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.”
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.
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.