Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Introduction to the 1951 and 1953 Kaiser Dragon


The 1951 Dragon Series and Dino Vinyl
Paint colors dictated how Dragons were named -- a Silver Dragon had a Mineral Gray over Mariner Gray paint scheme.
Paint colors dictated how Dragons were named -- a Silver Dragon had a Mineral Gray over Mariner Gray paint scheme.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Carleton Spencer developed a new vinyl pattern for the 1951 Dragon Series -- Dino (Dinosaur) vinyl. However, it wasn't the best choice, as described below.

For the 1951 Dragon Series, competitive pressures prompted Carleton Spencer to dig again into his bag of tricks. In February 1951, profiting by his experience with the Chicago specials, he brought out a new line of Kaiser Dragons with padded vinyl tops, each appropriately named for its color scheme.

The "Silver Dragon," for example, was painted Mariner gray, with a scarlet vinyl padded top and matching interior. Since the new series used a slightly different vinyl pattern, Spencer invented another description that nobody would confuse with a living animal: "Dinosaur."

It was a fairly unfortunate choice, as nobody wanted to call the Kaiser a dinosaur -- not yet, anyway. A minor feature of this second Dragon series was a set of removable armrests padded in the same dino-vinyl that graced the rest of the interior. These and the padded roof -- or "sport topping," as it was advertised -- raised the delivered price of Dragons to over $2,500, where they were yet more uncompetitive.

Although dealer bulletins said the original, painted-top Dragons had enjoyed "tremendous popularity," they were very scarce on the ground by the mid-1960s. The most popular 1951 Dragon was the second-series model with Arena Yellow paint and black dino-vinyl padded top. Of the other padded-top models, one or two Silver Dragons have been seen, and there still exists what must have started life as a Jade Dragon, complete with the prototype overhead-valve six that the company worked on for a time. It was once Henry J. Kaiser's personal car.

Accessories available for the Dragons included a continental spare.
Accessories available for the Dragons included a continental spare.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Kaiser-Frazer started overproducing in 1949. As a result, so many unsold Kaisers had piled up by the end of 1951 that the company simply changed their serial numbers and sold them as 1952 models, labeled "Virginians." Some of these may have been Dragons. The Virginians were all moved out by March 1952, so the "true" 1952 Kaisers had only a six-month run.

This probably explains why there were no Dragons that model year, but Carl Spencer hadn't given up. In fact, he was about to produce the most impressive Dragon of all.

But by 1953-model announcement time, things were getting pretty desperate for Kaiser-Frazer. Operations over the first nine months of 1952 were depressing: a $3 million profit on defense contracts (Willow Run had been building aircraft since 1951) obliterated by a $9 millon loss on cars.

Hickman Price, nephew of original partner Joe Frazer, who had been with the company from the beginning through 1952, recalled: "It was becoming pretty obvious that the trail was narrowing appreciably. At least it was obvious to most outside the company. If the Kaisers were going to stay in automobiles, they were going to need a partner with a broader market base and/or a specialized product, and they certainly didn't have too much time left to find one."

As we now know, the Kaisers salvaged their North American auto operations by buying Willys and eventually turning strictly to Jeep production, a successful specialty business (Kaiser Jeep Corporation), which they sold to American Motors at a handsome profit in early 1970.

Henry Kaiser drove a Jade Dragon as his personal car in 1951.
Henry Kaiser drove a Jade Dragon as his personal car in 1951.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In the meantime, they were faced with disposing of Willow Run -- and maintaining a semblance of auto production while they did it. This was fortunate, because Kaiser produced its best all-around cars in 1953-1955, led by the Series K530 Kaiser "Hardtop" Dragon, now a model in its own right.

Although things didn't look good for Kaiser-Frazer, Carleton Spencer didn't give up. He was on the verge of creating the best Dragon of all. Continue on to the next page to learn more about the 1953 Dragon.

For more information on cars, see:


More to Explore