1949-1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond

What upstart Kaiser needed was a full line of cars, including a station wagon. What it had was a single four-door sedan body. What it got -- the 1949-1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond -- was about as much as could be expected under the circumstances.

The official explanation goes like this: One day in July 1948, Kaiser-Frazer general manager Edgar F. Kaiser, ensconced in Willow Run, Michigan, receives a call from his father, Henry, the chairman of the board, in Oakland, California. "Come on out. I've got an idea," says Henry. The idea is the 1949 Kaiser Traveler, which looks like a sedan but has a folding rear seat and a gaping double hatch in the back that swallows everything from a coffin to a pup tent.

Edgar and his vice president for engineering, Dean Hammond, fly immediately to Oakland, where Henry announces that he and his wife are fed up with the station wagon at their retreat on Lake Tahoe. It rattles. It squeaks. It's a brute to drive. The wood body needs regular maintenance by a carpenter. The rear seat has to be unbolted and wrestled out to make any kind of cargo room.

"We can improve on this," Henry declares, marching them to a garage packed with products of his postwar wonder company, the leading independent and -- though a long way behind the "Big Three" -- the fourth-largest car producer.

Drawing lines in the dust on the nearest Kaiser, Henry illustrates his idea: a utility vehicle in the shape of a conventional sedan. "Why not cut a door in the rear and divide it halfway down the trunklid," he asks. "Then hinge it here and here, find some way of folding down the rear seat, invent a license plate mount that can flip up or down under the lower lid. . . ." The result is the Traveler and its deluxe cousin, the Vagabond.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

1949 Kaiser Traveler rear view
The Traveler was an attempt to create a utility
vehicle using a sedan body. See more classic car pictures.

That's the official version, dutifully delivered in a 1975 Kaiser-Frazer book and, as a result, in every article on the cars for more than a quarter century. However, another theory claims that the Traveler and Vagabond originated not in the restless mind of Henry J. Kaiser, but on the drawing boards of his engineers, most likely under chief body engineer Ralph Isbrandt, who was looking for something - anything -- to sell besides conventional four-door sedans.

Through 1950, every new model Kaiser-Frazer produced was conjured up by body engineers from sedan shells. The derivations included not only the Traveler/Vagabond but also the Kaiser Virginian four-door "hardtop" and the Kaiser and Frazer four-door "convertibles."

They were not true examples of their types; their sedan origins meant that their side-window frames were fixed, separated by little glass panels where the sedan B-pillar used to be. Until Isbrandt took measures, they shook and jiggled with merry abandon, because cutting off the roof cost a lot of stiffness. The Traveler was more solid, because it retained the B-pillar and a steel roof.

Dissatisfied with the prosaic notion that the Traveler was created by mere engineers, Kaiser's public relations department came up with the story of Henry's flash of inspiration. After all, they'd been promoting the West Coast sand-and-gravel tycoon for years, promising that once he turned his mind to automobiles, Henry would literally reinvent the car. The story fit, and in those trusting days was never challenged. It played well and has been playing ever since.

Learn about the development of the Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond in the next section.

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1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond Development

The sales department at Kaiser-Frazer was crying for something to sell besides sedans. Styling came up with dozens of proposals, including sports cars, convertibles, fastbacks, hardtops, wagons, and limousines. Cost considerations stopped them all at the drawing board. So the engineers said, "Here, let us try," and went to work on the sedan body.

They cut the rear sheetmetal from just above the rear window to just above the rear bumper pan. This piece was then bisected horizontally at middeck, the two halves hinged top and bottom.

1949 Kaiser Vagabond side view
The $2,088 Traveler was part of the Kaiser Special
series, but for an additional $200, a customer could
step up to the Vagabond in the Deluxe line.

A body development engineer named Harvey Anscheutz spent three weeks devising an illuminated license plate holder that met the laws of all 48 states. It flopped down when the lower hatch was opened, laid flat when the hatch was closed.

The rear seat was made to fold in the same pattern you can find recently on a 2003 Saab 9-5. That left a nice, clean bed, up to eight feet long with the back hatch laid flat -- except for the spare tire.

In sedans, spares were bolted conventionally in the trunk -- there was no tire well. In the Traveler, however, the only thing to do with it was bolt it to the left rear door. The door was welded shut (though some restorers have found them simply closed and locked) and equipped with a fake door handle to mislead the uninitiated. It wasn't elegant, but it worked.

In all, more than 200 changes were made to the basic sedan in the process of creating the Traveler. Strong springs and shocks were essential. The wiring on the floorpan and the rear bumper guards had to be relocated. New openings for the rear window and new dies for the split decklid were required.

Reinforcement was installed above the upper hatch to replace lost stiffness. But sealing the gaping hatches proved difficult, and service bulletins multiplied as mechanics tried to cope with thousands of complaints about water, dust, and air leaks.

A T-shaped handle was devised for the hatch, and piano hinges were used on the lower part to provide support when it was used as a horizontal platform. People would use that platform to hold heavy objects, so it was suspended by strong chains, bagged in vinyl in a vain attempt to stop rattles.

The base-model Traveler had smooth, heavy-duty vinyl upholstery and headliner and varnished wooden rub rails in the bed to ease the sliding of payloads. The Vagabond was a more luxurious Traveler with the ornate Kaiser Deluxe dashboard, fender skirts, pleated vinyl upholstery, and the option of genuine leather.

Check out the next page to find out how Kaiser marketed their new creations to the public.

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1949. 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond Marketing

Efforts in 1949-1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond Marketing saw the company resort to some of the earliest examples of photo illustration. Until then, auto ads relied on artwork, which could be exaggerated to show cars that looked a lot sleeker than they really were -- along with scaled-down people to maximize the appearance of interiors.

With the Traveler, the precise involvement of human and machine was deemed important enough to illustrate with life-size people and real cars. Volkswagen advertising is widely hailed as a pioneer in this direction, but instead of VW's advertising agency, Doyle, Dane Bernbach, the credit for this innovation goes to Kaiser-Frazer's agency, Swaney, Drake and Bement.

1951 Deluxe Traveler full view
A Deluxe Traveler replaced the Vagabond for 1951.
The utility cars could also be had in
Kaiser’s new two-door body.

Another unique Traveler publicity campaign involved Walter Winchell's nightly radio news program, which Kaiser-Frazer began sponsoring in late 1948. On the eve of announcement of the Traveler, and at specific dates thereafter, Winchell would come on with his usual "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea -- let's go to press." Following headlines on the Truman Doctrine, the Greek and Chinese civil wars, the Berlin crisis, and the national poultry convention, Winchell would pause and say, "Listen -- is that your doorbell ringing?"

While the celebrated commentator launched into a spiel on the merits of the automaker, every Kaiser-Frazer salesman was supposed to have selected his target, synchronized his watch on Winchell, driven out in a demonstrator, and rung the prospect's doorbell exactly at the correct time.

It is not recorded how many doorbells rang or what percentage of prospects were so enthralled by the synchronized attack that they immediately order a Traveler. But, hey, everybody listened to Winchell, right?

At $2,088 for the Traveler and $2,288 for the Vagabond, the price penalty for the hatchbacks was less than $100 over the equivalent Kaiser sedans and considerably less than the markup on competitive vehicles. DeSoto and Chrysler had similar models, respectively the Carry-All of 1949-1952 and the Traveler -- yes, that's right -- of 1950-1951, but they didn't offer the two-piece hatch arrangement and thus lacked the Kaisers' accessibility.

Among true station wagons in the 1949-1950 period, only the new steel-bodied Plymouth Suburban and Nash Rambler could undercut them on price; most other wagons were substantially more expensive. So on competitive grounds, hokey though it may have been, the Traveler/Vagabond seemed to make sense.

Did it? Well, Kaiser said it did: 25 percent of 1949 sales were Travelers and Vagabonds. The problem was that 1949 sales as a whole were dismal.

Learn about the engineering of these models in the next section.

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1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond Engineering

A better-run company would have taken care of the essentials first. But Kaiser-Frazer hadn't considered the essentials. After trumping the industry with the first all-new postwar cars (prototypes went on public display in January 1946), the first straight-through fenderlines, and impressive breakthroughs in color and trim, K-F had not invested in basic engineering.

They were still relying on a four-door sedan dating back to 1946 in 1949, when the Big Three sported restyled cars throughout their lines. Though a V-8 engine was built and toyed with, it never went into production.

The company gave priority to other things, like the recurrent impossible dream of a low-priced "new Model T." And by 1949, the old-hand Detroiters were no longer running the company.

1951 Kaiser Traveler rear view
The new Kaisers continued to be powered by a
226-cid L-head engine. Here's a Deluxe two-door --
the rarest of the 1951 Travelers.

Kaiser's partner, Joseph W. Frazer, whose Graham-Paige Corporation and postwar design initiatives provided the basis of success in 1947-1948, had been in the industry since 1912. "Because we didn't have an all-new model for 1949," Frazer said, "I decided that we could sell profitably about 70,000 cars and make about $7 million, a considerable cutback from the previous years. I drew up a proposed budget on this basis, and a plan which would save us $3 million a month. Every time you didn't have a new model you had to retrench."

At a climactic meeting in March 1949, Henry Kaiser roared in defiance, "The Kaisers never retrench." He proposed to tool for 200,000 cars and borrow some $40 million more. Frazer replied that such a plan would cost the company $36 million: "I refused to go in on any more. It was a pretty hot meeting -- names were called and a few other things. Henry wouldn't see it, so we parted."

At that point Joe Frazer had little choice: Edgar Kaiser had become president (at Frazer's suggestion), and the steady replacement of Frazer people with Kaiser people over the previous two years gave Henry Kaiser a clear majority from the board down. Frazer was given the titular and powerless title of vice chairman of the board, and withdrew from the company's affairs a disappointed and heartbroken man.

With the Kaisers in command, the company went ahead on Henry's plan, banking everything on the mild 1949 facelift, the Traveler and Vagabond, and the four-door hardtops and convertibles. By the end of the year, Frazer's prediction was horribly borne out. If anything, he had been optimistic.

From eighth place in the industry with 181,000 cars in 1948, Kaiser-Frazer fell to 16th place with just over 58,000 in 1949. Studebaker, which had failed to keep up with Kaiser-Frazer for two years despite its own all-new styling, now zoomed ahead, racking up almost four times as many units for the calendar year. In 1948, Studebaker had outproduced Kaiser-Frazer during only three months.

In November and December 1949, Kaiser-Frazer's output was 85 and 147 cars, respectively. Photos show that a large number of the unsold models were Travelers and Vagabonds. They and their sedan cousins were reserialed as 1950 models and fobbed off in the few months before the 1951s were announced in the spring of 1950.

The new model rode a wheelbase shortened five inches to 118.5. It did, however, carry over the 226-cid L-head six Kaisers had used since the start, albeit with a slight horsepower boost to 115.

The dramatic-looking 1951 Kaiser was conceived in form by Dutch Darrin and honed to perfection by Kaiser-Frazer stylists Herb Weissinger, Buzz Grisinger, and Bob Robillard. One of the finest sedan designs of the 1950s, it lent itself easily to the Traveler, which now came with two or four doors, and in Special or Deluxe trim (the latter effectively replacing the Vagabond).

Find more details on the 1950-1953 Kaiser Travelers and Vagabonds on the next page.

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1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond

Most Travelers were low-end Specials. Of the 3,500 made, about 1,000 were two-doors and 2,500 four-doors; of the 1,900 Deluxe Travelers, the ratio was 400 against 1500. These were very low numbers.

Thanks to new styling and an extended model year, Kaiser built some 140,000 of the 1951s: Travelers accounted for only four percent. Sales backed off again toward the end of 1951, so a handful of Travelers were recast as a 1952 model designated the "Virginian."

When the lightly facelifted "true" 1952s came out a few months later, the Traveler technically was available only on the lower-priced model, now called Deluxe. The upmarket Kaiser Manhattan saw a handful of Travelers with better trim and upholstery (factory sources say it was about five), all special factory orders.

For 1953, the Traveler was available only as a four-door. Again, a few Manhattan Travelers were built, probably to fill special orders -- a desperate company would build anything you wanted, if you were willing to wait for it. The production-model Deluxe Traveler sold 1,000 copies a year in 1952-1953.

The following year, despite a dramatic last-ditch facelift, the Traveler was dropped from the line. By then, of course, the all-steel station wagon had come into its own. A Traveler really wasn't a viable alternative to a Dodge Sierra, and Kaiser was winding up domestic car production anyway.

How good an idea was the Traveler? If you look at the thing as a Kaiser-Frazer groupie, or even as a car nut, it appeals. A sedan that turns into a station wagon is akin to Chevrolet's current Avalanche, which changes from a pickup to a sport-utility vehicle. But consider it as an automotive engineer and you have to ask yourself: Why bother? Why didn't they just build a station wagon?

Two reasons. One, they didn't want to revise the old sedan body. The Traveler came along when that body was almost four years old. Even the ebullient Henry Kaiser knew they'd have to spend big money on a complete restyle -- were, in fact, already planning it, for introduction as a 1951 model in early 1950.

True, Henry could tap plenty of money, his own and the government's. No one had a sweeter line with the various federal agencies charged with privatizing war assets and helping new industries replace World War II defense plants.

But he needed those resources to support the much grander idea that had driven him into the car business: a car that Everyman could afford to buy new. That was far more important than a utility model.

1953 Kaiser Traveler full view
The Traveler made its final appearance in 1953,
and then only as a four-door model.

The second reason was that the all-steel station wagon, soon to be one of the most popular body styles ever created, was in 1949 a virtually unknown quantity. In 1948, when the Traveler was dreamed up, Plymouth, Chevy, Pontiac, and Olds were still a year away from the first woodless wagons in the passenger-car field.

Why not a woody? Henry Kaiser's aversion to his Lake Tahoe wagon aside, Kaiser-Frazer cars were expensive enough in sedan form. The company could not have farmed out bare chassis to a body manufacturer and have sold the finished product for less than the price of a Cadillac. Undoubtedly the Traveler and Vagabond sold in much greater numbers than a Hercules -- or Cantrell-bodied wagon would have -- consider the low-volume woodies offered by rival manufacturers.

So despite some intriguing designs for station wagons from Kaiser-Frazer's prolific styling department, the company made do with the Traveler. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it needed a high-volume producer to put it over. A remark of Edgar Kaiser's is apposite in the Traveler's case: "Slap a Buick nameplate on it, and it would sell like hotcakes."

Find specifications for the Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond in our final section.

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1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953 Kaiser Traveler and Vagabond Specifications

While the Traveler and Vagabond wasn't the huge hit Kaiser-Frazer had hoped it would be, it did allow the automaker to put out a new car without undertaking an entire restyle. Find numbers for the weight, price, and production of these cars in the chart below.

ModelWheelbase (inches)
Weight (pounds)
Price
Production
1949-1950 Special Traveler 4d utility sedan
123.5 3,456 $2,088 22,000*
1949-1950 Deluxe Vagabond 4d utility sedan
123.5 3,501 $2,288 4,500*
Total 1949-1950 Traveler/Vagabond


26,500*
1951 Special Traveler 2d utility sedan
118.5 3,210

$2,265

1,000**
1951 Special Traveler 4d utility sedan
118.5 3,270 $2,317 2,500**
1951 Deluxe Traveler 2d utility sedan
118.5 3,285 $2,380 400**
1951 Deluxe Traveler 4d utility sedan
118.5 3,345 $2,433 1,500**
Total 1951 Traveler



5,400**
1952 Virginian Special Traveler 2d utility sedan
118.5 3,210 $2,085
1952 Virginian Special Traveler 4d utility sedan
118.5 3,270 $2,134
1952 Virginian Deluxe Traveler 2d utility sedan
118.5 3,285 $2,192
1952 Virginian Deluxe Traveler 4d utility sedan
118.5 3,345 $2,241
1952 Deluxe Traveler 2d utility sedan
118.5 3,210 $2,590 1,000**
1952 Deluxe Traveler 4d utility sedan
118.5 3,260 $2,643
1952 Manhattan Traveler 2d utility sedan***
118.5 3,290 $2,707
1952 Manhattan Traveler 4d utility sedan***
118.5 3,310 $2,759
1953 Deluxe Traveler 4d utility sedan
118.5 3,315 $2,619 1,000**
1953 Manhattan Traveler 4d utility sedan***
118.5 3,371 $2,755

*Estimated. Approximately 84 percent of total were sold in 1949 and 16 percent were sold in 1950.
**Estimated.
***Announced but probably not built except on special order.

Sources: Encyclopedia of American Cars, by the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide®, Publications International, Ltd., 2002; Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, 2nd ed., John Gunnell editor, Krause Publications, 1987; Kaiser-Frazer: The Last Onslaught on Detroit, by Richard M. Langworth, Princeton Publishing, Inc., 1975.

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