Although it broke no really new technical ground, the 1951 Kaiser’s engineering was also quite advanced for the early fifties. Engineers Ralph Isbrandt and John Widman considered unit construction, but judged it too expensive for its benefits and opted instead to concentrate on improving the strength and reducing the weight of the existing body-on-frame structure. Thanks to their efforts, the curb weight of the production models was only around 3,300 lb (1,500 kg), a good deal lighter than most similarly sized contemporaries.
Despite the light weight, the Kaiser was also among the most structurally rigid cars in its class. Moreover, the new Kaiser had a very low center of gravity and an uncommonly good ride. It was hardly a sports car even by contemporary standards, but it wasn’t far behind the “Step Down” Hudsons, generally considered the best-handling American sedans of this era.
What the Kaiser lacked was power. Kaiser-Frazer engineers had been working on a modern OHV V8 engine since 1945, but the company didn’t have the money to build it. Kaiser-Frazer approached Oldsmobile about purchasing the 304 cu. in. (4,977 cc) Rocket V8, but the negotiations collapsed after Oldsmobile abruptly raised its asking price. Some Kaiser-Frazer executives believed the about-face was sparked by Oldsmobile’s realization that the lightweight new Kaiser would outrun a similarly powered Olds 88.
As a result, Kaiser had to fall back on the same hoary Continental-designed flathead six used in the earlier Kaisers and Frazers. Still displacing 226 cu. in. (3,707 cc), it made a meager 115 gross horsepower (86 kW). The new Kaiser did at least offer an automatic transmission; after four years of negotiations, Edgar Kaiser had finally persuaded General Motors to let Kaiser-Frazer purchase GM’s four-speed Hydra-Matic, which became a popular $159 option.
Price had been a sticking point for the earlier Kaisers and the 1951 models still weren’t cheap. The least-expensive Special business coupe started at almost $2,000, only $57 cheaper than a V8-powered Oldsmobile 88. A Kaiser Deluxe two-door sedan like our white photo subject started at $2,275, $37 more than an eight-cylinder Buick Super DeLuxe. Lacking a V8 or even a straight-eight engine, the new Kaiser would have to get by on its looks.
THE LITTLEST KAISER: THE HENRY J
Also debuting for the 1951 model year was Kaiser’s first compact, the Henry J, whose development is covered in more detail in our article on the Kaiser Darrin. Intended to fulfill Henry Kaiser’s original dream of a low-cost economy car — and the terms of his most recent Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) loan agreement — the Henry J was based on a design by American Metal Products, refined by Dutch Darrin and Kaiser-Frazer’s in-house stylists. It was very similar in size to Nash’s new Rambler — 174.5 inches (4,432 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase — and offered a choice of either a 134 cu. in. (2,200 cc) four or a 161 cu. in. (2,639 cc) six, both flathead engines purchased from Willys-Overland.
Unlike the well-trimmed Rambler, which Nash pitched as a sensible second car for affluent buyers, the Henry J defined the term “poverty spec.” To meet the price target, early cars lacked even an opening trunk lid and the dashboard had a vinyl storage pouch in lieu of a glove compartment. For all that, the Henry J was not impressively cheap. A Deluxe six-cylinder model had a base price of $1,429, only about $50 less than a basic Chevrolet. The Henry J got much better fuel economy than the Chevrolet — 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) was typical — but it was hardly a bargain. Furthermore, early cars had shaky build quality, with a tendency to window leaks, interior drafts, and persistent interior rattles. Still, the Henry J was cute, it was cheap to run, and it was one of the least-expensive cars on the market.