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.