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

INDUSTRIAS KAISER ARGENTINA

The last hope for Kaiser’s automotive business came not from the U.S., but from South America. Argentine president Juan Perón had actually approached Kaiser-Frazer back in 1947 about the possibility of manufacturing cars in Argentina, but nothing had come of it. However, in mid-1954, Henry Kaiser’s friend De Lesseps Morrison, the mayor of New Orleans, convinced Kaiser that South America offered rich opportunities for local automotive production.

Kaiser subsequently visited nine South American countries, including Argentina, where Henry and his wife met with Perón. Kaiser initially viewed the right-wing Perón regime with suspicion — which some accounts allege was exacerbated by heavy-handed demands from Argentine officials — but Perón assured him that the business would be completely above board. He and Kaiser signed a letter of understanding on October 5.

On January 20, 1955, Kaiser formed Industrias Kaiser Argentina S.A. (IKA), a joint venture with the government-run Industrias Aeronáuticas y Mecánicas del Estado. IKA’s first managing director was Jim McCloud, Edgar Kaiser’s brother-in-law. Surprisingly, Kaiser took only a small minority interest in IKA, the majority of whose shares were offered on the Argentine stock market. IKA broke ground in April for its new factory, located in Santa Isabel in the province of Córdoba.

The fact that both Kaiser and the Argentine government held only minority interests in IKA proved fortuitous, allowing IKA to survive the fall of the Perón regime that September. By June 1956, the Córdoba plant was online, initially assembling Jeeps and 1954-1955 Kaiser sedans shipped in complete knocked down (CKD) form from Toledo. Kaiser Motors transferred some of the tooling for the big Kaisers to IKA as U.S. production wound down.

THE END OF THE ROAD — ALMOST

In the United States, Kaiser automobile production was nearly finished. The company built only 1,291 1955 Kaisers and most of those were CKD kits for Argentina. The Aero-Willys compacts were also nearing the end of the road, accounting for only 6,564 sales in 1955.

Until almost the end, Kaiser still hoped to introduce new models, including the much-discussed FWD subcompact and a third-generation Kaiser that would have shared components with a new compact car, an idea Dutch Darrin had recommended several years earlier. The Kaisers, however, finally decided that enough was enough. At a board meeting in the spring of 1955, Edgar Kaiser announced that U.S. production of all Kaiser and Willys automobiles would cease that fall. Jeep production continued, however, allowing Willys to post a $4.7 profit for its 1955 fiscal year.

Months later, in March 1956, the Kaisers consolidated all of their various companies — including Kaiser Motors and Kaiser’s cement, aluminum, and steel interests — into a new publicly traded holding company called Kaiser Industries Corporation, with a combined share value of $417 million. Kaiser-Frazer’s accumulated loans were repaid and the automaker’s remaining shareholders were allowed to convert their stock to Kaiser Industries shares at a rate of four to one. If it was not everything investors might have hoped, it was nonetheless a worthwhile (and lucrative) consolation prize for those who had believed in Henry Kaiser’s automotive dream.

That dream was not wholly dead; Willys continued to build and sell Jeeps for the U.S. market and both Willys and Kaiser retained their subsidiaries in South America. In 1958, IKA introduced the Carabela, a locally manufactured version of the 1954-1955 Kaiser Manhattan. Although the Carabela was too expensive to sell in large numbers, IKA supplemented it with Jeeps and other models, including license-built Renaults and, starting in 1960, the Alfa Romeo-based Bergantín. The Carabela ceased production in 1962, replaced by local versions of AMC’s Rambler Classic and later an unusual and rather pretty Rambler American offshoot called the IKA Torino.

Both IKA and Willys-Overland do Brasil, Willys’ Brazilian subsidiary, became profitable by the early sixties, but Kaiser Industries sold its stake in both companies in late 1967. Industrias Kaiser Argentina was purchased by Renault and the following year was renamed IKA-Renault. The IKA name was finally dropped in 1975 and the company became simply Renault Argentina S.A.

1958 IKA Carabela © 2007 Sebastian Palopoli (used with permission)
Between 1958 and 1961, IKA built 8,025 Carabelas, the locally manufactured version of the 1954-55 Kaiser Manhattan. They were quite expensive by Argentine standards — albeit less than many imported cars — and accounted for a relatively small percentage of the factory’s production. Mechanically, the IKA Carabela was very similar to the final Kaiser Manhattan, but had no supercharger or Hydra-Matic. IKA experimented with several derivatives of the Carabela, including a two-door convertible, and considered several redesign proposals (including some by Dutch Darrin), but none were produced. (Photo: “Kaiser Carabela” © 2007 Sebastian Palopoli; used with permission)

In 1963, Willys Motor Corporation became Kaiser Jeep, offering groundbreaking vehicles like the original Jeep Wagoneer sport-utility vehicle. In the sixties, however, these were still niche products and by the end of the decade, Kaiser Jeep was again struggling financially. Edgar Kaiser arranged to sell Kaiser Jeep to AMC in early 1970 for a reported $70 million, including a 22% stake in American Motors. Kaiser Industries sold those shares later in the decade, the Kaisers’ last involvement in the auto industry.

Henry Kaiser officially retired in the mid-fifties, relocating to Hawaii with his second wife, Alyce Chester Kaiser. He subsequently became involved in resort and hotel development, remaining very active until his death in 1967 at the age of 84. Edgar Kaiser remained the chairman of Kaiser Industries until it was broken up in 1977, four years before Edgar’s own death. The Kaisers’ former partner, Joe Frazer, had died in 1971.

Although their automotive venture didn’t quite pan out, the Kaisers’ legacy in other industries remains impressive. Perhaps the Kaisers’ most enduring accomplishments were the establishment of the Kaiser Permanente health network, which began in the 1930s as a private health plan for Kaiser employees, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the U.S.’s largest philanthropic organizations.

REQUIEM FOR THE KAISER-FRAZER DREAM

Barring quixotic efforts like Tucker, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was the last serious effort to launch a new mass-market automaker in the United States. (American Motors, incorporated in 1954, was really the consolidation of two preexisting companies, Nash and Hudson.) The direct reasons for Kaiser-Frazer’s failure are not complex: a lack of capital and excessive costs relative to the Big Three. The more interesting question is why Henry Kaiser failed. Kaiser had a formidable record of success in other industries before, during, and after his unsuccessful automotive enterprise. Why did the man who had built the Hoover Dam falter in taking on Detroit?

First, Kaiser’s tremendous achievements in construction and manufacturing were in contract-based businesses, not retail sales operations. Henry Kaiser was always an ebullient salesman, but his retail experience had ended before World War I. With government contract jobs, the competition is mostly in securing the contract; after that, the customer and the price are more or less assured (although even that isn’t 100% guaranteed, as Kaiser found with its defense contracts). The auto industry is a different and more brutal game, where building a good product and convincing people to buy it are two entirely different problems. The immediate success of 1947 and 1948 lulled Kaiser into a false sense of security, suggesting that the strategies that had worked so well in the shipbuilding trade would also work in the car business, but that was only true in the brief rush of the postwar seller’s market.

Second, the Kaisers’ approach to Kaiser-Frazer was not unlike the many online start-up companies of the late 1990s: They threw many ideas at the wall in search of one that would stick, assuming that once the company found its niche, they could easily repay the deficit they had run up along the way. What Henry Kaiser had to learn the hard way was that the auto industry is in many ways a war of attrition. The cost of a new product is only the beginning; you also have to budget for its replacement and the next generation after that.

Many automotive historians think Kaiser’s greatest downfall was in not listening to Joe Frazer, who understood these things all too well. We’re not so sure. True, if Henry Kaiser had heeded Frazer’s advice, Kaiser-Frazer might have mitigated the disaster of the 1949 model year and brought about a useful degree of financial restraint. Even so, we doubt that Kaiser-Frazer’s eventual fate would have been much different.

To our mind, Kaiser-Frazer’s greatest failure was in not defining a distinct identity for the company’s brands in a crowded and ferociously competitive postwar market. Kaiser could have had a coherent image — albeit not necessarily a lucrative one — if Henry had pursued his original agenda of building an inexpensive, plastic-bodied economy car, but Joe Frazer talked him out of it. Despite Frazer’s early talk about building an economy car, it appears that what he really wanted was to make K-F an orthodox, bread-and-butter automaker like Chrysler, offering pretty good cars for a pretty good price. That was a fine ambition, but the era in which it was a realistic goal for a company as small as Kaiser-Frazer ended with the Great Depression.

The Kaisers didn’t find their niche until after the merger with Willys-Overland, when they acquired the Jeep brand. Of course, Jeep wasn’t Kaiser-Frazer’s creation (except insofar as Joe Frazer was responsible for establishing the brand during his earlier tenure at Willys), but it had the unique products and unique identity that K-F had needed from the beginning. Admittedly, it was not until years later that Jeep, which is now owned by Chrysler [Author’s note: now FCA US LLC], became the lucrative brand it is today. Nonetheless, the mere fact that it still exists — long after Kaiser and Frazer became historical footnotes — speaks volumes.

This is not to say that the Kaiser or Frazer automobiles were bad products; other than their lack of power, they were fine cars in many respects. The second-generation Kaiser was even better and would have been genuinely impressive with either an Oldsmobile V8 or the planned 287 cu. in. (4,706 cc) Kaiser V8 under the hood. It’s a pity that, like too many bright children born to families of limited means (and Kaiser-Frazer was that, despite the founders’ individual wealth), it never really had a chance to thrive.

# # #

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), pp. 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.


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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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