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

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 10 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.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan badge

THE LAST GIANT: HENRY J. KAISER

Whatever else one might say about the late industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, he could never have been accused of lacking confidence, drive, 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.

Early on, Kaiser worked as a salesman and later as a professional photographer, becoming a partner in a Lake Placid, New York, photography studio he subsequently bought out. A few years later, he resettled in Spokane, Washington, where he became a successful salesman for a paving company, and then moved across the Canadian border to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he founded a construction business in December 1914. He established a U.S. company in 1916.

Kaiser did well throughout the twenties, but 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 large-scale public works projects, including the Grand Coulee and Hoover Dams.

Kaiser was extremely successful, thanks to both his exceptional organizational abilities and his penchant for lateral thinking. Faced with a steel shortage, he started his own foundry and later established Kaiser Aluminum as an alternative source of material. Kaiser, always fond of corny aphorisms, loved to say that trouble was just 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., sometimes even building the housing infrastructure necessary to support them. The Kaiser yards ultimately built 1,490 ships, representing more than a quarter of the Allies’ total merchant shipping tonnage. The ships were built with remarkable speed: 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.

Henry J Kaiser (U.S. PD Navy file photo)
A wartime photo of Henry J. Kaiser. (U.S. public domain U.S. Navy archive photo; via Wikimedia Commons)

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 symbol of the Western spirit. Joe Frazer, who became Kaiser’s automotive partner, later told author Richard Langworth that it was a perfect description of Henry Kaiser.

POSTWAR DREAMS

As early as 1942, Henry Kaiser was thinking about cars. The U.S. government had halted civilian automobile production in February 1942, so many already-weary vehicles would have to soldier on “for the duration,” to use the popular expression. 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 demand for new cars would be ferocious.

Aside from the obvious commercial possibilities, Kaiser was also very concerned about the need to create postwar employment lest the country slip back into economic depression. That had happened after the end of the first world war and some pundits envisioned a similarly grim post-WWII economy. In mid-1942, Kaiser organized an R&D staff in Emeryville, California, to explore a wide variety of different ideas, of which automobiles were among the more prosaic. Kaiser loved what we would now call “outside-the-box” thinkers — people unencumbered by conventional wisdom — but the eccentric characters the Emeryville operation attracted (both among the staff and the inventors and entrepreneurs who approached them with ideas) sometimes raised the eyebrows of Kaiser’s more conservative executives.

Like many people in the thirties and early forties, Kaiser was fascinated by the idea of a compact, lightweight, inexpensive people’s car, a modern return to Ford’s pioneering Model T. In 1943, the Emeryville staff, which included engineer Jean Gregoire, formerly of Simca, began purchasing dozens of cars to study their designs. The R&D group also conceived some advanced automobiles of their own, many using plastic bodies and incorporating front-wheel drive, still a fairly radical idea in those days. Although many of these were blue-sky projects, Kaiser spoke publicly of offering a postwar compact for the improbably low price of $400.

By war’s end, the R&D staff’s work culminated in a prototype called the K-85. It was not particularly compact by today’s standards — 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 the K-85’s heavy steering and noisy transmission, 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.

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.

WILLOW RUN

The initial plan was for Kaiser-Frazer to build two cars: one badged as a Kaiser, the other as a Frazer. Graham-Paige, which would not return to passenger car production after all, was to provide one-third of Kaiser-Frazer production.

Kaiser and Giannini originally wanted to set up Kaiser production in California, but Frazer argued strongly in favor of remaining in the Detroit area, closer to established suppliers and a pool of experienced labor. He also pointed out that that with military production winding down, now-unneeded factories would be available at bargain prices.

Soon afterward, Hickman Price learned that the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) would soon be offering the enormous factory complex at Willow Run, outside Detroit, at a very attractive rate. Designed by former Ford production chief Charlie Sorenson, Willow Run was built in 1940 at cost of over $100 million. During the war, it had manufactured Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers at a rate that sometimes approached one aircraft per hour. Willow Run was a formidable icon of America’s wartime industrial might, with both ample production capacity and considerable symbolic value. Naturally, the RFC and the United Auto Workers (UAW) were also very keen to see it remain in operation.

Willow Run Factory interior (U.S. PD U.S. Army Signal Corps wartime file photo)
Willow Run during the war. Willow Run ultimately produced complete 6,972 B-24E heavy bombers and 1,893 complete knock-down (CKD) aircraft for final assembly at the Tulsa and Fort Worth plants. The factory occupied some 65 acres (263,045 square meters) and at its peak produced 25 bombers a day. (U.S. public domain U.S. Army Signal Corps file photo; via Wikimedia Commons)

On September 21, Frazer signed a five-year lease agreement on Willow Run. In a canny bit of negotiation, he arranged to offset almost half of the already very modest lease rate by leasing a Graham-Paige plant to the RFC. As a result, the net cost of the lease was almost nothing for the first year and only $350,000 for the second. Kaiser-Frazer began moving in on November 1.

While the Willow Run lease was a short-term victory, touring the mammoth factory complex left Frazer with a sense of foreboding, wondering if perhaps they were biting off more than they could chew.

MONEY TALKS

The new Kaiser-Frazer Corporation had two high-powered leaders and an impressive factory. Now, it needed capital, which meant an initial public offering (IPO) of Kaiser-Frazer stock.

Launching an IPO is complicated and requires one or more investment firms to underwrite the stock offering. Frazer asked Dutch Darrin to hastily craft a metal scale model they could show brokers, which enabled Frazer to reach a tentative agreement with the prestigious Lehman Brothers firm.

Unfortunately, Lehman Brothers backed out at the last minute and other Wall Street investment houses remained skeptical despite (or because of) Kaiser and Frazer’s reputations. As Amadeo Giannini had pointed out, Frazer had no manufacturing experience and Kaiser’s had all been under government contracts. It probably didn’t help that Kaiser was strongly associated with the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal, to which there was a renewed backlash following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April. (Historian Stephen B. Adams notes that Kaiser’s standing in Washington quickly began to sour after FDR was gone.)

In the end, the IPO was jointly underwritten by Allen & Company, Otis and Company, and Kaiser and Frazer’s old friend Giannini. Despite the underwriters’ wariness, the stock offering was a great success and was followed by a second in January 1946. The latter was further bolstered by the announcement that Kaiser-Frazer had signed an initial agreement with the UAW, then in the midst of a long and bitter strike of General Motors.

In all, the stock offerings raised $54.2 million. Graham-Paige, which was contractually obliged to fund one-third of Kaiser-Frazer’s operating expenses, raised an additional $11.5 million through a bond issue. Combined, that’s the equivalent of more than $730 million in 2009 dollars, but it was small beer by Detroit standards. Richard Langworth notes that by early 1946, Kaiser-Frazer’s total capitalization was barely one-third of Chrysler’s prewar figure and about one-ninth of GM’s. Even in the thirties, that would have been marginal; in the face of steep postwar inflation, it would not be nearly enough.

Nevertheless, both Frazer and Kaiser remained optimistic. When they showed off mock-ups of their new cars at a gala event in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City in January 1946, nearly 160,000 visitors came out to see them. The future looked rosy.

KAISER-FRAZER BIRTH PAINS

It very quickly became clear that there was no way Kaiser and Frazer’s plans for a compact “people’s car” would come to fruition any time soon. Kaiser-Frazer engineers kept working on the front-wheel-drive K-85, but making it production-ready would take more time and money than the new company could spare. Kaiser finally canceled the project in May 1946.

Frazer, meanwhile, had abandoned Bill Stout’s Project Y in favor of an entirely conventional front-engine, rear-drive car taking its exterior design from the scale model Dutch Darrin had created for Frazer’s pitch to the Lehman Brothers. That model had been crude and neither Frazer nor Darrin ever expected it to be anything other than a concept piece to support the IPO, but the Lehman Brothers had loved the model so much that Frazer had reluctantly agreed to put it into production as it was. After the Lehman Brothers backed out, Kaiser-Frazer was scrambling to get something ready for production and there wasn’t time for much of anything else. Darrin was never happy with the design, particularly after it had been “productionized,” and was even less happy when he saw that the early Frazers wore “Darrin Styled” badges; they were soon removed.

Neither Kaiser-Frazer nor Graham-Paige had the resources to design or manufacture a new engine, so they arranged to purchase one from the Continental Motor Corporation. The Continental engine, a hoary 226 cu. in. (3,707 cc) L-head six, had been used in a bewildering number of cars and trucks, including some prewar Grahams. It was a known quantity, but it was a thoroughly undistinguished engine with few real virtues other than low cost. Kaiser-Frazer chief engineer Henry McCaslin and Continental president Jack Reese made a number of improvements to the engine, but even then, it could only manage a modest 100 horsepower (75 kW) at 3,600 rpm. It did not like to rev and it had a penchant for overheating and vapor lock that K-F didn’t fully resolve until 1953. The engine would prove to be one of Kaiser-Frazer’s weakest links.

With the K-85 stillborn, Kaiser was falling seriously behind schedule. At Joe Frazer’s suggestion, the first Kaiser production model was a cheaper, de-contented version of the new Frazer, dubbed Kaiser Special.

Building these new cars was a great deal more difficult than designing them, thanks in no small part to acute shortages of raw material. The U.S. government was still allocating various strategic materials and Kaiser-Frazer, having no prior production history, was very far down the priority list. Suppliers were not eager to accommodate a new and relatively small company either, so obtaining materials like steel and copper often required convoluted gray-market scheming. Kaiser was obliged to buy controlling interests in several steel mills to insure supply and many materials were very expensive when they were available at all.

1947 Kaiser-Frazer ad 3
This early Kaiser-Frazer ad takes an apologetic tone with regard to K-F’s production delays. (Ad image: “1947 Kaiser Sedan & Frazer Manhattan”, provided by and used with the permission of Alden Jewell)

Those problems, combined with the high costs of converting Willow Run to automobile production, cut deeply into Kaiser-Frazer’s available cash. By the end of 1946, the company had already spent nearly two-thirds of its initial capital and posted a first-year loss of $19.3 million.

THE POSTWAR BOOM

The first production Kaiser and Frazer automobiles came off the Willow Run line on May 29, 1946. The first cars were shipped to dealers on June 22; all were registered as 1947 models. Despite Kaiser and Frazer’s earlier talk of inexpensive small cars, neither model was anything close to a low-priced economy car. The Kaiser Special started at $1,868, nearly $700 more than the cheapest 1947 Chevrolet. The Frazer, meanwhile, started at $2,053, over $100 more than an eight-cylinder Buick Special. Both Kaiser-Frazer products rode well, were reasonably economical, and had nicely trimmed interiors, but they were in no way exceptional.

At almost any other time, that would have been disastrous, but Kaiser-Frazer had the good fortune to roll out its new cars close to the beginning of the postwar automotive boom. Unlike depressed, devastated Europe and Japan, American roads were intact and American buyers, flush with unspent wartime earnings, had money to spend. As soon as civilian production resumed in the fall of 1945, customers began snapping up every new car they could get their hands on. Dealers soon had lengthy waiting lists and automotive “scalpers” became common. Kaisers and Frazers might have been ordinary, but they were new and they had four wheels, which was enough for many buyers.

