After purchasing Willys, Kaiser focused on redesigning the Aero-Willys concept cars in 1953.
Two designers figured prominently in Willys's last days as a carmaker: former Kaiser-Frazer designer Buzz Grisinger and the redoubtable Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin. After completing design work on the 1954 Kaiser, Grisinger left K-F to form a partnership consulting firm with Rhys Miller. They submitted an entry for the Continental Mark II project, and then in 1953 turned their attention to redesigning the Aero-Willys.
The two worked in a separate, or "secret," area in K-F's Willow Run, Michigan, plant, away from other Willys proposals: Grisinger did most of the front-end work, Miller the rear end.
A major proposed facelift on the existing Willys bodyshell resulted, but using all-new sheetmetal front and rear. A simple side molding just below the beltline swept unbroken from hooded headlamps to the rear fenders, where it crowned inset taillights.
The hood was both downsloped and prominently domed to meet a forward-leaning, mesh-filled grille wearing a prominent three-pointed "spinner"; the grille spilled down to a slim full-width lower section sporting a hidden parking lamp at each end.
A slim wraparound bumper completed an ensemble that blended looks from Studebakers past and future: the 1950-1951 "bullet nose" and Raymond Loewy's 1956 Hawk.
Another Aero facelift was crafted by Dutch Darrin, then working as a freelancer. Essentially it crossed the Henry J with his 1954 Kaiser-Darrin sports car -- likely on purpose.
Acquiring Willys had made the Aero an intramural rival to Kaiser's own compact, so Dutch may have been trying to harmonize the two (though fast-falling sales prompted Kaiser to give up on the Henry J after 1954).
Here, it was the rear end that owed something to contemporary Studebakers, with a deck sloped down between enlongated fenders carrying vertical taillamps above a prominent bumper. Up front was a shell-shaped "rosebud" grille not unlike that of the short-lived sports car, while the Henry J was echoed in front wheel wells surrounded by similar elliptical "speed lines."
Intriguingly, Darrin nestled an exhaust port in each end of the rear bumper, as on period Cadillacs. This suggests that a V-8 or at least a hotter Aero six was being contemplated. But though Kaiser had worked on a V-8, it never managed to offer one in its own cars or any Willys. A shame, for a V-8 would probably have turned the already sprightly Aero into quite a bomb.
Even though a great effort was put forth to keep the company successful, Aero-Willys stopped production in the U.S., and found new life in Brazil. Continue on to the next page to see photos and learn more.