Above: What should have been produced – Howard “Dutch” Darrin and a model of a ’47 Kaiser. Note the “Darrin Dip” in the fender under the rear window. The convertible didn’t reach production, in no small measure because the car was rushed into production and there was inadequate time to fully develop a complete model line-up. The best that can be said of the production version of the first Kaisers and Frazers is that they were homely. Darrin was quite justified in his dislike for the design actually produced. Note the shape of the vent wing on the rear window and compare it with the rear window vent wing of the ’40 Packard-Darrin pictured further down in today’s post.
Below: what was actually built gives the saying “plain vanilla” a pejorative meaning, all the more so with that grill on the Kaiser that resembles the head of an electric razor. The Frazer version, while still very “plain vanilla” at least has a cleaner grill design.
In last week’s Gear Head Tuesday, we leafed through a short history of Kaiser-Frazer. Today we turn again to Kaiser-Frazer and fill in some of the pieces missing from last week’s post.
The Kaisers and Frazers were designed by celebrity designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin. Darrin was born in Cranford, New Jersey in 1897. In World War I, he flew in the U.S. Army Signal Corp in France. After the war, he became acquainted with Thomas Hibbard, a fellow member of the great Expeditionary Force. Hibbard went on to become a co-founder of the custom body builder, LeBaron, in 1920 in partnership with Ray Dietrich. In 1923 Hubbard and Darrin teamed up in Paris as Hibbard & Darrin, where both became agents for the Antwerp-built, ultra-luxury Minerva. The Belgian builder was eventually forced into reorganization, so Hibbard & Darrin instead switched business plans and became a full-service design and custom shop in Paris, serving customers from as distant locales as South America, with some 200 artisans in metal and wood on the payroll. Darrin’s reputation was made when several of the creations he supervised for Hibbard & Darrin won major European concours.
Darrin stayed in Paris until 1937 when he returned to the United States, settling in California. He established his own custom shop, Darrin of Paris, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. One of his first California efforts was a 1937 Packard 120 Victoria for the film star Dick Powell. Next came a Packard ordered by Clark Gable. In 1939, Packard president Alvan Macauley persuaded Darrin to join the firm as its chief aesthetic designer. What followed was the stunning line of 1940 Packard-Darrins, and he would have heavy input into the styling of what eventually became the first Packard Clipper, introduced in 1942. During the war, Darrin returned to the air as a contract flight instructor.
Below: Some of Darrin’s work for Packard. The first two images are of a 1940 Packard-Darrin Super Eight four door convertible I took at Monterey, California in August of 2012. Note the Darrin insignia on the right front fender. These photos don’t do the car justice – it is breathtakingly beautiful. I couldn’t stay away from it – I kept circling back to it to look at it more. Below that is another 1940 Packard-Darrin Super Eight I photographed in Monterey, this one a two door convertible with the distinctive “Darrin Dip” in the doors. It was these two door Packard convertibles with which Darrin made his reputation with Packard. The last image in this group is of a 1942 Packard Clipper, a design that Darrin was involved in, even if it wasn’t 100% his and even if he didn’t get the credit for it that he thought he should have. This was a thoroughly modern design but it never really got a chance as it came to market just as civilian automobile production was ended as the U.S. entered World War II. The Clipper was the car Packard continued with at the end of the war in 1946 and 1947, but post-war material shortages limited how many Packard could build.
Darrin design DNA: compare the shape of the rear window vent wing on this ’40 Packard-Darrin with the design on the mock up of the ’47 Kaiser in the image at the beginning of this week’s post.
Above: It was with these 2 door Packard convertibles that Darrin truly established his reputation in the U.S. Note the rare Hudson Italia to the left of this Packard-Darrin. Below is the 1942 Packard Clipper. The good lines on this thoroughly modern for 1942 car are still handsome today.
Following the war, Darrin signed on with Kaiser-Frazer as a styling consultant where he was almost solely responsible for the 1947 Kaiser and Frazer designs. His deal with Henry J. Kaiser paid him a 75 cent royalty for each Kaiser-Frazer car built, an arrangement that stuck in Kaiser’s craw. Darrin was temperamental and clashed with both Henry J. and his son Edgar Kaiser, especially after the Kaisers and Joe Frazer fell out. Nonetheless, the Kaisers appreciated Darrin’s “star quality” and knew his talent could help them produce distinctive cars. They recognized that the very plain vanilla first generation Kaiser and Frazer design was a production expediency and were not the cars Darrin wanted to produce. Despite the palace intrigue around the design of the second generation car (where, as we saw last week, there were two in-house designs well under way), it was the design of Darrin and Duncan McRae that Henry Kaiser chose to become the 1951 Kaiser with its rounded roofline and trapezoidal greenhouse-glass treatment.
1951 Kaiser ad for the “Golden Dragon” trim package. Saddled with the outmoded, underpowered and temperamental Continental six cylinder engine, Kaiser tried to make a market niche for itself with spectacular interiors. The “Golden Dragon” included a padded vinyl roof and interior material that had a reptile pattern embossed in it. These Kaiser interiors were the work of Carleton Spencer.
On paper, Henry Kaiser and Joe Frazer were ideal partners, but there remained a vast philosophical divide between them and the people they recruited for Kaiser-Frazer. The people Frazer had recruited were, like Frazer himself, primarily Detroit veterans: engineers, production men, and designers who had cut their teeth at other major automakers. Kaiser’s people, who had come primarily from the shipbuilding business and other Kaiser enterprises in California, were outsiders in Detroit and largely ignorant of the auto industry’s established procedures and conventions.
Given those differences, it’s no surprise that there was friction. The Kaiser people tended to regard the Frazer people as stubborn, hidebound, and needlessly resistant to new ideas. The Frazer faction — including treasurer Hickman Price, Frazer’s nephew who became head of Kaiser-Frazer Export in early 1948 — considered the Kaiser people naïve dilettantes with an overinflated sense of their own ingenuity and a tendency for lavish spending that taxed the company’s modest resources.
The differences between Frazer and Kaiser came to a head at a board meeting regarding plans for 1949. Frazer warned that 1949 was going to be a difficult year both for the company and the industry. His sales instinct told him that the sellers market was ending. GM, Ford and Chrysler were unveiling their first true postwar designs which would shift the spotlight to their new models, leaving the independent producers in the shadows. The new overhead valve V-8s coming from Cadillac and Oldsmobile would outshine the problematic Continental six in the Kaisers and Frazers. Kaiser-Frazer’s second generation models weren’t ready nor was their interim facelift.
But Henry Kaiser insisted on plunging ahead, demanding that the company increase 1949 production by more than 10% from its 1948 (calendar year) level. Frazer argued strenuously against this. He pointed out that stepping up production in 1948 had increased revenues, but cut profits to barely half their 1947 level and left the company deeper in debt. Frazer urged caution, suggesting instead that Kaiser-Frazer cut production significantly so they could remain profitable while buying time to introduce fresher products. Frazer was fearful of having unsold ’49s that would have to be re-badged as ’50 models.
Henry J. lost his temper at that point, shouting, “The Kaisers never retrench!,” arguing that the company should seek a $40 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to bolster the development budget. Frazer adamantly refused and the meeting degenerated into name-calling. Frazer’s influence in the company had been declining and he lacked the votes on the board to overrule Henry’s decision.
Both men were right. While Kaiser’s insistence on continuing to increase production sounds foolhardy, it was driven by a well-founded concern about the company’s perception among potential investors and financiers. While cutting production as Frazer advised might have staved off another short-term loss, it would also have sent a worrisome message to Wall Street and Washington about Kaiser-Frazer’s long-term viability. But Frazer’s prediction that demand for K-F’s 1949 models would fall significantly and likely saddle the company with unsold production was prescient.
Soon after that eventful board meeting, Frazer resigned the presidency and was replaced by Edgar Kaiser. Frazer was given the meaningless title of board vice chairman and a three-year sales consulting agreement that allowed him to retain his existing salary, but his role in the company in any real sense was over. After working in non-automotive fields for a time, Frazer retired. He died in 1971 at the age of 79.
In November 1948, the Kaisers secured a $44 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to support sales operations and new model development, $12 million of which was to be used for the development of the new compact economy car, the Henry J. The Kaisers later obtained an additional $25 million loan to cover inventory costs for 1949 and 1950.
Frazer’s gloomy predictions for 1949 proved to be correct. Despite the addition of the new 4 door convertibles (the only 4 door convertible offered in the U.S. until the 1961 Lincoln Continental), the trend-setting Kaiser Virginian hardtop (the world’s first four door hardtop) , and the novel hatchback Traveler or Vagabond (depending on trim), Kaiser and Frazer sales were less than half the previous year’s, leaving some 20,000 leftover ’49s that had to be re-registered as 1950 models. That left the company with an after-tax loss of $30.3 million, followed by an additional $13.3 million loss for fiscal 1950.
1949 Kaiser four door convertible. Note the badge on the front fender. It is not the name of the car or the model, it is the name of the color! This was the idea of Carleton Spencer who did the interiors and colors for Kaiser-Frazer.
Once Joe Frazer was gone, the Frazer marque was not long for the world. Although Kaiser-Frazer advertising still proclaimed the Frazer “the Pride of Willow Run,” the 1951 “new handcrafted” Frazers were actually leftover 1950 models fitted with a restyled front clip. They were, indeed, handcrafted as the unsold ’50s were fitted with the new front clip by hand in the shop where production mistakes were fixed away from the regular assembly line.
The styling cues used on the ’51 Frazer were drawn from the proposed design for the ’51 Kaisers by the Brooks Stevens Associates’ stylist working for Kaiser, Jim Floria. The only reason the ’51 Frazers were offered at all was to use up some $7 million worth of existing Frazer trim and upholstery. Surprisingly, dealers placed orders for over 50,000 Frazers, but total production was 10,214, limited by the supply of 1950 bodies. And that was the end of the Frazer marque.
Above: Elements, particularly the front end treatment, of this proposed ’51 Kaiser designed by Brooks Stevens Associate Jim Floria became the front clip of the ’51 Frazer (below).
Below: Body #002, the ’51 Frazer four door convertible used by Henry J. Kaiser in Michigan and later sent to his home in Hawaii for his use there. The car was later acquired by an owner in Texas, where it resided until 1989, when it was sold to an individual in Maryland. The car has never been completely restored. At the time these photos were taken, the odometer showed 66,000 miles which were believed to be original. Only 131 Frazer convertibles were built for the ’51 model year.
Henry Kaiser often said that he valued employees and partners who were willing to challenge his thinking, so it’s ironic that he broke ties with Joe Frazer primarily because Frazer refused to tell Kaiser what he wanted to hear. To Henry Kaiser, Frazer’s caution smacked of defeatism, something for which Kaiser had little patience.
Later, Frazer’s nephew Hickman Price (not necessarily a neutral observer) expressed the belief that the Kaisers had always considered their partnership with Frazer to be a temporary expedient. Perhaps that was not true. Such an attitude seems out of character for Henry Kaiser, who was nothing if not an optimist — but considering Kaiser and Frazer’s fundamental differences, it was probably inevitable that the two would part ways.
Edgar Kaiser (left) with Joe Frazer outside of the factory at Willow Run
The Dutch Darrin-Duncan McRae designed ’51 Kaisers went into production and, typical of a new model introduction, sales zoomed. Production reached 231,608 units of all models, including the 10, 214 Frazers. Proposed but not produced in the new body style were a two door hardtop, a convertible and a station wagon. The only two body styles produced were two and four door sedans. Joining the new full-size Kaisers was the compact Henry J, of which 81, 942 were built.
Below: Kaiser-Frazer milestones in 1951 – the 100,000th Frazer (a four door hardtop of which only 152 were built), the 500,000th Kaiser and the 10,000th Henry J.
Below: these two never made it to production: the Kaiser convertible and station wagon. It seems odd that the convertible wasn’t produced after Kaiser had offered the four door convertible in the ’49-’51 model years. The company shorted product development on the ’51 full size Kaisers in order to produce the compact Henry J. It was a decision that helped wreck the company in the U.S.
The bounce in sales Kaiser enjoyed in 1951 was short lived. The onset of the Korean War plagued the auto industry with materials shortages, thus hampering the industry’s ability to produce cars. Be that as it may, the war dampened the spirits of the public and sales fell because people weren’t as eager to buy cars, not knowing what would happen as a result of Korea. Would the war spread? Would we be in another world-wide conflagration? Next was the notorious blood bath between Ford and Chevrolet in the 1953-1954 model years. As we have cited in previous Gear Head Tuesdays, the Ford-Chevrolet price and volume war across those two model years took a huge toll on all the independent automakers. The Frazer was gone and next Kaiser would soon end auto production in the U.S., but not before launching a sports car, about which we will learn next week.