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. Nonetheless, Henry Kaiser and company president Edgar Kaiser decided to stay the course, betting that they could turn things around with a stylish new 1951 Kaiser and a new compact car called the Henry J. This week, we present the second half of our history of Kaiser-Frazer, including the 1951 Kaiser, the Henry J, and the ultimate fate of Kaiser’s automotive venture.
DUTCH DARRIN DROPS HIS PANTS
When Joseph W. Frazer and Henry J. Kaiser first became partners in 1945, they each had grand ambitions of building an advanced, economical compact car, possibly with front-wheel drive and other innovations. As we saw in last week’s installment, expediency led the founders 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. Work began by the end of 1947 on the second-generation cars, which were slated for release in 1950 as 1951 models.
Both the Frazer and the initial Kaiser were based on a tossed-off design by acclaimed styling consultant Howard “Dutch” Darrin. Although early Frazers carried badges proclaiming his involvement, Darrin was never happy with the design, which he had never envisioned as a production model. Disgruntled, he turned his focus to other projects, 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 had become the company’s general manager in 1946, were not particularly sad to see Darrin go. Joe Frazer had hired the mercurial, temperamental Darrin because the designer was well known and respected in automotive circles, but the Kaisers hadn’t liked the terms of Darrin’s original contract, which included per-car royalties for use of his designs. Darrin got along well with Henry and Edgar personally, but as Joe Frazer’s influence diminished, so too did the company’s apparent tolerance for Darrin.
In March 1948, Frazer — then still Kaiser-Frazer’s president — called Darrin at his studio in Hollywood and asked him to fly out to the Kaiser-Frazer offices as soon as possible. When Darrin arrived, he discovered to his dismay 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, and the other created by consultant Jim Floria of Brooks Stevens Associates. Commissioning those proposals was technically a violation of Darrin’s contract with Kaiser-Frazer, but by that point, there was little to be done about it short of filing a lawsuit. If Darrin wanted a shot at styling the 1951 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 clay model. The initial pretense of cooperation faded quickly. Cadwallader forbade McRae from working overtime on Darrin’s model, although McRae defied him. As for Darrin himself, he later alleged that Kaiser-Frazer employees actually tried to bar him from the styling studios.
Nonetheless, 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 were sliding doors, a concept that Darrin patented and later applied to the short-lived Kaiser Darrin sports car. The Constellation model incorporated Darrin’s signature “Darrin dip” in the beltline and had 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 compared to the stodgy, upright design proposal developed by the in-house team.
All three proposals were shown to Henry and Edgar Kaiser at the end of the month. As Darrin told the story, on viewing day, Cadwallader ordered his stylists to line up in front of Darrin and McRae’s “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. As he later told the story, he undid his belt and walked toward the Kaisers, letting his pants drop as he did. Having succeeded in capturing the attention of his audience, he 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 Darrin’s design was chosen for production. In any case, Darrin’s relationship with Kaiser-Frazer remained uneasy. At the time, Darrin believed the main reason for these clashes was Edgar Kaiser’s reluctance to pay Darrin’s royalties, but Darrin later admitted with some chagrin that his own stubbornness and temper were at least partly to blame. He parted ways with Kaiser-Frazer again 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 somewhat 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 sedans of its time and its low beltline and slender roof pillars gave it significantly more glass area than any competitor. Darrin’s design 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. For cost reasons, the production car also got a conventional split windshield rather than the intended one-piece wraparound design. Still, the new Kaiser was a far more stylistically 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. Many were inspired by features in House & Garden magazine, a popular tastemaker of the time, so Kaiser interiors were very au courant. Probably 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.