Introduction to the 1951 and 1953 Kaiser Dragon

The Dragon vinyl upholstery was the brainchild of Kaiser color stylist Carleton Spencer. See more classic car pictures.
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The introduction of the 1951 and 1953 Kaiser Dragon models introduced the public to cars with unique colors and textures.

Where others at Kaiser-Frazer may have seen just another car in the redesigned 1951 Kaisers, Carleton Spencer saw a high-fashion model worthy of being dressed to the nines in wonderful colors and intriguing new textures.

There would never have been a Kaiser Dragon were it not for Carleton B. Spencer, and Spencer would have been a cipher were it not for Kaiser-Frazer. He was later astonished that anyone remembered him or his work, but his work was worth recalling.

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Carleton Spencer invented the Kaiser Dragon, a marketplace flop. No one is sure about the number produced: about 1,600 at the outside over two model years, 1951 and 1953. But this rare and fascinating failure was a pioneer in automotive color and trim. Had General Motors invented it, the Dragon would probably be with us yet as some jelly-bean-shaped luxury sedan with fake lizardskin upholstery.

Initially set up by car people, Kaiser-Frazer was soon taken over by Henry J. Kaiser's West Coast construction boffins, who wrecked it. They had a hundred new ideas a day, of which three on average were good. Fortunately for history, one of their good ideas was to hire Carleton Spencer, and his idea was to bring new patterns and colors to the automobile interior. The Dragon was his masterwork.

Spencer reported to the bustling Kaiser-Frazer complex at Willow Run, Michigan, 20 miles from Detroit, after he was discharged from the Army in autumn 1946. His prewar background-included blueprint drawing at Fisher Body and color coordinating at the Ditzler Paint Division of Pittsburgh Plate Glass.

In 1939-1940, he edited an industry publication. Colors and Contours, a compendium of new styling ideas and trends among car manufacturers. A man of impeccable taste and judgment. Spencer was an easy person to like, and he got along well with all the various warring tribes he found at Kaiser-Frazer. In the styling business, where egos run rampant, men like Spencer are rare birds.

The first thing Spencer did at Kaiser-Frazer was to survey what women liked, a novel notion at the time. Except for the far-sighted Ned Jordan, no one in the auto industry had much wondered about this before. The results of Spencer's survey correlated closely with a similar study for House and Garden, so he worked with that magazine to develop materials and colors suitable in both house and car.

For example, what Kaiser-Frazer called "Indian Ceramic," an extraordinarily bright puce-pink paint recalling Native American pottery, was identical to a household finish that House and Garden called "Flame." For 1949, Spencer even had paint-color names written in chrome on the sides of each Kaiser Deluxe. Thus, almost inevitably, did one automotive publication recently refer to a "1949 Kaiser Indian Ceramic."

Spencer's talent was crucial to Kaiser-Frazer. "We didn't have a bunch of different engines, or a whole lot of the things they have today to make cars different, like 27 different models," he said in 1972. "We had only one basic body.... Color and trim was where we had to achieve a difference." His first production effort was the elaborately trimmed Frazer Manhattan, swathed in beautiful contrasting broadcloth. The Manhattan later was cited by the Milestone Car Society for introducing revolutionary new colors and fabrics to the automotive interior. Less well known but significant is the fact that early Manhattans were offered in different series of seasonal colors and trims -- darker ones for winter, bright pastels for summer. Not until years later did the rest of the industry begin catching onto this practice (as, for example, Chrysler's "Spring Specials").

The redesigned 1951 Kaiser Dragon offered many different colors and textures. Continue on to the next page to learn more about these interesting cars.

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The Redesigned 1951 Kaiser

The redesigned 1951 Golden Dragons sported 700 more square inches of glass area and lowest beltline than its nearest competitor.
The redesigned 1951 Golden Dragons sported 700 more square inches of glass area and lowest beltline than its nearest competitor.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The redesigned 1951 Kaiser car, with the help of Howard "Dutch" Darrin, Duncan McRae, Herb Weissinger, Buzz Grisinger, and Alex Tremulis, resulted in one of the most daringly predictive cars since the war -- years ahead in many areas, with acres of glass, smooth integrated lines, and minimal brightwork.

