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.
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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