Kaisers Never Retrench: The History of Kaiser-Frazer, Part 2

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.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan front
Although the previously optional dual-carburetor set-up was now standard, the 1951 Kaiser’s Continental-designed 226 cu. in. (3,707 cc) flathead six still made only 115 hp (86 kW). A modern V8, which Kaiser didn’t have and couldn’t afford, would have made this car quite a rocket.

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.

1951 Kaiser Deluxe sedan rear 3q
The rear window of the 1951 Kaiser repeats the windshield’s widow’s peak dip. Note the abundant brightwork; in 1953, Kaiser briefly offered a stripped-down Kaiser Carolina with a lower base price, but it sold poorly, accounting for only 1,812 units.

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.

1952 Henry J Corsair Deluxe front 3q © 2007 Anne Mitchell Lape (used with permission)
The early Henry J was 174.5 inches (4,432 mm) long on a 100-inch (2,540mm) wheelbase; 1953-54 models, like this one, got a mild restyling of the tail and rear bumper that made them somewhat longer than before, 181.6 inches (4,613 mm) for the base car (now called Henry J Corsair) and 184.6 inches (4,689 mm) for the Corsair Deluxe. All were still very spartan even for cheap American cars of this era. From 1952 to 1953, Sears, Roebuck sold a mildly restyled version of the Henry J as the Allstate. They sold in only a few select markets and disappeared in 1953 after only 2,363 sales. (Photo © 2007 Anne Mitchell Lape; used with permission)

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.

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  1. What is most fascinating to me about Kaiser is how — from beginning to end — the fledgling automaker vastly overreached.

    For starters, it was pure folly for the company to attempt to launch two new brands.

    More significantly, replacing the first-generation body after only four years with a completely new design was a risky move for a newbie with little capital and a serious cost disadvantage. It didn’t help that the “Constellation” was half-baked. The low cowl and lack of a step-down chassis resulted in little trunk space and a weirdly tall greenhouse that arguably aged more quickly than a more traditional look.

    Perhaps the biggest mistake Kaiser made was to launch a compact with little parts interchangeability with its family cars. The company could only afford one platform.

    The original Kaiser body was modern enough for a six-year run. However, it desperately needed a shorter, lighter, entry-level variant better matched to the Continental six.

    Ironically, Kaiser’s best hope for survival may well have been a penny-pinching effort to perfect the “small” stuff that made for a better ownership experience. During the early-50s innovative ideas tended to backfire on all of independents, e.g., Studebaker’s rust-bucket Loewy coupes, Nash’s ugly airflyte styling and Packard’s trouble-plagued 1955s.

    1. [quote]However, it desperately needed a shorter, lighter, entry-level variant better matched to the Continental six. [/quote]

      I think they really just needed a better engine. K-F’s earlier attempt at a stripped-down model was still more expensive than some direct rivals, probably a reflection of the company’s production overhead. A cheaper, short-wheelbase car would likely have cost almost as much to build, but would have been perceived as downmarket, so people would have expected a lower price that K-F could have provided only by cutting their margins even thinner. A conundrum.

      The Henry J was a miscalculation in a number of ways, its lack of commonality with the big cars being only one of them. That design was based on a proposal from American Metal Products, which had been pitched to Henry Kaiser in 1948, around the time he was negotiating with the RFC for additional loans. Kaiser accepted it (although the original proposal had to be extensively and expensively redesigned), because it seemed an expedient way to fulfill the promise he’d made to the feds that he’d build a cheap people’s car. Some of the Frazer people thought it was a really bad idea, but Henry dug in his heels; at least one board member resigned over it.

      Dutch Darrin told Dick Langworth that he had proposed a compact based on the ’51 full-size car, on a 105-inch wheelbase and sharing a lot of the same tooling. Darrin thought that on balance, it would have been cheaper to build, but the Kaiser engineers rejected it. Darrin thought it was because they didn’t want to have to pay him a royalty on it, although since the Kaisers and most of their people declined to talk to Langworth about it, I don’t know if that was the actual rationale or not.

  2. The most plausible justification for the Constellation was that it could be a better basis for a compact than the first-generation Kaiser. So too bad Darrin’s proposal didn’t prevail.

    Kaiser could have had a more viable compact entry than Willys and Hudson if it had managed to keep the price down. Was that much more possible with a Constellation body than the original Kaiser?