Unlike earlier Kaiser-Frazer products, the redesigned 1951 Kaisers came with two or four doors, but Spencer's original problem remained: There just wasn't much visual difference between the various models. Also, there was still only one six-cylinder engine, and no hardtop, convertible, or station wagon. (Kaiser-Frazer contemplated all three, as well as a V-8, but never had the money for production). So Carl got busy again.

The Dragons were announced in a November 17, 1950, dealer bulletin from Kaiser-Frazer general sales manager Steve Girard: "We are pleased to announce the availability of Kaiser Deluxe four-door sedans in striking and entirely new interior trims as a special attraction and sales stimulant during the Christmas Season. These new Golden Dragon Kaisers are featured in a striking double page ad in Life, December 11. . . . [They] are the result of demand from distributors and dealers who, walking through the Courtesy Garage here at Willow Run, were immediately attracted by the beauty and utility of a specially trimmed Kaiser Deluxe. Invariably the reaction was, 'What kind of trim is that?' and 'How soon can I get some?'"

The answers turned out to be: "Dragon vinyl" and "pretty damn quick." That's because Kaiser-Frazer would sell you anything. "If we didn't have what you wanted, we'd make it for you," is how Spencer remembered things.

Working with the L. E. Carpenter Company of Boonton, New Jersey, Spencer had developed a unique, heavy-duty "Dragon" vinyl made by low-pressure refrigerated embossing. Smooth vinyl sheets were heated before being fed into a machine with refrigerated plates carrying the reptilian die Design. The die "kissed" the vinyl, causing the design to set through heat transfer.

Continue to the next page to learn more about he creation of dragon vinyl and the Golden Dragon model.

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The Creation of Dragon Vinyl and Golden Dragons

A 115-horsepower six drove Kaiser Dragons.
A 115-horsepower six drove Kaiser Dragons.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The creation of dragon vinyl and Golden Dragons set the Kaiser brand apart from the rest of the cars on the market. Read on to learn more about Spencer's creations.

Carleton Spencer was aiming for a new look -- "the luxurious look of alligator hide. You know what an alligator handbag costs. We were trying to get a soupedup vinyl that would copy it. We used the term 'Dragon' so no one would mistake it and say it was either real alligator or real lizard."

This had nothing to do with the animal-rights movement, which was then decades away, but with truth-in-advertising laws: You can't call it 'gator unless it is.

The most popular of the second-series 1951s were Golden Dragons.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Pleated in big 2 1/2-inch ribs. Dragon vinyl covered the seat cushions, package shelf, and instrument panel. Stretched smooth, it was used on the seat risers, front seatbacks, and door panels. To complement it. Spencer added heavy thick-weave carpeting on floors, quarter panels and lower-door kick pads.

The Golden Dragon had black "Dinosaur" vinyl over Arena Yellow paint.
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Incidentally, the same vinyl was used on the Kaiser Deluxe Traveler (a utility style first seen in 1949, with a rear opening hatch -- in a way, the first hatchback), which was entering showrooms at the same time. There have been rumors of two-door Kaisers with Dragon trim, but none, so far as is generally known, have turned up.

Dragon vinyl was not only good-looking, but extremely durable and nearly impervious to wear. In fact, complete "basket-case" cars have been discovered with their Dragon-vinyl seats still looking like new.

Because K-F's color nomenclature isn't obvious, a brief explanation is in order. The first Dragons off the line, as well as the one portrayed in Life, were painted Arena yellow, a bright Spencer hue. Since "yellow" had awkward connotations, it seemed natural to call the cars "golden." Subsequent examples were also painted green, coral, gray, and even Indian Ceramic, but these, too -- at least officially -- were "Golden Dragons."

Golden Dragons were sold only with certain mandatory options. Hydra-Matic transmission was apparently one, for no stickshift examples are known, and ads stated, "hydramatic (sic) of course." The cars also came with whitewall tires.

"Dino" vinyl dressed the interior of the Golden Dragon.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Though Dragon vinyl itself added only $125, a Golden Dragon's bottom-line price was about $2,500, which was fairly stiff for the typical customer. For that kind of money you could buy an Oldsmobile 88 hardtop, which would run rings around the six-cylinder Dragon, and was pillarless to boot. Olds didn't have Kaiser's advanced styling, but that, too, had proved a problem: People liked chrome, and many resisted the uncluttered look of the 1951 Kaisers.