1947 Kaiser-Frazer
Another early magazine ad for the 1947 Kaiser and Frazer automobiles. The headline alludes to recently rescinded wartime restrictions that had sharply restricted “pleasure driving.” (Ad image: “1947 Kaiser & Frazer Sedans” provided by and used with the permission of Alden Jewell)

In such a seller’s market, it was all Kaiser-Frazer could do to keep up with demand. When Continental couldn’t build engines fast enough, Frazer arranged to lease a plant in Detroit so K-F could build most of the engines itself. Kaiser-Frazer ultimately sold 70,474 Kaisers and 68,775 Frazers in the 1947 model year, giving the company the best market share of any of the American independents. Kaiser-Frazer posted a $19 million profit for 1947 calendar year, offsetting the previous year’s losses.

Graham-Paige, however, was still not pulling its weight. Graham was supposed to build a third of all Kaiser-Frazer cars, but ultimately managed fewer than 9,000. Moreover, Graham-Paige still hadn’t been able to meet its contractual obligation to finance one-third of Kaiser-Frazer’s operating expenses. In February 1947, the Graham-Paige board finally decided to sell its remaining automotive assets to Kaiser-Frazer and get out of the passenger car business once and for all.

Kaiser-Frazer sales remained robust in 1948 despite even higher prices. Demand was still strong enough that buyers didn’t flinch at the $2,460 price of a new Kaiser Custom model or the even-costlier Frazer Manhattan, which actually listed for $27 more than a Cadillac Series 62 sedan. Total K-F sales for the model year amounted to 91,851 Kaisers and 48,071 Frazers, yielding a $10.4 million net profit.

Despite two profitable years, Kaiser-Frazer remained perilously under-capitalized. In January 1948, the company tried to organize another stock offering, underwritten by Allen & Company, First California, and Otis and Company, but the brokers got cold feet and the offering collapsed almost immediately. The main results were a significant drop in Kaiser-Frazer’s share prices and a protracted legal battle between Kaiser-Frazer and Otis and Company’s Cyrus Eaton. Without the expected income from the stock offering, Kaiser-Frazer had to obtain another $20 million loan from Bank of America.

1948 Kaiser Special front 3q © 2008 Bryan Costin (used with permission)
The Kaiser Special was the first Kaiser production car, essentially a stripped version of the first Frazer. Available only as a four-door sedan, it listed for $2,104 in 1947, $2,244 in 1948. A better-trimmed Kaiser Custom was added midway through the 1947 model year, but it accounted for fewer than 10% of 1947-48 sales. (Photo: “‘Still a full year ahead!'” © 2008 Bryan Costin; used with permission)

SCHISM

On paper, Henry Kaiser and Joe Frazer were ideal partners, but there remained a vast philosophical divide between them and the people they recruited for Kaiser-Frazer. The employees and executives Frazer had recruited were, like Frazer himself, primarily Detroit veterans: engineers, production men, and designers who had cut their teeth at other major automakers. Kaiser’s people, who had come primarily from the shipbuilding business and other Kaiser enterprises in California, were outsiders in Detroit and largely ignorant of the auto industry’s established procedures and conventions.

Given those differences, it’s little surprise that there was friction. The Kaiser people tended to regard the Frazer people as stubborn, hidebound, and needlessly resistant to new ideas. The Frazer faction — including treasurer Hickman Price, who became head of Kaiser-Frazer Export in early 1948 — considered the Kaiser people naïve dilettantes with an overinflated sense of their own ingenuity and a tendency to lavish spending that taxed the company’s modest resources.

The Kaisers’ occasional efforts to economize sometimes backfired. For example, when Kaiser-Frazer engineers were preparing the company’s first convertibles, Edgar Kaiser (who had assumed Joe Frazer’s role as general manager in 1946) ordered engineers not to waste time and money reinforcing the frame to compensate for the loss of the roof. Engineers John Widman and Ralph Isbrandt had to build a prototype that way before Edgar would admit he’d been mistaken and authorize the necessary reinforcement. The additional cost of this exercise helped to turn the convertibles from a profitable image booster into an almost $5 million loss.

1950 Kaiser Traveler rear 3q © 2009 Jim Lape (used with permission)
Introduced in 1949, the Kaiser Traveler was a novel hatchback sedan, reportedly suggested by Henry Kaiser himself. Intended primarily for commercial customers, it sold in very small numbers. Kaiser continued to catalog Traveler and Vagabond hatchbacks through 1953, although few were sold. This is a 1950 Traveler, the cheaper base model. This particular car appeared in the 1997 film Telling Lies in America. (Photo: “1950 Kaiser Traveler (hatchback)” © 2009 Jim Lape; used with permission)

The differences between Frazer and Kaiser came to a head at a board meeting regarding plans for 1949. Frazer warned that 1949 was going to be a difficult year for the company. The selling boom was winding down and the Big Three, which had previously been selling warmed-over prewar models, were already unveiling their first true postwar designs. K-F was working on new models, but they were not ready yet, nor was the interim facelift planned for 1950.

As Frazer later described the scene to Richard Langworth, Henry Kaiser wanted to plunge ahead, insisting that the company should increase 1949 production by more than 10% from its 1948 (calendar year) level. Frazer balked; stepping up production in 1948 had increased revenues, but cut profits to barely half their 1947 level and left the company deeper in debt. He argued caution, suggesting instead that Kaiser-Frazer cut production significantly so they could remain profitable while buying time to introduce fresher products.

1951 Kaiser Traveler engine
All full-size Kaisers and Frazers (not including the later Henry J/Allstate or Kaiser Darrin) were powered by the ubiquitous Continental engine, a 226 cu. in. (3,707 cc) flathead six. When the Kaisers first appeared, it had only 100 hp (75 kW) — 112 hp (84 kW) with the optional dual-carb set-up, an extra $50. The best Kaiser ever got out of the normally aspirated engine was 118 hp (88 kW), although in 1954-1955, there was briefly a supercharged version with a claimed 140 hp (104 kW).

Frazer said Henry lost his temper at that point, shouting, “The Kaisers never retrench!” Kaiser argued that the company should seek an additional $40 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to bolster the development budget. Frazer staunchly refused and the meeting soon degenerated into name-calling. Since Frazer’s influence in the company had been declining since the Graham-Paige buyout two years earlier, he lacked the votes to overrule Henry’s decision.

(We should note here that while Kaiser’s insistence on continuing to increase production sounds foolhardy, it may have been driven by a well-founded concern about the company’s perception among potential investors and financiers, particularly in the wake of 1948’s failed stock offering. While cutting production as Frazer advised might have staved off another short-term loss, it would also have sent a worrisome message to Wall Street and Washington about Kaiser-Frazer’s long-term viability.)

Not long after the fateful board meeting, Frazer resigned the presidency in favor of Edgar Kaiser. Frazer was given the nominal (and ultimately meaningless) title of board vice chairman and a three-year sales consulting agreement that allowed him to retain his existing salary, but in any real sense, his role in the company was over. He retired from the Graham-Paige board in 1954 and went into other, non-automotive businesses. He died in 1971 at the age of 79.

PRIDE GOETH

In November 1948, Henry and Edgar Kaiser secured a $44 million loan from the RFC to support sales operations and new model development, $12 million of which was to be used for the development of a new compact economy car. The Kaisers later obtained an additional $25 million loan to cover inventory costs for 1949 and 1950.

1949 Kaiser Virginian front 3q © 2007 Simon Davison (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
In 1949, Kaiser-Frazer introduced its first convertibles — the only postwar four-door convertible models offered in America until the 1961 Lincoln Continental. The 1949-1950 Kaiser Virginian was a four-door hardtop version of the convertible, introduced shortly before GM’s highly influential Buick Riviera and Cadillac Coupe de Ville hardtops. The 1949 Kaiser and Frazer were full-size cars: the Kaisers were 206.5 inches (5,245 mm) overall, the Frazers 207.5 inches (5,270 mm), both on a 123.5-inch (3,137mm) wheelbase. The six-cylinder engine was over-matched by the cars’ weight; their power-to-weight ratios were among the worst in their class. (Photo: “IMG_7037” © 2007 Simon Davison; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Frazer’s gloomy predictions for 1949 proved to be correct. Despite the addition of the new convertibles, the trend-setting Kaiser Virginian hardtop, and a novel new hatchback model (called Traveler or Vagabond, depending on trim), Kaiser and Frazer sales were less than half the previous year’s, leaving some 20,000 unsold leftover ’49s that had to be re-registered as 1950 models. That left the company with an after-tax loss of $30.3 million, followed by an additional $13.3 million loss for fiscal 1950.

