How Frazer Cars Work

The Frazer "Standard" was actually an un-named companion to the Manhattan.

Frazer was one of the few genuinely new post World War II American cars, but managed only a short, somewhat unhappy life. The name honored Joseph Washington Frazer, the high-born aristocrat (descended from the Virginia Washingtons) who loved motorcars and became a super-salesman through stints at Packard, Pierce-Arrow, and General Motors. Frazer also worked with Walter P. Chrysler in the 1920s and resuscitated moribund Willys-Overland in the late '30s.

In the early '40s, Frazer was looking to build a new postwar car, an idea that also occurred to Henry J. Kaiser, the West Coast metals and construction tycoon who'd turned out wartime Liberty ships double-quick. Frazer and Kaiser met, hit it off, and formed Kaiser-Frazer Corporation in July 1945, with Frazer as president, Kaiser as board chairman. It seemed a match made in automotive heaven: Joe's redoubtable sales acumen married to Henry J.'s vast manufacturing resources.


After considering several proposals (including a radical front-drive design), they settled on a conventional rear-drive four-door sedan with modern flush-fender styling by renowned custom-body designer Howard A. "Dutch" Darrin. The end product wasn't all Darrin's work -- nor entirely to his satisfaction -- but it was smooth and fairly stylish for the ­period, with the arguable exception of the high blunt hood.

Two versions were planned: a medium-price Kaiser and a luxury Frazer. Henry J, thinking big as usual, geared up for Kaisers by buying Ford's huge, wartime bomber plant at Willow Run, Michigan. Frazers were to be built by Graham-Paige in Detroit, lately acquired by Joe and his associates. But G-P was foundering and sold out to K-F in 1947, so all but the earliest Frazers were built alongside Kaisers.

Both makes began production in June 1946 (for model-year '47). Each offered basic and upmarket models. Frazers were nameless "Standards" and Manhattans. There was only one engine: a long-stroke 226.2-cubic-inch flathead six, basically the Continental "Red Seal" design improved upon and mostly built by K-F. Frazer advertised it as the "Supersonic Six," but with only 100/110 horsepower to push over 3300 pounds, no K-F car acted jet-propelled.

At least the "Darrin-styled" body offered exceptional passenger room -- including the industry's widest front seat -- 64 inches -- and the rugged box-section chassis boasted modern front-coil/rear-leaf suspension.

Initially, K-F built two Kaisers to each Frazer, reflecting the latter's higher $2295 starting price -- close to Cadillac ­territory. The Manhattan was some $400 more, but also elegantly upholstered in nylon and fine Bedford cord cloth keyed to exterior colors, which were typically two-tones. Full leather upholstery was also available.

Unfortunately, this Cadillac price rival lacked an automatic transmission of any kind, let alone one to match ultrasmooth Hydra-Matic: just a three-speed manual or the same with optional Borg-Warner overdrive ($80).

Yet despite the stiff prices, lack of automatic, and no eight-cylinder engine in sight, K-F enjoyed strong initial sales to earn the press sobriquet of "postwar wonder company." Still, some observers doubted the dynamic managerial duo. Henry Kaiser, they said, didn't know an automobile from a motorboat, while Frazer had only sold cars, not built them.

Even so, K-F succeeded despite postwar materials shortages, forming a crack team of expediters who foraged the country for everything from sheet steel to copper wire. They usually got what they wanted -- though at a price, the main reason the cars cost so much. Still, K-F racked up the highest output of any independent in 1947-48, with total volume sufficient for ninth place in the production race.

The Frazer Manhattan neared Cadillac price without offering comparable amenities, and was therefore poorly received by the public.

And why not? Both the Kaiser and Frazer had the advantage of being all-new cars with no prewar links, and both were readily available (though competitors were fast returning to prewar production levels). They also looked good: very clean, with modest horizontal grilles (Frazer's was a bit more ornate than Kaiser's) and little decorative chrome or sculptured sheetmetal, reflecting Darrin's design ideals.

A long 123.5-inch wheelbase provided a smooth ride, and the six-cylinder engine, though plodding, delivered excellent fuel economy. But this was a heady age when buyers wanted all the performance and chrome they could get. Though Frazer ultimately got around to optional hood ornaments and more- glittery interiors, the lack of eight-cylinder power would prove an increasing sales liability for the prices charged.

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1948, 1949, 1950 and 1951 Frazers

eggcrate grille and rectangular parking lamps.

The Frazer never really went much beyond its original formula. Indeed, the '48 models changed only in detail yet cost even more: $2483-$2746. So though the postwar seller's market was still in full swing, Frazer volume dropped ominously for model-year '48, from 68,775 to 48,071.

Then, a gross miscalculation. Knowing his firm could field only facelifts against all-new models from the Big Three and Nash, Joe Frazer recommended cutting 1949 production, then coming back with all-new designs for 1950. But Henry Kaiser wouldn't hear of it, declaring, "The Kaisers never retrench!"


Predictably, Henry won. In protest, Joe stepped down to the meaningless position of board vice-chairman, and Henry appointed his own son, Edgar, as president. K-F duly tooled for 200,000 cars, but ended up selling just 58,000 for '49. A long downhill slide had begun.

The '49 Frazers took on an eggcrate grille, prominent rectangular parking lamps, and large two-lens vertical taillamps. There was also a new four-door Manhattan convertible, but it was a makeshift job at best. Directed to do or die, engineers John Widman and Ralph Isbrandt sheared the top off a sedan, retained B-pillars with little inset glass panes, and purchased beefed-up X-member frames at an inordinate price. But at over $3000, the four-door flop-top Frazer simply couldn't sell in viable numbers.

Nor could any '49 Frazer. As a result, some 5000 '49 leftovers were reserialed for a brief 1950 run that ended in the spring of that year. Production for the two seasons came to just under 25,000 units, including a mere 70 Manhattan convertibles. It's estimated that only 15 percent of the total were sold as 1950 models.

Frazer's 1951 was abbreviated, too, but the cars looked startlingly different, thanks to an effective front and rear redo by Herb Weissinger of K-F Styling. The intent was to use up remaining 1949-50 bodyshells. Thus, leftover Kaiser Vagabond utility sedans (with double hatchback and folding rear seat) became standard-trim '51 Frazer Vagabonds, while Kaiser Virginian four-door "hardtops" were made into 1951 Frazer Manhattans.

Pillared sedans were assigned to Frazer's standard line, but trimmed like 1950 Manhattans. Encouraged by the belated arrival of Hydra-Matic as a $159 option, dealers ordered 55,000 of the '51 Frazers, but received only 10,214. The Frazer was dead.

The 1951 Frazer Manhattan had attractive features but arrived too late to save Frazer.

K-F stylists had created numerous renderings for future Frazers based on Darrin's sleek and low 1951 "Anatomic" Kaiser. But these and other plans were rendered stillborn when Joe Frazer left the company in early '49. Two years later, the Kaisers were busy with their new small car, the Henry J -- and leftover '51 Kaisers. In retrospect, they really should have listened to Joe.

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