After the popular 1951 model buying season, Kaiser's sales and production began to decline. To boost sales, the Worldways Cars were introduced. Continue on to the next page to learn more about these uniquely designed models.

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Declining Sales and the Kaiser Worldways Cars

The "South Seas" model had a tropical aura.
The "South Seas" model had a tropical aura.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

After the popular 1951 model buying season, Kaiser-Frazer suffered from declining sales, and the Worldways Cars were introduced at the 1951 Chicago Auto Show to try to Kaiser-Frazer back on track.

The price disadvantage that always surrounded Kaiser-Frazer products, owing to management's extravagance and high overhead at Willow Run, were key factors in Kaiser-Frazer's eventual demise.

The "Explorer" had an arctic theme, with a polar bear fur interior.
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The best month in the firm's entire history was October 1950, when production topped 22,000 units -- the height of the 1951 model buying season and of the 1951 Kaiser's popularity After April 1951, Kaiser-Frazer never built more than 9,000 cars a month; in most months it was closer to 5,000.

Despite declining sales, or maybe because of them, Kaiser-Frazer went all-out at the 1951 Chicago Automobile Show. "K-F presents Worldways in Motoring," read the sign above four sumptuously trimmed Kaiser four-door sedan showcars.

The "South Seas" was upholstered in straw-like tropical vinyl and a Hawaiian-pattern linen weave; it also boasted a fishnet headliner, straw floor coverings, and a lucite rear picnic table with barometer, compass, and topographical map of the Hawaiian Islands.

The "Explorer's" blue-green Academy Blue body was set off by a roof covered in white canvas.
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The "Explorer" was finished in Academy Blue metallic, set off by seats covered in polar bear fur; it was even shown with a pith helmet on the front seat.

Zebra and lion pelts lined the inside of the "Safari," which K-F later sold, appropriately enough, to wild-animal tamer Clyde Beatty.

Last, but certainly not least, was the "Caballero," flourishing palomino and unborn calfhides, western buckles on door-mounted saddlebags, and spurs for window winders.

The "Safari" was clad in lion and zebra fur.
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While the first three were one-offs, K-F built at least three Caballeros -- for Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and an executive who owned a Texas cattle ranch. All presumably disappeared back home on the range -- the cars, that is.

Reflecting later on the "Worldways" cars, the late stylist Alex Tremulis was quoted saying: "We had a ball with 'em. I had to give the Safari a haircut, as the lion fur stuck out when the door closed. Buzz Grisinger and I dressed up in the zebra skins and went galloping through the halls nose to tail. There was a secretary about eight months pregnant and she darn near had it right there. The Explorer's outside door sills of polar bearskin and the Safari's lion fur were untreated, and they stunk like hell after awhile."

The "Caballero" interior bore a look inspired by the American West.
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Another former K-F employee, Art Wrightman, remembered that he took a leftover lion's paw home for his wife. "She used it as a back scratcher." Until it started to stink, presumably . . .

The 1951 Dragon Series featured another invention by Carleton Spencer -- Dino (Dinosaur) vinyl. The next page gives more details about this interesting feature.

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The 1951 Dragon Series and Dino Vinyl

Paint colors dictated how Dragons were named -- a Silver Dragon had a Mineral Gray over Mariner Gray paint scheme.
Paint colors dictated how Dragons were named -- a Silver Dragon had a Mineral Gray over Mariner Gray paint scheme.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Carleton Spencer developed a new vinyl pattern for the 1951 Dragon Series -- Dino (Dinosaur) vinyl. However, it wasn't the best choice, as described below.

For the 1951 Dragon Series, competitive pressures prompted Carleton Spencer to dig again into his bag of tricks. In February 1951, profiting by his experience with the Chicago specials, he brought out a new line of Kaiser Dragons with padded vinyl tops, each appropriately named for its color scheme.

The "Silver Dragon," for example, was painted Mariner gray, with a scarlet vinyl padded top and matching interior. Since the new series used a slightly different vinyl pattern, Spencer invented another description that nobody would confuse with a living animal: "Dinosaur."

It was a fairly unfortunate choice, as nobody wanted to call the Kaiser a dinosaur -- not yet, anyway. A minor feature of this second Dragon series was a set of removable armrests padded in the same dino-vinyl that graced the rest of the interior. These and the padded roof -- or "sport topping," as it was advertised -- raised the delivered price of Dragons to over $2,500, where they were yet more uncompetitive.