Once Joe Frazer was gone, the Frazer marque was not long for the world. Although Kaiser-Frazer advertising still proclaimed the Frazer “the Pride of Willow Run,” the 10,000-odd 1951 Frazers were actually leftover 1950 models fitted with the restyled front clip originally intended for the 1950 facelift. The only reason those cars were offered at all was to use up some $7 million in existing Frazer trim and upholstery.

Henry Kaiser often said that he valued employees and partners who were willing to challenge his thinking, so it’s ironic that he broke ties with Joe Frazer primarily because Frazer refused to tell the old man what he wanted to hear. To Henry Kaiser, Frazer’s caution smacked of defeatism, something for which Kaiser had little patience.

1951 Frazer Manhattan side
The “new handcrafted” 1951 Frazers were actually facelifted leftover 1950 models. Surprisingly, dealers placed over 50,000 orders, but total production was 10,214, limited by the supply of 1950 bodies. With only 115 hp (86 kW), the ’51 Frazers were rather slow — 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took over 19 seconds with a top speed of perhaps 84 mph (135 km/h). (Photo: “1951 Frazer Manhattan” © 2007 Martin van Duijn; used with permission)

In a later interview with Richard Langworth, Hickman Price (not necessarily a neutral observer) expressed the belief that the Kaisers had always considered their partnership with Frazer to be a temporary expedient. We don’t know if that was true — such an attitude seems out of character for Henry Kaiser, who was nothing if not an optimist — but considering Kaiser and Frazer’s fundamental differences, it was probably inevitable that the two would part ways sooner or later.

