Gear Head Tuesday – Kaiser’s Ill-fated Henry J

Gear Head


In our initial post about the Kaiser-Frazer cars, we wrote that both Henry J. Kaiser and (to a lesser extent) Joe Frazer individually envisioned manufacturing a post-war economy car, a modern Model T. In pursuit of that goal and prior to the formation of Kaiser-Frazer, engineers hired by Henry J. Kaiser, working in Emeryville, California had developed a front wheel drive prototype car, the K-85.

When Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini introduced Henry J. Kaiser and Joe Frazer to each other in the San Francisco apartment of Giannini’s son Mario, the alliance that formed the new Kaiser-Frazer motors was created. The K-85, in today’s terms, was not a compact car and there were engineering problems with it that were neither easy nor inexpensive to sort out in the time frame that evolved when Kaiser-Frazer was formed. Instead of the K-85, a full-size car developed from a design penned by Howard “Dutch” Darrin was rushed into production at the former bomber plant in Willow Run, Michigan, secured for K-F with the help of Frazer’s nephew. Hickman Price, Jr.

Nonetheless, Henry J. Kaiser still wanted to offer a compact economy car. No doubt he was encouraged to pursue the idea knowing Nash was planning to introduce its Rambler. It is likely that Henry J. also was aware that Willys was developing the Brooks Stevens-designed compact Aero, particularly in light of the fact that one of Brooks Stevens’ stylists was working on assignment at Kaiser-Frazer. Further, it is likely that Kaiser knew that Hudson was developing its own compact, the Jet. Secrets in Detroit are notoriously likely to leak. As we have noted previously, of all of these attempts to produce and successfully market a compact car in the early t0 mid 1950s, only Nash successfully pulled it off. The compact car market in the U.S. simply didn’t exist yet.

Kaiser-Frazer should have concentrated its resources on further development and refinement of its full size cars. Fueled by the 1949 introductions of new overhead valve V-8s by Oldsmobile and Cadillac the V-8 craze was in full swing . Studebaker and Chrysler joined the fray with their own V-8s in the early ’50s.

Car builders who did not offer V-8s were at a competitive disadvantage. Packard yielded more of its traditional luxury market to Cadillac by sticking too long with its straight eight. Hudson gave up market share, despite its racing successes, by clinging to its inline six. K-F engineers had developed a fine 288 cubic inch V-8 that would have replaced the anemic Continental “Red Seal” six that was used (among other applications) in fork lifts, for heaven’s sake! The V-8 was nixed by Kaiser when the company secured a loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to develop and market a compact economy car, the car that became the Henry J. Kaiser-Frazer and Hudson sealed their fates by pursuing their compact cars instead of marketing V-8s. Upstart Kaiser-Frazer likely would have folded in the U.S. anyway in face of the GM juggernaut, which was at its peak in the ’50s. Nonetheless, the case can be made that K-F would have fared better had it not wasted time and treasure on the compact Henry J.


All these factors aside, Kaiser-Frazer brought the compact Henry J to market in 1951 alongside its new Dutch Darrin/Duncan McRae-designed full size Kaisers. Darrin had a hand in the design of the Henry J as well. The final design that came to market as the Henry J came along a circuitous path.

With the K-85 project shelved, Kaiser-Frazer in 1946 commissioned compact car proposals from the Los Angeles-based design firm E.H. Daniels, Inc. and the team of Brooks Stevens and Robert Paxton McCulloch (founder of McCulloch Motors and later Paxton Products). Neither of those proposals got past the model stage.

Nonetheless, when Henry Kaiser went to the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) for a major operating loan later that year, he promised the RFC that Kaiser-Frazer would launch a small, economical people’s car with a price tag of less than $1,200, undercutting every other new car on the American market. According to Kaiser-Frazer engineer Ralph Isbrandt, Kaiser’s people’s car idea greatly appealed to RFC officials, who made the introduction of such a car a condition of the $44 million loan. The RFC further specified that more than a quarter of the loan money be spent on the development of the compact, which Kaiser had optimistically declared could be on sale by mid-1950. Kaiser was now locked in to producing the compact car.


During that time, Henry Kaiser was approached by Detroit investor Frederick C. Matthaei, then a principal shareholder of the automotive supplier American Metal Products (AMP). AMP and steel fabricator Haber Stump Harris had recently developed a prototype compact car using space frame construction that Matthaei had originally hoped would allow AMP to become a full-fledged automaker. However, AMP soon realized that building a complete automobile was beyond its capabilities and Matthaei then pitched the design to Kaiser.

Many of Kaiser-Frazer’s Detroit staff immediately dismissed the AMP prototype as amateurish and unworkable. Dutch Darrin agreed with Kaiser’s Detroit contingent and proposed a compact version of his 1951 full-size Kaiser design, built on a 105-inch wheelbase but designed to share much of the same tooling and many components.

Kaiser pere et fils were already accustomed to resistance from the company’s Detroiters, whom the Kaisers had come to regard as hidebound naysayers hostile to any idea they hadn’t suggested themselves. The Kaisers bought the AMP design anyway, taking the position that adapting an existing design would be cheaper than starting from scratch.

Darrin continued to lobby for his short-wheelbase Kaiser concept. Because Darrin’s proposed car was bigger than the AMP design, the Kaisers thought it would cost more to build, but Darrin argued that the materials cost would be far outweighed by the savings in tooling. Edgar Kaiser remained skeptical and tried to placate the notoriously mercurial Darrin by offering him a per-car royalty for helping the in-house stylists refine the AMP prototype for production. Darrin reluctantly accepted. It is ironic that Edgar Kaiser offered Darrin the per-car royalty because K-F was already paying Darrin a per-car royalty on their other Darrin-designed cars and both Kaisers had sought ways to extract themselves from paying this fee to Darrin.

Exactly as the naysayers had warned, turning AMP’s crude prototype into a production-ready car was more complicated and more expensive than the Kaisers had anticipated. Among other things, the AMP car could not easily accommodate the Continental six used in K-F’s full-size models. Since the company lacked the resources for an all-new engine, Kaiser-Frazer ended up purchasing four and six cylinder engines from Willys-Overland. This actually was a blessing as the Willys engines were also used in the Jeep. While they were not modern overhead valve engines, they were rugged, reliable and produced (for their size) good torque. The AMP prototype’s tubular frame proved unworkable and was discarded in favor of a new conventional frame designed by Kaiser engineer Ralph Isbrandt. Isbrandt, ironically, was among K-F’s Detroiters who had argued against buying the AMP design.Henry J-adWith the RFC-imposed deadline fast approaching, there was little that could be done with the prototype’s awkward proportions, but in-house stylist Herb Weissinger added a new grille (reminiscent of the 1951 Frazer) and stubby, Cadillac-like tail fins. Darrin’s most visible contribution was the body sides, which had a trace of Darrin’s trademark “Darrin dip” and he gave the rear window the same dip at the center as the full size Kaisers.

Henry J-Ad

Henry J-ad

The completed car was named “Henry J.” They were not branded as Kaisers, but were sold and registered as a separate make. The Henry J was introduced to the public on 28 September, 1950 with a starting price of only $1,219 (soon raised to $1,299). It was the least expensive new car in America and one of the most economical. For a compact car, it offered a surprisingly good ride. However, as always, there is a price to pay for the price you pay, and the Henry J was no exception. The low price – another requirement of the RFC loan – had been achieved by stripping trim and features to an absurdly Spartan level. The base model Henry J didn’t have a trunk opening or even a glove box. The initial Henry J measured 174.5 inches in overall length. The wheelbase was 100 inches, in contrast to the 105″ wheelbase proposed by Darrin. The shipping weight was only 2,300 pounds. The base models had fixed fixed quarter windows and vinyl-coated plastic upholstery). A radio, heater, glove box, turn signals, backup lights, wheel trim rings, and white wall tires were all optional. The base model was a very basic car, even for that time. Not until Studebaker introduced its Scotsman in 1957 had there been such a stripped down car sold. Initially, no automatic transmission was available, but overdrive was offered as a $100 option to the three speed manual transmission.

Henry J - R

Plain vanilla: base model Henry Js had no trunk opening.


Fit and finish of the early cars was poor. Owners soon complained of rattles, poor door seals, water and air leaks and an assortment of other build quality issues. Word of these complaints spread among potential buyers, dampening sales.

As we have seen previously, Kaiser-Frazer had a penchant for over-producing and the Henry J was no exception. The company sold about 75,000 Henry Js in the first year, but produced some 81,942 of them, ending the model year with more than 7,000 unsold cars. Sales for 1952 amounted to fewer than 35,000 despite a deal with Sears, Roebuck to market a facelifted version of the Henry J under the Allstate brand name. Sears only sold a little over 2,000 Allstates. The Henry J sold surprisingly well overseas despite the lack of a right hand drive version or “export” (heavy duty) suspension, but in the U.S., buyer interest in the Kaiser compact faded quickly.

Minor facelifts were given to the Henry J in the 1952-1955 model years. The small, round (read cheap) taillights on the initial models were replaced by taillights integrated into the Cadillac-like fins, using the same parts as the full-size ’51 Kaisers. This taillight included, of course, the “Darrin dip.”

Kaiser Vagabond-Darrin badge

The “Darrin dip” was used on this taillight on the ’51 Kaisers. This taillight was used on later Henry Js instead of the simple (read cheap) round units shown above on the rear to the base model ’51 Henry J.


Entering the 1952 model year with some 7,000 leftover ’51 Henry Js and faced with falling consumer interest as material shortages due to the Korean War, production for 1952 fell to 30, 585 units. The market acceptance of the Henry J continued to cool in 1953 and production fell again to 16,672. Sales of all Kaiser-built cars really hit the wall in 1954. Only 8,539 Kaisers and 1,123 Henry Js left the assembly lines. With Kaiser’s purchase of Willys, their sale of the Willow Run plant to General Motors and the move of Kaiser production to the Willys plant in Toledo, Ohio, Kaiser pulled the plug on the Henry J. No Henry Js were built at Toledo. General Motors converted Willow Run into a plant to build Hydramatic transmissions to replace the plant lost in a fire. When Kaiser moved the dies to produce the full-size cars to South America, the dies to produce the Henry J didn’t go with them.

While the romance of the buying public with the Henry J was very short-lived, the Henry J caught the fancy of hotrodders and that interest continues to this day. Hottodders immediately saw the appeal of the small, light Henry J bodies and began stuffing big V-8 engines into them. Kaiser and Henry J cars may be largely forgotten by the public, but in the world of hotrodders, the Henry J lives on!

Next Tuesday: the Kaiser-Darrin


Add yours →

  1. Very informative. Until I started following you on blogs a couple years agoI did not realize the Henry J was any kin to K-F,
    You mention the over head valve system. TODAY I am awaiting the ‘BILL’ for the repair of ONE valve in the 24 valve Cummings, going to be $2500+ I fear! OUCH


  2. Gordon F. Kertzel,lll 04/05/2016 — 07:11

    Paul, Wondered why I couldn’t find the link!! Those senior moments are getting closer together! glad they don’t effecy you when writing the blog. Another great job. Cheers, Gordon BTW Golden Hawk tickets status== only 2500 of 5000 remain with 10 months til drawing–going fast


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