Gear Head Tuesday – The Orphan Kaiser-Frazer

Gear Head

54 Kaiser Manhattan-fr54 Kaiser Manhattan-r

One of only 4,107 built: a 1954 Kaiser Manhattan. The front end styling seems to have been lifted directly from the Buick XP 300 show car, seen below at Pebble Beach, California.


The short-lived Kaiser-Frazer automobile operations in the U.S. came about as a result of a meeting in San Francisco between Henry J. Kaiser, who had automotive ambitions but no automotive experience, and Joseph W. Frazer who had both: automotive ambitions and experience. Frazer wanted to build his own car company as did Kaiser. The meeting where the two men met was in the apartment of Mario Giannini, son of Amadeo P. Giannini, the founder of both Bank of America and Transamerica Insurance.


Henry J. Kaiser

Henry J. Kaiser had made his fortune building roads and dams. As the U.S. first began arming the foes of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito and then entering into World War II itself, Kaiser put his efforts into shipbuilding, something he had no previous experience with. Characteristically, Kaiser made his shipbuilding work. His seven shipyards mass produced Liberty and Victory cargo ships (including the Red Oak Victory). Kaiser shipyards also built the escort aircraft carriers (nicknamed “Jeep” carriers) that served our Navy so admirably, mainly in the Pacific theater.

As early as 1942, Kaiser began thinking of entering the automobile business. Many people had deferred purchasing cars during the Depression, the very sharp recession of 1937-1938, and now, with World War II ending civilian auto production, it became impossible for the general public to buy a new car. Kaiser correctly anticipated that there would be a huge post-war automobile buying surge. His initial idea was to build a low-cost, high volume car, a modern Model T. Another motivating factor for Kaiser in his dream of launching a new car company was to provide employment to returning veterans at the end of the war. He recalled the tailspin the economy had gone into at the close of World War I and wished to do his share to help prevent that from happening at the close of World War II.

Kaiser’s far-flung industrial empire was headquartered Oakland, California on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Kaiser set up a think tank in nearby Emeryville in which brainstorming went on for Kaiser’s proposed postwar car.


While it was all still intact, the Kaiser industrial empire was headquartered in this modernist 1960s building across from Lake Merritt in Oakland, California.

In 1943, Kaiser’s Emeryville staff, which included engineer Jean Gregoire, formerly of the French car builder, Simca, began purchasing cars to study their designs. The think tank group also conceived some advanced automobiles of their own, many using plastic bodies and incorporating front-wheel drive, which was still a fairly radical idea in those days, particularly in the U.S. Kaiser spoke publicly of offering a postwar compact for the improbably low price of $400.

By the end of the war, the think tank staff had built a prototype called the K-85. By today’s standards, the K-85 was anything but compact. It was 197 inches in overall length, riding on a 117-inch wheelbase. The K-85 had many technical novelties, including “Packaged Power” front-wheel drive, unitized construction, and “Torsionetic Suspension” with torsion bar springs and an unusual torsion beam rear axle. One wonders if this suspension set up inspired William Allison, the Hudson engineer who pioneered the famous Torsion-Level suspension introduced by Packard in 1955. Legendary automotive writer Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated, drove the K-85 prototype and criticized (as only McCahill could) the K-85’s noisy transmission and heavy steering. Nonetheless, McCahill thought that if the company could fix those problems, its chances were good.

Positive developments in his prospective auto company aside, Henry Kaiser knew that he still knew too little about the auto business and that he needed a partner with an automobile background. Enter Joseph Washington Frazer.

Joseph Frazer

Joseph Washington Frazer

Joe Frazer’s father, Joseph S. Frazer, was a prominent Nashville, Tennessee attorney and judge whose family could trace its roots back to its native Scotland. His mother, Mary, was a direct descendant of George Washington. His maternal grandfather had been a planter, whose expanse of fine tobacco had been the world’s largest before the Civil War.