Although dealer bulletins said the original, painted-top Dragons had enjoyed "tremendous popularity," they were very scarce on the ground by the mid-1960s. The most popular 1951 Dragon was the second-series model with Arena Yellow paint and black dino-vinyl padded top. Of the other padded-top models, one or two Silver Dragons have been seen, and there still exists what must have started life as a Jade Dragon, complete with the prototype overhead-valve six that the company worked on for a time. It was once Henry J. Kaiser's personal car.

Accessories available for the Dragons included a continental spare.
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Kaiser-Frazer started overproducing in 1949. As a result, so many unsold Kaisers had piled up by the end of 1951 that the company simply changed their serial numbers and sold them as 1952 models, labeled "Virginians." Some of these may have been Dragons. The Virginians were all moved out by March 1952, so the "true" 1952 Kaisers had only a six-month run.

This probably explains why there were no Dragons that model year, but Carl Spencer hadn't given up. In fact, he was about to produce the most impressive Dragon of all.

But by 1953-model announcement time, things were getting pretty desperate for Kaiser-Frazer. Operations over the first nine months of 1952 were depressing: a $3 million profit on defense contracts (Willow Run had been building aircraft since 1951) obliterated by a $9 millon loss on cars.

Hickman Price, nephew of original partner Joe Frazer, who had been with the company from the beginning through 1952, recalled: "It was becoming pretty obvious that the trail was narrowing appreciably. At least it was obvious to most outside the company. If the Kaisers were going to stay in automobiles, they were going to need a partner with a broader market base and/or a specialized product, and they certainly didn't have too much time left to find one."

As we now know, the Kaisers salvaged their North American auto operations by buying Willys and eventually turning strictly to Jeep production, a successful specialty business (Kaiser Jeep Corporation), which they sold to American Motors at a handsome profit in early 1970.

Henry Kaiser drove a Jade Dragon as his personal car in 1951.
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In the meantime, they were faced with disposing of Willow Run -- and maintaining a semblance of auto production while they did it. This was fortunate, because Kaiser produced its best all-around cars in 1953-1955, led by the Series K530 Kaiser "Hardtop" Dragon, now a model in its own right.

Although things didn't look good for Kaiser-Frazer, Carleton Spencer didn't give up. He was on the verge of creating the best Dragon of all. Continue on to the next page to learn more about the 1953 Dragon.

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The 1953 Dragon Models

The 1953 Kaiser Dragon featured new frontal styling such as a thicker hood-edge molding, rectangular parking lights, and enlarged headlight bezels.
The 1953 Kaiser Dragon featured new frontal styling such as a thicker hood-edge molding, rectangular parking lights, and enlarged headlight bezels.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Although things didn't look good for Kaiser-Frazer, Carleton Spencer didn't give up. He was on the verge of creating the best Dragons of all -- the 1953 Dragon models.

Brochures called it a hardtop because it seemed like a good idea to use a popular term, but this was no pillarless coupe. It was just another four-door sedan, albeit spectacularly furnished. The 1953 Dragon represented the zenith of Carleton Spencer's career.

Aside from a little input from fashion designer Marie Nichols, the car was 100-percent Spencer. He had begun working with Nichols to explore the various combinations of vinyl and cloth in early 1952, and his prototypes for this model include variations of her "Laguna" cloth -- a heavy-duty Belgian linen with rectangular overlapping patterns -- and 1951-type Dinosaur vinyl, combined with mouton-like carpeting.

Later he switched from the old dino-vinyl to a pretty "Bambu" pattern that looked like a finely made bamboo curtain.

"Bambu" vinyl, another product of the L. E. Carpenter Company, was applied to the 1953 Dragon's padded top, as well as to the trunk and interior walls, door panels, package shelf, seats, padded dashboard, and even to the lining of the glovebox.

Spencer developed jade green, black, and maroon color variations. Seat inserts were Laguna cloth. Spencer chose a special long-filament "Calpoint" carpeting, which also turned up in the Kaiser-Damn sports car. The Dragon featured over 200 pounds of insulation, giving it a much quieter, heavier feel than less exalted Kaisers. A final touch was a genuine 14-carat gold finish on the hood ornament, hood and rear-deck V medallions, deck and fender scripts, and the trunklid keyhole cover.

Dragons were actually the first 1953 Kaisers announced (in September 1952), probably because they wouldn't compete with the similar, leftover 1952 model. Two months later the company added a novel variation painted bright Frosted Holly Green (a fancier name for Tropical Green metallic), with two-tone vinyl interior and a white poplin-grained canvas top.

In March 1953, the green cars were replaced by another beautiful rendition done in Maroon Velvet metallic, with a straw-colored Bambu vinyl top and maroon Bambu-and-Laguna interior. This extraordinary-looking Dragon, along with the Stardust Ivory/green Bambu combination, are the most common, while black is the scarcest. "We dropped black on Dragons because the lacquer showed the waves in the sheet metal," said Art Wrightman. The white canvas-topped model is also uncommon.

A number of show Dragons were built with yet fancier equipment. Several bore gold-anodized wire wheels (chrome wires were a $270 option on all Kaisers from early 1953) and rust-colored "Boucle" vinyl padded tops and upholstery. According to Spencer, about a dozen of these were built during April 1953, along with various other specials.

The 1953 Kaiser Dragon also featured larger taillights, a meatier bumper, and tacked-on chrome fins.
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The 1953 Dragon had a mandatory accessory group that included all the aforementioned trim features and cost nearly $1,200, giving the finished car a showroom price close to $4,000. The package included tinted glass, oversize 7.10x15 whitewall tires, "hydramatic" transmission, radio with rear speaker, heater/defroster, windshield washer, center armrests front and rear, and the Kaiser Manhattan accessory group.

Even though Kaiser-Frazer went to great lengths to attract buyers, 1953 was the end of the road for the Kaiser Dragon models. Continue on to the next page to find out more about the final demise of the Kaiser Dragon.

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1953: End of the Road for the Kaiser Dragon

A padded dash and recessed controls were common to all Kaiser Dragons.
A padded dash and recessed controls were common to all Kaiser Dragons.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Although Kaiser-Frazer went to great lengths to give Dragon buyers special attention, 1953 was the end of the road for the Kaiser Dragon models.

Upon retail delivery, dealers would fill out a card with the owner's name and address, which they returned to the factory. The factory then mailed an engraved medallion to the dealer for installation in place of the stock "K" symbol on the glovebox door, along with a personal letter from K-F president Edgar Kaiser "emphasizing the custom features of the car" built expressly for the owner, with congratulations for the customer's discernment.

Discerning they would have to be, because $4,000 in 1953 bought a Cadillac Coupe de Ville, a Chrysler Custom Imperial, or a Lincoln Capri convertible, all with powerful V-8s. And if you've wondered why we haven't yet mentioned specifications here, it's because under that beautiful skin, the Kaiser was plug boring: automotive vin ordinaire.

Throughout the make's 10 years. Kaisers were powered by an anemic flathead six that had started life as an industrial engine, and though the 1951-vintage chassis was superbly balanced, it was conventional in every respect. That a six-cylinder car could cost $4,000 was a major contradiction in the automotive psychology of 1953 -- and most buyers knew it.

The final debacle at Willow Run occurred during the first half of 1953, when production tapered off from 8,000 to 4,000 to 1,200 cars a month. Dragon production stopped entirely on May 28, having reached a total of only 1,277 for the model year. Still, the Kaisers refused to face the inevitable. "We are going to stay in business and make a go of it," Edgar Kaiser declared. "Willow Run is not a white elephant. It is only 73 cents a square foot and it's really the ideal place to do manufacturing." It certainly was. In fact, until recently, it built cars and transmissions -- as it had ever since Edgar sold it to General Motors in November 1953.

The Dragon is important not for its sales, but for its concepts. Together with a very few others, its designer altered our whole way of thinking about automotive interiors. With it, Carleton Spencer brought the dark, cavernous internals of the American car into the modern era of man-made fabrics and vinyls, using colors that had never been seen outside the living room.

If Carl, like Winston Churchill, is spending his first million years in heaven getting to the bottom of his favorite subject, he has by now acquired a wholly gayer palette, in which orange and vermilion are the darkest, dullest colors, with a whole range of wonderful new hues beyond to delight the celestial eye.

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