1940s and 1950s Kaiser-Frazer Concept Cars

Image Gallery: Concept Cars This Kaiser-Frazer concept car proposed for 1950 by famed designer Brooks Stevens leaves intact the basic shape of the successful late 1940s Kaisers. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1940s and 1950s Kaiser-Frazer concept cars may have given a false sense of hope about the future for a company that didn't have much of a future.

Kaiser-Frazer Corporation lost about $100 each on some 1 million cars built over 10 years. That may sound like General Motors in the 1990s, but Kaiser-Frazer lived in the boom economy of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when poor judgment was about the only obstacle to automotive success.

And poor judgment was precisely what forced Kaiser-Frazer to abandon the U.S. market after attempting just three basic car designs. (Kaiser-Frazer also oversaw the final cars of Willys, which it acquired in 1953.)

Kaiser-Frazer was formed in 1945 as an alliance between Henry J. Kaiser, the rapid-fire construction and shipbuilding tycoon, and auto-industry sales veteran Joseph W. Frazer, who'd recently become president of moribund Graham-Paige.

Both wanted to build new postwar cars. Frazer lacked the money but had ample experience; Kaiser had tons of money but no know-how. After discusssions, Joe Frazer signed on as Kaiser-Frazer president, with Henry K. as chairman.

After raising $12 million (total initial capitalization was $52 million), they purchased Ford's 2.7-million-square-foot wartime bomber plant at Willow Run, Michigan -- the world's largest factory under one roof -- and hired design and engineering talent by the boatload. As production got going in June 1946, Kaiser-Frazer people felt, as one official later recalled, "as if there wasn't anything we couldn't do."

And indeed, Kaiser-Frazer could do no wrong -- for a while. Though conventionally engineered, the debut 1947-48 Kaisers and Frazers were fresh and appealing against most rivals' warmed-over prewar cars. Prices were stiff, yet Kaiser-Frazer vaulted to eighth in industry sales within a year, prompting some to call it the "postwar wonder company."

Yet though all seemed amicable between Joe and Henry, Kaiser soon started replacing Frazer's people with his own. By 1949 he controlled everything from the boardroom to the factory floor.

Which is how Henry was able to mandate 200,000 cars for 1949 over Joe's vehement objection. Knowing that Kaiser-Frazer could offer only facelifts against mostly all-new Big Three designs, Frazer wanted to build fewer 1949s, then come back strong with stunning all-new models then being planned for 1950.

But at one memorable board meeting, Henry declared, "The Kaisers never retrench!" With that, Frazer resigned and Henry appointed his own son Edgar as president. Henry got his 200,000 cars, but sold only 60,000 and lost $30.3 million, then close to a U.S. record for a company of that size.

This miscalculation had two ultimate results: the end of the Frazer nameplate and a six-month delay in launching the new second-generation Kaiser, which bowed in spring 1950 for model-year 1951. Until then, Kaiser-Frazer pushed out 1949 leftovers very slowly despite big discounts. Some were reserialed as "1950" models; about 10,000 others were transformed into 1951 Frazers via new front and rear sheetmetal.

Find out how this affected the 1951 model line by continuing to the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

1951 Kaiser Concept Cars

This 1951 Kaiser concept car shows a fastback proposal from Brooks Stevens that hinted at the actual roofline for the 1951 Kaiser line.
This 1951 Kaiser concept car shows a fastback proposal from Brooks Stevens that hinted at the actual roofline for the 1951 Kaiser line.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

It's a good thing someone at the company was thinking enough ahead to produce 1951 Kaiser concept cars, because it was about all Kaiser-Frazer could do to produce a lightly modified 1951 Kaiser line after company founders Henry Kaiser and Joe Frazer split.

But the company was never short of ideas on how to make the old stuff seem new. These came mainly from Kaiser-Frazer Styling principals Bob Cadwallader, Herb Weissinger, and Arnott B. "Buzz" Grisinger, all recruited from Chrysler, plus the able Cliff Voss and Milwaukee-based consultant Brooks Stevens.

Between them, these five conjured countless facelifts on the original 1947 bodies, plus variations including hardtop coupes, two-door convertibles, fastbacks, and even wood-trimmed sedans.

Two pioneering styles, the hatchback sedan and four-door "hardtop," did see production in the 1949-1950 Kaiser line (as the Traveler/Vagabond utilities and hardtop Virginian) and as 1951 Frazer models. Kaiser and Frazer also offered America's first postwar four-door convertibles, but these were just cut-down sedans done on the cheap.

Like Kaiser-Frazer's first-generation cars, the look of the rakish new 1951 Kaiser was largely owed to the renowned Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin, another consultant who carried the day over proposals from both Stevens and the in-house team. Weissinger and Grisinger finalized things like bumpers, hood ornament, and grille, but the long, low shape was pure Darrin. Sleek and beautiful, the 1951 Kaiser had no design peer among Detroit sedans for a good five years.

Because Joe Frazer and his namesake car were still around during developent, the new Kaiser was also planned as a Frazer -- again, a more luxurious and expensive version with slightly different styling. Weissinger, who also supervised the 1951 Frazer restyle, envisioned a complex eggcrate grille a la 1947-1950, placed low on the new Darrin body.

Toward 1949, however, it was decided to postpone the second-wave Frazer until 1952. At one point, Weissinger tried grafting the 1951 Frazer front onto the new Kaiser shell, which would have been ghastly.

But none of this mattered in the end. With Joe Frazer about to leave after being reduced to the meaningless position of board vice-chairman, the Frazer line was deemed unnecessary after 1951 and did not return.

To learn about the gradual demise of Kaiser over the next few years, keep reading on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

1952-1955 Kaiser Concept Cars

The 1952-1955 Kaiser concept cars included this Sun Goddes hardtop. It was one proposal for a non-sedan model Kaiser sorely needed in the 1950s.
The 1952-1955 Kaiser concept cars included this Sun Goddes hardtop. It was one proposal for a non-sedan model Kaiser sorely needed in the 1950s.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1952-1955 Kaiser concept car initiative was built mostly on false promises. The hastily designed "Anatomic" Kaiser did manage a strong 139,000 sales for 1951, (helped by a six-month jump on the competition), but that belied the fate of the 1952-1956 Kaiser.

The brand scored just 32,000 sales for 1952 despite a heavy facelift by Kaiser-Frazer Styling (with many ideas from renowned consultant Brooks Stevens left unused). Sales skidded again for 1953, thudding at 28,000.

There were two big problems. First, Kaiser still had only an anemic six to counter the potent overhead-valve V-8s of most rivals. Kaiser-Frazer was working on a V-8, but couldn't afford to produce it because of the second problem: money squandered on the unhappy Henry J compact.

To some extent, the "Anatomic" also suffered from offering just two- and four-door sedans, hatch and non-hatch. Not that Kaiser-Frazer didn't consider other body styles while finances were healthy.

A proposed hardtop coupe, dubbed "Sun Goddess" by stylist Alex Tremulis, was actually constructed from a 1951 two-door. Basically stock from the beltline down, it carried an attractive pillarless roofline with broadly wrapped backlight.

Also, the great 1930s coachbuilder Ray Dietrich oversaw the conversion of several 1951 coupes (some sources say as many as six) into convertibles concepts for 1952 and beyond. But again, there just wasn't enough money.

Kaiser was thus forced to rely on facelifts, plus interesting trim options like the colorful "Dragon" series, to get through each year. Somehow, though, money was found for a 1954 update boasting a wide concave grille, wrapped rear window, and three-sided "Safety-Glo" taillights with supplemental red lenses atop the fenders. Herb Weissinger was again responsible for a remarkably adept Kaiser-Frazer restyle.

Famed coachbuilder Ray Dietrich turned some Kaiser coupes into convertible proposals, including this one. It was among the prettiest 1952-1955 Kaiser concept cars.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

But by that point, time had run out. Despite a new performance-boosting supercharger option, Kaiser sold just 8,539 of its 1954 models. After struggling to build just 1,291 of the virtually unchanged 1955s, management decided to abandon the U.S. passenger-car market to concentrate solely on Jeep vehicles (acquired with the Willys takeover).

The final proposed Kaiser facelift was a garish, two-toned affair for 1955. Also left stillborn was a complete makeover planned for 1956.

Learn about how Kaiser lived on overseas by continuing to the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

Kaiser Carabela Concept Car

A rare photo shows the Kaiser Carabela concept car  proposed in 1960 by designer Dutch Darrin.
A rare photo shows the Kaiser Carabela concept car  proposed in 1960 by designer Dutch Darrin.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Kaiser's last U.S. products were for the 1955 model year, but the nameplate was far from finished. The Kaiser Carabela still had a future overseas, and with that future came a Kaiser Carabela concept car proposal for 1960.

Soon after quitting the States, the indomitable Henry Kaiser visited Argentina to talk with dictator Juan Peron about starting a local auto company. This became Industrias Kaiser Argentina AS (IKA), which was put under James McCloud, Edgar Kaiser's brother-in-law.

From 1958 through 1962, IKA sold a 1954-1955 Kaiser Manhattan as the Kaiser Carabela (for caravelle, the ship) at the rate of about 3,000 a year. Save minor trim changes and a suspension toughened to handle rough Argentine roads, it was identical to the last American Kaisers right down to its 115-horsepower 226-cubic-inch flathead six.

The supercharger option wasn't offered. Neither was automatic; the only transmission available being a three-speed manual.

It's a tribute to designer Dutch Darrin's "Anatomic" styling that the Carabela lasted so long. It might have lasted even longer, for ideas were afoot as late as 1960 to give it new life. That's when no less than Darrin himself was asked to devise a facelift.

He produced two concepts, one mild, the other wilder. The more conventional involved just a modestly lipped windshield header, ponderous front fender/door moldings, and a chrome strip run back from the front wheels above the rocker panels. Darrin mocked this up on an early 1954 Kaiser Special (which lacked the wraparound rear window of the "late" 1954 U.S. models).

The more ambitious proposal would have looked very nice indeed. This involved new front sheetmetal with lower fenders and hood sloping down to a broad U-shaped grille with a simple horizontal bar, flanked by quad headlights. Management was favorably disposed, but decided sales were insufficient to warrant the tooling expense.

Still, the Kaiser wasn't dead. Back in Toledo, where Henry had repaired to build Jeeps after selling off Willow Run, James Anger of Product Development had concluded that only the Carabela's superstructure needed updating.

Envisioning a squared-up "formal" style like that of contemporary Ford Thunderbirds, he actually constructed a prototype using an old Manhattan sedan, modeling the new roof in fiberglass and side windows in Plexiglas. If something of a mismatch against the rounded lower body, the new top didn't look too bad and achieved a considerable increase in glass area, which was already good.

But as in America, all these "extensions" were doomed for lack of sufficient sales volume to justify tooling costs, and the Carabela was dropped after 1962 because the old dies had simply worn out.

Just before Henry Kaiser sold his interests to the locals in 1965, IKA began selling a facelifted 1964 Rambler American, called Torino, which enjoyed good success into the 1980s. IKA later built Renaults under license and was eventually acquired by that French automaker.

Renault later sold out to Ford Argentina, which thus inherited the locally built civilian versions of the military Jeep, similar to what Ford Dearborn had built during World War II -- proving, perhaps, that what goes around, comes around.

Another notable model for Kaiser was the Henry J, which can be found on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

Kaiser-Frazer Henry J Concept Car

Brooks Stevens' Kaiser-Frazer Henry J concept car was a slightly dated but highly functional small sedan. The production Henry J was even uglier.
Brooks Stevens' Kaiser-Frazer Henry J concept car was a slightly dated but highly functional small sedan. The production Henry J was even uglier.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

One of the postwar period's more notable compact cars could have been more than the dumpy lump it was if its maker had followed though on an alternate Kaiser-Frazer Henry J concept car.

Back in early 1950, the Kaiser-Frazer Henry J arrived as America's second postwar compact. Though far less successful than Nash's Rambler, which came a bit earlier, the Henry J at least stabilized Kaiser-Frazer's then shaky finances for a time.

Company co-founder Henry Kaiser had promised a new car all Americans could afford, which is why he was able to borrow $69 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1949. While $25 million was destined to finance Kaiser-Frazer's heavy inventory of leftover 1949 models, Washington OK'd the loan because some $12 million was earmarked for the new compact.

The Henry J promised sturdiness and low operating costs, which it delivered. But like other Kaiser-Frazer models, it was, for various reasons, relatively expensive -- only a little less costly than a "full-size" Ford or Chevy.

That made sales tough, and the market was quickly satisfied anyway. From a healthy 80,000 for 1951, volume plunged to just 1,123 by 1954, after which the model was dropped.

Styling was also a factor, for the Henry J was anything but lovely: a pudgy-looking two-door fastback sedan with little Cadillac-style tailfins and a front-end vaguely like the 1951 Frazer's. Yet it might have been much prettier. Designer Dutch Darrin had proposed something like his sensational 1951 Kaiser, which was being evolved at the same time, with similar "Anatomic" styling on the 100-inch wheelbase.