Frazer graduated from the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, the same exclusive place of learning that had educated Henry Ford II and late ’60s American Motors boss Roy Chapin (whose own father had been an executive with Hudson). Hotchkiss had also graduated the racing prodigy/cosmetics heir Peter Revson (Revlon Cosmetics). After Hotchkiss, Frazer graduated from Yale in 1911 with a  Batchelor of Science degree.

Frazer’s brother operated a Packard dealership in Nashville. In 1912, Joe Frazer took a job as a mechanic’s assistant at his older brother’s Packard agency so he could learn about the auto business. He subsequently became a Packard salesman and later 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 Vice President of Sales. He played an important role in the organization of both Plymouth and DeSoto at Chrysler, and served stints as head of each of those divisions. It was Frazer who named the Plymouth. The car was well along in development, but Chrysler had yet to name it. At the time, the U.S. was still in many ways a farm-driven economy. Frazer suggested the name Plymouth because it was a name well-known to farmers because many of them used Plymouth Agricultural Twine. This idea struck a chord with Walter Chrysler because of his own farm boy roots. By 1931, Plymouth ranked third in the industry behind Ford and Chevrolet in sales and the new Plymouth went on to become Chrysler Corporation’s volume line for many years.

In 1939 Frazer went to Willys-Overland, whose financial fortunes upon Frazer’s arrival largely paralleled Maxwell-Chalmers’ when Chrysler took it over. Willys-Overland’s sales were stalled at a minuscule  16,000 units annually. Frazer arrived at Willys just in time for Willys to land the Defense contract to build what would become its most famous and enduring product, the Jeep. Although most of the development work for the Jeep had been done by American Bantam Car, at the outbreak of World War II, the Defense Department awarded the major Jeep production contracts to Willys-Overland and Ford. It was Frazer who did the trademark filings to make “Jeep” an automotive nameplate – and the property of Willys-Overland. While at Willys-Overland, seeking to realize his ambition to produce his own car, Frazer attempted a buy-out of the company, but was rebuffed.

Still seeking a venue through which he could achieve his ambition, Frazer managed a leveraged buy-out of Graham-Paige in 1944. Graham-Paige, upon the arrival of Frazer, was a shell of its pre-war self and its management had decided not to resume auto production after the war ended. Frazer, though, had every intention of resuming car production there. The new post-war Graham was to be called the Frazer, thus fulfilling Frazer’s ambition to launch his own car. Frazer had been a long-time acquaintance of Bank of America’s A.P Giannini.

Giannini, being in the San Francisco Bay Area, was no stranger to Henry Kaiser’s ambition to launch a new post war car. Giannini and Frazer’s nephew, Hickman Price, Jr., deserve considerable credit for what happened next. In 1945, Giannini introduced Kaiser to Frazer and personally approved a $10 million credit line for them. Next, Hickman Price Jr., managed to get ahold of the surplus Willow Run B-24 bomber assembly plant near Detroit. An initial Kaiser-Frazer stock offering rolled up another $52 million in capitalization. Thus events aligned to produce the Kaiser-Frazer automobiles.

Work began converting the huge (1,000,000 square foot) Willow Run building into an automobile assembly plant. Celebrity designer Dutch Darrin was contracted to Kaiser-Frazer and he dashed off a design intended to have something to show the Wall Street bankers and other potential investors, but neither Darrin nor Frazer ever intended it for production. Nonetheless, Lehman Bros. liked it and this design was rushed into production. Two variants were produced from the same body shell – the Frazer and the slightly lower cost Kaiser instead of the planned K-85 compact as the Kaiser. The cars went into production in 1946 as 1947 models.

Kaiser-Frazer - 1947

The initially good sales of the Kaisers and Frazers didn’t last. At first, the car-starved public would buy anything with wheels on it. But as Detroit competitors rolled out new designs and V-8 engines, the stodgy-looking Kaisers and Frazers with their underpowered Continental L-head six quickly lost favor in the market. Shown here are the 1947 models.

These Frazers and Kaisers were completely orthodox cars. Using mostly off-the-shelf parts from various suppliers, there was nothing unique about their appearance or engineering, aside from the novel Traveler and Vagabond models with their hatchbacks and folding rear seats.


