What upstart Kaiser needed was a full line of cars, including a station wagon. What it had was a single four-door sedan body. What it got -- the 1949-1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond -- was about as much as could be expected under the circumstances.

The official explanation goes like this: One day in July 1948, Kaiser-Frazer general manager Edgar F. Kaiser, ensconced in Willow Run, Michigan, receives a call from his father, Henry, the chairman of the board, in Oakland, California. "Come on out. I've got an idea," says Henry. The idea is the 1949 Kaiser Traveler, which looks like a sedan but has a folding rear seat and a gaping double hatch in the back that swallows everything from a coffin to a pup tent.

Edgar and his vice president for engineering, Dean Hammond, fly immediately to Oakland, where Henry announces that he and his wife are fed up with the station wagon at their retreat on Lake Tahoe. It rattles. It squeaks. It's a brute to drive. The wood body needs regular maintenance by a carpenter. The rear seat has to be unbolted and wrestled out to make any kind of cargo room.

"We can improve on this," Henry declares, marching them to a garage packed with products of his postwar wonder company, the leading independent and -- though a long way behind the "Big Three" -- the fourth-largest car producer.

Drawing lines in the dust on the nearest Kaiser, Henry illustrates his idea: a utility vehicle in the shape of a conventional sedan. "Why not cut a door in the rear and divide it halfway down the trunklid," he asks. "Then hinge it here and here, find some way of folding down the rear seat, invent a license plate mount that can flip up or down under the lower lid. . . ." The result is the Traveler and its deluxe cousin, the Vagabond.

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1949 Kaiser Traveler rear view
The Traveler was an attempt to create a utility
vehicle using a sedan body. See more classic car pictures.

That's the official version, dutifully delivered in a 1975 Kaiser-Frazer book and, as a result, in every article on the cars for more than a quarter century. However, another theory claims that the Traveler and Vagabond originated not in the restless mind of Henry J. Kaiser, but on the drawing boards of his engineers, most likely under chief body engineer Ralph Isbrandt, who was looking for something - anything -- to sell besides conventional four-door sedans.

Through 1950, every new model Kaiser-Frazer produced was conjured up by body engineers from sedan shells. The derivations included not only the Traveler/Vagabond but also the Kaiser Virginian four-door "hardtop" and the Kaiser and Frazer four-door "convertibles."

They were not true examples of their types; their sedan origins meant that their side-window frames were fixed, separated by little glass panels where the sedan B-pillar used to be. Until Isbrandt took measures, they shook and jiggled with merry abandon, because cutting off the roof cost a lot of stiffness. The Traveler was more solid, because it retained the B-pillar and a steel roof.

Dissatisfied with the prosaic notion that the Traveler was created by mere engineers, Kaiser's public relations department came up with the story of Henry's flash of inspiration. After all, they'd been promoting the West Coast sand-and-gravel tycoon for years, promising that once he turned his mind to automobiles, Henry would literally reinvent the car. The story fit, and in those trusting days was never challenged. It played well and has been playing ever since.

Learn about the development of the Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond in the next section.

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