Imagine Chrysler selling shirts, Ford merchandising mattresses, or GM pushing power tools. Sound strange? No more so than retailing giant Sears, Roebuck getting into the car business, which it did for a brief time in the '50s.
The story begins in the late '40s with Theodore V. Houser, then vice president of merchandising for Sears, but also on the board of Kaiser-Frazer, the upstart postwar automaker. In 1949, Houser broached the idea of marketing a K-F product under Sears' familiar Allstate name -- a complete car to be sold along with parts and accessories for it at the new auto shops Sears was then opening up next to its retail stores. A hookup with K-F was a natural. At the time, Houser was buying Homart enamelware from Kaiser Metals Company in which Sears held a 45-percent interest.
The first thought was simply to put Allstate logos on Kaiser-Frazer's large 1949 models, but Sears was dubious. Then the compact Henry J came along for 1951, exactly the car Houser had been looking for: simple, inexpensive, and easy to service.
Somehow, K-F president Edgar F. Kaiser managed to convince his dealers to accept a chain department store as a competitor, and the Allstate was announced that November. It was the only new American make for 1952, and the first car Sears had offered since its high-wheeler of 40 years earlier. In an apparent attempt to feel out the market, Sears initially concentrated promotion in the Southeast, though the Allstate was ostensibly available nationwide through the Sears catalog.
Though obviously a Henry J, the Allstate sported a distinctive front end designed by Alex Tremulis (lately involved with the Tucker fiasco), plus a major interior upgrade in line with Sears' policy of improving on proprietary products. K-F interior specialist Carleton Spencer used quilted saran plastic combined with a coated-paper fiber encapsulated in vinyl, a material he'd discovered in use on the transatlantic telegraph cable. Seemingly impervious to normal wear, it was superior to the upholstery of most Henry Js.
Not surprisingly, Sears specified its own Allstate batteries, spark plugs, and tube tires, each with the appropriate guarantee. The entire vehicle was covered for 90 days or 4000 miles, K-F's standard warranty. Allstate's Deluxe models had trunklids and dashboard gloveboxes, items found less often on Henry Js, though basic and standard Allstates lacked the opening trunk. The costlier Deluxe Six also had armrests and a horn ring that weren't available on lesser versions even at extra cost.
Otherwise, everything else was the same. That meant K-F's pudgy-looking little two-door fastback sedan with a choice of two L-head Willys engines: a four and a six. Sears' marketing was more aggressive, though, with five Allstate models to four Henry Js. The cheapest '52 Allstate, the basic Four, was priced just below the standard Henry J.
There was little change for '53. A full-width rubber-covered pad was added to the dash, taillights were relocated to the rear fenders, and models reduced to two Fours and the Six.
But by then, it was clear the Allstate had failed. Whether it was because people didn't take to buying cars in department stores or because of the narrow marketing approach is difficult to determine. Both factors probably contributed. Only 1566 Allstates were built for 1952. The count was 797 when Sears canceled the project in early '53, leaving plans for future models stillborn. Among these was a pair of proposals for a two-door station wagon, one by industrial designer Brooks Stevens, the other by Gordon Tercey of K-F Styling.
Allstates are extremely rare today, and thus more desired by collectors than comparable Henry Js. In 1971, Allstate Insurance purchased an Allstate car for historical purposes. In the '60s it would have been hard to convince the folks at Sears' parts counters that the car had ever existed.