Above: 1947 Kaiser Traveller. Below: a 1951 Kaiser Vagabond formerly owned by the late Dixon, California car collector, Mike Doyle.

Kaiser Vagabond-r

Below: note the Darrin badge and also the “Darrin Dip” in the top center of the taillight.

Kaiser Vagabond-Darrin badge

There had been neither time nor money to develop its own engine, so Kaiser-Frazer used the Continental “Red Seal” six, an old 226 cubic inch L-head design that had been used in an astonishing number of cars (including some pre-war Grahams), trucks, forklifts, motorboats and other industrial applications. Some medium tanks had used four of them together during World War II. The engine was a known quantity, but its only virtue in automobile applications was 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 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.

In the meantime, development work on the compact K-85 was falling far behind schedule. The intent had been for the Darrin design to be used only as the Frazer and that the K-85 would become the volume Kaiser line. Frazer convinced Kaiser to halt the development of the K-85 and introduce a slightly de-contented Frazer as the Kaiser.

Coming to market as they did just in time for the postwar sellers market, Kaiser-Frazer 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. For 1948, total K-F sales for the model year amounted to 91,851 Kaisers and 48,071 Frazers.

As the 1947 Kaisers and Frazers went into production, work had already begun on the next generation Kaiser-Frazer cars. There were three groups working on the second generation car: Kaiser-Frazer’s own in-house stylists led by ex-Chrysler designer Bob Cadwallader and Brooks Stevens Associates‘ Jim Floria was working on a second. These first two were technically violations of Kaiser-Frazer’s contract with Darrin, but there was little Darrin could do about it short of a legal battle. (Henry and Edgar Kaiser seemed to be looking for a way to disentangle the company from Darrin who had the support of Frazer.) Alerted to what was going on by Frazer, Darrin realized that if he wanted a shot at styling the 1951 Kaiser, he would have to work fast.


Second generation Kaiser proposal by Brooks Stevens Associate Jim Floria. While this design was vetoed in favor of the Dutch Darrin-Duncan McRae design, elements of it nonetheless found their way onto the 1951 Frazers.

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.

51 Kaiser

Top: full size clay model of what became the ’51 Kaiser. Below: “Introducing Speed Styling.” The ’51 Kaiser was dubbed the Constellation while in development. Stylist Duncan McRae worked on this car and later went to Packard where the Constellation name appeared on the production 1955 Clipper Custom two door hardtop.

Despite the intrigue and gamesmanship, Darrin and McRae’s model, dubbed “Constellation,” was soon ready for viewing. McRae had worked until midnight every night until it was done. The Constellation model incorporated Darrin’s signature “Darrin dip” in the beltline and had distinctive “widow’s peaks” (which echoed the “Darrin Dip” at the sides) in 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. Duncan McRae went from Kaiser-Frazer to Packard, where he later had the unpleasant task of turning, with no money to do it, the Studebaker President into the 1958 Packard Clippers when Packard was unable to finance the spectacular ’57-’58s they had planned. The Constellation name re-appeared on a two door hardtop version of the 1955 Packard Clipper Custom.

Frazer cautioned Henry Kaiser that the boom of 1947 and 1948 would not last and advised that production should be cut back for 1949. Kaiser would hear none of it and ordered every car that could be built pushed out the door at Willow Run. Frazer was correct and K-F finished the 1949 model year with thousands of unsold cars, most of which were re-numbered and sold as 1950 models. Packard, too, over-produced for 1949 and had to re-number many unsold ’49s as 1950 models.

Brooks Stevens Transporter:Kaisers

1949 Kaisers being transported on a Brooks Stevens-designed truck.

Frazer and Kaiser were of different temperaments but managed to keep their differences out of their working relationship until 1949 when Frazer left the company and was succeeded by Henry J.’s son, Edgar Kaiser.

The Kaisers, Henry and Edgar, despite wanting to rid themselves of Darrin, were confident nonetheless that the new Darrin-styled cars would turn the tide back to the company’s favor. Sadly, this was not to be. Despite what was the most advanced design of the time until the arrival of Robert Bourke’s 1953 Studebaker Starliner and Starlight coupes, the second generation Kaisers, introduced in 1951 did not meet the company’s sales expectations. One of the key reasons was the lack of a V-8 engine. That now-ancient Continental six simply wasn’t up to the task of moving the car quickly enough in the V-8 crazed 1950s.

Kaiser 288 V-8

The V-8 that was not to be: Kaiser’s V-8 reached running prototype stage but was nixed for production to tool up for the Henry J compact car.

Kaiser engineers, led by Dave Potter (who had come to K-F from Continental), had developed a spiffy 288 cubic inch V8 that reached running prototype stage. Sadly, further development of the engine was nixed as the company decide to spend its limited development budget on the compact Henry J.

A compact car craze was sweeping through the Independent manufacturers in the early 1950s, but only one managed to pull it off successfully: Nash (which became American Motors). K-F tried the Henry J and Hudson tried the Jet, fatal mistakes for both companies. With the exception of Nash, lacking a compact from one of the big three to lead the way, the Independent makers’ compacts were ten years too soon. As Nash became American Motors, they alone were successful in marketing their Rambler (and American, which had first been called the Rambler) in the nascent compact car market. Of the Independents aside from American Motors, only Studebaker at the end of the 1950s really scored with a compact car, their Lark, introduced in 1959. But when Studebaker saved itself with the Lark, K-F was gone from the U.S. passenger car market and Hudson had been absorbed by and then killed off by Nash.

With its dashing new Darrin-styled car for 1951, Kaiser’s sales recovered somewhat for 1951, but fell sharply again for 1952. The new Henry J compact car sold well for one year only: 1951, even with Sears selling a version called the Allstate. Sears only sold about 2,200 of the little cars.

With Joe Frazer gone from the company, the Frazer car was killed off as soon as parts could be used up. Lacking a competitive engine, Kaiser tried to attract customers by using plush interiors. One such Kaiser offering was the Dragon. These Kaiser interiors were arguably the best in the industry in any price class at the time.

Sales stumbled again in 1952 and Kaiser, like all the other Independents, was wounded by the fierce price war between Ford and Chevrolet in 1953 and 1954. Kaiser acquired Willys in 1953 to get the Jeep and Willys’ Defense contracts. The vast Willow Run plant was shuttered and Kaiser car production was moved to Toledo, historic home of Willys. Willys had been selling the compact Brooks Stevens-designed Aero – another Independent attempt to create a market for compact cars which simply didn’t exist yet in the U.S. – but it was killed off in the U.S. at the end of the 1955 model year. The plush interiors and a nice restyle of the Kaiser for 1954 and the offering of a supercharged version of the hoary Continental six cylinder engine did nothing to boost sales. At the end of the 1955 model year, Kaiser pulled the plug on passenger car production in the U.S. and moved the tooling for the Kaisers and the Willys Aero to South America where the company prospered until the 1960s when its assets were acquired by Ford and Renault. As we saw last week, a Brooks Stevens-designed Willys for the South American market became a pattern for his later work for Studebaker. The Kaiser Manhattan became the Carabella in South America and continued in production until 1962 when the dies to stamp its body parts had simply worn out. Of all of this, the most enduring part is Jeep which is the best-selling part of what is now Fiat-Chrysler.

Kaiser-Frazer sign


Add yours →

  1. jack darnell 12/04/2016 — 08:52

    One of my brothers bought the ’48 Kaiser, the other had a ’38 ford. they raced on a new dirt road bed. Drags the Ford always won, 2 miles it was about a tie. They laughed about it for years. I was never impressed by the Kaiser, except that it was different (name) and unique.
    I had never associated the grill and front end comparisons of the prototype Buick, but it sure was close, huh?

    Interesting article. I do wish, they, Packard and Studebaker had survived. I liked the variety of car names..


    • hee hee … I bet that ’38 Ford left the poor Kaiser in the dust! That Continental six didn’t have enough power to get out of its own way! You practically had to get out of the car and push it to get it going!


  2. Gordon F. Kertzel,lll 12/04/2016 — 15:29

    Another excellent piece, Paul. thanks for the every week. Gordon


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: