1940s and 1950s Kaiser-Frazer Concept Cars

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: