Kaisers Never Retrench: The History of Kaiser-Frazer, Part 2

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.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan hood ornament

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.

1941 Packard Clipper Darrin dip
The “Darrin dip” was one of Dutch Darrin’s stylistic trademarks, seen here on a 1941 Packard Clipper Darrin.

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.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan windshield
There’s an urban legend that the Kaiser’s distinctive “widow’s peak” windshield was the result of a draftsman’s error, which is apparently untrue. Darrin’s son Bob suggested this feature, which appears in his earliest sketches, although Darrin intended the windshield to be one-piece.

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.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan front 3q
The 1951 Kaiser Deluxe was 210.4 in (5,344 mm) long; Specials, without bumper overriders, were 1.9 in (48 mm) shorter. The Deluxe was 3.9 in (98 mm) longer than its 1950 predecessor, but its wheelbase was reduced from 123.5 in (3,137 mm) to 118 in (2,997 mm). The ’51 was also significantly lighter than its predecessor, weighing 3,300 to 3,400 lb (1,500-1,542 kg), typically equipped. It was one of the lightest cars in its class.

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.

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  1. What is most fascinating to me about Kaiser is how — from beginning to end — the fledgling automaker vastly overreached.

    For starters, it was pure folly for the company to attempt to launch two new brands.

    More significantly, replacing the first-generation body after only four years with a completely new design was a risky move for a newbie with little capital and a serious cost disadvantage. It didn’t help that the “Constellation” was half-baked. The low cowl and lack of a step-down chassis resulted in little trunk space and a weirdly tall greenhouse that arguably aged more quickly than a more traditional look.

    Perhaps the biggest mistake Kaiser made was to launch a compact with little parts interchangeability with its family cars. The company could only afford one platform.

    The original Kaiser body was modern enough for a six-year run. However, it desperately needed a shorter, lighter, entry-level variant better matched to the Continental six.

    Ironically, Kaiser’s best hope for survival may well have been a penny-pinching effort to perfect the “small” stuff that made for a better ownership experience. During the early-50s innovative ideas tended to backfire on all of independents, e.g., Studebaker’s rust-bucket Loewy coupes, Nash’s ugly airflyte styling and Packard’s trouble-plagued 1955s.

    1. [quote]However, it desperately needed a shorter, lighter, entry-level variant better matched to the Continental six. [/quote]

      I think they really just needed a better engine. K-F’s earlier attempt at a stripped-down model was still more expensive than some direct rivals, probably a reflection of the company’s production overhead. A cheaper, short-wheelbase car would likely have cost almost as much to build, but would have been perceived as downmarket, so people would have expected a lower price that K-F could have provided only by cutting their margins even thinner. A conundrum.

      The Henry J was a miscalculation in a number of ways, its lack of commonality with the big cars being only one of them. That design was based on a proposal from American Metal Products, which had been pitched to Henry Kaiser in 1948, around the time he was negotiating with the RFC for additional loans. Kaiser accepted it (although the original proposal had to be extensively and expensively redesigned), because it seemed an expedient way to fulfill the promise he’d made to the feds that he’d build a cheap people’s car. Some of the Frazer people thought it was a really bad idea, but Henry dug in his heels; at least one board member resigned over it.

      Dutch Darrin told Dick Langworth that he had proposed a compact based on the ’51 full-size car, on a 105-inch wheelbase and sharing a lot of the same tooling. Darrin thought that on balance, it would have been cheaper to build, but the Kaiser engineers rejected it. Darrin thought it was because they didn’t want to have to pay him a royalty on it, although since the Kaisers and most of their people declined to talk to Langworth about it, I don’t know if that was the actual rationale or not.

  2. The most plausible justification for the Constellation was that it could be a better basis for a compact than the first-generation Kaiser. So too bad Darrin’s proposal didn’t prevail.

    Kaiser could have had a more viable compact entry than Willys and Hudson if it had managed to keep the price down. Was that much more possible with a Constellation body than the original Kaiser?

    Despite the short, 105-inch wheelbase, a Constellation-based compact would have been heavier and wider than the Aero, Jet or first-generation Rambler. Perhaps the best comparison would have been with the 1956 Rambler, which pulled enough parts from the senior Nash’s to be more of a mid-sized car despite its compact dimensions.

    However, unlike the tall-and-boxy 1956 Rambler, roominess would not have been the greatest strength of a compact Constellation. Much like the 1953 Studebakers, the Kaiser’s low cowl was best used on a two-door hardtop. Put on a 105-inch wheelbase, a Kaiser hardtop could have been an interesting cross between a Studebaker Starliner and a Rambler Country Club hardtop (which was Rambler’s best-selling model in both 1952 and 1953).

    1. [quote]Was that much more possible with a Constellation body than the original Kaiser? [/quote]

      Well, according to Darrin, the argument went that the AMP prototype would be cheaper to build in terms of parts and materials cost per unit, but the Constellation-based car would have involved far less investment in tooling (and engineering, since the AMP car ended up having to be substantially redesigned for production). So, Darrin’s proposal probably would have made it easier for K-F to break even. I don’t think the Kaisers were thinking in those terms, though; they assumed the compact was going to be a big seller, which would have allowed them to pay off the tooling costs fairly quickly.

      Fundamentally, I think K-F (and Willys and Hudson) just overestimated the actual demand for smaller cars. A lot of buyers [i]said[/i] they wanted a compact, but (as I said in the Jet article), prior to the Eisenhower recession, I think a lot of that was reaction to postwar sticker shock, and the presumption that smaller car=cheaper car. I don’t think K-F could have sold a Constellation-based car for much cheaper than they did the Henry J, and I don’t think they grasped the point George Mason and Romney recognized about market positioning.

      So, I don’t think a Constellation-based car would have sold vastly better, but it might have been easier for them to make money on the volume they did sell, or at least lose less.

  3. [quote=Administrator]On his own initiative, he decided to set up tooling in the Rotterdam plant for a new rear panel with an opening trunk lid. He didn’t ask for permission from the home office, since he assumed they would say no. Of course, the Kaisers found out about it soon enough anyway, and decided it was a good idea — hence the Accessory Group. [/quote]

    It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission!

  4. I think the early Henry J’s lacked an opening trunk lid because as a condition of receiving RFC aid, the price of the car could be no more than $1300.

    There’s an interesting (at least to me!) historical parallel here. When the Saab 92 (Saab’s first car) was in development, Saab heard that the then-upcoming Volvo 444 was going to sell for 4400 Swedish kronor, which I think was equivalent to US$880. At that point, Saab’s cost to build the 92 was projected to be more than SKr4400, so away went the trunk lid. The Volvo 444′s price didn’t turn out that low after all, and at some point in the next few years, the 92 got an opening trunk lid.

    In his autobiography, [i]The Real Frank Zappa Book[/i], rock musician Frank Zappa mentioned his family’s move (in a Henry J) from Baltimore to the Los Angeles area in the early 1950s. His take on the back seat was, "I spent two weeks on this ironing board from Hell."

    1. The lack of a decklid and glove compartment were definitely part of an effort to meet the RFC price target — Henry Kaiser had promised the feds that the K-F compact would have an MSRP under $1,200. Even with those economy measures, the Henry J still missed that mark by around $25, although I assume the RFC decided it was close enough. (Incidentally, Hickman Price told Dick Langworth that a fair number of the cost-cutting tricks were suggested by Kaiser himself.)

      According to Price, the way the Henry J eventually got its decklid was rather convoluted. At the time the Henry J debuted, Price was the head of Kaiser-Frazer Export. A couple of years earlier, he had set up a factory in Rotterdam to supply cars to other export markets (apparently, the exchange rate of the guilder to other currencies was less onerous than with the dollar). When the Henry J came out, Price thought it had obvious export potential — it was the right size — but the lack of a decklid was a big obstacle. On his own initiative, he decided to set up tooling in the Rotterdam plant for a new rear panel with an opening trunk lid. He didn’t ask for permission from the home office, since he assumed they would say no. Of course, the Kaisers found out about it soon enough anyway, and decided it was a good idea — hence the Accessory Group.

      Price thought the Henry J could have sold much better overseas than it did, but he said that Kaiser-Frazer was very reluctant to spend the money on export-specific modifications, like heavy-duty suspension. Some of those the Export company ended up doing itself, but there was never a factory right-hand-drive version, for instance, which limited business in markets like the UK and Japan.

      (I should note that I’m not sure how unbiased Price’s perspective may have been — he was Joe Frazer’s nephew, and by 1950, Frazer was effectively out, although he remained on the payroll for a while longer.)

    2. As for the Henry J’s rear seat, the standard upholstery was basically plastic-coated paper, so I imagine that a cross-country drive in mid-summer would have become rather miserable in a hurry.

  5. Hello Aaron. Nice post! But I have to clarify that Juan Peron neither was a dictator, nor leaded a regime in Argentina. He was a president elected by popular vote (over 50%) three times, in 1946, 1952 and 1973.

    Luciano

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