Kaisers Never Retrench: The History of Kaiser-Frazer, Part 1

THE SCION: JOE FRAZER

In background and upbringing, Joseph Washington Frazer, born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1892, could scarcely have been more different from Henry Kaiser. Frazer’s father was a successful attorney and judge while his mother was related to George Washington. Frazer attended Connecticut’s prestigious Hotchkiss School and graduated from Yale University in 1911.

While his family and education could have provided any number of lucrative career opportunities, Joe Frazer followed a different path. In 1912, he took a job as a mechanic’s assistant at his older brother’s Packard dealership so he could learn about the auto business. He subsequently became a Packard salesman and purchased his own sales franchise for the short-lived Saxon automobile. In 1919, Frazer joined Chevrolet’s sales organization and then became treasurer of GM’s Export Division. In that role, he was one of the principal architects of the trend-setting General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), GM’s financing arm.

In 1923, Walter P. Chrysler offered Frazer a job as head of sales for the Maxwell-Chalmers Motor Company, of which Chrysler had become chairman in 1921. When Chrysler reorganized Maxwell as the Chrysler Corporation in June 1925, Frazer became Chrysler’s first VP of sales. He played a key role in the organization of both Plymouth and DeSoto, serving stints as head of each of those divisions.

Frazer left Chrysler in January 1939 to become president and general manager of Toledo, Ohio’s Willys-Overland Motors. He soon succeeded in more than doubling Willys’ moribund sales and brought the company what would prove to be its most important product: the Jeep. The Jeep was actually designed by American Bantam under the name BRC (Bantam Reconnaissance Car) 40, but the U.S. Army ultimately awarded the production contracts for this soon-to-be-immortal vehicle to Willys and Ford. At Joe Frazer’s urging, it was Willys-Overland that held a trademark on and publicized the name “Jeep.”

Willys MA-3 (U.S. PD U.S. Army file photo)
A Willys MA-3 Jeep at the U.S. Army Desert Training Center in Indio, California, in June 1942. The origins of the Jeep name are still a matter of some debate; we lean toward the theory that it was a corruption of the acronym “GP” (General Purpose). [Author’s note: Today, of course, it is a registered trademark of FCA US LLC.] (U.S. public domain U.S. Army Signal Corps file photo, June 1942; via Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress, digital ID fsa.8e01237)

Despite his success, Frazer still harbored greater ambitions: he hoped to one day sell cars under his own name. In mid-1943, he organized a group of East Coast financiers in an attempt to acquire a controlling interest in Willys. When that failed, Frazer resigned and arranged a leveraged buyout of Graham-Paige, becoming that company’s chairman and president in September 1944.

The Graham-Paige board had previously decided not to resume automobile production after the war, but Frazer overruled that decision, commissioning noted designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin to style a new postwar Graham. In mid-1945, after V-E day, Frazer also hired aviation engineer William B. Stout (who had developed the curious rear-engine Stout Scarab in the thirties) to develop a radical fiberglass-bodied lightweight vehicle called Project Y.

THE MATCHMAKER

Frazer’s immediate problem was that Graham-Paige lacked the capital that would be required to realize his vision. During a visit to Los Angeles in July 1945, he visited his old friend Amadeo P. Giannini, the chairman of Bank of America, hoping Giannini might be interested in financing Frazer’s planned postwar car. Giannini was intrigued, but expressed reservations about Frazer’s lack of manufacturing experience; Frazer had an impressive track record, but only in sales and marketing.

Giannini was also well acquainted with Henry Kaiser and was aware of the Kaisers’ automotive ambitions. At Giannini’s suggestion, Frazer agreed to meet Kaiser to discuss the possibility of a partnership.

Kaiser and Frazer had exchanged editorial salvos in the press several years earlier, but their meeting in the San Francisco apartment of Giannini’s son Mario on July 17 was the first time the two men had ever been face to face. They were almost polar opposites in outlook and personality: Frazer was soft-spoken but hard-nosed and conservative while Kaiser was outgoing, direct, and sentimental. In retrospect, their differences significantly outweighed their common ambitions, but at the time, both men were optimistic about the idea of joining forces.

On July 25, 1945, Kaiser and Frazer announced the formation of the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, which was formally incorporated in Nevada on August 9 with $5 million in initial capital. Henry Kaiser became the new company’s chairman, with Frazer as president and general manager and Frazer’s nephew, Hickman Price, Jr., as treasurer.

8 Comments

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  1. “Scalpers” as you call them is an understatement. A big three dealer would rip you off for almost double asking price after the war. My father returning in 1947 bought a K-F Manhattan only because he could get it at ’sticker’ price. He kept it for a few years but do not remember him saying anything wonderful about that car.

    He always had bad judgment when it came to car buying and eventually even bought a Henry J. But will save that story for another time too.

    (The sticker price only came into being in 1958 with the Monroney Act.)

  2. A couple of minor points: first, George Washington had no children (only step-children, who did not carry the Washington name) so Mrs. Frazer must have been descended from a relative of the President’s. Second, the caption under the ad for the 1949 Virginian has both wheelbases identified as Kaiser, rather than one Kaiser and one Frazer.

    1. Thanks for catching that glitch, and for the clarification. Joe Frazer’s mother was part of the same family as George Washington, but obviously not a lineal descendant; I’m a little hazy on the precise genealogy, but I think she was descended from one of Washington’s brothers.

  3. The first car of my family’s that I have clear memories of was a ’49 Frazer. (I have dim memories of a Crosley station wagon.) My father had gotten it used in 1950. Knowing him, he would have bought a car on thoroughly hard-nosed, pragmatic criteria, but I don’t know how that led to this particular car. In 1956 he got tired of chasing wrecking yard parts and got a ’53 Pontiac. I would assume that when he bought the Frazer, he gave the marque too much credit for long-term viability.

  4. You obviously havent seen one in person they are amazing cars and pioneered many things like the drop out power train where you could drop the motor and Trans by a couple of bolts on the bottom and drip them out. And they are great cars and they had the first car to get 30 miles per gallon, and the kaiser Darrin was the first all fiberglass car beating the corvette by a month.

  5. Interested to know more about Jean-Albert Gregoire’s involvement with Kaiser-Frazer though have little information to go on aside from Kaiser-Frazer investigating FWD and considering to build under license either the AFG (that later evolved into the Panhard Dyna X) or a version of the Hotchkiss-Gregoire as a 1946 Kaiser.

  6. I enjoy read this page on history and other webpages

  7. After World War II my family really needed a new vehicle. The first new vehicle was a new Jeep, just like the soldiers used. It was handy on our two farms. The first real car was a Frazer. My parents took the Frazer on a vacation to California. My Dad hated that car. He claimed it got awful gas mileage. After a couple of years he traded it
    for a Studebaker car and pickup truck. Next came a 1955 Packard. Everybody noticed my Mother in her Packard. She hated that. By by Packard and helo 1956 Buick Roadmaster. In the GM camp we then stayed.

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