Darrin built a prototype at his Santa Monica, California, studios by sectioning 18 inches from a 1951 Kaiser club coupe. Though it looked far better than what appeared in showrooms, management felt the Henry J should look "new" -- meaning different -- and thus chose the ungainly 1951-54 styling, which actually came from a Kaiser-Frazer supplier.

Briefly, Kaiser-Frazer had great plans for the Henry J, including a convertible and hardtop coupe based on the lone two-door style. Many proposals were advanced, but none reached the assembly line, though a few dealers built convertibles out of sedans.

Also considered -- and quickly abandoned -- were a two-door station wagon (which would have looked quite neat) and a four-door sedan (whose rear doors would have squeezed everyone except toddlers).

Had it survived, a redesigned Henry J would have appeared for 1955 per plans made in 1950. According to former Kaiser-Frazer managers and company documents, it was intended to last until 1959 or 1960.

The most radical of the proposed designs was the "105," conceived for that wheelbase length by the free-thinking Alex Tremulis, a designer recently involved with Chrysler and the Tucker. Tremulis was a champion of streamlining, and believed it would make the new Henry J truly revolutionary."Our proposal was between the [original and the 1954] Kaiser-Darrin [sports car] in size," he later said, "but with its lightness and small frontal area, it could outperform both. We figured it to return 25 mpg and yield an estimated top speed of over 100 mph. The weight was only 2,500 pounds."

The basic coupe had broad areas of glass, sharply undercut front fenders, and a modest grille, plus far more leg and head room than the original Henry J. Tremulis later called the 105 "another Tucker -- years ahead in concept and function. If it had been produced, in my opinion, there would have been a Big Four."

Darrin, meanwhile, never stopped pushing his own Henry J ideas, and some were actually mocked up. He also won a victory of sorts by convincing Kaiser to build the fiberglass-bodied two-seat roadster he'd designed for the Henry J chassis.

This bowed for 1954 as the Willys-powered Kaiser-Darrin ("KDF-161"), with novel sliding doors and a three-position soft top, two patented Dutch innovations. Only 435 were built before Kaiser fled the U.S.

To learn about other rejected proposals for Kaiser-Frazer models, keep reading on the next page.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out:

Rejected Kaiser-Frazer Concept Cars

This small-sedan proposed by Brooks Stevens was among the rejected Kaiser-Frazer concept cars.
This small-sedan proposed by Brooks Stevens was among the rejected Kaiser-Frazer concept cars.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Back in 1947, when Kaiser-Frazer was enjoying great success in the booming postwar auto market, Milwaukee-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens pitched a small car to Kaiser-Frazer. It would be just one of many rejected Kaiser-Frazer concept cars from Stevens.

Designed around a 108-inch wheelbase (same as the 1956 Rambler), styling was actually a bit dated and somewhat British-looking, except for the slab-sided bodies.

This car nevertheless would probably have been a saleable proposition. Visibility, for example, was excellent for the time, and price and economy would have been strong selling points.

The ever-optimistic Stevens also moved forward with suggestions for updating the original 1947 Frazer. One of them, an upmarket "Town Sedan," pretty much left the sheetmetal unchanged but sported lower-body cladding that predicted the use of anodized aluminum trim in the second half of the 1950s. Similar lower-body two-toning would also be trendy in the 1980s.

An apparently cheaper model, the "Custom Sedan," forsook the chrome-capped parking lights and had less bright trim above the grille bar, but looked a bit taxi-like in three-tone paint. The mildly heart-shaped windshield on these cars would become a design hallmark (and a safety feature) of the completely restyled 1951 Kaisers.

The catalog of Rejected Kaiser-Frazer concept cars includes this proposed instrument layout. Padding on door and dashtop shows an interest in safety.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

And Kaiser-Frazer was serious about safety, as seen in several instrument-panel designs. Each featured a Padded top and a lower edge that sloped away from the driver and passenger to help protect knees in an accident.

The speedometer and gauges were placed directly behind the steering wheel for quick, easy reading. The radio and speaker resided in the center of the panel for good sound distribution.

Stevens also sketched proposals for updating the original Kaiser and Frazer front ends. As he saw it, the Frazer would have a fairly elaborate bumper, and just above it a wide horizontal slot in place of a grille. The Kaiser, depicted as a Custom, would follow the same theme, except that the slot would be incorporated into the bumper itself.

For more on concept cars and the production models they forecast, check out: