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How Kaiser Cars Work


1951, 1952, 1953 Kaiser Cars
The 1953 Kaiser Carolina retailed in the $2300 range and featured few changes from earlier models.

Meantime, Dutch Darrin and K-F Styling had prepared a real blockbuster: a slender, beautiful new Kaiser with "Anatomic Design."

Though scheduled for 1950, it didn't arrive until March of that year as a 1951 offering (delayed until those '49 leftovers were cleared). But it sold like no Kaiser before: close to 140,000 for the model year. From 17th in Detroit for '49, Kaiser promptly shot up to 12th.

Looking unlike any other car of its day, the 1951 Kaiser boasted 700 square inches more glass area than its nearest competitor and a lower beltline than any Detroit car offered through 1956.

Though wheelbase slimmed to 118.5 inches, the '51 looked miles sleeker than first-generation Kaisers. Complementing its artful styling was another bewildering array of bright exterior colors and high-fashion interiors by "color engineer" Spencer.

The '51 Kaiser was also the first car that actually sold at least partly on safety features, offering a padded dash, recessed gauges and controls, slim roof pillars for good visibility, and a windshield that popped out if struck with a force of more than 35 pounds per square inch.

Though chief engineers John Widman and Ralph Isbrandt shunned unit construction, they designed a rigid separate body for a strong frame weighing but 200 pounds.

They also provided a low center of gravity that ensured fine handling, and a suspension that delivered a terrific ride despite curb weights averaging only 3100 pounds. Said one Chrysler engineer who later sampled a '51 Kaiser: "It rides like one of our 4500-pound cars."

Still in the lower medium-price field, Kaiser's '51 prices ranged from just under $2000 to a bit over $2400. Special and DeLuxe series returned, each offering regular and utility Traveler sedans with two or four doors, plus the long-deck club coupe; there was also a stripped Special business coupe.

But hardtops, convertibles, and station wagons were conspicuously absent, as was a V-8. Though K-F had plans for all of these, it would never have the money to market them. The old six was lifted to 115 bhp via two-barrel carburetor and dual exhausts, but the missing V-8 would prove an increasing sales liability.

A scheduled 1952 facelift wasn't ready on time, so Virginian models, basically leftover '51s with "Continental kits," were sold in the interim -- about 5500 in all. The "real" '52s arrived with bulbous taillights and a more prominent, heavier-looking grille.

Two-door Travelers and the business coupe departed, Specials became DeLuxes, and previous DeLuxes -- a coupe and two sedans -- were now retitled Manhattan (borrowing the old Frazer name). The "second-series" '52s are fairly rare: only 7500 DeLuxes and 19,000 Manhattans.

Kaiser had pitched the "fashion market" in 1951 with its $125 Dragon trim options: limited-edition four-door sedans available in Golden, Silver, Emerald, and Jade editions. All sported alligator-look "Dragon" vinyl inside and color-keyed exteriors with padded vinyl tops.

This idea was tried again with 1953's "Hardtop" Dragon sedan, the most-luxurious Kaiser of all. It was easily spotted by a gold-plated hood ornament, badges, and even keyhole covers, plus a padded roof usually covered in "bambu" vinyl -- a tough, oriental-style material that also adorned the dash and parts of seats and door panels.

Seat inserts were done in "Laguna" cloth, a fabric with an oblong pattern created by fashion consultant Marie Nichols. Standard amenities were plentiful: tinted glass, Hydra-Matic Drive, whitewalls, twin-speaker radio, and Calpoint custom carpet. The finishing touch was a gold-plated dash plaque engraved with the owner's name.

The Dragon was spectacular, but a high $3924 price -- nearly as much as a Cadillac Coupe de Ville -- limited sales to just 1277, a few of which almost had to be given away.

Otherwise, the '53 Kaisers were little changed. A pair of stripped Carolina sedans was fielded in the $2300 range, an effort to build showroom traffic, but only 1800 were sold. Club coupes were cut, the six was persuaded up to 118 bhp, and power steering bowed late in the season as a $122 option.

But Kaiser sales were falling fast: only 32,000 for '52 and just 28,000 for '53. The compact Henry J had squandered development funds that would have been better spent on new styling, new body types, or a V-8. Cash reserves were further depleted in 1954 when Henry Kaiser decided to buy Willys-Overland, which was no better off.

For more on defunct American cars, see: