely blocking it from the Kaisers’ view as they walked through the studio. Darrin, unwilling to be defeated by such an obvious trick, resorted to one of his own. Standing up, he undid his belt and walked toward the Kaisers, letting his pants drop to his ankles. Having succeeded in capturing the attention of his audience, Darrin immediately launched into his sales pitch. Henry Kaiser, apparently unfazed by Darrin’s antics, walked around the “Constellation” and declared it the winner.
Designer Arnott “Buzz” Grisinger, who was present that day, later asserted that Darrin’s story wasn’t true, although the result was the same regardless of the circumstances. In any case, although Darrin had won the contest, his relationship with Kaiser-Frazer remained uneasy. At the time, Darrin felt the reason for these clashes was Edgar Kaiser’s reluctance to pay his royalties, but Darrin later admitted that some of the fault was his own: Despite his undoubted talent, Darrin could be stubborn and contentious, something he admitted with some chagrin in later interviews. In any event, Darrin remained with Kaiser-Frazer for four more years, but left in disgust in late 1952, claiming that the in-house stylists had recycled some of his concepts without consulting or crediting him.
THE 1951 KAISER
Although Darrin and McRae’s original concept was inevitably watered down for production, the 1951 Kaiser was quite an advanced design for its era. Standing 60.3 inches (1,532 mm) tall, it was one of the lowest cars of its time and its low beltline and slender roof pillars gave it 20% more glass area than any competitor. It was a significant departure from the high beltlines and small windows that characterized many prewar and immediate postwar designs. The new Kaiser included several now-common features that were rare in its day, including doors cut into the roof for easier entry and exit and a recessed bay beneath the trunk floor for the spare tire. Darrin’s sliding-door concept was dropped early on, however, which was probably just as well. The production car also got a more conventional split windshield rather than the intended one-piece wraparound design, which would have been too difficult and expensive to produce. Still, the new Kaiser was a far more sophisticated car than its undistinguished predecessor.
The interior was less radical, but it did feature a variety of attractive color and fabric combinations selected by Kaiser-Frazer color chief Carleton Spencer. Spencer developed many of his concepts based on ideas from the well-known tastemaker House & Garden magazine, making Kaiser interiors very au courant. Spencer’s greatest contribution to the second-generation Kaisers was an unusual alligator-pattern synthetic material called “Dragon Vinyl.” The first Dragon-upholstered model was the 1951 Kaiser Golden Dragon, a $125 trim option announced in November 1950.