    Despite the short, 105-inch wheelbase, a Constellation-based compact would have been heavier and wider than the Aero, Jet or first-generation Rambler. Perhaps the best comparison would have been with the 1956 Rambler, which pulled enough parts from the senior Nash’s to be more of a mid-sized car despite its compact dimensions.

    However, unlike the tall-and-boxy 1956 Rambler, roominess would not have been the greatest strength of a compact Constellation. Much like the 1953 Studebakers, the Kaiser’s low cowl was best used on a two-door hardtop. Put on a 105-inch wheelbase, a Kaiser hardtop could have been an interesting cross between a Studebaker Starliner and a Rambler Country Club hardtop (which was Rambler’s best-selling model in both 1952 and 1953).

    1. [quote]Was that much more possible with a Constellation body than the original Kaiser? [/quote]

      Well, according to Darrin, the argument went that the AMP prototype would be cheaper to build in terms of parts and materials cost per unit, but the Constellation-based car would have involved far less investment in tooling (and engineering, since the AMP car ended up having to be substantially redesigned for production). So, Darrin’s proposal probably would have made it easier for K-F to break even. I don’t think the Kaisers were thinking in those terms, though; they assumed the compact was going to be a big seller, which would have allowed them to pay off the tooling costs fairly quickly.

      Fundamentally, I think K-F (and Willys and Hudson) just overestimated the actual demand for smaller cars. A lot of buyers [i]said[/i] they wanted a compact, but (as I said in the Jet article), prior to the Eisenhower recession, I think a lot of that was reaction to postwar sticker shock, and the presumption that smaller car=cheaper car. I don’t think K-F could have sold a Constellation-based car for much cheaper than they did the Henry J, and I don’t think they grasped the point George Mason and Romney recognized about market positioning.

      So, I don’t think a Constellation-based car would have sold vastly better, but it might have been easier for them to make money on the volume they did sell, or at least lose less.

  3. [quote=Administrator]On his own initiative, he decided to set up tooling in the Rotterdam plant for a new rear panel with an opening trunk lid. He didn’t ask for permission from the home office, since he assumed they would say no. Of course, the Kaisers found out about it soon enough anyway, and decided it was a good idea — hence the Accessory Group. [/quote]

    It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission!

  4. I think the early Henry J’s lacked an opening trunk lid because as a condition of receiving RFC aid, the price of the car could be no more than $1300.

    There’s an interesting (at least to me!) historical parallel here. When the Saab 92 (Saab’s first car) was in development, Saab heard that the then-upcoming Volvo 444 was going to sell for 4400 Swedish kronor, which I think was equivalent to US$880. At that point, Saab’s cost to build the 92 was projected to be more than SKr4400, so away went the trunk lid. The Volvo 444’s price didn’t turn out that low after all, and at some point in the next few years, the 92 got an opening trunk lid.

    In his autobiography, [i]The Real Frank Zappa Book[/i], rock musician Frank Zappa mentioned his family’s move (in a Henry J) from Baltimore to the Los Angeles area in the early 1950s. His take on the back seat was, "I spent two weeks on this ironing board from Hell."

    1. The lack of a decklid and glove compartment were definitely part of an effort to meet the RFC price target — Henry Kaiser had promised the feds that the K-F compact would have an MSRP under $1,200. Even with those economy measures, the Henry J still missed that mark by around $25, although I assume the RFC decided it was close enough. (Incidentally, Hickman Price told Dick Langworth that a fair number of the cost-cutting tricks were suggested by Kaiser himself.)

      According to Price, the way the Henry J eventually got its decklid was rather convoluted. At the time the Henry J debuted, Price was the head of Kaiser-Frazer Export. A couple of years earlier, he had set up a factory in Rotterdam to supply cars to other export markets (apparently, the exchange rate of the guilder to other currencies was less onerous than with the dollar). When the Henry J came out, Price thought it had obvious export potential — it was the right size — but the lack of a decklid was a big obstacle. On his own initiative, he decided to set up tooling in the Rotterdam plant for a new rear panel with an opening trunk lid. He didn’t ask for permission from the home office, since he assumed they would say no. Of course, the Kaisers found out about it soon enough anyway, and decided it was a good idea — hence the Accessory Group.

      Price thought the Henry J could have sold much better overseas than it did, but he said that Kaiser-Frazer was very reluctant to spend the money on export-specific modifications, like heavy-duty suspension. Some of those the Export company ended up doing itself, but there was never a factory right-hand-drive version, for instance, which limited business in markets like the UK and Japan.

      (I should note that I’m not sure how unbiased Price’s perspective may have been — he was Joe Frazer’s nephew, and by 1950, Frazer was effectively out, although he remained on the payroll for a while longer.)

    2. As for the Henry J’s rear seat, the standard upholstery was basically plastic-coated paper, so I imagine that a cross-country drive in mid-summer would have become rather miserable in a hurry.

  5. Hello Aaron. Nice post! But I have to clarify that Juan Peron neither was a dictator, nor leaded a regime in Argentina. He was a president elected by popular vote (over 50%) three times, in 1946, 1952 and 1973.

    Luciano

    1. A fair point. Duly amended.

  6. Thank you very much, Aaron. Your history articles are much appreciated.

  7. Where can one find images of Dutch Darrin’s original design proposal of Kaiser’s small car that resembled a downscaled version of the 1951 full-size Kaiser?

    A pity Kaiser-Frazer never gave the green light to the 288ci Kaiser V8, wonder how it would have fared had the experimental V8 reached production.

    1. I don’t remember if there were images of Darrin’s proposal in Richard Langworth’s book on Kaiser-Frazer — it’s been years since I looked at that book — but if any images survived to that point, I imagine he would have included them.

  8. Aaron, thanks for a typically excellent set of observations woven into a pair of good stories re: the Kaiser-Frazer. Coupling the Kaiser-Frazer story with those of Hudson, Nash, Packard, and Studebaker, it seems to me that the “independents” were probably doomed to failure under the onslaught of the Big Three, even when one accounts for the bad management and business decisions. The only one of these decisions that appears to have been valid was Romney’s small car niche market play. How that would have worked out, had it been continued after his departure, is a good question, however, as a small company would have lacked the resources to develop the technology for more efficient and cleaner engines by the 70s.

    It’s in this matter that I would like to add a personal comment: I can’t judge Kaiser-Frazer and cite personal experience regarding the automobile, but I do feel qualified to offer up some valid observations on the 226 Continental engine that Kaiser used. My view is that you have been far too generous in your assessment of this engine.

    As a youngster, I worked in a shop rebuilding engines for lift trucks, which Continentals largely powered in brands such as Towmotor and Clark. and the large 6000# capacity trucks used the same 226 6. They are undoubtedly the cheapest things I’ve ever worked on, and their durability compared poorly with the more expensive Chrysler Industrial sixes. My understanding was that, even though they were used in other automotive uses, they were primarily an industrial engine for use on welders, generators, and water pumps — applications where a steady speed was all that was necessary and where the braking forces of an automobile were not constantly introduced — one of the things that limited this engine’s durability in Kaisers.

    Using such tired iron could not be the way to succeed. I wonder how, after reading your article, a Kaiser would have faired with a Rocket Olds V8. Undoubtedly there would be more power, but the Rocket V8 would place several hundred pounds of iron squarely over the front wheels. I can’t imagine this doing much good for the car’s road manners.

    I have wondered why Kaiser went to GM, rather than Hudson or Nash? Hudson had a good flathead six that, while larger than the lump of Continental iron, put out just as much power as the vaunted Olds V8 and thrashed it at the track, to boot. Granted, it would have been a heavier power plant than the Continental, as well.

    Perhaps a better choice would have been the Nash 6, which was a very capable OHV design and proved its abilities in the British Healeys. One of these would have been much more durable than the Continental and lighter than a Rocket V8, and given Nash’s situation, perhaps available at a more reasonable price. Running a McCulloch supercharger on one of these engines would have been a more reasonable proposition, as well.

    But as I said, I doubt that Kaiser-Frazer was going to work out in the long run, no matter what course of action was taken.

    1. Even if Hudson or Nash had been willing to sell engines to Kaiser-Frazer, I don’t think trading a six for a six would have done Kaiser any good from a marketing perspective, at least in the price league in which they were trying to compete. That was certainly Hudson’s experience, racing legacy notwithstanding. As for the big Nash six, it should be remembered that the Healeys had to do quite a big of work on it to make a competition engine, and its performance in the Nash-Healey was also a reflection of that car’s being a bunch lighter than a Nash sedan or even the lighter Kaiser sedans.

      The other consideration, and I assume one of the reasons Edgar Kaiser went to Oldsmobile, is which other manufacturers would have had the production capacity (and the willingness) to supply engines to an outside company. That might have been a touchier issue with another independent, even if there had been other advantages to such a deal.

  9. my dad had a1952 Kaiser Frazer 4door with push button doors

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