The split with Frazer and the disaster of 1949 and 1950 left Kaiser-Frazer bloodied, but still unbowed. The company’s new models were nearly ready and the Kaisers girded themselves to try again in 1951, as we’ll see in part two.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources for this article included Stephen B. Adams, Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington: The Rise of a Government Entrepreneur (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981), and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (New York: Viking Penguin, 2003); Arch Brown, “1953 Allstate: Henry J in Drag?” Special Interest Autos #155 (September-October 1996), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 4-11; “Controls: Strength through Pain,” TIME 18 December 1950 (www.time. com, accessed 3 June 2010); Howard “Dutch” Darrin, “My American Safari: Further Adventures in the Automotive Jungle,” Automobile Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 1 (First Quarter 1972), pp. 36-45; Mark S. Foster, Henry J. Kaiser: Builder in the Modern American West (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1989); Patrick R. Foster, The Story of Jeep (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1998); Roberto Dario Frassinetti, “Rare car Bergantin made by Kaiser Frazer of Argentina (14 February 2006, Route 40 for the Adventure Traveller by Bob Frassinetti, route40argentina.tripod. com, accessed 16 December 2009); Nick Georgano and Nicky Wright, Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (New York: SMITHMARK Publishers, 1995); Ken Gross, “Pride of Willow Run: 1951 Frazer Manhattan Convertible” and “Then Man Who Never Failed,” Special Interest Autos #27 (March-April 1975), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, pp. 28-35; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), and The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Ronald Hansen, Emilio R. del Valle, and Enrique T. Meincke, “IKA Torino 380 W,” Parabrisas No. 80 (August 1967), Test del Ayer, www.testdelayer. com.ar/ torino380.htm, n.d., last accessed 9 April 2015; “Henry J vs. Maverick: How much progress in 23 years?” Special Interest Autos #23 (July-August 1974), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents, pp. 36-41; “High Finance: From Riches to Riches,” TIME 30 April 1945, (www.time. com, accessed 17 December 2009); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Michael Lamm, “The Imagineer William B. Stout: Automobile and Airplane, His Goal Was to See Them Wedded,” Car Life Vol. 14, No. 7 (August 1967): 54–58; L’Editrice Dell’Automobile LEA, World Cars 1973 (Bronxville, NY: Herald Books, 1973) and World Cars 1979 (Pelham, New York: Herald Books, 1979); David L. Lewis, “Ford’s Postwar Light Car,” Special Interest Autos #13 (October-November 1972): 22–27, 57; Tom McCahill, “MI Test the 1951 Kaiser Special,” Mechanix Illustrated May 1950, pp. 84–85, 160, 174; Jack Mueller, ed., KFOCI Handbook, v. 4.0 (Kaiser-Frazer Owners Club International: n.d.), circlekf. com, last accessed 27 June 2011; Richard Langworth, “1953 Kaiser Manhattan: SIA Drives a NOS Kaiser,” Special Interest Autos #94 (July-August 1986), all of which are reprinted in Richard A. Lentinello, ed., The Hemmings Book of Postwar American Independents: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 46-61; and Kaiser-Frazer, the Last Onslaught on Detroit: An Intimate Behind the Scenes Study of the Postwar American Car Industry (Automobile Quarterly Library Series) (Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton, 1975); Michael Parris, Fords of the Fifties (Tucson, AZ: California Bill’s Automotive Handbooks, 2000); “State of Business: Step This Way, Please!” TIME 19 May 1952 (www.time.com, accessed 3 June 2010); Daniel Strohl, “Companies that used Continental engines – the complete list,” (10 December 2008, Hemmings Blog, blog.hemmings. com, accessed 17 December 2009), and “Rambling Men,” Hemmings Classic Car #57 (June 2009); Mark Theobald, “Howard A. ‘Dutch’ Darrin 1897-1982” (2004, Coachbuilt, www.coachbuilt. com, accessed 25 June 2011); and Henry Kaiser’s obituary, “The Man Who Always Hurried,” TIME 1 September 1967 (www.time. com, retrieved 17 December 2009).

Additional background information on Henry and Alyce Kaiser came from Joan Didion’s 1966 essay “Letter from Paradise, 21° 19′ N., 157° 52′ W,” originally published in Didion’s anthology Slouching Toward Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968) and reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: The Collected Nonfiction (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), pp. 142-153; “Henry Kaiser Tells Plan to Wed Nurse,” The Deseret News 7 April 1951, p. 2; “Kaiser Takes Bride Today,” Miami Sun News 10 April 1951, p. 15; School of Travel Industry Management, 2007 Legacy Honorees, “Henry J. Kaiser,” (28 November 2007, www.tim.hawaii. edu, accessed 25 June 2011; “TYCOONS: Henry J.’s Pink Hawaii,” TIME 24 October 1960, www.time. com, accessed 25 June 2011; and the Wikipedia® entry for Kaiser Permanente (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser_Permanente, accessed 26 June 2011).

Some additional information on the Willow Run plant also came from “Production Miracle at Willow Run,” Strategos International, www.strategosinc. com/ willow_run.htm, accessed 18 December 2009, and Joe Baugher, “The Liberator Production Pool,” American Military Aircraft, 8 August 1999, home.att. net/ ~jbaugher2/b24_8.html, accessed 18 December 2009.

For the record, we’re not 100% certain that Henry Kaiser ever actually said, “The Kaisers never retrench!” — it was Joseph Frazer who related that oft-quoted exclamation in his conversations with Richard Langworth for Langworth’s remarkable and long out-of-print book Kaiser-Frazer, the Last Onslaught on Detroit. The Kaisers declined to be interviewed for Langworth’s book, so we have only Frazer’s word for it, but we grant that it certainly sounds like something Henry Kaiser would say!


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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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